Thursday, June 22, 2017

Marvel Premiere # 28

Cover Art: Nick Cardy
Published: February 1976
Original Price: $0.25

Title: "There's a Mountain on Sunset Boulevard!"
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Artist: Frank Robbins
Inker: Steve Gan
Letterer: Karen Mantlo
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Editor: Marv Wolfman

An earthquake strikes Los Angeles, causing a large mountain to emerge from the ground in the heart of the city.  Johnny Blaze witnesses the event and goes to investigate the mountain, transforming into Ghost Rider due to the imminent danger he senses.  Meanwhile, Morbius flies through the night looking for a victim and finds the Werewolf by Night, causing a brief fight between the two monsters.  Finally, in the Florida Everglades, the mindless Man-Thing sees a vision of the mountain and walks toward it only to find itself transported to the actual mountain a continent away.  Morbius sees the mountain and flies to investigate, followed by the enraged Werewolf by Night.  They find Blaze's abandoned motorcycle and the Man-Thing, then they and the Ghost Rider see a large golden man astride a similarly golden horse, an alien being called the Starseed.  The alien tells them his origin, that he was part of an evolved tribe of humanity millions of years ago that was kidnapped by an alien race, along with their mountain home.  Eventually the Starseed's people defeated their abductors and took control of their spaceship to return home, but now Starseed is the only one of his people still alive.

Driven by rage and bloodlust, the Werewolf and Morbius attack Starseed and drive him to the ground, condemning him for his perfection while they remain monsters.  Ghost Rider attempts to stop them, but is chased by the Man-Thing, who is spurred on by Blaze's emotional state.  Ghost Rider again attempts to stop the monsters, but is attacked by Morbius while the Werewolf claws at the Starseed.  The alien drives the Werewolf away, but the fear caused by his pain attracts the Man-Thing, and the swamp monster's touch burns the Starseed.  Ghost Rider manages to drive away the other three monsters, but it comes too late, the alien is dying.  In his last breaths he is able to free each of the four monsters from their respective curses, turning all of them human again.  But the spell doesn't last, and they all revert back to their monstrous forms.  Morbius flees, in tears from the realization that he helped kill his best chance to be a normal man, and Man-Thing and the Werewolf wander away.  Only Johnny Blaze remains as the Starseed dies, and as he pushes his damaged motorcycle into the city the mountain behind him disappears.

Ghost Rider last appeared in Ghost Rider (1973) # 16 and appears next in The Champions (1975) # 4.

Johnny Blaze will next encounter Werewolf by Night in Ghost Rider (1973) # 55, Morbius in Morbius: The Living Vampire (1992) # 1, and Man-Thing in Blaze (1994) # 2.

This issue was reprinted in the Ghost Rider Team-Up trade paperback.

The "Legion of Monsters" make their debut, but things don't go so well for our four titular monsters.

This is such a bizarre concept for a story, though it's really just par for the course when it comes to mid-1970s Marvel Comics.  Bill Mantlo seems to be channeling his inner Steve Gerber, what with the outlandish origin story of the Starseed.  It's all very counter-culture, peacenik sentimentality, with the Starseed referring to everyone as "brother" and his talk of being from a tribe of evolved cavemen with names like "Jaard" and "Lilra".  The moral of the story seems to be that mankind are monsters that will destroy anything different from themselves, regardless of the personal consequences that come with such actions.  The Starseed is swarmed and murdered by these monsters, with Morbius being the worst of the bunch, because his enlightenment was actually just extreme naivete.

The Starseed is really just a plot mechanism, though, because the real selling point of the comic is the team-up of Mavel's most prominent monster characters.  All of these characters were byproducts of Marvel's heavy lean toward horror based superhero characters, which were finally allowed due to the relaxation of the Comics Code Authority and their restrictions on monsters.  Once Marvel was allowed to play with those toys, out came books like Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein, which led the wave of horror comics.  Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider, and Morbius (by way of Adventure Into Fear) were all star characters, so seeing them brought together as a "team" was a naturally obvious idea.  It worked for the Defenders a few years before, and I imagine that had this issue been successful then we would have seen a lot more Legion of Monsters comics.  Since we didn't, and believe it or not this was the ONLY appearance these four characters made under the "Legion of Monsters" banner, I can only surmise that this must not have been the hit they were expecting.

