Sunday, October 11, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 46

"The End of a Champion!"

Cover Date: July 1980
On Sale Date: April 1980

Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Letterer: Diana Albers
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Editor In Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky

After being beat during the first night of their competition, Johnny prepares for the second part of his stunt-cycle tournament with Flagg Fargo. The first challenge is the barrel race, which Johnny does perfectly on until the end, when he bumps one of the barrels. Fargo then goes on to win the challenge, and by the end of the second night the score has Johnny behind by over 200 points. Johnny gets riled by Fargo's constant insults and punches him. He then leaves, riding out to an all-night diner. While there, he spots one of the men responsible for the warehouse robbery he had witnessed a few nights before. He transforms into the Ghost Rider, who follows the criminal only to lose him in front of Fargo's trailer. The demon, believing that the criminal is in cahoots with Fargo, busts into the stunt rider's trailer and threatens him. The Rider leaves when Flagg professes his innocence, saying that once he gets the confession from his accomplices he shall return for vengeance.

Hours later, Johnny tries to get some sleep in preparation for the next day's competition, the last chance he has to keep his title. Unable to rest, he takes a ride on his bike, only to run across the van of the same criminals he'd pursued earlier. He transforms, and the Ghost Rider rips into the men's hideout. When he demands to know about Fargo's involvement, the men all say that the biker is honest and would never join with a bunch of crooks.

The next day, Blaze and Fargo meet for the last day of the competition. Though still 200 points behind, Johnny performs with the determination to keep his world championship. At the end of the day, the final scores are 825 to 820, in Fargo's favor. Flagg is named the new world champion stunt rider, but during the ceremony he says that what Blaze had done that day was the greatest riding he's ever seen his life. He offers the title back to Johnny, who refuses it. He says that Flagg won it fair and square, but he will be back to reclaim the title himself. Blaze retires to his room, where he despairs alone.

THE ROADMAP
The first half of the contest between Blaze and Flagg Fargo happened in the previous issue, Ghost Rider (1973) # 45.

Johnny gets his chance for a rematch against Fargo in Ghost Rider (1973) # 58.

THE VERDICT
For the first time in what seems like forever, part of the status quo for Ghost Rider undergoes a change. Until now, writer Michael Fleisher seemed content with penning single-issue stories that continued the "Blaze as cursed drifter" motif established by Roger McKenzie. But with "The End of a Champion", Fleisher has taken a major step forward in the slow dismantling of Johnny Blaze's life.

By this time, Johnny has lost everything important to him in his life. Roxanne is gone, his friends and family are gone, his Cycle Show is a distant memory, and he's essentially a homeless man drifting from town to town in hopes of finding food and/or work. The Ghost Rider, having slowly emerged as a distinctly separate and malevolent entity, has ruined his life...he can't stay in one place for too long due to the Ghost Rider's rampages. The only thing Blaze had left was his standing as the world's greatest stunt cyclist...and with this story, his last refuge is taken away from him. And the saddest part is that Johnny's defeat is brought on by no one but himself.

Fleisher truly outdoes himself with the script to this issue. While Flagg Fargo is the ultimate braggart, he's not an irredeemable villain. He's honest, and even in victory offers the title to Blaze because he knows he's not really the best. Johnny, conversely, turns in one of the most depressing roles of his life. The Ghost Rider has cost him so much, and now he truly has nothing left. The final scene, with Johnny sitting alone in his room, crying to himself, is an incredibly powerful ending that really hammers home just how big a loss this was for him.

Don Perlin also shines in this issue. Johnny looks more and more downtrodden and haggard as the issue progresses, showing just how much of a toll the events of the contest are to him and his body. Until Bob Budiansky takes over a few years later, Perlin was easily the quintessential Ghost Rider artist - and this issue in particular is one of the highlights of his lengthy run.

"The End of a Champion" is an excellent story, depressing and tense from start to finish. When the end of the issue came, I found myself hoping beyond hope that Johnny would win the contest...but wisely, Fleisher has him lose, taking away that last bit of self-respect he has. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 45

“To Banish a Ghost!”

