Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ghost Riding Into the Sunset, Part 1: The Ghost Rider and Western Gunfighters

The recent news that Marvel has cancelled the ongoing Ghost Rider series with issue # 5 has naturally sparked a lot of debate among Flamehead Fans.  I can't say the cancellation surprised me, nor can I say it's not deserved, but it did bring me to an unavoidable train of thought: Ghost Rider has had an abysmal track record when it comes to cancellations.  So, following that train, I decided to take a look back on the various "final issues" of the series and how Marvel managed, more often than not, to royally fuck things up.

From The Ghost Rider (1967) # 7
Naturally, we're going to start way back in 1967 with the original Ghost Rider series, which starred Carter Slade as the white-garbed "He Who Rides the Night Winds".  I'm not sure what the sales figures were like for this series, but it can't have been good for it to have been cancelled after just seven issues.  The title was bi-monthly, which meant it wasn't considered a top earner for the company like the numerous monthly books (think Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man).  When you look at the other western titles of the time, like Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, Ghost Rider must have been seen as a colossal failure.  The western genre was on the way out in favor of superheroes, just like all of the other genres that didn't involve superpowers, but for Ghost Rider to not even see double digits was surely troubling.  Maybe it was literary karma paying Stan Lee back for swiping the Rex Fury Ghost Rider and passing it off as Marvel's own creation?

Whatever the reason, The Ghost Rider ended with issue # 7 in November of 1967.  The series ended essentially mid-cliffhanger, with poor Natalie Brooks on death's door as the Ghost Rider rides off with her to reach medical assistance.  Issue # 8, which had already been plotted and half-drawn, was pulled from the schedule despite the work that had been completed on it AND that it had already been solicited.  Wow, THAT is something that will reoccur way too many times for Ghost Rider, a final issue not actually making it to print until many years later.

Fast forward to August, 1970, and the launch of the Western Gunfighters anthology series.  The lead feature was given to the Ghost Rider, and surprisingly the same creative team from the 1967 series returned to essentially pick up where they left off.  Gary Friedrich and Dick Ayers wrapped up the cliffhanger that closed out the final issue (Natalie made it to the surgery on time, but was still in recovery) and went ahead with business as usual for the first two issues of the anthology.  The third issue finally printed a truncated version of what should have been The Ghost Rider # 8.  "The Man Called Hurricane" had seen the first 5 pages completed by Ayers and inker Vince Colletta from 1967, and Ayers stepped in to finish the story (pencils and inks) for the Gunfighters series.

It took three years for the "final issue" of The Ghost Rider to see completion and publication.  If you think that's a ridiculous amount of time to have to wait to read a nearly-finished issue of Ghost Rider, 1998 is calling to laugh at you.

The Ghost Rider remained the lead feature in Western Gunfighters up through (appropriately enough) issue # 7.  That comic was released in January 1972 and featured the death of Carter Slade and the Ghost Rider mantle being taken up by his brother, Lincoln Slade.  The name didn't stay out of circulation for very long, though, because August of that same year saw the debut of Johnny Blaze in the pages of Marvel Spotlight.  I'll talk about that in the next chapter of this article series...

That ride to Denver only took three years!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ghost Rider Cancelled

Well, according to news reports today from Marvel, not only has the publisher cancelled the ongoing Ghost Rider series, the previously solicited sixth issue will not be released either.  This will make issue # 5, which is being released on 3/29, the last issue of the series.  Ghost Rider fans that were around in 1998 will likely be experiencing some deja vu when it comes to solicited "final issues" not making it to publication.


I realize it's been a couple of weeks now since the last post, but that's because we've been busy working on Inner Demons, the Ghost Rider podcast!  Brian and I have recorded the first three episodes, with episode 1 dropping the first week in April.  We can't wait to hear what you guys think of the podcast, and I'll be posting a direct link to the audio here on the blog (along with posting it on iTunes and Stitcher, though I think it will be available here first).