It doesn't help, though, that even more so than the Defenders, these were characters defined by their outcast and lonely existences.  Only Ghost Rider, who at this time was a member of the Champions, was able to play well with others, and that was a tenuous relationship at best.  These weren't superheroes, they were monsters and were written accordingly to type by Mantlo.  Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing were nearly mindless, reacting like wild animals to the events around them, so that led the decision making to fall to Morbius and Blaze.  It's the characterization of Morbius that gives me the most trouble, though, because he acts a lot more malicious than I remember him being during his Fear series.  He acts heinously in this story and is the driving force behind their murder of the Starseed.  He also feels the most regret when he gets his fleeting glimpse of being human again, and he has an appropriate reaction.  So, with Morbius as the de facto villain and both Werewolf and Man-Thing being reactionary characters only, that means Ghost Rider had to step up as the hero of the story.  That makes sense, considering Johnny Blaze was full swing into his superhero status quo in the Champions, and it's such a marked contrast to how his character will evolve later in the 1980s.

The artwork is by Frank Robbins, who was no stranger to either Ghost Rider or Morbius, having spent time as artist on both characters around this same time.  I enjoy Robbins renditions of the monsters, his work having this bizarre off-kilter look that lends itself well to these characters.  They all look appropriately horrific, and his Ghost Rider is the one most obviously identified as a superhero.  His flaming skull is there, but so are his eyeballs, making the character look goofy more than menacing.  His design for the Starseed is remarkably wild, a giant golden man dressed in Roman-esque robes, and the art sells the somewhat condescending attitude the alien displays in his dialogue.

I can understand that this comic should have worked in theory, but in reality it just didn't click the way you think it would.  The "Legion of Monsters" were too individualized to work as a team, with all of them acting as antagonists to the others at various points.  Still, this is a pretty accurate assessment of Marvel storytelling in 1976, and it's a natural fit alongside the Ghost Rider and Champions comics that were coming out alongside it.  Like those other two comics, this one wasn't half bad, but it certainly wasn't great either.  Memorable, though, definitely memorable.

Grade: C+

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ghost Rider (1990) # 87

Cover Artist: Karl Kerschl
Published: August 1997
Original Price: $1.99

Title: "Wallow"
Writer: Ivan Velez Jr.
Artist: Karl Kerschl
Inker: Al Milgrom
Letterers: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Editor In Chief: Bob Harras

A young woman named Melissa stands on the edge of a rooftop and is compelled to jump off the building by a sinister ghost with a doll's face.  In the alley below, Ghost Rider chases down two muggers and gives them the Penance Stare.  He finds Melissa, barely alive from her fall, and rushes her to the nearest hospital where he demands she receive medical attention.  The ghost, Wallow, has followed Melissa to the hospital and his presence begins to make everyone in the building start to feel hopeless and suicidal.  Ghost Rider rides across the rooftops and thinks that he should relinquish control back to Danny Ketch, but changes his mind and decides to wait one more day.

A young homeless man named Michael has a nightmare about when his father shot and killed his mother, then tried to jump off a building with Michael and his sister Melissa before he was shot by the police.  Michael is attacked by Wallow, who claims to be the boy's father there to save him from the cruelties of life.  Michael runs to a church but is pulled back by Wallow, only to be rescued by the Ghost Rider.  Wallow flees and Ghost Rider demands answers from Michael, who tells the Rider about his father and sister.  At the hospital, Wallow goes to Melissa in her hospital room and hands her a pair of scissors to kill herself with.  Ghost Rider and Michael arrive at the hospital just as Melissa stabs Wallow with the scissors, telling him that she hates him for what he did to her mother.  Ghost Rider grabs Wallow by the doll mask on his face and gives him the Penance Stare, which turns him into ash.  Later, in Hell, Wallow is brought before Blackheart, who claims to have a deal for him.

Wallow returns as one of Blackheart's Spirits of Vengeance in Ghost Rider (1990) # 90.

A character named "Wallow" appeared in the 2007 Ghost Rider film as one of Blackheart's minions, the Hidden.  Other than the name, the film character is totally unrelated from the Wallow that was introduced in this issue.

This issue's "Ghost Rider" logo reverts back to the original one that was first used on the cover of Ghost Rider (1990) # 1.  The logo was last seen on the cover of Ghost Rider (1990) # 76.

After the events of last month's Flashback issue, Ivan Velez starts the build-up to his next major story-arc with this first in a series of seemingly unconnected oneshots.