Cover Date: June 1980
On Sale Date: March 1980
 
Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Letterer: Diana Albers
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Dennis O’Neil
Editor-In-Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky

The men that had previously assisted the wizard Azaziah in his plot to defeat the Ghost Rider are attempting to escape in a small airplane. The Ghost Rider grounds the plane and fries the men with hellfire before departing to the nearest town, where he transforms back into Johnny Blaze. Johnny goes into a nearby bar and orders a drink, where on the television he sees a stunt-rider named Flagg Fargo perform. Fargo calls out Blaze one live television, challenging him to a contest that will determine which of them is the world’s best stunt-rider. A group of local sports enthusiests in the bar recognize Johnny and convince him to take Fargo up on the challenge, even offering to buy him a new motorcycle to compete with. When Blaze leaves the bar he sees a group of thieves and transforms into the Ghost Rider, but the demon loses them near the lot where Fargo’s trailers are parked.

A few days later, Blaze and Fargo begin their competition at the local sports arena. Blaze, who is out of practice due to being on the road as the Ghost Rider for many months, finds himself continually bested in challenges by Fargo, with the night’s score ending 325 to 225 and Fargo in the lead. After leaving the arena for the night, Johnny sees the thieves again and tries to stop them without transforming into the Ghost Rider, but fails and nearly wrecks his bike in the process.

THE ROADMAP
The three men in the plane at the start of the issue assisted the Crimson Mage, Azaziah, in Ghost Rider (1973) # 43.

THE VERDICT
Fleisher and Perlin begin what is probably the most defining story of their lengthy run by continuing to dismantle Johnny Blaze’s life bit by bit.

The stunt-riding aspect of the Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze character was a big deal when the series first began, with lots of stories revolving around his cycle show and stunts he performed (such as the Copperhead Canyon jump way back in issue # 1). That part of the concept had fallen to the wayside over the years, especially once Fleisher took over as head writer. The cycle show was long gone and Blaze hadn’t performed any actual stunt-riding since Roger McKenzie’s brief time as writer. Instead, Johnny had been riding around the desert like a nomad, lamenting his curse and foiling bank robberies. Having a challenger arrive to throw all of Blaze’s self-loathing in his face was a wonderful idea, and the characterization of said challenger made it all the better.

If there was ever a character designed to make readers want to punch them in the face, it’s Flagg Fargo, whose braggadocio knows no bounds. He’s the opposite of the humble, often pitiful Johnny Blaze, and the two immediately clash like oil and water. There’s the unfortunate side stories of the Ghost Rider chasing not one, but TWO different sets of theives throughout the issue, as if Fleisher couldn’t get away from his old stock plots, but they don’t detract too much from the real meat of the story. The contest between the two riders is by far the most interesting part, not just for the actual stunt riding but for the characterization and interactions of the two competitors.

This is all aided and abetted by Don Perlin, who returns after his brief absence to continue wearing Johnny down visually as well as emotionally. His version of Blaze always has a hangdog look to him, but by the end of this issue he looks especially weathered from his contest. His Johnny Blaze is not in his prime anymore, despite being a young man, and the toll taken by the curse of the Ghost Rider can be seen in his face and body language. Perlin is absolutely such an underrated artist, especially on this title.

The real gut-punch of this storyline happens in the next issue, but this is a solid set-up that would have benefited from less thief chasing and more angst. 
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 44

"Cloak of Crimson, Soul of Dust!"

Cover Date: May 1980
On Sale Date: February 1980

Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Tom Sutton
Letterer: Clem Robins
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Denny O'Neil
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky  

Following the separation of the two in the previous issue, the Ghost Rider prepares to kill Johnny with a large wooden spike. Blaze tries to tell the demon that if one dies, the other shall as well, due to the mystic link they still share. The longer they're apart, the weaker they will become. The police interrupt the two, and while they arrest Johnny the Ghost Rider escapes. Elsewhere, Azaziah (the sorcerer responsible for splitting Blaze and the Rider) peers into his mystic orb in order to watch the demon rider's acts of chaos. He is dying, the fading crystal orb the only thing keeping the mage alive. He plans to use the Ghost Rider as his new source of energy, by allowing himself to become its new host and use the power to establish his tyranny over the world.

