Monday, July 16, 2018

Ghost Rider (1990) # 36

Cover Artist: Bret Blevins
Published: April 1993
Original Price: $1.75

Title: "Transformations In Pain"
Writer: Howard Mackie
Artist: Bret Blevins
Inker: Fred Fredericks
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Gregory Wright
Editor: Bobbie Chase
Editor In Chief: Tom DeFalco

In a Hell's Kitchen homeless shelter, a downtrodden man is visited by a ghostly woman that drains all of his strength.  As she leaves she mentions that Dan Ketch is for her while Ghost Rider is for another, which prompts the hiding Calvin Zabo to comment to himself that Ghost Rider belongs to his alter ego Mr. Hyde.

Meanwhile, Danny and the Caretaker are observing the skeletal Suicide, who is slowly regenerating his body after it was vaporized.  Caretaker mentions that Dan needs to find Heart Attack and Death Ninja, both of whom vanished after the previous night's battle.  Danny leaves to get some rest and exits Caretaker's room into an alley.  He again runs into the girl Adrienne, who had nearly videotaped his transformation the night before.  When she leaves, Dan is visited by the ghostly woman, who calls herself Succubus.  When she touches Dan, it triggers his transformation into Ghost Rider, which prompts her to flee so she can feed one more people to regain her strength.  Ghost Rider collapses and transforms back into Dan, not knowing how the transformation was triggered.  Dan tries to find the door to Caretaker's room, but it has disappeared.

Back at the homeless shelter, Succubus attempts to feed on another man's life force, but is stopped by Matt Murdock, who is there delivering canned goods to the shelter.  When she escapes he changes into his Daredevil costume and gives chase.  Inside the shelter, Succubus feeds on Zabo, triggering his transformation into Mr. Hyde.  He throws Succubus through a window into the alley where Daredevil is searching, then busts through the wall.  Dan drives by on his motorcycle and sees Hyde chasing Daredevil, who is carrying the unconscious Succubus.  Debris from the fight knocks Dan off his motorcycle, and he's saved from Hyde's grasp by Daredevil, who recognizes him as Ghost Rider's human host.  Succubus makes her way to the fallen Dan and grabs him, triggering the transformation again and again as she attempts to take his life force.  Daredevil attacks Succubus, allowing Ghost Rider to have a brutal fight with Mr. Hyde, which ends with Hyde receiving the Penance Stare and Succubus being knocked unconscious.  While Daredevil helps the weakened Danny escape the arriving police, Succubus crawls to the defeated Hyde to siphon away his strength.  She states that her mission is to drive a wedge between Ghost Rider and Dan, which will send them both to her master, Nightmare.

Suicide was reduced to a skeleton by an AIM weapon in Ghost Rider (1990) # 35.  Despite the Caretaker's assurances that he'll be needed as an ally, this issue marks Suicide's last appearance until 2011's Wolverine: The Best There Is # 1.

Succubus makes no further appearances after this issue and her relationship with Nightmare, who Ghost Rider and Danny last encountered in Ghost Rider (1990) # 31, remains unexplored.

The Caretaker's disappearing room is actually the Nightclub of the Blood, which we see next in Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance (1992) # 13.

Adrienne, the photographer who first appeared in Ghost Rider (1990) # 35, makes no further appearances after this issue.

The Danny Ketch Ghost Rider will encounter Mr. Hyde one last time in Ghost Rider (1990) # 55. Many years later, Mr. Hyde will encounter another Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes, in All-New Ghost Rider (2014) # 5.

Ghost Rider and Daredevil met previously in Daredevil (1965) # 295, which is where Daredevil learned that Danny Ketch shares a body with Ghost Rider.

This issue is the backbone of the Era of Abandoned Plots as we get three, count 'em THREE, characters who were introduced and never heard from again.

If anything else can be said about this period in the title's life, it's that Mackie wasn't afraid to throw shit against the wall to see what stuck.  Unfortunately, by this point nothing was sticking because his plots were being reconfigured with each new issue to accommodate the marketing department's desire for Ghost Rider's origins to be explained.  I'm sure he had grand plans to revisit Suicide and Succubus but they got tossed aside in favor of the Blood and (ugh) the Medallion of Power nonsense that was coming up in short order.  This issue at least pays lip service to Mackie's long-simmering idea that a war for souls was coming, with Caretaker pulling in unlikely allies (or more likely cannon fodder) like Suicide just as Mephisto was doing the same over in the Spirits of Vengeance sister title.  The Centurious reveal was coming up in a few issues time, and had the writer stayed the course maybe something really memorable and exciting could have been produced.