That said, the blog isn't dead or stalled out, I'll be getting back to regular reviews soon.  I plan on tackling more from the 1973 and 1990 volumes and finally getting around to the "Circle of Four" crossover.  Anyone got any requests for comics I've not reviewed yet?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marvel Comics Presents (1988) # 106

Cover Artist: Sam Keith
Published: July 1991
Original Price: $1.50

Title: "Doorway to Darkness, Part 6: The Final Doorway"
Writer: Howard Mackie
Artist: Rick Leonardi
Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Letterer: Michael Higgins
Colorist: Freddy Mendez
Editor: Terry Kavanagh
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

Kevin has led Dr. Strange and Ghost Rider to his dead father's warehouse, where his mother and her cult performed their sacrifices to Gorn.  Sensing the innocent blood that had been spilled, Ghost Rider enters the warehouse and attacks the cult members, avenging their slain victims.  Dr. Strange finds Kevin's mother, and the boy is finally able to confront her about the death of his father.  He realizes now that it was her that killed him all because he wanted to protect Kevin from being used as a sacrifice for Gorn.  With the police on their way, Ghost Rider and Dr. Strange leave, though Strange is still intrigued by the mystery behind Kevin's mystical potential.
This issue of Marvel Comics Presents also contained stories featuring Wolverine/Nightcrawler, Gabriel the Devil-Hunter, and the Young Gods.

Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange will cross paths again during the "Rise of the Midnight Sons" crossover in Ghost Rider (1990) # 31.

"Doorway to Darkness" wraps up with a tying of loose ends and a resolution for poor Kevin, making this easily the best Ghost Rider story in Marvel Comics Presents up to this point.

Howard Mackie had held on to the reins for all Ghost Rider material through the first few years of the character's popularity, but in 1991 on the edge of the Midnight Sons line debuting, he relinquished control over the Ghost Rider serial in MCP.  Out of the three serials that Mackie told (the Wolverine, Cable, and Dr. Strange team-ups), this one was by far the most successful of the three.  Unlike the other two, which degenerated quickly into running fight scenes every chapter with little in the way of plot, "Doorway to Darkness" told a bittersweet story about a little boy used as a pawn.

Allowing Kevin to have closure to his storyline was a good decision on Mackie's part, since it would have been easy to just end the serial with Gorn's defeat last issue.  While the doorway theme was hammered over our heads every issue, and that holds especially true for this one, it doesn't detract from the sad circumstances surrounding Kevin and his small moment of triumph at the end.  He progressed from a character that was scared of his own shadow to one finally able to stand up to his mother, and it's a nice linear growth for the kid.  Ghost Rider gets most of the focus as he goes into action against the Gorn cultists (though I have no idea what was up with the Gormac/Gorn name confusion), but Dr. Strange doesn't get much to do other than levitating the characters from place to place.  I understand that the story needed a level-headed character to provide balance against Ghost Rider's reactive stance, but it still didn't do Strange any favors when he could have been swapped with nearly any other heroic character.  As a Ghost Rider story, "Doorway" is really good, but as a Dr. Strange story not so much.

The artwork maintains its high quality, with Leonardi and Palmiotti actually looking better than they did in the opening chapters.  Their Ghost Rider is amazing, particularly during the double-page splash of him attacking the cultists.  They're able to sell the emotion of the end scene as well, with both the mother's rage and Kevin's determination both on display.  I would have loved to have seen this creative team on the regular Ghost Rider series, or at least return for another MCP serial, both this was unfortunately the last time Leonardi would draw the character.