Meanwhile, Johnny escapes from the police and steals a bike. Despite being very weak, he rides to the old farmhouse owned by Azaziah, determined to confront the sorcerer. He manages to surprise the old man, and while he dodges mystic energy bolts Blaze shatters the magical orb with a rock. He watches as Azaziah withers away, his life force ended with the destruction of the crystal. Desperate, Johnny looks through the mage's book of spells and finds the one he needs to reunite himself with the Ghost Rider. After tracking down the demon, he leads him on a chase back to the pentagram Azaziah had painted on the ground the night before. Blaze turns around to ride toward the demon, and when the two meet in the center of the pentagram they are once again bound to one another. Johnny is unable to keep control, and changes into the demon yet again to ride off into the desert night.

THE ROADMAP
Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze will be separated again in Ghost Rider (1973) # 81, which again results in them wasting away until being re-merged.

What If...? (1977) # 28 presented an alternate reality diverging from this issue, where Azaziah takes control of the Ghost Rider and attempts to assassinate the Catholic Pope.

THE VERDICT
Johnny Blaze fights the Ghost Rider for the first, but definitely not the last, time!

Michael Fleisher had been doing a very slow burn in regards to the idea of the Ghost Rider being part of Johnny's subconscious or another entity altogether.  There had been moments in previous issue, such as when Blaze had amnesia and the Ghost Rider awakened with its own personality intact, that hinted at the eventual plan.  It was a brilliant maneuver, because it kept readers wondering just where - and how far - this idea was going to go.  If there were any doubts as to the Ghost Rider's true nature before this issue, well, those were certainly dispelled here.  The demon is wild and maniacal, burning down everything he sees with sinful abandon, and it makes a striking comparison to how the character is usually portrayed in the series.  Normally, the Ghost Rider has been increasingly volatile and difficult to control, becoming more and more inhuman with each issue.  If this uncontrollable demonic force is what the Rider truly is (and with hindsight, yeah, that's exactly what Zarathos is), then that tells a whole lot about Johnny Blaze as a character as well.  Not only does he fight against the Ghost Rider physically in this story, but it's the man's force of will and conscience that keeps the demon from being a lot worse than the Ghost Rider usually is. 

Unfortunately, Fleisher himself never went much farther than this when it came to his overall story goal for Ghost Rider.  Despite him being on the series for twenty more issues, this was the closest we came to seeing the demon's true nature, and it would take subsequent writers to develop an actual identity for him as Zarathos.  That's actually one of my biggest criticisms of Fleisher's run on the series, that it hinged too much on vignette one-and-done stories with just the barest of momentum toward an overall goal.  When he did do the occasional forward-driven multi-part story, though, they were generally excellent, this one included.

However, there are some problems with this issue, most striking of which was the choice to derail the opening of the story with a multi-page extended flashback to last issue's events.  This used to be the status quo for Marvel comics of the era, to catch readers up who may have missed the issue before or were coming on to the series new, but three pages is too much.  There's also the choice to kill the villain, Azaziah, which isn't so much a problem than it is a missed opportunity.  At this point, Ghost Rider had no rogues gallery to use (other than the Orb, I suppose), and taking a villain like Azaziah and shuffling him off after one story is unfortunate.  The idea was sound, and in fact the basic concept was re-used a few years later in the creation of Centurious (not to say the writers based Centurious on this story, just that the concept was a good one ripe for use again, independently or otherwise).

The artwork for this two-parter was by Carmine Infantino, who is of course a legendary artist of the Silver and Bronze Age.  I feel like his work on Ghost Rider should be awesome, and there are moments when it most definitely is.  I love his portrayal of Azaziah, who looks like he even has cobwebs in his massive beard while in his shack/lair, and his rendition of Johnny Blaze looks more like a real person that the character had in years (most likely due to the novel idea of Johnny wearing clothes other than his ever-present jumpsuit).  It's the way Infantino draws Ghost Rider himself, though, that I have a problem with...he draws him with a thick neck, and it bugs me.  Petty, I know.

Overall, this was an example of Fleisher doing the rare two-parter, which became less and less frequent as his time on the series went on.  I recommend it, but it's certainly not the best that the writer produced.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 43

"Night of the Crimson Mage!"