If there's one thing I really appreciate about this era of the series under Ivan Velez, its that he wasn't afraid to create and introduce new villains for Ghost Rider to fight.  Granted, it meant that a lot of the classic villains like Blackout and Deathwatch were dropped completely, but getting some new blood in the series by way of interesting new villains was appreciated, at least by me.  This issue introduces Wallow, the first in the set of four new villains that Velez will use to create Blackheart's "Spirits of Vengeance" during "The Last Temptation" mega-arc later in the year.  Out of all those new villains, which also included Pao Fu, Verminous Rex, and Doghead, Wallow is probably the most interesting as a concept.  Having a villain that revolves around suicide is always a tricky proposition that come across as insensitive and callous, sort of like when Howard Mackie introduced a villain whose literal name was Suicide, but Velez was able to side step that problem with Wallow.  Making him a villain that's an actual ghost, one that doesn't rely on physical means to harm its victims, may not make him much of a threat to Ghost Rider, sure.  But Wallow's power comes from his ability to instill despair just by being in his general vicinity, and it adds to the character's creepy vibe.

All told, though, this is a pretty simple done-in-one story that we've not seen much in the pages of Ghost Rider for quite a long time.  It's really refreshing, honestly, after the long stretch of continuous issue-to-issue storytelling that's dominated Velez's run up to this point.  I think the Flashback issue, and the change in editorial hands to Tom Brevoort, have given Velez some much-needed focus on where he wanted to take the series.  This issue, which on the surface is a pretty breezy story that doesn't seem very consequential to the overall plot of the series, is actually a fairly depressing affair and the start of a really dark trend in the subject matter of Velez's issues (with the next couple of stories dealing with human slave trafficking and immigrant discrimination, all cheery topics).

The artwork is by a fill-in artist this month, the always welcome Karl Kerschl.  The artist was still at the start of his career, but had in fact drawn some of the Toy Biz action figure tie-in comics a few years before, so he has at least a small prior involvement with Ghost Rider.  While its true that he's saddled with the terrible red and yellow racing outfit and blocky red motorcycle, he is able to get a lot of mileage out of the truly wonderful design he gave to Wallow.  The character is downright creepy, yet so simple: just a dark brown, featureless form that's accented with a small doll's mask on his face.  The doll mask does all of the emoting, and it works so well visually.  My only problem with the artwork is with the colors, if I'm being honest, because I think Brian Buccellato makes his series way too bright when it should be bathing in blacks and dark blues.  Of course, there's that red and yellow costume monstrosity squatting in the heart of the comic, so I guess he's just playing his color palate off of that.

Overall, "Wallow" is the most successful issue that Velez has turned out in quite a while, and it's a very welcome change of pace.

Grade: B-

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ghost Rider (1973) # 41

Cover Artist: Bob Budiansky
Published: February 1980
Original Price: $0.40

Title: "The Freight Train to Oblivion!"
Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Letterer: Clement Robins
Colorist: Benedict Sean
Editor: Roger Stern
Editor-In-Chief: Jim Shooter

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.

Ghost Rider last appeared in Marvel Team-Up # 91.

This issue was reprinted in the Essential Ghost Rider vol. 2 trade paperback.

Michael Fleisher pulls out the amnesia cliche 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.

Grade: C+

Friday, June 16, 2017

Venom (2011) # 13

Cover Artist: Stefano Caselli
Published: April 2012
Original Price: $3.99

Title: "Circle of Four, Part 1"
Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Tony Moore
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Val Staples
Editor: Jeanine Schaeffer
Senior Editor: Stephen Wacker & Mark Paniccia
Editor In Chief: Axel Alonso

Flash Thompson is currently hiding in a Las Vegas motel after he went AWOL from the army with the Venom symbiote.  He is unaware that the army has sent General Thunderbolt Ross, the Red Hulk, to find and bring both him and the symbiote back.  Elsewhere, at the Devil's Den casino, the owner Mr. Degli is dealing with a gambler unable to pay back his debts.  Degli offers to eliminate the debt and all it will cost is the man's soul, which he eagerly agrees to.

