Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ghost Rider (1973) # 15

Cover Artist: Sal Buscema
Published: Dec. 1975
Original Price: $0.25
Title: "Vengeance On the Ventura Freeway!"
Writer: Tony Isabella
Artist: Bob Brown
Inker: Don Heck
Letterer: Karen Mantlo
Colorist: Michele Brand
Editor: Marv Wolfman
While Johnny - as the Ghost Rider - attempts to land a dangerous stunt with Katy Milner in his arms, Karen Page is shooting at the pair with a laser gun while under the control of the Orb. One of Karen's shots hits Katy in the shoulder, while the other hits the gas tank of the Stuntmaster cycle that Blaze is riding. Johnny manages to ride the bike down a ladder, but then crashes into a clothes rack, which cushions them. When the Ghost Rider recovers, he notices that the Orb is a bit too solid to be a real ghost, and watches as the villain grabs the enthralled Karen and jumps on his bike with her. Realizing that the orb pretended to be a ghost to get to Karen - to cash in on the million dollar bounty that's been placed on her head - Johnny blasts a wall of fire between himself and his enemy. A stunt-rider himself, the Orb easily leaps his bike over the flame-wall and blasts Blaze with his laser gun, incapacitating him long enough to make his escape. By the time he's recovered, Johnny is surrounded by the show's crew, including the Stuntmaster and director Coot Collier. Coot angrily blames Blaze for Karen's kidnapping, causing Johnny to knock him aside and pursue the Orb on his own. Jumping on his own skull-cycle, Johnny rides after his foe. When the Stuntmaster helps Collier to his feet, the director comments that he deserved the shot, and that they need to go help Blaze rescue Karen. In quick succession, the Orb, the Ghost Rider, and a car carrying the Stuntmaster and the gun-toting Collier crash through the gates of Delazny Studios and head toward the freeway.
Meanwhile, studio accountant Cosgrove is pouring through the Stuntmaster show's records for dirt on Collier. He finds that there's an employee on the show that has no records, no past employment, union record, or even a record of work time and payment. Not understanding why this person hasn't complained about not being paid, Cosgrove decides that Collier's hiding something and that he's going to find out exactly what it is.
The frantic chase between the Orb and the Ghost Rider makes its way onto the crowded Ventura Freeway, where the villain is firing his laser wildly into traffic. Johnny attempts to blast the villain with his flame, but the Orb merely laughs and tells him that he's wearing an asbestos-fibered costume as protection. However, the fire serves to break the trance placed on Karen, who begins to fight back against the villain. Despite his desire to cash in on her bounty, the Orb decides in favor of self-preservation and tosses Karen off his bike. She's barely caught by Johnny, who stops along the side of the freeway to let her off. He then again races toward the Orb, who uses his laser pistol to cause a major traffic accident on the highway. Johnny is forced to jump the wreckage, but is a sitting duck for a shot from the villain's gun. However, he sees the gun shot out of the Orb's hands, and looks back in surprise to find Coot giving him a thumbs up with his rifle in hand. The Ghost Rider rides up beside the Orb and leaps off his bike, tackling his enemy to the side of the freeway. Blaze begins to pound away at the Orb's head, shattering his helmet, and doesn't even notice that he has transformed back into his normal self now that the danger to him has passed. He continues to beat on the Orb until Karen arrives with Coot and the Stuntmaster and yells for Johnny to stop. Blaze counters that the Orb tried to kill his stepfather and will keep trying to kill him if he doesn't take him out once and for all. Johnny then turns to find his "friend" that helped him beat back Satan approaching. The "friend" tells Johnny that he will soon have an opportunity to direct his rage at those he should truly be angered at, and he should not take his frustrations out on a defeated foe. Blaze thanks the man and tells him that he's not going to waste time feeling sorry for himself, no matter how lousy he feels for what he's done.
Elsewhere, at a local hospital, Richard and Wendy Pini arrive to check in on the injured Katy Milner. The doctor tells them that Katy won't respond to any medical treatment at all, but is interrupted by a nurse coming out Milner's room. The doctor and the Pinis rush into the room and discover Katy possessed by demons who call themselves the Possessors.
Ghost Rider appears next in The Champions (1975) # 3.
The million-dollar bounty on Karen Page was first mentioned in Ghost Rider (1973) # 13, when the Trapster attempted to kidnap her. Karen is the employee that Cosgrove discovers has no records at the studio - because they were stolen by the Stuntmaster, as revealed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 18.
The mysterious "friend" (who was originally intended to be Jesus Christ), first appeared in Ghost Rider (1973) # 9. He is actually a guise of Satan himself, as revealed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 19.
The Orb returns in Ghost Rider (1973) # 28.
This issue was reprinted in the Essential Ghost Rider vol. 1 trade paperback.
Our look at the evolution of the Orb continues with the conclusion to the villain's return engagement against the Ghost Rider, and the issue sure doesn't disappoint. While the reveal that the Orb wasn't a ghostly apparition returned from the grave after all was a bit of a disappointment, especially when the idea fit so neatly within the constraints of the title, I do have to admire the bit of bait-and-switch that Tony Isabella played on our expectations. Because the idea of an old villain returned as a ghost DOES fit so neatly within the Ghost Rider series, we fully expect things to be taken at face value. That the Orb was only using the guise of a ghost in an attempt to cash in the Karen Page million-dollar bounty isn't a cop-out at all, but a nice play on what the readers probably expected from a book with heavy supernatural overtones.
Of course, because the Orb is revealed as a still-breathing flesh-and-blood villain, we're given a great obligatory action sequence that shows up as a frantic chase across the Ventura Freeway during rush hour traffic. The chase is thrilling, and it goes to show that the "superheroization" of the Ghost Rider CAN work under the circumstances. There are a few silly parts to the script, mainly the idea that the Orb was wearing an asbestos-lined outfit to deflect Blaze's fire blasts...while it wouldn't be discovered that the material was dangerous for some years after this issue's publication, it makes one wonder if perhaps the Orb would have died of cancer had he not been killed in the late 80's by the Plant-Man.
While Karen Page is relegated to the damsel-in-distress role previously filled by Roxanne Simpson, another of Isabella's supporting characters gets his time to shine. With this issue, I truly became endeared to Coot Collier, whose ruminations on his spaghetti-western acting stint and marksmanship gave him some great dialogue and an excellent scene where his rambling pays off by saving Blaze's hide from the Orb. This issue also gives us a return of "the friend", or - as Isabella intended at the time - Jesus Christ. Again he steps in to save Johnny, this time from himself instead of Satan, but it's hard not to be influenced by the editorially-forced plot change that's coming a few issues down the road. While some say that the inclusion of the "friend" was goofy, I admire Isabella's willingness to explore the opposite number of Satan and his demonic powers that influenced the book so heavily through the first two years. I'm not religious, but it DOES make sense to acknowledge God in such a way that doesn't force the Christian belief on the readers.
We're also treated to a guest-artist, with Bob Brown taking over for George Tuska. While I wasn't a fan of some of Brown's work on Avengers around this time, he knocked my socks off with this issue. Brown died quite a few years ago, and seeing his work in this issue makes it an even greater loss because its obvious that he was definitely growing into a dynamic artist. One look at his double-page spread of the Ventura Freeway chase is evidence of the talent the man had.
The new superhero tone has definitely helped the book get back on its feet, and the Orb two-parter is one of my favorite stories from the first 25 issues.
Grade: A-