Cover Date: April 1980
On Sale Date: January 1980

Writer: Michael Fleischer
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Ricardo Villamonte
Colorist: Bob Share
Letterer: Jon Costanza
Editor: Dennis O'Neil
Editor-In-Chief: Jim Shooter

Ghost Rider foils a robbery and gives chase after the thieves. The men manage to escape and stumble across the shack home of Azaziah, the Crimson Mage. Azaziah recruits the thieves in his plot against the Ghost Rider, and the next night they Rob an art gallery. The Ghost Rider quickly finds them and begins his pursuit, unaware that he's being led into a trap. Just as the Ghost Rider passes over a painted pentagram on the road Azaziah steps forward and casts a spell. A moment later, Johnny Blaze finds himself separated from and standing before the demonic Ghost Rider. The Ghost Rider tells Blaze that he is a true demon and is now finally free from being trapped inside Blaze's body.  The Ghost Rider departs, leaving Johnny to relish his newfound freedom inside a local bar.  Soon, workers from a nearby refinery enter the bar, telling of a demon that set fire to the fuel-storage depot.  Realizing that the Ghost Rider must be responsible, Johnny steals a car and heads to the depot.

At the depot, Blaze confronts the Ghost Rider, but notices that the demon seems weaker.  The Ghost Rider blasts Johnny with hellfire, and when he awakens he finds himself in the hospital surrounded by police, who believe him to be the arsonist responsible for the depot fire.  Realizing that both he and the Ghost Rider are growing increasingly weaker, Blaze escapes from the hospital and steals a policeman's motorcycle, determined to be reunited with the demon.  Johnny finds the Ghost Rider at a stockyard that he's set ablaze and tries to get the demon to rejoin with him.  The Ghost Rider flies into a rage, knocking Johnny to the ground and preparing to impale him with a broken fence post.  

THE ROADMAP
This issue confirms that the Ghost Rider is a demon from Hell trapped within Johnny Blaze's body.  The demon's true name, Zarathos, is revealed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 77.

THE VERDICT
Michael Fleisher and guest artist Carmine Infantino finally do the obvious and split the Ghost Rider from Johnny Blaze in the first of a really great two-part storyline.

Fleisher's run had been more hit than miss at this point, but the title was starting to lose its shine with story after story of the Ghost Rider fighting mortal enemies with nary a supernatural element in the vicinity.  Azaziah, the titular Crimson Mage, is a welcome break from the bikers and construction workers that Fleisher had been using as antagonists throughout his run (even if there's, of course, a group of thieves that have to be chased as well).  The wizard's plot is revealed in full next issue, so not a lot of time is spent on him here.  Instead, the real meat of this issue is the confrontation between Johnny and the Ghost Rider.

It had been building for awhile, since Jim Shooter's run on the book in fact, that Johnny was losing control of his Ghost Rider persona.  While Shooter and Roger McKenzie seemed to subscribe to the theory that the Ghost Rider was Blaze's dark side, Fleisher has been not-so-subtly dropping hints in previous issues that the Ghost Rider was truly a separate entity.  This issue is the confirmation that the Ghost Rider isn't just a separate being, it's a malevolent demon out of Hell that's only constrained by Johnny's morality.  That's a fascinating concept that it helps to break the character out of any comparisons to Bruce Banner and the Hulk, the hero fighting against himself.  Instead, Blaze is now as much a victim as a hero.

Giving regular artist Don Perlin a chance to catch up after the series was prompted to monthly publishing, industry legend Carmine Infantino steps in to pencil this two-parter.  Infantino is a good fit for this story and a better match for Ghost Rider than one would think sight unseen.  He creates a pulpy, EC Comics style ambiance to the story, especially in the scenes that introduce the Crimson Mage.  Plus, his Ghost Rider looks truly demonic and devoid of any humanity.

This story is certainly a step-up from recent issues and a welcome break from the status quo that Fleisher and Perlin had established.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 42

"The Lonesome Death of Johnny Blaze!"