Meanwhile in Vegas, Johnny Blaze attempts to give guidance to the current Ghost Rider, Alejandra, who claims that there's nothing the former host can teach her.  Red Hulk approaches the city, jumping through the desert while thinking about how much he hates deserters.  Finally, X-23 has gone undercover as a waitress at the Devil's Den to find Degli, who she claims stole a vial of her blood for experimentation.  At an empty construction site, Degli and his aide Ms. Oyle prepare to enact their master plan.  Having built a spinning pentagram machine, they introduce their ingredients: 100 human souls signed over willingly, the remains of the Toxin symbiote, and the blood of a mortal who's been to Hell and back.  Now they only have to wait for the final ingredient to come to them, which Degli says "the Devil couldn't keep her away".  At a diner, Blaze and Alejandra are having dinner when she suddenly transforms into the Ghost Rider and says that Zarathos hears the call of hundreds of crying souls.  Blaze tries to talk her into thinking before acting, but Alejandra ignores him and rides into Las Vegas.  Before leaving to follow her, Blaze places a phone call to Daimon Hellstrom for help.

A drunk Flash Thompson is attacked by the Red Hulk at the motel, and a brief fight begins when Venom attempts to run.  X-23, meanwhile, has broken into Degli's office, where she finds clones of herself created from her stolen blood.  Before she can destroy them, the clones break free and reveal that they have also been given alien symbiotes of their own.  Ghost Rider arrives at the construction site and sees the spinning pentagram, which she decides to stop by jumping into it and riding in the opposite direction.  Unfortunately, that was Degli's plan all along, and the Ghost Rider opens up a portal to Hell that spreads all across Las Vegas.  Before leaving, Degli tells the Rider that if she stops the centrifuge then all of Earth will be sucked into Hell.  Venom and Hulk are forced to stop fighting when they see the city overrun with demons, and reluctantly they team up to save the helpless citizens.  When Blaze arrives at the city limits, he places a mystical amulet that blocks magic on the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign.  The amulet halts the spread of Hell from going past the city's border, and Blaze enters the city to find Alejandra.

Degli and Oyle arrive back at the casino and reveal themselves as Blackheart and his gargoyle companion.  Blackheart contacts his father, Mephisto, and attempts to gloat that he has brought Hell to Earth and will soon depose Mephisto as Hell's ruler.  Mephisto mocks and disregards him, which angers Blackheart even more.  Blaze finds Ghost Rider at the centrifuge and rides his own motorcycle into the machine to power it, telling Alejandra to go stop the person causing this while he keeps the portal open.  The top of Blackheart's casino is where all of the heroes converge; X-23, Venom, Red Hulk, and finally Ghost Rider all confront Blackheart, but only the Hulk shows caution as he's read the Avengers file on the demon.   Using his black mirror cauldron, Blackheart calls forth the dark antitheses of each hero: X-666, Ichor, the Evangelist, and Encephalon.

"Circle of Four" was originally conceived as a crossover event between the Venom, Hulk, X-23, and Ghost Rider titles, and it was first teased at the end of Ghost Rider (2011) # 0.1.  Due to the low sales of three of the titles, which would result in the cancellations of both Ghost Rider and X-23 immediately after the crossover, it was decided that the story would be published as "Point 1" issues of the Venom ongoing series.

The original publication plan for this story would have had the chapters released in the following order:
- Chapter 1: Circle of Four # 1
- Chapter 2: Ghost Rider (2011) # 9
- Chapter 3: X-23 (2010) # 21
- Chapter 4: Hulk (2008) # 48
- Chapter 5: Venom (2011) # 13
- Chapter 6: Circle of Four # 2

Alejandra and Blaze both appeared last in Ghost Rider (2011) # 8.

Blaze stole the anti-magic medallion from Hawkeye in Ghost Rider (2011) # 8.

This story is an updated homage to the "New Fantastic Four" storyline from Fantastic Four (1961) # 347-349, which brought Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider (Ketch), and the Hulk together as a substitute Fantastic Four team.

This issue was released with two variant covers by Walter Simonson and Clayton Crain.

Cover Artist: Clayton Crain

The "Circle of Four" event kicks off with an extra-length first chapter, but the behind-the-scenes publication decisions almost overshadow what's actually a pretty great crossover.