Ideas for what might have been won't save this issue, though, because it's a straight-up hot mess.  Ghost Rider and Danny are just ricocheting from one threat to the next without any time for a breather, coming across a multitude of villains that are less interesting than the ones before them.  Death Ninja and Heart Attack have given way to the Succubus in this issue, and she's even more of a cipher than her predecessors.  Apparently she works for Nightmare and wants to sever the connection between Dan and Ghost Rider, I guess just for revenge on Nightmare's part?  It makes it needlessly frustrating when every villain introduced is referring to "HIM" without using names and said "HIM" is a different person each time.  Sometimes "HIM" is Centurious, sometimes "HIM" is Mephisto, other times "HIM" is Zarathos, and now "HIM" has become Nightmare.  Roping poor Mr. Hyde into this story is a waste as well, since it does nothing but compare less than fondly with the last time Ghost Rider fought that villain.  Daredevil serves little purpose and is the worst kind of guest-star, the one who's only there because he happens to be walking by the fight.  He at least has a reason to be at the church, though, which makes it only slightly better than next issue's hysterical Archangel team-up.

The worst part of the issue has to be the artwork, though, and it pains me to say that.  Bret Blevins is an incredible artist, his work on New Mutants and Sleepwalker was great in so many ways, but he's got two things working against him here.  One, I think he's terribly mismatched on this title, it has none of the quirky charm of Sleepwalker nor the teenage angst and antics of New Mutants, instead he's locked into drawing uninspired superhero stuff.  When he does get to do something creepy or unsettling, such as Suicide's skeleton regenerating, it just doesn't have the oomph that the sequence calls for.  The second thing hindering him is the totally unflattering finishes by Fred Fredericks, who makes every line look way softer and blobbier (is that a word?  it is now!) than it should.  All that said, though, the fight between Ghost Rider and Mr. Hyde is pretty great, with GR getting more and more messed up throughout, including his jaw hanging by only one hinge by the end.

This is by far the worst issue of the series to date and it depresses me greatly to see how far the book has fallen in the last year.

Grade: F

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Champions (1975) # 11

Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Published: February 1977
Original Price: $0.30

Title: "The Shadow From the Stars!"
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Artist: John Byrne
Inker: Bob Layton
Letterer: Bruce Patterson
Colorist: Don Warfield
Editor: Archie Goodwin

The Champions are trying out their brand-new "Champscraft" jet when it suddenly malfunctions and flies out of control.  Their crash is halted by the technician on the rooftop of the Champions Building, who groes into a costumed giant and catches the plane.  He introduces himself to the heroes as Bill Foster, also known as Black Goliath, the West Coast representative for Stark Industries who designed all of the Champions' equipment.  Angel, Hercules, Iceman, and Black Widow are then joined on the roof by Darkstar, who has completed her defection from the Soviet Union and is hoping to join their team.

Meanwhile, Johnny Blaze rides his skull-cycle through a desert canyon in Arizona, contemplating how he's maybe found true companionship with the Champions.  He transforms into Ghost Rider in the presence of danger, which this time is an incoming stampede of cattle.  He creates his hellfire motorcycle to replace his crushed bike, but before he can act the canyon is exploded on both sides by arrows, which traps the cattle.  Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid have arrived with a group of ranchers, who are there to investigate strange lights coming from the nearby "Mesa of Lost Souls".  Back in Los Angeles, the Champions are investigating the shoddy construction of their equipment with Black Goliath's assistance when their computer flags up a report of a flying saucer in Arizona.  When they see Ghost Rider and Hawkeye on the screen fighting a group of possessed ranchers, they decide they need to join the fight via their Champscraft.

In Arizona, Two-Gun Kid sees that the ranchers are being possessed by shadow beings that are merging with the human shadows to take control of their bodies.  The aliens are the shadow army of Warlord Kaa, who has attempted to take over the Earth on previous occasions only to find defeat.  The other Champions arrive to fight the aliens, and both Hercules and Angel are able to fight off the possessing shadows.  Ghost Rider infuses an arrow with hellfire, which Hawkeye fires into the center of the alien spaceship, causing it to explode and killing all of the shadow aliens.  After the fight, the Champions get an emergency call from Black Goliath, who says a woman named Regina came to their headquarters with a box that belongs to the Stranger.  She was followed by the villain Stilt-Man, who is determined to take the box for himself.