Cover Date: March 1980
On Sale Date: December 1979

Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Letterer: Diana Albers
Colorist: Benedict Sean
Editor: Dennis O'Neil
Editor-In-Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky

Atop a hill, the Ghost Rider watches the Jackal Gang as they hijack an armored car at night.  When they see the demon riding toward them, the gang splits up and ride off in different directions.  Ghost Rider chooses to go after the two that have stolen the armored car, and after heating up the interior of the vehicle to the point where they have to stop, he fries them both with hellfire and gains the information he needs about the gang.

The next day, the amnesiac Johnny Blaze wakes up and wonders how he can be so exhausted when he's slept for thirteen hours.  He rushes to the race track, where he and the pit crew see that Gina Langtree has wrecked their car on the far end of the track.  While the crew go to get their fire suits, Blaze jumps into a car and drives to Gina, where he is able to rescue her right before her car explodes.  When they get back to the garage, Gina thanks Johnny (who she knows as Frank Ryder) a kiss, which enrages Carl, the pit foreman that's in love with her.  He challenges Johnny to a race around the track with the loser leaving never to return.  Blaze agrees, and Gina secretly wishes him luck in winning.  When they're out of sight of the others, Carl runs Blaze off the road, then runs up and hits him in the back of the head with a crowbar, just like when he was rendered amnesiac.  In order to cover up his crime, he pushes Blaze's car off a cliff with him inside.  Johnny wakes up during the fall, his memories returned due to the blow to his head, and he transforms into the Ghost Rider before the car hits the bottom and explodes.  The demon crawls from the wreckage, forms his motorcycle, and rides away.  At the top of the cliff, Gina has witnessed everything and confronts Carl, saying that she's called the police to arrest him.  Meanwhile, the Ghost Rider arrives at the Jackal Gang's hideout and attacks, burning the building to the ground and assaulting all of the men with hellfire, ensuring that they will turn themselves in to the police and confess their crimes.

The next day, Johnny walks through the desert, unable to remember anything that happened to him after he was hit over the head by the hobos on the train.  It's conceivable, he wonders, that something important happened him to him during that time, but he'll likely never remember it.  At that moment, miles away, Gina crimes herself to sleep, hoping that somehow "Frank Ryder" is still alive and that he'll return to her someday.

THE ROADMAP
Gina Langtree makes her next appearance in Ghost Rider (1973) # 54, when she accidentally runs into Blaze in Las Vegas.

THE VERDICT
The amnesia story ends as predictably as you imagine, but writer Michael Fleisher does manage to wring some pathos out of the ending.

As I said in the review for the first part of this two-part storyline, the "hero gets amnesia" plot is a fiction cliché even by the standards of 1980.  Fleisher's run was full of stories like this, where the plot was either really well-worn territory or as simple and bare-bones as he could get.  Naturally, given that he had a relatively lengthy run on the series, that approach worked for quite a while.  That's because even though he was using story ideas that were eye-rolling at times, and absolutely detestable at others, he was able to fluff up those ideas with some really moving characterizations.  Sometimes those came from the supporting cast, like poor Gina Langtree in this issue, but most of the time he was able to utilize Johnny Blaze's evolution as a character like a finely-honed weapon.  Yes, amnesia is a hack story trope, but Johnny Blaze's reactions to that same trope are interesting.

Still, when you boil things down, this is just a story where Johnny gets hit on the head, forgets who he is, and then recovers his memory by getting hit on the head again.  In between he gets a girl to fall head over heels in love with him, another trope of Fleisher's that he used again and again, and most of those time those poor women met an untimely end.  Gina gets to survive, and she even makes a return appearance a year or so later in a rare instance of continuity on Fleisher's part, but damn if it isn't mindbogglingly depressing.  The final page of the issue, which starts with Johnny wondering if anything important happened while he was in his fugue state, ends with poor Gina crying in her bed and pining for "Frank Ryder" to return to her.  She fell in love with a man she knew nothing about, and what she DID know was a fabrication and nothing like the actual Johnny Blaze other than a tendency to jump head first into danger and to fall for macho bullshit like racing with rivals for her affection.