So, in 2011 Marvel had four titles that were going to participate in a one-month six-part crossover called "Circle of Four".  Hulk, Venom, X-23, and Ghost Rider were all titles that had an interesting connection, as they were all legacy titles for characters that had been part of the "New Fantastic Four" storyline in 1991.  Writers Rick Remender, Rob Williams, and Jeff Parker began to sew the seeds for the crossover in their individual titles, going as far back as the first issue of Williams Ghost Rider series earlier in the year, and it everything was looking good for the crossover.  Unfortunately, this all happened in the wake of Marvel Comics being purchased by Disney, and the parent company took a very hard look at the sales threshold for Marvel's line of titles.  Suddenly, two of the four titles involved in the crossover were now being flagged for immediate cancellation a month after the crossover was to be published, so what were the options?  Venom was the only title that was able to stave off the executioner, so it was decided that instead of a 4-title crossover the story would take place solely in the pages of Venom.  Marvel had also recently rolled out its "Point One" initiative, which allowed extra issues to be slotted in between regular monthly installments, which meant they could do this crossover as issues 13.1 through 13.4 of Venom.

That doesn't make a god damn bit of sense, does it?  It must have at the time to the editors, who I imagine were simply trying to salvage the crossover that they had worked so hard to produce and just wanted it to be released in any form they could get.  Still, would it have been so much worse to just have the crossover happen across the titles as originally planned, cancellations or not?  I guess its a moot point, but I think its kind of fascinating.  This issue, instead of being Venom # 13, should have been Circle of Four # 1, hence the increased page count and successful attempt to make each character a star of the story in their own right and not just a guest in Venom's book.

Naturally, that ability to give each of the four main characters equal time in the comic makes this opening chapter come together as a whole much better than if it had been focused on just Venom as the primary protagonist.  It's a natural comparison to make, but contrast this with the "Four on the Floor" storyline in the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider series, where the main character was shoved into the background while the other heroes took over.  This is a similar situation, since Venom doesn't get any more to do than the other heroes despite his name being on the logo, but at least here you can understand why given what it was originally supposed to be.

Rick Remender and Tony Moore were the original creative team of this Venom series, and having them reunite to kick off the crossover was a great touch.  Getting Moore back to draw Ghost Rider again is a treat in itself after his massively awesome Ghost Rider story with Jason Aaron a few years previous.  Moore is one of those artists whose characters all act throughout the pages with their facial expressions and their body language, they're not stiff or posed, they actually appear to be emoting in places.  There's the problem with Johnny Blaze and Flash Thompson looking practically identical, and in turn they both look like Rick Grimes, but Moore is too good at crafting the story to let that be much of a problem for me while I'm looking at his work.  He's at his best when he's drawing the demons and landscape of Hell-possessed Las Vegas, the guy's got an eye for detail that nearly rivals Geoff Darrow's, and you can spend several minutes examining each panel for interesting stuff.  Plus, his rendition of each hero is really great, especially his Ghost Rider.  A lot of artists really struggled with making the Alejandra Ghost Rider look menacing yet feminine, but Moore balanced both bits just right.

Remender, who was one third of the writing team on this crossover (I have no idea why X-23 writer Marjorie Liu sat the story out), brings all of the characters together in a very natural way.  In a lot of these crossovers, looking back at you "Four on the Floor", there's too much coincidence and happenstance involved to bring all of the pieces into the story.  Remender takes the time to give each character a reason for being involved, and it all falls together really well.  This issue definitely feels like it's a natural culmination to what each of the heroes must have been going through in their own books, because the story has a real feel of tying off outstanding plot threads.  Remender gets a lot of shit for some of his storylines, like "Frankencastle" and "Axis", but when he's on his game he is ON his GAME.  The Alejandra Ghost Rider series was not a pleasant title to read through, but Remender's take on the Alejandra/Blaze relationship feels so much more genuine than what Rob Williams had been doing on the actual Ghost Rider series.  Remender paints Alejandra as a dangerous amateur, and this issue shows what later chapters are going to hammer home, that Blaze is the only real hero in this whole damn crossover.

While the 2011 Ghost Rider series is terrible on a whole lot of levels, "Circle of Four" almost redeems the whole series.  This is a fantastic opening chapter to what was a really surprising and engaging crossover, I just wish the behind-the-scenes stuff hadn't sidelined it as what many readers probably assumed was just a Venom story with guest-stars.