I really enjoyed "Doorway to Darkness", it had its flaws but was still a really satisfying serial.  One of the better outings for Ghost Rider in Marvel Comics Presents.
Grade: A

Monday, March 6, 2017

Darkdevil (2000) # 1

Cover Artist: Ron Frenz
Published: November 2000
Original Price: $2.99

Title: "From the Abyss...!"
Writer: Tom DeFalco
Artist: Ron Frenz
Inker: Al Milgrom
Letterers: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Matt Hicks
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

The demonic hero Darkdevil arrives for a secret meeting with his contact Miller Mackenzie, but he is instead ambushed by a gang of ninjas.  When the ninjas are defeated, they are killed by implanted explosives, while their master Scrier watches from a nearby rooftop.  The next day, after Scrier meets with his employer, Mackenzie visits the office of mayoral candidate O'Neil. 

In prison, the Kingpin of Crime is approached by Kaine, but the encounter is interrupted by a guard, who says Kaine has a visitor.  Kaine's lawyer tells him that due to inadmissible evidence, he is being released from prison within 24 hours, much to Kaine's surprise.  At his apartment, Darkdevil has returned home and resumes his human appearance, going to work at Nelson and Associates law office under the name "Reilly".  Later that night, Mackenzie attempts another meeting with Darkdevil, explaining that someone had tipped him off to not go to their meeting the night before.  Darkdevil is ambushed by Scrier, and after a brief fight Darkdevil is cut by Scrier's sword, which has been dipped in poison.  Before Scrier can kill the hero, Darkdevil teleports away.  Scrier meets with his master, the head of the Scriers, who orders his follower to kill Kaine while the leader will take care of Darkdevil personally.

Darkdevil returns to his home and heads toward his rejuvenation chamber, the only thing that can save his life.  He thinks back to when he first started experiencing pain as a 13-year-old runaway, and when his life was saved by his "guardian angel", Kaine.  It was Kaine who first placed him in the chamber and revealed to him that he is the son of Ben Reilly.

Darkdevil first appeared in Spider-Girl (1999) # 2 and made repeated appearances in subsequent issues of the series. 

It is revealed in Darkdevil (2000) # 2 that Daredevil is possessed by the Spirit of Vengeance, Zarathos, after a deal is made to save the soul of Matt Murdock. 

Several characters in this comic are named after past Daredevil creators, such as Miller Mackenzie (named after Frank Miller and Roger McKenzie) and mayoral candidate O'Neil (named after Dennis O'Neil).

You may be wondering why I'm reviewing an obvious Daredevil spin-off on the blog, and after reading this first issue I'm actually wondering the same bloody thing.

The answer, of course, is because this mini-series reveals that Zarathos is the demon inhabiting Darkdevil, but that doesn't get revealed until the second issue.  This first issue is an impenetrable mess of a comic that reads like an unassembled jigsaw puzzle.  I've never read DeFalco's Spider-Girl/MC2 comics, and I know very little about them.  Apparently, Darkdevil was introduced as the future version of Daredevil with mysterious origins, and he was popular enough as a supporting character that he got this origin mini-series.  In reality, Darkdevil takes elements from three wildly different superheroes and staples them together, resulting in a character that takes three paragraphs to explain. 

The Daredevil element is there, obviously, and the Ghost Rider/Zarathos connection comes up in the next issue, but this comic also reveals that he's the son of Ben Reilly.  The Scarlet Spider was the clone of Peter Parker and the whole impetus behind the much-maligned "Clone Saga" of the mid-1990s.  It appears that DeFalco has appropriated a LOT of plot ideas from the Clone Saga, since this series deals with Ben Reilly and another Spider-Man clone named Kaine.  I don't understand what's happening in this comic, the characters are dropped into the story with no introduction...wait, I take that back.  The Kingpin, the one villain in this book that most readers would be familiar with, gets a great introduction with narration explaining who he is, but I guess DeFalco was working with assumption that everyone would know who Kaine and Scrier are, because they're not given any explanation at all. 