Ghost Rider last appeared in Ghost Rider (1973) # 21.

Regina Clayborne and Stilt-Man are bringing with them plots from the quickly cancelled Black Goliath series, which ended with issue # 4.

Johnny Blaze will meet Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid again in Ghost Rider (1973) # 27.

This issue is reprinted in The Champions Classic vol. 1 trade paperback and The Champions Masterworks collection.

John Byrne arrives as the new series artist and Bill Mantlo is finally getting into a solid groove with the scripting, but neither of those can save this issue from an absolutely ridiculous plot and villain.

Warlord Kaa is one of a number of obscure villains that were trotted out to fight the Champions, who never really got to elevate themselves to big league threats until the end of the series.  Yes, Magneto and Doctor Doom both show up in issue # 16, but that's after a whole slew of guys like Kamo Tharn, Rampage, and the Griffin.  It's hard to take them seriously as a superhero team when they nearly get defeated by a bunch of cattle ranchers possessed by living shadows.  It's strictly B or even C level superhero stuff, which doesn't do a whole lot to cement the team's reputation.  Maybe that's what Mantlo is going for, though, since he's surrounding them with castoff heroes like Black Goliath and equipment that's literally falling apart around them.  It's taking the whole "underdog heroes" concept to a frustrating extreme, but it's also something that Mantlo's going to keep hammering home in upcoming issues.

Ghost Rider at least gets a bit of a spotlight in this issue after months and months of him essentially just being a face in the crowd.  He has to share his solo time with Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (whose presence is baffling, as if there aren't enough heroes in this book as it is), but it at least allows him some time to shine all on his own.  It is a little amusing though to read Johnny's inner monologue where he's talking about how the Champions have accepted him, which is some utter self-delusional thinking on his part.  The other heroes haven't been shy about their distrust and outright loathing of him, both in this series and in Ghost Rider's own comic, so the camaraderie he's so joyous about exists only in his own brain, certainly not on the page.  Mantlo dials back on this near the end of the run where he makes Blaze openly hostile to Darkstar of all people, so maybe this was just the writer trying to find his feet with the one character he really couldn't dictate any real direction for on his own.

Naturally, the real talking point for this issue is John Byrne coming onto the series as the new artist.  This was not long after Byrne had taken over the art chores on Iron Fist but a full year before jumping onto Uncanny X-Men, which was the series that really made him a name artist.  This isn't Byrne's first go-round with Ghost Rider, though, he was the artist on the 2-issue Daredevil crossover the year before, where he was very much at the start of his career but still recognizable for the style he'd later be known for.  His Ghost Rider as a character, though, isn't as great as you'd expect, he's still operating in that "Blaze is a supehero" mindset that gives the Rider a visible neckline and eyeballs in his skull.  It waters down the Ghost Rider visual design, but it still looks miles better than what Don Heck or even Bob Hall were doing in this title.  All of the characters look "right", for lack of a better term.  This finally feels and reads like a Bronze Age Marvel comic, it just took Byrne to kick it out of that Silver Age style that was making it a real chore to read through.

The Champions is going to get better, the next few issues in particular are quite solid, and this is the ground floor for the Mantlo/Byrne run.  Just don't roll your eyes TOO hard at poor ol' Warlord Kaa.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Doctor Strange: Damnation (2018) # 1

Cover Artist: Rod Reis
Published: April 2018
Original Price: $4.99

Title: untitled
Writers: Nick Spencer & Donny Cates
Artist: Rod Reis
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Colorist: Rod Reis
Editor: Nick Lowe
Assistant Editor: Kathleen Wisneski
Editor-in-Chief: C.B. Cebulski

Following its total destruction by Hydra, a group of Avengers (Falcon, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel) stand on the outskirts of Las Vegas to commemorate the people who died.  Doctor Strange appears and uses his magical power to resurrect the city and all of its inhabitants just as they were before the city was destroyed.  The celebration is interrupted by a tower erupting from the ground into the sky, while a demonic carnival barker invites them to enter the Hotel Inferno casino.  Strange tells the other Avengers that he will handle the situation and goes inside the casino, where he's greeted by Mephisto.  The Hell Lord explains that Las Vegas and its citizens appeared in Hell after its destruction and became part of his realm; when Strange's spell brought the city back it also allowed Mephisto to spread Hell to Earth.  Mephisto takes Strange to the hotel vault, where he has captured the souls of everyone in Las Vegas that has sinned, transforming the people outside into demonic creatures.  Outside, the Avengers attempt to hold back the possessed people but quickly fall into bickering with one another.  With their sins laid bare, the Avengers are each transformed into flaming skulled Ghost Riders.  Mephisto wagers the fate of the city on a game of poker with Doctor Strange, who accepts though his own soul is on the line.