Grade: A+

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ghost Rider Special Edition (1995) # 11

Cover Artist: Karl Kerschl
Published: 1995
Original Price: N/A

Title: "Ghost of the Past"
Writer: Chris Cooper
Artist: Karl Kerschl
Inker: Dan McDonnel
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Scott Marshall
Editor: Glenn Herdling

Sensing danger, Dan Ketch feels himself transforming into Ghost Rider, the Spirit of Vengeance.  He's immediately attacked by Johnny Blaze, who has once again become the "original" Ghost Rider under the control of Zarathos.  Ghost Rider finds himself unable to fight his friend, but is also being destroyed by Blaze's blasts of hellfire.  Ghost Rider sees a shield made of hellfire laying nearby and grabs it, realizing that it must have been created by Blaze, who is fighting Zarathos' control.  Using the shield and his chain, Ghost Rider grabs Blaze and gives him the Penance Stare, which frees John from being the evil Ghost Rider and heals the wounds he had received.  Ghost Rider and Blaze wonder what Zarathos will attempt next, unaware that the demon is watching them and plotting his next move.

This mini-comic was the eleventh in a series packaged with Toy Biz's line of Ghost Rider action figures. This issue came with the Ghost Rider III figure.

There's really no place to fit this series into established continuity. It obviously takes place after "Siege of Darkness" and Ghost Rider (1990) # 50, but the relationships between Ghost Rider, Blaze, and Vengeance certainly don't fit the characters at the time.

If this follows the standard Marvel continuity (which is questionable, at best), then Zarathos was banished to another dimension at the conclusion of the "Siege of Darkness" crossover in Midnight Sons Unlimited (1993) # 4.

Blaze was wounded by Outcast in Ghost Rider Special Edition (1995) # 8, and he was saved from his wounds by Caretaker in Ghost Rider Special Edition (1995) # 9.

The Toy Biz mini-comic series ends with a battle between Ghost Riders, giving an extremely truncated version of what most fans really wanted to see in the main comics of this era.

As a whole, the Toy Biz comic series is only there to help support the action figures and give kids the barest of bones for story structure and plot.  As long as it explains the powers and broad stroke personality of the action figure its packaged with, it's done its job admirably.  That said, and as simplistic as the plot line is here, I think the 4-part story that was packaged with the second wave of figures was more successful than the first.  Sure, the first wave of comics had a more ambitious storyline, with the riots caused by DJ Zarathos and the Wacky Morning Crew, but this second arc (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) hit on something that most fans would have killed to see in the actual Ghost Rider comics.

Hanging over the series, especially around the time of "Road to Vengeance" and "Siege of Darkness", was the mystery of Ghost Rider's origin and the return of Zarathos.  What readers got out of those stories were some pretty disappointing resolutions, and I myself am stunned that the creators refused to produce what everyone really wanted.  Setting things up for John Blaze to become the evil Zarathos-possessed Ghost Rider again, and the inevitable showdown with the Dan Ketch Ghost Rider, was a perfectly logical and anticipated way to conclude everything that had been building in the series to that point.  Instead, we got "Siege of Darkness" and the Blood/Fallen nonsense, leaving that tease of a much better storyline to be played out in the pages of a toy tie-in series.  While the end product isn't spectacular, the promise of that Blaze/Ketch Ghost Rider face off is what makes this simple little Toy Biz pamphlet so interesting to me.  Chris Cooper does what he can to liven things up, but with only 6 pages to give both a satisfying Ghost Rider fight and conclude the story, he doesn't really get to strut his stuff much.

The artwork, though, is by an early Karl Kerschl and it's actually quite good for what it is.  I assume that the art was drawn at full comic size and then just shrunk down at the print stage, so it squashes details into a mess of lines at different points in the series.  Kerschl's clean linework is perfectly appropriate for the format, though, because nothing is muddled or unclear.  His Ghost Riders both look on-model, not just to the characters but to the toys they're emulating, and he gets to do a decidedly G-rated Ghost Rider transformation sequence on the first page.  No melting flesh or anything, but it still looks appropriately horrific for kids.

These mini-comics aren't particularly good, but they're definitely an interesting curio for the character at the end of his popularity peak.  Ultimately, though, they're for hardcore collectors only.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Supernaturals (1998) # 1

Cover Artist: Jim Balent
Published: December 1998
Original Price: $3.99

Title: untitled
Writers: Brian Pulido & Mark Andreyko
Artist: Ivan Reis
Inker: Joe Pimentel
Letterer: Comicraft
Colorist: Elizabeth Lewis & Dean White
Editors: Tim Tuhoy & Brad Gould
Editor-In-Chief (Chaos!): Brian Pulido
Editor-In-Chief (Marvel): Bob Harras

When two young boys, Daniel and Jericho Drumm, attempt to use voodoo to bring their mother back to life, they accidentally started the "Chaos! Event", which caused all of Earth's superhumans to disappear instantly.  Daniel Drumm also disappeared after the event, which still haunts his brother Jericho even 13 years later.  Jericho wakes up as the Halloween anniversary of the event is causing unexplained phenomena around the world, and despite his successful musical career Drumm realizes that only Doctor Strange can help him.  Meanwhile, at Stone Hinge, a young couple witness a powerful entity crossing over to Earth.

