Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ghost Rider (2006) # 23

Cover Artist: Marko Djurdjevic
Published: July 2008
Original Price: $2.99

Title: "Hell-Bent & Heaven-Bound", Part 4
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Roland Boschi
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Dan Brown
Editor: Aubrey Sitterson
Executive Editor: Axel Alonso
Editor In Chief: Joe Quesada

As he rides toward a crossroads in the middle of New Beulah with the boy Lucas at his back, Johnny Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider just as a three-way car wreck happens ahead of him - a wreck between the cycle nurses of Zadkiel, a police car driven by the cannibal Wojciehowicz with Deputy Kowalski captive in the backseat, and a passenger bus containing the innocent nurse Naomi that had worked unaware for Zadkiel's minions. As the crash happens, Blaze rides his motorcycle straight through the middle of the bus - but emerges out the other side sans Lucas, who fell into the bus onto a seat next to Naomi. Recognizing Naomi as one of the nurses from the hospital where he'd been held prisoner, Lucas runs away without listening to Naomi saying she'd quit that horrible place. When he runs into a nearby alley, Lucas is confronted by a mysterious man who has come to talk with the boy about his future.
In the aftermath of the wreck, the Head Nurse sees Ghost Rider walking toward her, burning her remaining girls with hellfire as he approaches. He binds the Head Nurse with his chain and asks what other surprises Zadkiel has waiting for him in the town. As if on cue, the cannibal Wojciehowicz crawls out of the wreckage with the bound and gagged Kowalski. Blaze tells them to wait and he'll come back to them in a minute, then turns his attention back to the Head Nurse and asks her where Lucas is. Reaching into the wrecked police car, Lucas takes a gun and holds it to his head. Blaze begs him not to do it, but Lucas tells him that he can't beat Zadkiel and that they'll be safer in Hell - then he pulls the trigger, killing himself to escape the angels. When Blaze lifts up the Head Nurse and demands answers from her, she begins to crumble into dust, her master having called her home. Blaze, enraged by what's happened, turns to the cannibal and starts to drag him away by his chain. Deputy Kowalski attempts to stop Blaze, saying that Wojciehowicz cut off his hand and tried to eat him - he's a cannibal that's the key to breaking the curse of Highway 18. Kowalski then stabs Blaze's arm with a knife, making the Ghost Rider even more furious. Sensing the sin on the Deputy's soul, Blaze gives Kowalski the Penance Stare and then tosses him to the side. Later, Blaze travels down the haunted Highway 18 with Wojciehowicz dragging behind him; as the ghosts tear the cannibal apart, the curse that binds them to the road fades and soon their souls will finally be free.
The next morning, Blaze rides out of New Beulah past the gas station he'd stopped at on the way into the town. Inside the store, the owner who first told Blaze about the boy Lucas talks with the mysterious man who has been acting as Zadkiel's lieutenant. When the old man asks what he should do if Blaze comes back for him, the biker tells him to call him if it will make him feel better - his name is Danny Ketch, and he knows a thing or two about dealing with the Ghost Rider.
Blaze discovered that the Ghost Rider curse was given to him by the angel Zadkiel in Ghost Rider (2006) # 18. He has been searching for a way to get to Heaven since Ghost Rider (2006) # 20.
Danny Ketch made his first appearance in Ghost Rider (1990) # 1  and was revealed to be Johnny Blaze's younger brother in Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance (1992) # 16. Danny hasn't been seen since Peter Parker: Spider-Man (1990) # 93, where he re-merged with Noble Kale to become Ghost Rider once again.  The events that led to Danny becoming an agent for Zadkiel are told in Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch (2008) # 1-5.
Deputy Kowalski returns in Ghost Rider (2006) # 30.
This issue is reprinted in the Ghost Rider: Hell-Bent & Heaven-Bound trade paperback and the Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron Omnibus.
Okay, I can honestly say that I didn't see that ending coming AT ALL.
For years now, Ghost Rider fans have been clamoring for the return of Danny Ketch, the star of the 1990s Ghost Rider series that ended back in 1998. When Johnny Blaze took up the flaming skull once again, things admittedly looked bleak for Dan ever making a comeback - writers didn't seem interested in bringing up his time as Ghost Rider, let alone using him in their stories. But for a whole generation of readers, Danny WAS Ghost Rider, and the requests to see him return had been flooding in since the start of this newest series.
And along comes writer Jason Aaron, who - just when it looks like Dan would never make a return appearance - brings the character back in one hell of a twist ending to his first storyarc. It was an incredibly smart move, giving the readers what they wanted just when they thought it would never happen. With that final page, Aaron and the editors validated an entire decade's worth of the character's history, and I couldn't be happier to finally see it happen.
Outside of Ketch's return, Aaron also gives us the conclusion to "Hell-Bent & Heaven-Bound" with all of the characters and plots quite literally crashing into one another for a fiery resolution. The cycle nurses, Lucas, the cannibal ghosts, Deputy Kowalski, and even poor Naomi from the first chapter get closing sequences for their character and plot arcs with everything tying up neatly into one bad-ass package. Despite being the arguable "winner" of the story, Blaze is denied everything he'd been trying to achieve throughout the story, with Lucas committing suicide and the Head Nurse disintegrating in his hands. This turns into a bad situation for Kowalski, who is the only one left to feel the wrath of the Ghost Rider that shows that Johnny Blaze can be just as vengeful a spirit as any supernatural entity. Unfortunately, its Deputy Kowalski that provides the one nagging negative point to this issue; when he's given the Penance Stare, I couldn't help but think that Johnny had just punished an innocent man. Of course he wasn't innocent, as Aaron had given a few subtle hints in earlier issues that Kowalski had been responsible for some bad things in his career as a city cop, but I think it was perhaps handled too subtly without enough set-up for the Penance Stare pay-off. But with all the pieces falling into place, its obvious to the reader that Zadkiel has manipulated every aspect of this confrontation, leaving Johnny with the very appropriate feeling that he's been "played for a sucker". He really has no idea, does he?
Roland Boschi finishes up the arc with his last issue on artistic duties, and I'm so sad to see him leave the book. His work on this arc has been nothing short of phenomenal, providing some vicious examples of violence and horror along the way. These are evil, ugly people committing evil, ugly acts of murder and torture, and Boschi revels in the destruction in every single panel. Witness the first two pages of this issue that shows Blaze transforming into Ghost Rider in a series of transitional panels, it looks breathtaking as the flames overtake Johnny and burn away his humanity. His work is stylized enough to give the art a uniqueness that sets it apart from other books, yet doesn't go so far that it has to be an acquired taste.
Reading this arc puts a huge smile on my face, and I'd go so far as to say its probably one of the best Ghost Rider stories ever told. THIS is how the Spirit of Vengeance should be, thank god someone finally got it right. Absolutely recommended, this arc is a "must-read" for all Flamehead fans.
Grade: A+