Thankfully, this issue was saved by the artwork of Don Perlin, as were a lot of Fleisher's weaker stories.  He manages to not only draw the hell (pun intended) out of the Ghost Rider sequences at the beginning and the end - that bit with the Rider ramping onto the top of the armored car and then cranking up the heat is amazing - but he also wrings as much drama as possible out of the Blaze and Gina scenes.  He seems more comfortable than a lot of artists would have been with scenes like that, and I wonder if Perlin did some time on romance comics back in the day?  He would've been a good fit for them, because he definitely sells Gina's despair on that last page.

All in all, this is a typical example of Michael Fleisher's tenure on the series.  He did some amazing Ghost Rider stories and some truly awful ones, but most of them were of the same quality as this one.   Not bad, just kind of cliched.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Marvel Team-Up (1972) # 91

"Carnival of Souls!"

Cover Date: March 1980
On Sale Date: December 1979

Writer: Steven Grant
Artist: Pat Broderick
Inker: Bruce Patterson
Letterer: James Novak
Colorist: George Roussos
Editor: Dennis O'Neil
Editor In Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Rich Buckler

In Connecticut, Peter Parker and Glory Grant are enjoying a carnival that has come to town. The couple approach the freak tent, where Peter is surprised to hear the barker mention a "six-armed spider-man". They enter the tent, where the ringmaster is shuffling a swamp monster - a monster Peter almost recognizes as the Man-Thing - off stage. The next attraction is the Blazing Skull, a fully aflame skeleton that the crowd immediately declare a fake. Parker realizes that it's not a trick and stands up, asking why the Ghost Rider is in a sideshow. The ringmaster yells for his men, who roughly remove Peter and Glory and toss them out of the carnival. Peter thinks to himself that something strange is going on, that he accidentally used his spider-strength against the carnies to no effect. Glory and Peter get on a bus back to New York, but Peter vows to return as Spider-Man.

At midnight, Spider-Man has returned to the carnival, finding it seemingly deserted. He fights off a group of vicious guard dogs before being confronted by the mysterious ringmaster, who is flanked by the whole of the carnival troop. The ringmaster makes reference to a vow of vengeance against Spider-Man, but Peter claims to have never met the man before. Suddenly, a blast of hellfire nearly hits Spider-Man, alerting him to the presence of the mesmerized Ghost Rider. Spider-Man leads the Ghost Rider on a chase across the giant roller coaster, but as he's winning he's struck in the shoulder by a surprise blast of hellfire that burns his soul. He lands on the ground and is knocked unconscious by one of the carnies.

Later, Spider-Man wakes up in one of the wagon living quarters in the carnival, shackled by chains to the wall. The ringmaster enters and reveals himself as Moondark the Magician, a sorcerer that Spider-Man had fought once before in San Francisco. Moondark reveals that he has captured the soul of Johnny Blaze in his mystical ring, making the Ghost Rider his to control. Following his death months ago in San Francisco, Moondark was resurrected sans soul by his demonic masters and sent back to Earth. He found a job as a magician in the traveling carnival, one by one claiming the souls of the workers - including the temporarily employed Johnny Blaze - and has held them within his crystal soul orb. Moondark unleashes the power of the orb against Spider-Man, who breaks his shackles just in time to shoot a strand of webbing at his foe - the webbing pulls the ring from Moondark's finger, and when it shatters the soul of Blaze is freed. The power of the soul orb fades away with a blast of the Ghost Rider's hellfire, saving Spider-Man, and the two heroes are attacked by the mesmerized carnies. Moondark himself proves immune to the Rider's hellfire, due to the lack of a soul, and the villain uses his power to best both of the heroes. As Moondark calls forth his demonic master to claim the souls of Blaze, Spider-Man, and the carnival workers in exchange for his own, the Ghost Rider blasts the soul orb with hellfire. The orb is destroyed, freeing the souls of the carnies from enslavement, and in return the demonic master claims Moondark instead, devouring him before fading away. The Ghost Rider forms his motorcycle and rides away, leaving Spider-Man to wonder if the temporary absence of Blaze's soul has turned the Ghost Rider into a cruel, less than human monster.

THE ROADMAP
This story takes place between Ghost Rider (1973) # 40 and Ghost Rider (1973) # 41.

Ghost Rider and Spider-Man last encountered one another in Marvel Team-Up (1972) # 58.

Moondark returns to menace Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider (1973) # 56.