Elsewhere around the world, several young men and women, including Maria, Jack Russell, Isaac Christians, and BMX biker Johnny Blaze are watched by mysterious individuals.  Back in New York, Jericho Drumm transforms into Brother Voodoo and goes to the home of Dr. Strange, only to find it a wreck and its owner missing.  Drumm picks up the Eye of Agamatto and sees a vision of the people he will need to find in order to save the world from a repeat of the Chaos! Event.  The first of the five people is near him, a young woman named Felicia Hardy.  Meawhile, the others are all attacked by the watchers, which causes the targets to reveal their mystical natures.  Isaac Christians transforms into the hulking Gargoyle and destroys his attackers, which Christians did not want to happen.  During Blaze's X-Games competition, which Maria is also attending as a model, the creatures attack as well.  When zombie pirates attack the show, Maria transforms into Satana and Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider.  Finally, in Los Angeles, Jack Russell has become the Werewolf by Night, who is attacked by small demons that merge into a larger more powerful form.  Back in New York, Felica Hardy is sexually harassed by a co-worker, and when she tells him to "drop dead" he flies backward through the window to his death.  Brother Voodoo arrives in time to witness this, unaware that they are all being watched by the being from Stone Hinge, Jack O' Lantern.

The Supernaturals was a 4-issue mini-series released weekly in October of 1998.  The series was produced outside of Marvel editorial by Chaos! Comics, who were the publishers of comics like Evil Ernie and Lady Death.  This series exists outside of established Ghost Rider continuity and is considered an alternate reality.

Each issue of this mini-series came with a cardboard mask of one of the main characters stapled in the middle of the series.  A smaller number of issues came packaged with the "rare" Ghost Rider mask.

Chaos! Comics gets the opportunity to revamp Marvel's horror characters with this 4-issue weekly mini-series released just in time for Halloween.

In the late 1990s, Marvel was struggling both creatively and financially.  This led to the company farming out a lot of its properties and output to independent production companies, the most notable example being the "Heroes Reborn" event that gave titles like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four over to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to produce and release by way of Image Comics.  It happened again at the end of the decade when Joe Quesada's Event Comics was given the Marvel Knights imprint, which allowed them to revamp properties like Black Panther and Daredevil outside of Marvel's own editorial base.  A much smaller attempt to give creative control of Marvel properties to an outside comic company was this mini-series, The Supernaturals, which allowed Brian Pulido's Chaos! Comics (yes, the exclamation mark is in the name) the chance to revamp Marvel's horror characters.  Chaos! was the publisher of the insanely popular Lady Death series, which wasn't exactly popular for its writing as much as it was the character's breast measurements, but for better or worse they were one of the top contenders for quote/unquote horror comics in the late 90s.  So allowing Pulido the reins of the Supernaturals was probably an easy decision for Marvel, with the hopes that they'd at least make a quick buck off the series.

Whether or not this series was successful financially is a question I can't answer, I didn't pick it up when it was released nearly 20 years ago and I don't remember what its sales figures were like.  Creatively, though, this project is a mis-fire on just about every conceivable level, mainly due to the creative team's disastrous attempt to "update" the Marvel horror characters.  It's not enough to simply give the individual heroes a consistent origin story, now they all have to be "extreme, dude!" in that way that mocks popular fads of the time while trying to be as hyper serious as possible.  Jack Russell, the Werewolf by Night, is now a black belt martial artist that wants to be Bruce Lee; the Gargoyle is a kid who turns into a fire-breathing Hulk type of monster; and Brother Voodoo is a "gangsta rap" record producer.  The most egregious example of this has to be poor Johnny Blaze, though, who is immediately both obnoxious and ridiculous, and I think only the former was intentional.  I get that the "stunt motorcyclist" bit from Blaze's origin is outdated, but making him a teenage X-Games BMX biker saps away anything that might be inherently cool about the character.  This was 1998, and the X-Games were a big deal, but like with all of the other character "updates" it's extremely patronizing and some pretty awful shorthand that's stuck there in lieu of proper characterization.

