Ten years ago, Marvel was publishing a comic series to coincide with the title character’s live-screen appearance. Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven was blowing up sales while a big screen Iron Man adaptation was right around the corner. In the present, the latest character to be called Ghost Rider is currently appearing on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Civil War II is costing Marvel in the sales charts they dominated scant weeks ago and Doctor Strange is less than a month away. All of which is to say, the more things change the more they stay the same. In 2006, Johnny Blaze would take the last long ride he would see for some time. It was, more or less, a fitting one.
Ghost Rider, as a character, is one that Marvel has often struggled with. He doesn’t have a conventional secret identity, his stories are firmly rooted in horror and magic and he’s something from a different era. If you want to be technical, characters baring the mantle of Ghost Rider have only had two long-lasting runs: The first Johnny Blaze series and the first Danny Ketch one. While they had the numbers, I think objectively that the two strongest runs were done by both Garth Ennis and Clayton Crain. Together they created two six issue miniseries for the Marvel Knights line and were out of continuity tales of Johnny Blaze escaping hell and a former slave avenging his family in the Old West.
With the success of Ennis and Crain’s Road to Damnation, it makes sense that Marvel would tap someone to use that as a springboard for an ongoing since Sony/Columbia’s Ghost Rider movie was going to be released the following year. Enter Daniel Way, who had built up his Marvel work on Wolverine Origins. Teamed with fan-favorite artists from the 90’s Danny Ketch run, penciler Javier Saltares and inker Mark Texieira, Way’s first issue began with Johnny Blaze trapped in Hell and tormented daily by Lucifer. When he meets a lowly demon who claims to have found a way out of Hell, Johnny makes a deal with him to escape together with the intention of betraying the demon. It doesn’t turn out well…
Using Johnny’s Ghost Rider powers, Lucifer travels onto the Earthly plane and his essence shatters into 666 pieces to possess the bodies of the recently deceased. Despite finally escaping Hell, Johnny feels the weight of his mistake and vows to destroy each of Lucifer’s avatars on Earth. For each one he kills, the others gain that power until eventually Lucifer’s essence will be consolidated in one body.
Most of the first 19 issues dealt with Johnny fighting against an evil avatar, with gradual difficulty. Since Civil War was close to wrapping up, Jack O’Lantern ended up being one of Lucifer’s avatars after he was killed by the Punisher. Some time after that, Johnny tried to talk the Hulk out of taking over Manhatten to get revenge on the Illuminati to make up for a plane full of people he let die. This was something of a recurring theme in Way’s issues, that Johnny Blaze wasn’t the smartest guy around. Whether it was because Johnny was a Carnie or from the South, take your pick. Part of the problem was Blaze fighting against the Rider’s control, which led to hesitation when they fought Lucifer. Johnny would usually lose, since only when the Rider was in control would they have enough power to beat their opponents.
In between all of that, Way would reveal most of Johnny’s story before he was sent to Hell. He had been living happily with Roxanne and his children after he rid himself of his curse the first time, and some time after he regained it he was killed by a new friend who was an agent of Hell. With the end of Way’s nineteen issues, he revealed that the Ghost Rider spirit was actually a weapon from Heaven, not Hell, and that the Angel Zadkiel was responsible for Johnny’s curse. New writer Jason Aaron would pick up on this for his twenty one issues to wrap up the run.
Johnny took to the road to find a way into Heaven to get revenge on Zadkiel, who was attempting to replace god like Lucifer had ages ago. Zadkiel would eventually send after Blaze old foes from other Ghost Rider series, even his long-lost brother Danny Ketch. Ketch himself had struggled with losing his powers and sided with Zadkiel after he restored them. Ketch would then travel the world stealing the powers of other hosts of the Spirits of Vengeance, saving his clash with Johnny for last.
Aaron was attempting to tie everything together, and I mean everything. The Johnny Blaze run, the Danny Ketch run, even the Ennis and Crain minis.Although I didn’t care for his long-term plot, his shorter stories I found creative and entertaining.Tony Moore drawing the “final” three issues of his run didn’t hurt (Marvel would later wrap everything up in a six issue mini, Heaven’s on Fire, with Aaron and Roland Boschi returning).
Part of what I don’t like about Aaron’s run is that most of the time the book just seemed to fall into self-parody. The Ghost Rider wasn’t a special entity anymore, there were dozens of them existing simultaneously in different areas for different religions. Another part that bothers me, which is present in the entire run, is the continuity errors.
Johnny Blaze was bonded to Zarrathos in his run, which is a separate entity than the spirit he gets later on. After he gets free of Zarrathos, Blaze becomes sort of an expert in black magic which never comes into play in this run. Blaze later regains his powers in Devin Grayson’s The Hammer Lane which is a story Marvel refuses to acknowledge but still plays along with its continuity. Danny Ketch was free of his curse at the end of his series in the 90’s, but this was later retconned to an techno-exorcism by Ketch’s almost girlfriend.
The worst part is tying these stories together with Ennis and Crain’s works. There’s no reason for it and it diminishes them. For instance, Road to Damnation has Blaze escaping Hell, fighting a demon on Earth, and meeting two rogue Angels who are trying to avoid a conflict in Heaven. All of that happens in the first nineteen issues by Daniel Way’s part of the series.
There’s still plenty of good in the 06-07 series, Richard Corben drew two whole issues. In fact I think there’s was great art almost the entire run. Aaron went wild with his stories, putting in cannibal ghosts and ninja nuns. Having Ghost Rider fight Heaven makes a certain thematic sense after Way had Ghost Rider fight the devil. There’s also the fact that this is the last time in many years that either Blaze or Ketch would headline their own series. After the volume ended, Marvel tried twice to replace Blaze as the Ghost Rider. Although Robbie Reyes has lasted far longer than Alejandra did in the mantle.
These issues have had a high/low effect on the character and is still the last time they had a major role. Blaze would join Charles Soule’s Thunderbolts for some fun times and Blaze would get a vacation from a flaming head while his replacement failed to catch interest or sales. I still have all of these issues polybagged and stored together and they’re still my favorite stories starring the biker from Hell.
I have hope that someday Marvel will let either Blaze or Ketch have another long ride I can remember as fondly as this one.