Ron Frenz does some serviceable artwork that's a nice throwback to classic Marvel house style, and Al Milgrom's inks compliment things nicely (and that's a real surprise, normally Milgrom overpowers the pencils of any artist he works with).  Darkdevil does have a pretty great visual design, going for an obvious Daredevil homage while appropriate a more demonic tone.  There are other production problems with this comic, though, specifically with the lettering.  I don't know what happened with the usually great Tom Orzechowski, but the lettering is all over the place.  I wonder if it was a rush job, because the letters are all different sizes within the speech balloons, and it looks really amateurish. 

Perhaps this comic would be better if I knew anything about the MC2 universe going in, but that's also a huge failure on the creator's part for not making it friendly to new readers who might have picked it up for the Daredevil (or later Ghost Rider) connection.  As it stands, this comic is as much of a convoluted mistake as its lead character.
Grade: F

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ghost Rider (2016) # 4

Cover Artist: Felipe Smith
Published: April 2017
Original Price: $3.99

Title: "Four on the Floor", Part 4
Writer: Felipe Smith
Artist: Danilo S. Beyruth

Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Jesus Aburtov w/ Federico Blee
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Editor In Chief: Axel Alonso

Late at night in East Los Angeles, Ghost Rider has tracked down the group of kidnappers that he had last encountered in Hillrock Heights.  Despite Eli pushing him to murder the criminals, Robbie lets them go after scaring them.  Robbie's refusal to give in to his rage is making him sick, and Eli tells him that if he doesn't unleash his wrath soon then Eli will take over their body again. 

The next morning, the heroes that are tracking down the alien monster (Totally Awesome Hulk, All-New Wolverine, and Silk) have joined forces with Agents Coulson and May of SHIELD.  They track the alien's energy signature back to Hillrock Heights, directly beneath Canelo's Auto & Body repair shop.  Inside, Robbie watches Ramon Cordova interact with gangsters, and Eli tries to talk him into destroying the ex-convict.  Outside, Ramon tells the gangsters to leave, breaking one's nose and threatening to kill the other.  When Ramon goes back inside, he yells at Robbie's little brother Gabe, who had taken Ramon's tools and put them away without permission.  Robbie, meanwhile, has been confronted by Wolverine and Hulk in their civilian identities, and while Robbie says he can repair Wolverine's car he's not interested in teaming up with them to find the alien. 

Later, while the team of heroes and SHIELD agents stake out the repair shop, Robbie drives to Cordova's house to talk to him about what happened with Gabe.  Cordova tells Robbie to back off, saying he's not cut out for street life, but before Robbie can reply the gang members that Ramon chased off arrive and start shooting.  Ramon saves Robbie, telling him to stay down while he takes care of the thugs.  Robbie is able to transform into Ghost Rider without Ramon seeing and takes out the gangsters, possibly killing one of them.  Back at the auto shop, the alien arrives and is engaged by SHIELD.  When the heroes attack as well, the alien grabs Agents Coulson and May, biting them both on their necks. 

This issue was released with an Agents of SHIELD variant cover by Felipe Smith.

Cover Artist: Felipe Smith
"Four On the Floor" reaches chapter four and produces the first issue in the series that actually reads like a Ghost Rider comic.  Now this, THIS, is more like what I expect out of this title.

As I've said over and over again, this series' biggest problem is that Felipe Smith seems far more interested in writing a comic about the guest-stars than Ghost Rider, to the point where Robbie Reyes has become an afterthought for the first three issues.  Finally, though, Ghost Rider gets some time in the spotlight, and it's a welcome change.  The guest-star nonsense with the purple alien is all still there, of course, and it's just as frustratingly annoying as it's been in the first three chapters of the story, but it at least takes a backseat to the developments surrounding Robbie.  Which, I hate to have to point out, is HOW IT SHOULD BE. 