Plot-wise, this story hinges on the "Chaos! Event" (there's that damn exclamation mark again!), which 13 years ago wiped all of the superheroes off the planet.  That's a fair plot device, and it allows the creators to make this an inherently darker world than the established Marvel Universe, but on the surface it really doesn't appear that much has changed.  Guess Marvel's heroes weren't really that needed all those years after all, huh?  Outside of the anniversary backdrop, though, this comic doesn't do much at all other than giving really brief introductions of each cast member.

The artwork is by a very young Ivan Reis, who is just at the start of his career.  While you can certainly see the promise in his work, and this guy is going to go on to be a pretty great artist about 10 years later in his career, here he's saddled with some of pretty terrible aspects of that era's comic zeitgeist.  For every awful character redesign, like Brother Voodoo and his knock-off Spawn costume/cape or the Gargoyle's tiny-legged Hulk form, you also get the totally anachronistic return of Johnny Blaze's original Ghost Rider outfit.  And now that I think about it, if he's a BMX biker, why in the world does he show up on a big fucking chopper and leather jumpsuit when he arrives as Ghost Rider?  Shouldn't he be on a flaming BMX bike with spiked knee and elbow pads?  Still, Reis is already a solid superhero comic artist by this point, he's just not reached his peak yet.

I'm really not much of a fan of this mini-series, and it's been so many years (over a decade at least) since I read it that I don't even remember what happens in later issues.  For a debut, though, this does nothing to make me care about the next three issues at all.

Grade: D

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ghost Rider Special Edition (1995) # 10

Cover Artist: Karl Kerschl
Published: 1995
Original Price: N/A

Title: "Reprise"
Writer: Chris Cooper
Artist: David Boller
Inker: Derek Fisher
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Jim Hoston
Editor: Glenn Herdling

From his dimensional prison, Zarathos watches John Blaze and states that Blaze had once been corrupted by a small portion of the demon's essence, which caused him to transform into a "dark version of Ghost Rider".  Now, Zarathos plans on testing Blaze again, which will gain the demon power to conquer the world.

On a bridge leaving New York City, Blaze sees a demon made of hellfire terrorizing the motorists trapped in a traffic jam.  Blaze hears a voice in his head telling him that he'll need to become the Ghost Rider again to defeat the demon, but John tries to ignore it.  However, when he finds that his hellfire shotgun only makes the demon stronger, Blaze gives in and becomes the "original" Ghost Rider once more.  He defeats the demon by absorbing its hellfire into his body, which places Blaze under Zarathos' control.

This mini-comic was the tenth in a series packaged with Toy Biz's line of Ghost Rider action figures. This issue came with the Original Ghost Rider figure.

There's really no place to fit this series into established continuity. It obviously takes place after "Siege of Darkness" and Ghost Rider (1990) # 50, but the relationships between Ghost Rider, Blaze, and Vengeance certainly don't fit the characters at the time.

If this follows the standard Marvel continuity (which is questionable, at best), then Zarathos was banished to another dimension at the conclusion of the "Siege of Darkness" crossover in Midnight Sons Unlimited (1993) # 4.

Johnny Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider again, which is a move I'm surprised the regular comics hadn't tried yet by this point.

There's not a lot to say about this comic, since it's so short and it has to make its point so quickly by hammering out a way to make Blaze the original Ghost Rider again.  Zarathos makes some interesting comments on how Johnny was once corrupted by a "fraction of my essence" and became a "dark version" of Ghost Rider, which is certainly one way of addressing the continuity quagmire revolving around the whole Zarathos/Medallion of Power stuff from around this time.  It's as simplistic and as dumb-downed as it can get, which is appropriate for a toy tie-in comic, so you can't fault it there.  The story doesn't even attempt to give any kind of explanation for how Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider again, he just sort of decides to do it after hearing a voice in his head, but again: limited page space and simplistic as possible.  This series is almost review proof at this point.

The artwork is by David Bollers, who had drawn the last couple of these along with Karl Kerschl (who is still here on the cover duty), and it's perfectly serviceable for what it is.  He does a good job with Zarathos, making him menacing on the opening page, and his original Ghost Rider is appropriately old school.  His "hellfire demon" looks more like its made from electricity, but we'll say that's a coloring mistake and be generous.

I'll have a bit more to say about this story when I review the last chapter, because this is the same as before: interesting for collectors, but not worth tracking down if you just want to read it.

Grade: C