Elsewhere, Strange's ghost dog companion Bats goes to the home of Wong, Strange's former partner, to tell him that the Doctor is in trouble.  Wong reluctantly agrees to help, but admits that they'll need more muscle to stop Mephisto.  He uses magic to locate a team of heroes with the experience they need: Blade, Moon Knight, Else Bloodstone, Doctor Voodoo, Man-Thing, Iron Fist, and to lead them: the Ghost Rider.

"Damnation" was a crossover event in 2018.  Other titles that featured tie-ins to the event were Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider, and Johnny Blaze: Ghost Rider.  The event continues into Doctor Strange (2015) # 386 and Doctor Strange: Damnation (2018) # 2.

Las Vegas was destroyed during the Secret Empire crossover event by the evil Captain America's Hydra fleet.

Las Vegas has been transformed into Hell once before, during the "Circle of Four" event that began in Venom (2011) # 13.

Johnny Blaze last appeared in Spirits of Vengeance (2017) # 5.

This issue featured variant covers by Ron Lim, Greg Smallwood, Javier Garron, and John Tyler Christopher.  It was also released with Rod Reis' cover but with the title changed to "Tarnation" as a joke.

The "Damnation" crossover kicks off with this extra-sized issue that, despite having some incredible artwork, fails to really impress.

Writer Donny Cates is currently enjoying his role as Marvel's new golden child following his work on Thanos and the new Venom series (which is also quite good, if you haven't checked it out).  Cosmic Ghost Rider was a surprise break-out character from that Thanos run and I suspect Cates is a fan of the ol' Spirit of Vengeance, because here he is involving him in a second major storyline.  Cates had already produced a really great opening arc on Doctor Strange, so letting him have the reigns of a Strange focused event was a wise move for Marvel.  Involving Nick Spencer and tying it into last year's incredibly divisive "Secret Empire" crossover was possibly a mistake, but ultimately those ties seem to be tenuous at best.  All you really need to know is that Las Vegas was destroyed and the heroes feel really guilty about it, time to move on.

Unfortunately, while I can understand the desire to just get on with the story they're wanting to tell, it does sort of feel like this issue just starts off at a running speed.  Las Vegas is back within the first few pages, whole and hearty with all the deceased residents suddenly alive again.  The real implications of an event of that magnitude are kind of swallowed up whole by the Mephisto stuff, which takes all that momentum and grinds it down to a halt.  Villain monologues that last for pages and pages aren't terribly interesting, even when they're interspersed with other events from around the city.  The timeline gets really wonky in those pages, too, because in the span of the conversation between Strange and Mephisto it seems like Las Vegas is totally back to business as usual.  Loan sharks are beating up debtors, men are hiring prostitutes, people are packed in casinos and attending parties...what the hell, these people just came back from the dead like TEN MINUTES AGO.  The comic is speeding up to slow down, which makes reading it a jarring experience.

I also have difficulty buying the motivations and reasoning behind some of the characters and their actions.  Doctor Strange is afflicted with arrogance and hubris, yes, but would he really resurrect an entire city full of people without thinking there would be massive consequences?  Would the Avengers really just stand outside a tower from Hell to wait on Doctor Strange?  I like that the bickering between the heroes is a plot point that ultimately transforms them into Ghost Riders, but it takes some suspension of disbelief just to get them into that situation to begin with.  Speaking of the Spirits of Vengeance, that itself is seemingly a massive piece of retroactive continuity now that Mephisto is throwing Ghost Riders into people again.  I wrote an article a few months ago about how Marvel was slowly doing away with the "Spirits of Vengeance come from Heaven" origin concept that Daniel Way and Jason Aaron established about 10 years back and this story was sort of the final nail in that coffin.  I think the "Ghost Riders come from Hell" angle is probably a BETTER concept for their origins, but it makes me sad that the massive amount of work Aaron put into the Heaven idea is being discarded.