So, let's get the negative points taken care of first.  As I said, the guest-stars are still pointless and in the case of at least one of them absolutely infuriating to read.  Totally Appalling Hulk, I will literally do a happy dance when you're no longer appearing in this comic.  The other two superhero guest-stars are just kinda there, because Wolverine and Silk really don't add anything to the story other than to play straight-women to Hulk's attempts to be flippant.  This issue also brings in Coulson and May from Agents of SHIELD, and while they don't do anything of note either at least their appearance makes a modicum of rational sense outside of the plot demands.  Robbie's turn as a star in the first quarter of the Agents of SHIELD television show practically ensured their appearance in the series as some point.  I just wish they'd have done something other than be useless and then get utilized in a baffling cliffhanger where the alien bites them on the neck.  Speaking of the cliffhanger, this issue doesn't really end, instead it just sort of stops mid-dialogue.  Baffling decisions being made in this series, I just don't get it.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the GOOD parts of this comic, which is all of the stuff involving Robbie, Eli, and Ramon.  Smith created Robbie, and so naturally he has a wonderful handle on the character and the plots that revolve around him.  Having him teeter on the edge of breaking down, fighting back against his curse to the point where it's literally making him vomit, is great character work.  All of the back-and-forth between Robbie and Eli really sells the struggle that Reyes is fighting through, and it's obvious that it's only a matter of time before he breaks completely.  This issue also gives a lot more focus to Ramon Cordova, "El Perro Rabioso", as the ex-con looking to break good and leave his past behind him.  I was ambivalent about this character and his subplot in the previous issues, but here it all clicks wonderfully into place.  I was expecting this guy to revert to type and turn into a villain of some kind, but he's actually something far more interesting.  He's obviously not a nice person, yelling at Gabe (though I agree with Canelo, the kid kinda deserved it and really shouldn't be at Robbie's place of work hanging out, but I digress) and just being kind of a bastard.  But then he saves Robbie's life, genuinely acting to protect the boy that had just come to try and fight him on his front lawn.  I am now totally invested in this part of the story, and it's night-and-day more interesting than anything involving purple aliens and superheroes.

Danilo Beyruth continues as the artist, and he's still turning in a perfectly serviceable job on the art.  I still think he struggles with faces and expressions, but his action scenes are solid enough.  I really love that he's finally getting to draw some sweet Ghost Rider stuff, which has been too long in coming.  It's like this issue finally delivered on a lot of the things that were so infuriatingly absent from the earlier issues.  Beyruth sells the otherworldly aspect of Ghost Rider as well, he's almost a beast who is a moment away from turning into something truly monstrous.  While I still wish this series was being drawn by Tradd Moore or by Felipe Smith, Beyruth hasn't been a disappointment.

This is what I was hoping for when this series first launched.  It's not perfect, and the flaws in it are still very much a problem, but it's certainly a big step in the right direction.  Nevertheless, I will be very happy when this arc concludes next issue.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 3, 2017

X-Men (1991) # 8

Cover Artist: Jim Lee
Published: May 1992
Original Price: $1.25

Title: "Tooth and Claw"
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Jim Lee
Inker: Jim Lee & Art Thibert
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Joe Rosas
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor In Chief: Tom DeFalco

At the X-Mansion, Professor X and Storm introduce the newest member of the team, Bishop, to the rest of the X-Men.  Bishop is a time-traveler from a future where the X-Men were betrayed and murdered by one of the team.  When he sees Gambit, he accuses him of being the murderer due to him being the lone survivor of the future attack.  Xavier breaks up the tense scene by ordering the team to relax at the lake that's on the X-Mansion's property. 