Johnny Blaze and the Ghost Rider would join up with a different carnival, namely the Quentin Carnival, in Ghost Rider (1973) # 63, where they will remain until the conclusion of the series.

Moondark's use of the Ghost Rider as a weapon would have quickly backfired on him even without Spider-Man's interference - it is revealed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 44 that the Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze cannot survive without one another, and will grow increasingly weaker until death unless their souls are reunited.

THE VERDICT
Ghost Rider returns for his third co-starring story in the pages of Marvel Team-Up, and it has dawned on me that these three issues - spanning years between them - can be used perfectly to sum up the changes that Johnny Blaze had undergone in his journey as the Ghost Rider.

When Spider-Man and Ghost Rider first met, it was within the first year of the series and presented us with a Johnny Blaze that was still in control of the Ghost Rider and still owner of the Crash Simpson Cycle Show. A few years later, when they met again, Blaze was working for the Stuntmaster television show and was just starting to lose his grip on controlling the demon inside him. Now, with this issue, Spider-Man is presented with a Johnny Blaze who has literally lost all control on the Ghost Rider, making them separate entities sharing the same body.

As with most of the normal superheroes that he encounters, the Ghost Rider scares the hell out of Spider-Man more and more with each subsequent team-up, and the full-out horror of the character is shown with superb detail in this story. Carnivals themselves are a great setting for horror stories, and with the Quentin Carnival's introduction still a good two years away this is a nice glimpse of the Rider's soon-coming status quo. The mystery and atmosphere is what makes this story work, and though you'd think Spider-Man would feel out of place, it's to writer Steven Grant's credit that he fits the hero in seamlessly as the outsider in this newly-discovered world of scary business.

The villain of the piece is Moondark, a character that had only appeared once before in an early issue of Team-Up that featured Spider-Man and Werewolf by Night. He's a bit of a one-note character that, while he works effectively well in this story, never really amounts to anything when he's imported to the rogues gallery of the regular Ghost Rider series. What's interesting, though, is how many similarities there are here to Moondark and Centurious, who will debut a few years later with much better characterization and a much better back story.

Artwork for this story is handled by Pat Broderick, an artist who just sort of hovered on the periphery of comic fans' consciousness throughout the 80's and 90's, illustrating books like Doom 2099, Micronauts, and Firestorm, without becoming a break-out star. His work on this story is very good, stylized but not distracting, and his rendition of the Ghost Rider himself is appropriately horrific and terrifying. He does a fantastic job handling the moody atmosphere of the carnival, and overall just does some nice work.

Essentially, this issue of Team-Up completes the accidental trilogy of Spider-Man/Ghost Rider stories through the Blaze/Zarathos years, and I definitely recommend fans tracking it down.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Ghost Rider (1973) # 41

"The Freight Train to Oblivion!"

Cover Date: February 1980
On Sale Date: November 1979

Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Letterer: Clement Robins
Colorist: Benedict Sean
Editor: Roger Stern
Editor-In-Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky

A semi-truck hauling cargo through the desert late at night is hijacked by the ruthless Jackal Gang, who murder the trucker before stealing the truck and all its goods.  Their crime is interrupted by the Ghost Rider, who seeks to alleviate his boredom by punishing the crooks.  They open fire on him with their rifles to no affect, and choose instead to run.  They split up as they ride out into the desert on their dunebuggies, and Ghost Rider gives chase after one of the vehicles.  Unfortunately, the dunebuggy crashes into the cliffside before the Ghost Rider can catch them, leaving him unable to learn the gang's hideout location.