The best part of this comic, by far, is the artwork by Rod Reis, who handles the pencils, inks, and colors for the issue.  His work is breathtaking and reminds me a lot of Bill Sienkiewciz and his work on Elektra: Assassin, or maybe even Dave McKean on Arkham Asylum (just with better storytelling skills).  The Hell sequences look appropriately hellish and the facial expressions he gives to the characters are all spot-on.  His Doctor Strange is emoting like crazy during his spell casting sequence and again at the end during the confrontation with Mephisto.  Those Ghost Rider Avengers designs, though?  Pretty amazing stuff, with each skull having the appropriate distinction for each character, making them immediately recognizable despite being, you know, a flaming skull.  It's a shame that Reis didn't sign on for the entire mini-series, but having him book end the even with the first and last issues is a real treat.

All in all, "Damnation" is off to a rocky start.  The premise is sound, even if it is highly reminiscent of the "Circle of Four" event that featured Las Vegas being turned into Hell, if only for the high Ghost Rider related content.  It's just the execution that's a bit disjointed, here's hoping it improves as the event goes on.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 6, 2018

Thanos (2017) # 15

Cover Artist: Geoff Shaw
Published: March 2018
Original Price: $3.99

Title: "Thanos Wins, Part 3"
Writer: Donny Cates
Artist: Geoff Shaw
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Colorist: Antonio Fabela
Editor: Jordan D. White
Editor-in-Chief: Axel Alonso

Thanos uses the Ghost Rider's Penance Stare to relive every horrible act of violence and suffering that he's caused, which the Mad Titan enjoys immensely.  King Thanos tells his younger self that he performs that ritual every day.  Young Thanos tosses the Rider's head to the ground, where his body retrieves it to place back on his shoulders.  King Thanos tells young Thanos that he has killed every being in the universe save for one, the Fallen One, and not until his enemy dies can he be reunited with Mistress Death.  Thanos scoffs at his older counterpart's fear of a "forgotten Herald" and in response King Thanos tells him to prepare for the coming battle and leaves.  Ghost Rider invites Thanos to help him "feed the dog" and takes him to the dungeon beneath the throne room, talking all the while about how different he was before becoming the right hand of King Thanos.  In the dungeon, the "dog" needing to be fed is a bestial Hulk, who is kept chained in a pit of bones and relics of long-dead heroes.  Ghost Rider then introduces himself to Thanos as Frank Castle, a name Thanos fails to recognize.

In the chapel where King Thanos worships Death, young Thanos confronts the old man who has readied himself for battle, holding Surtur's Twilight Sword.  After the two argue over their perceived love and servitude for Mistress Death, an explosion announces the Fallen One's arrival.  King Thanos explains that the Fallen One is not a name, it is a title, this time held by the incoming Silver Surfer, accompanied by the Annihilation Wave behind him.

The story of how Frank Castle became the Ghost Rider is told in Thanos (2017) # 16.

This issue was released with three additional printings, all of which featured new covers taken from Geoff Shaw's interior artwork.

Podcast Review: Inner Demons Episode 19 - "Espresso at the Gates of Hell" (Click to Listen)


"Thanos Wins" continues with a major revelation from the Cosmic Ghost Rider and the story's antagonist gets a grand introduction.

It surprises me just how dead-on Donny Cates "gets" the concept of the Ghost Rider.  The opening page contains the absolute best description of the Penance Stare that I've ever read, it's an absolutely chilling and perfect encapsulation of what the Ghost Rider's most powerful weapon does to his victims.  Going through all of that narration, then hitting the reader with the idea of Thanos' using the Stare to essentially relive his greatest hits is pretty ballsy.  I've talked a bunch of times about how the Penance Stare is only as effective as the writer wants it to be, and when Ghost Rider gets used as a guest-star a lot of times the person he's fighting just sort shrugs off the Stare.  Morbius, the Punisher (more on him in a minute), the Deacon, Deadpool, Venom...there's a long list of characters who were used to make the Spirit of Vengeance look a bit like a chump.  Cates at least goes through the motions of making the Rider and his Penance Stare into something epic and terrifying, which keeps the Thanos bit on the next page as something monumental that doesn't undercut what's being done.  It's a powerful opening to a comic, I'll say that much.