At the lake, Rogue and Gambit's picnic is interrupted by Bishop, who claims that he knows Remy LeBeau as the monster who raised him after "the great betrayal".  Gambit and Bishop begin fighting, which is eventually stopped by Rogue, who convinces Bishop to accept Gambit for who he is now and not who he may become.  Suddenly, they are all attacked by a young woman that fires energy blasts, who Gambit says is his wife.  Later, all of the X-Men are listening to the woman's story: her name is Bella Donna, and while she is a member of the New Orleans Assassins Guild, her "husband" Gambit is a member of the Thieves Guild.  The two clans are now at war with one another, and it's all because Gambit killed Bella Donna's brother in a duel.  In order to keep the peace between the groups, Gambit was exiled, but now that the truce has been broken it's his responsibility to put a stop to the bloodshed.  The other X-Men volunteer to go with him, despite his protests that he can handle the responsibility alone.  While the X-Men prepare to leave, on the outskirts of New Orleans a sheriff's deputy attempts to pull over a speeding motorcyclist.  When he stops the biker, though, he finds that it's actually the Ghost Rider on his way into the city.
Ghost Rider last appeared in Ghost Rider (1990) # 25.  He is on his way to New Orleans to locate John Blaze, who he believes can help with Danny Ketch, whose throat was torn open by Blackout just prior to his transformation into Ghost Rider.
The Ghost Rider/X-Men crossover continues into Ghost Rider (1990) # 26, X-Men (1991) # 9, and concludes in Ghost Rider (1990) # 27.
The Ghost Rider/X-Men crossover begins, even though Ghost Rider himself is relegated to an end of issue cameo appearance.

If there was any question that Ghost Rider had hit the heights of popularity in the early 1990s, this crossover answered it definitively.  Jim Lee's X-Men was the highest selling comic book of ALL TIME, and here it was not just guest-starring Ghost Rider but participating in a full-blown 4-issue crossover.  That kind of thing is unthinkable today, because while the X-Men aren't the sales juggernaut they used to be they're still one of Marvel's big guns.  Could you image a crossover between Extraordinary X-Men and the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider series?  But back in 1992, the two properties were near equals in terms of sales and popularity, and that makes me wonder if this crossover was a result of marketing synergy instead of a creative desire to mix the two titles.

If anything, at least the X-Men's motivation for participating in the story is legitimate, since it springs from the back story of one of the regular cast.  Gambit's origin story, told here along with his real name for the first time, gives the X-Men a clear reason to travel to New Orleans.  Ghost Rider, on the other hand, has a more coincidental role, in that he's just there looking for John Blaze to help resolve a completely unrelated plot.  Ghost Rider's involvement feels very forced and tangential, even in the issues of his own comic that serve as parts 2 and 4 of the crossover. 

This issue, which is thought of as Part 1 of "Brood Trouble in the Big Easy" but really just serves as a prologue, takes up much of its time with the Bishop/Gambit conflict.  The Gambit connection between that plot and the New Orleans stuff makes them tie together a little, but it does seem  like two issues worth of story were just bolted together haphazardly, especially when Bishop makes no further appearances throughout the crossover.  Also, like I said this issue gives Gambit's back story, and this was when the sheen started to come off of the character.  The whole Guild nonsense weighed Gambit's character down like an anchor after it was introduced here, and it killed his mystique almost instantly.  Gambit was one of the most popular X-Men at the time, and this story effectively ended that.

The artwork by Jim Lee is, of course, solid work.  The man made his name on the X-Men, and his take on the characters are understandably definitive for a lot of fans.  He's missing his usual embellisher, Scott Williams, and it certainly affects the art.  Lee and Thibert add way too much crosshatching, there are lines everywhere, and it doesn't have the tightness that Williams usually brought to Lee's work.  There's also the baffling decision by Lee to put Rogue in the skimpiest outfit ever for a lakeside picnic, showing more skin that Psylocke in her bathing suit earlier in the issue.  That wouldn't be a problem, other than the fact that the slightest skin-to-skin contact with Rogue results in powerloss and falling into a coma.  It's cheesecake artwork based around an inappropriate character, but that was sadly par for the course in 1992.  Lee's Ghost Rider, who appears at the issue's end in appropriately dramatic fashion, isn't that great.  He excels at drawing superheroes, but his Ghost Rider doesn't really work when taken out of the gritty atmosphere of his own series.

This crossover was a HUGE deal when it was being released, but this was at most just a tease for what was to come.  You could probably skip this chapter and go straight into Ghost Rider # 26 without much confusion.
Grade: B-