Ghost Rider goes to an empty train yard and transforms back into Johnny Blaze, who decides to sleep through the night inside one of the train cars.  He's awakened by two hobos, who are in the process of stealing his wallet.  When he attempts to fight back, he's hit over the head with a crowbar and left in the train car, his money and identification stolen.  He wakes up the next morning as the train is slowly pulling out, so he jumps off and onto a racing track.  He quickly realizes that he can't remember who he is or anything about himself, the blow to his head has given him amnesia.  Suddenly, a formula racing car speeds past him, nearly running him over.  The driver, a young woman named Gina Langtree of Langtree Motors, questions him about his amnesia but is quickly won over by Johnny's ability to quickly fix the engine of her race car.  She gives him the name "Frank Ryder" and takes him back to the Langtree Motors garage on the other side of the racing track, offering him a job as a new pit mechanic.  He's quickly disliked by the pit foreman Carl Travis, who thinks that "Frank" is attempting to take Gina for himself.  When Carl attempts to hit Johnny from behind, Blaze is able to defend himself.  Gina then tells Carl that she'll be going on a date with Johnny that night instead of Carl, during which Gina and Johnny share a passionate kiss.  That night, however, when Johnny goes to sleep the Ghost Rider emerges and takes over his body, thinking to himself how odd it is that Blaze's mind is somehow closed to him.  The Ghost Rider doesn't really care, though, and he leaves to find the Jackal Gang.

THE ROADMAP
Ghost Rider last appeared in Marvel Team-Up (1972) # 91.

THE VERDICT
Michael Fleisher pulls out the amnesia cliché for a story that's a bit too pedestrian yet still offers an interesting bit of characterization at the end.

Along with the identical evil twin trope, the amnesia plot device is about as soap opera and hackish as a writer can get.  So, seeing an amnesia storyline loom its ugly head into Fleisher's Ghost Rider run didn't really fill me with a sense of wonderment or joy.  Even worse, there's nothing other than the amnesia angle to hang the story on, no other hook other than "Johnny can't remember his own name", and it leads to something kinda boring.  No, I take that back, it's not so much boring as it is quiet, and it's reminds me of something you'd see more in a Silver Age DC comic than in this series.  Fleisher was all about the "everyday horror", and that was one thing I really enjoyed about his approach to Ghost Rider, that most of the time Blaze himself was the only supernatural thing in the story.  It lead to some misfires to be sure, like last issue's Nuclear Man nonsense, but Ghost Rider was not a series that led with bombast.

Still, there's not much genuine drama that an amnesia card can squeeze out, so there's a lot more artificial fluff added in to provide interest.  There's the Jackal Gang, which is only there so Ghost Rider has something to do while Blaze blunders around the race track; there are the hobos, who appear and disappear from the comic as a random excuse for Johnny's bonk on the head; and worse of all is poor Gina Langtree.  She's another element of Fleisher's run that hasn't aged well at all, the tendency to make the female supporting characters fall in love with Johnny Blaze at first sight.  Since Ghost Rider is a series without a stable supporting cast or status quo, giving Johnny a new love interest every two issues does nothing but make all of Fleisher's female characters turn into swooning women.  Gina at least comes off as a little flighty, so if it had been this one story that had this element I could probably write it off as intentional characterization, but it's a sad pattern for this run.  Gina picks up a man with no memory, who she herself says is probably on the run from the law, and not only gives him a job on the spot but starts making out with him only hours after meeting him.  Doesn't paint her as a very intelligent woman, I'm afraid to say.

With all of this working against it, though, this story does still have one really fascinating bit on the last page.  Fleisher, picking up from the work done by Jim Shooter and Roger MacKenzie, has been doing a deliberate slow burn in regards to the Ghost Rider's demonic independence from Johnny Blaze.  More and more, the demon has started to become its own character and not just an extension of Johnny, dark side or not.  On that last page is a crucial bit of that puzzle that Fleisher was putting together, when the Ghost Rider thinks to himself "The mind of Johnny Blaze is somehow...closed to me.  Odd...but of no real concern to the Ghost Rider!".  The next few issues will make it abundantly clear that the Ghost Rider has suddenly reached its own malevolent independence, and this issue was just another step along that path.

While the storyline may not be the greatest, the artwork by Don Perlin continues to define this series as a very different type of Marvel comic.  Perlin's work is dark and appropriately gloomy, and his Ghost Rider continues to evolve into a more and more otherworldly and scary visual, following along exactly what the writers have been changing the Rider into along the way.  Unfortunately, other than the brief fight with the Jackal Gang in the first few pages, Perlin doesn't get much to work with other than the soap opera antics of Langtree Motors, and that's disappointing.  Still, even though its not so interesting to read, Perlin at least delivers some top notch work.

So falling back on a tired and cliched plot mechanism didn't do this comic any favors, but it's certainly not terrible, just average.