And, while the ongoing conversations between the two versions of Thanos is certainly compelling, the real twists of this issue are the two big reveals that Cates has been building up to.  One of which is absolutely effective and one of those moments where you slap yourself on the forehead and yell "of course that's who it is!"  I am not referring, I'm afraid, to the identity of Cosmic Ghost Rider, but instead to that pitch-perfect last page that shows the Silver Surfer looking more badass than ever before.  The Frank Castle reveal is built up in the preceding pages, but at this point in the story I don't think it's really earned.  Did Cates really play fair with the readers?  I know I certainly never would have pegged Castle as the maniac Ghost Rider that talks incessantly.  The insanity angle is addressed here to try and account for the differences, but I almost think it's TOO far a stretch for a character like the Punisher to go from what readers know and understand to this fundamentally and disparately different incarnation.  It definitely made my jaw drop open the first time I read that page, and Thanos' response is perfect ('cause really, why WOULD he know that name?).  I just don't think the story has gone far enough to sell the reveal.  Thankfully, that will change with the next issue's origin sequence, but here it's a little more than shock value that made me (and a lot of others, specifically Punisher fans) scratch my head in hesitation.

The artwork, though, continues to be a revelation in its own right.  Geoff Shaw is a name I wasn't familiar with before this series, but it's damn sure on my radar now.  Look at that opening splash page of the Rider's skull giving the Penance Stare and tell me this guy can't draw a phenomenal Ghost Rider.  The design for the Cosmic Ghost Rider, in hindsight, gives more clues to the Punisher connection than the story has so far, but it was so subtle that I didn't piece it together until after I read the issue and was able to go back for a deeper inspection.  Shaw is knocking this series out of the park and I cannot wait to see him cut loose with that Silver Surfer fight that's coming up.

Thanos remains an absolutely amazing series on pretty much every level, and I highly recommend everyone read it.  Cosmic Ghost Rider might be a bit of a pill for long time Ghost Rider fans to swallow, but as one of those fans I was swept away by the epic storytelling and artwork.  Still not buying the Frank Castle stuff at this point, but that's a minor criticism.  Go buy this comic.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Marvel Comics Presents (1988) # 116

Cover Artist: Sean McManus
Published: October 1992
Original Price: $1.50

Title: "Legion of Vengeance, Part 4: Our Name is Legion..."
Writer: Joey Cavalieri
Artist: Shawn McManus
Letterer: Steve Dutro
Colorist: Fred Mendez
Editor: Terry Kavanagh
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

Nearly dead from disease, Iron Fist is on the ground in the cavern.  While Ghost Rider is held at bay, Bacillus attempts to touch Iron Fist one last time to finally kill him, but Iron Fist is able to grab the villain and hold him.  Threatening to snap him in half if he doesn't reverse his sickness, Iron Fist is restored to full health by Bacillus' touch.  Ghost Rider uses his hellfire and Penance Stare to uncover the origins of the four members of the Legion of Vengeance, and how in each case a malevolent entity was working behind the scenes.  When Ghost Rider demands the entity show its face, the demon D'kay appears.

This issue of MCP also contained stories featuring Wolverine/Typhoid Mary, Giant-Man, and Two-Gun Kid.

This story was reprinted in the Iron Fist: The Book of Changes trade paperback.

"Legion of Vengeance" picks up a little bit, strangely enough by slowing its pace down to a crawl.

While I can't say the four villains of this story have been very compelling to this point, the writer certainly seems to have a lot invested in them.  I have to give Joey Cavalieri credit for at least attempting to give the villains interesting back stories and personalities, even if they still remain a bit too bland and broad.  Mind's Eye and Vesper are given semi-legitimate reasons for becoming murderous vigilantes, what with the "seeing corruption" and religious righteousness angles, but Strontium 90 and Bacillus are just generic scientists that weren't given that extra motivation.  Still, at least we have something more to hang on the characters than we did before, and even this depth of characterization is more than I've come to expect from a Marvel Comics Presents serial.

The artwork takes a major upswing with this chapter as well, with McManus doubling down on the gruesome nature of the villains' powers and providing some macabre atmosphere to their origin flashbacks.  Iron Fist at the beginning of the chapter looks absolutely grotesque, like his flesh is rotting off from the diseases that are killing him, and I'm surprised the editor let him take it that far.  Ghost Rider gets some good moments (though he's inexplicably throwing hellfire again, something that usually happens when the writer isn't familiar with the 90s version of the character) and he gets a great Penance Stare in about halfway through.  The demon that shows up at the end, D'Kay, doesn't have the most appealing visual design, but the decent looks of the other villains kind of make of for that.

All in all, this still isn't a very good serial, but at least this chapter held my attention.  That's more than the first three chapters did!

Grade: C+

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Too Many Ghost Riders?

So, yesterday Marvel released a bit of information on a new 2-issue limited series coming in November called Infinity Warps: Ghost Panther.  No details on the creative team yet, but it's spinning out of the upcoming Infinity Wars event and is one of several mini-series that features "mash-ups" of Marvel characters.  Captain America and Doctor Strange are put together to make "Soldier Supreme", for example.  Ghost Panther is, naturally, a combination of Ghost Rider and Black Panther, and the artwork released so far by Humberto Ramos certainly looks awesome.

This is another instance in a trend that I'm not sure is all that great for the character, namely putting the Ghost Rider name and brand with another established character.  Look at the examples we've had in the last year.  Leaving Ghost Panther to the side, the other big success story has of course been Cosmic Ghost Rider.  This future Spirit of Vengeance is a possessed Frank Castle, the Punisher, and he was the break-out character of Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw's recent run on Thanos.  The Cosmic Ghost Rider mini-series actually debuts tomorrow and is expected to be a huge hit for Marvel.  While it's awesome that we're getting a new Ghost Rider series out of this, it also makes Ghost Rider as a concept one that can be traded around to just make a cool visual.  Gone is the actual character of Johnny Blaze (or Danny Ketch, for that matter) to give the character an actual personality of his own.  Now he's just a cool visual that can be bolted on to other characters or concepts, such as the Punisher.

For another recent example, there's the Doctor Strange: Damnation event, which has as its big hook the idea of Doctor Strange and several Avengers (including Black Panther) becoming evil Ghost Riders working for Mephisto.  Before that, last year saw the Venom/Ghost Rider combination, "Host Rider", showing up in the Edge of Venomverse mini-series. The flaming skull is such an iconic, awesome visual identity, but is that all Ghost Rider is to Marvel and the creators?  Has the character reached a point of saturation, where the skull and hellfire can be slapped onto anyone?  Sure, Robbie Reyes is in the Avengers now, but some fans consider even him to be a dilution of a character they love.

Ghost Rider has, in the last decade, gone from a character with two incarnations (three, if you're counting Carter Slade in the 1960s) to a legacy hero that's possessed countless human hosts since the dawn of time.  There's prehistoric Ghost Riders on wholly mammoths and future Ghost Riders as Heralds of Galactus, all of which brings some inspired storytelling and improved recognition for the character.  But is the cost of all that exposure for Ghost Rider the loss of characters like Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch?  Is Robbie Reyes the last bastion of that dual nature for the Spirit of Vengeance?  Do all we, as fans of the character, have to look forward to is more books like Ghost Panther or Cosmic Ghost Rider?  I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Ghost Rider (1990) # 66

Cover Artist: Salvador Larroca
Published: October 1995
Original Price: $1.95

Title: "Darkness Falls"
Writer: Howard Mackie
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Inker: Sergio Melia
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Kevin Tinsley
Editor: James Felder
Editor In Chief: Bobbie Chase

Danny Ketch has finally accepted his shared existence with the Ghost Rider and has located a need for him to transform.  The Ghost Rider stops a woman from being mugged and killed, giving the muggers his Penance Stare before riding away.  Later, he contemplates the temptation to keep control of their body, but ultimately decides to relinquish control back to Dan.  Meanwhile, a teenage girl attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge, but changes her mind at the last minute.  She's saved from falling by Blackout, who murders her.

Later, Danny is preparing to go visit his mother with his girlfriend Paula, who is picking up from her apartment.  Before they leave Paula has a phone call that angers her; she tells Dan that it's an ex-boyfriend of hers that follows her and won't leave her alone.  She snaps at Danny when he asks to help and tells him to go to his mother's on his own.  On the way he hears about a group of terrorists that have taken over a warehouse on the harbor and are threatening to detonate a bomb if the police don't stay away.  Ghost Rider takes out the terrorists, who he learns work for Anton Hellgate, one of his enemies.  When Ghost Rider returns to Cypress Hills Cemetery, he's approached by a man in the shadows who offers to act as his informant.  The man, who calls himself "Deep Throat", gives Ghost Rider information on Blackout and the young girl he killed.

At his penthouse apartment, Blackout is attacked by Ghost Rider.  Blackout mentions the arrangement they made during their last meeting, that if Ghost Rider leaves him alone he won't murder Danny's family.  Ghost Rider tells him that there are no more deals to be made, that every victim he kills makes the Rider as culpable for having not stopped him.  The battle between the two is brief, but the defeated Blackout still laughs in triumph; he knows Ghost Rider won't kill him and if he's taken to the police he'll be out in short time, after which he says he will kill Dan's mother.  Ghost Rider takes Blackout and chains him to the top of the World Trade Center antenna, where the dawn sunlight burns him alive.  Ghost Rider rides away, talking about his mission and how vengeance will no longer be denied.

Danny began dating Paula Harris in Ghost Rider (1990) # 58.  The subplot with the stalker ex-boyfriend will continue over the next few issues until it is resolved in Ghost Rider (1990) # 69.

Ghost Rider last encountered Anton Hellgate in Ghost Rider (1990) # 50, but had battles with his agents Dread and Rak as recently as Ghost Rider (1990) # 61.

The identity of "Deep Throat" will be revealed as Captain Gerald Dolan in Ghost Rider (1990) # 73.  The name "Deep Throat" is taken from the mysterious informant of the Watergate Presidential scandal in the 1960s and was also used as an alias for an informant character in the X-Files, which was popular at the time of this issue's publication.

Blackout last appeared in Ghost Rider (1990) # 54, where he made the deal with Ghost Rider to spare Danny's family if he is left alone.  This is the character's last appearance for many years and shows up in Ghost Rider (2006) # 26 working with Dan Ketch as an agent of Zadkiel.

Howard Mackie gives his final word on Blackout, the villain that defined much of his Ghost Rider run, with an issue that reads a lot like an introduction for new readers.

Given the first and last pages of the comic, which feature Danny and then Ghost Rider speaking directly to the reader with a cleverly written expository speech about the character's status quo, this had to have been approached as a "jumping on point" for new readers.  It was the first issue released after the "Over the Edge" crossover, though I'm not sure how that crossover sold or if there were any noticeable sales bumps for the involved titles, and I'm sure Marvel wanted any potential new readers to stick around.  So, having Mackie and Larroca produce a one-shot story that hits upon a bunch of different plot points at once was logistically a smart move.  The storytelling gimmick at the beginning and end, the breaking of the fourth wall to address the reader, was a nice touch as well.

I wonder if Mackie knew he was going to be exiting the series a few issues later when he wrote this one?  It honestly reads like it go either way, because while he spends a lot of time establishing new subplots, such as "Deep Throat" and Paula's abusive ex, he also produces a pretty final send-off for Blackout.  I can imagine that Blackout might have been a character Mackie didn't want passed along to the next writer, if he indeed knew he was going to leave the book in a short amount of time, because you didn't see villains like Hellgate getting the wrap-up that Blackout receives in this issue.  The ending, which featured Blackout strapped to the top of the World Trade Center while the sun comes up, is definitely a memorable moment that's both shocking and gratifying.  Blackout was the major threat for so much of the title's history and been built up as a thoroughly despicable character, so seeing him finally get his due is extremely satisfying to see. 

Other parts of the issue don't hang together quite so well, though it does give a very thorough "day in the life" look at the character and series as a whole.  The Hellgate and Paula sections feel very out of place and ultimately just distract from the Blackout section, which is relegated to the back half of the comic.  Had the Blackout section been the main focus and given enough room to breathe would have made the issue feel a lot less disjointed, but as it stands it feels rather piecemeal.  There's also the "Deep Throat" introduction, which I'm sure Mackie intended as a reference to the real-life Watergate informant but always struck me as a really weak X-Files homage.  Hey, it was the mid-90s, everyone was watching that show, so the reference sticks out like a sore thumb.  Giving Ghost Rider an informant/guide figure to move him from threat to threat is perfectly reasonable and I think its a fair assumption to make that Mackie wanted to avoid bringing back the Caretaker and all his baggage to fit that role. 

The artwork by Salvador Larroca continues to impress, still providing the clear action sequences and storytelling that's been bringing to the title for over a year.  I still think it's a strange juxtaposition, having an artist like Larroca who's so bright and open on a title that had been so defined by the Texeira style of heavy blacks, but it continues to work really well.  I'm not so enamored with the colors by Kevin Tinsely, who unlike previous colorist Gregory Wright has a tendency to make things look flat and washed out.  The new use of computer colorization techniques makes things pop off the page pretty well and, coupled with the slick paper that the series is now using, enhances Larocca's artwork.  This isn't an urban horror series anymore, Larocca has dragged it firmly into being a solid superhero comic, but it still looks great.

Overall, this is a good comic that gets bogged down in the middle with subplots but manages to redeem itself with a highly effective ending.  That, coupled with the narrative tricks and the welcome attempt to make it as new-reader friendly as possible, means the good far outweighs the bad.  Recommended.

Grade: A