|Cover Artist: Arthur Suydam|
Original Price: $2.99
Title: Trials & Tribulations, Part 3: "Of Flesh and Fire"
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Tony Moore
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Assistant Editor: Sebastian Girner
Editor: Axel Alonso
Editor In Chief: Joe Quesada
In a tiny costal town, Johnny Blaze stands in front of a monastery, where he's been staying for the last two weeks. An elderly monk talks with "Brother Blaze" and tells Johnny that he is looking for something to believe in, a sign that not all is lost. The monk tells him to keep waiting, the sign will eventually come. Johnny's response is cut short by the sight of another monk with a giant snake slithering from his mouth. Blaze tells his monk friend to get everyone inside and lock the doors. He says that this isn't a sign from God, "this is your sign that God is dead".
In the town, the people are being twisted and transformed into horrible creatures while a group of monstrous demons ride through on motorcycles. Blaze picks up a shovel and knocks one of them off their bike. The demon tells Blaze that his mistress will take his flesh like she did the others and it will do him no good to fight back, as his mistress has taken away his pain centers. In reply, Blaze breaks the demon's leg at the knee. Johnny starts stomping on the demon, but is stopped when he's caught by a chain and dragged behind a bike to the feet of the demons' "mistress". She is called the Skin-Bender, who can reshape flesh with a touch, and she wants Blaze's skin to wear as pantyhose. When she touches Johnny's face, though, her fingers catches fire and burns down to the bone. For the first time someone's skin has rejected her, because he has a fire inside him. While Blaze fights off the demon bikers, the Skin-Bender demands to know who changed him, going so far as to threaten an infant taken from a mother's arms. She demands him to show her his true face, she wants to see the fire that burns inside him. Blaze finally gives in and triggers the transformation into the Ghost Rider, and as his skin melts off the Skin-Bender falls to her knees and begins to cry. She's fallen in love with the Ghost Rider and begs him to stay with her and reshape the world at her side. The Ghost Rider says one word, "burn", and the sky immediately begins to rain balls of hellfire onto the town. The demons are destroyed, and the Skin-Bender laughs as she too burns, embraced by his fire.
A few moments later, Sister Sara arrives at the burning town and rides through until she finds the Ghost Rider, who has crushed the Skin-Bender into a ball of bone and flesh and then tosses her into the ocean. Sara tries to talk to Blaze, but quickly realizes that the Spirit of Vengeance is in control. She begs Blaze to listen to her, asking him to remember his family. When she asks him where his family is, the Ghost Rider answers "Heaven. They're in Heaven". He pauses, then turns to Sara and says "Let's go."
Blaze, human once more, and Sara ride their bikes out of town while the elder monk watches, pleased that Johnny has found the sign he was looking for. Later, a fisherman on a boat has been telling the story of what happened to his town and shows off his twisted arm. The fishermen pull up their nets and are attacked by freakishly mutated sea creatures while the town survivor is confronted by a gruesomely reformed Skin-Bender, who orders him to come give his mistress a hug.
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.
Zadkiel won the war for Heaven at the end of "Last Stand of the Spirits of Vengeance" in Ghost Rider (2006) # 32.
For the first time in many issues, Blaze was no longer in control of the Ghost Rider. The Spirit of Vengeance Zarathos was last in control at the end of "Revelations" in Ghost Rider (2006) # 19.
This is the final issue of this volume of Ghost Rider, but Jason Aaron's run continues in Ghost Riders: Heaven's On Fire (2009) # 1. The character was given another ongoing series in 2011 starting with Ghost Rider (2011) # 0.1, but that series was cancelled with Ghost Rider (2011) # 9.
This issue is reprinted in the Ghost Rider: Trials and Tribulations trade paperback and the Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron Omnibus.
With this issue the current volume of Ghost Rider comes to a close, ending not with a bang but with a whimper. While its true that Jason Aaron has undoubtedly reinvigorated the title since coming on board as writer and turned the book into a critical success, sales on the title have been slipping at a steady rate. More than likely, the book was headed toward cancellation anyway, possibly even before Aaron was able to wrap up his run on the book. Marvel produces these comics to make money, that can't be denied as their number one goal as a company, so I can't blame them for ending this series in favor of giving Aaron a separate mini-series to close out his run. I don't think its fair to the readers who supported this series that they're forced to pay a dollar more an issue to read the end of the story (as the "Heaven's On Fire" mini-series boosts the title's price from 2.99 to 3.99 an issue), but perhaps it will bring in new readers who didn't want to jump on board halfway through a series.
Regardless, this issue brings to a close the "Trials & Tribulations" 3-parter with a focus on Johnny Blaze, the book's titular star who's been missing since issue # 32. Like with last issue's Danny Ketch story, this is a done-in-one story that does little to advance the overall story-arc but still provides a nice little one-shot Ghost Rider tale. This one, though, isn't quite as endearing as last issue's Highwayman story. My problem with this story, I think, is the Skin-Bender herself. Unlike with the Highwayman, we get no answers to where this creature comes from or what she wants (other than "skin", of course) - though, to be fair, Aaron tells us on the first page that nobody knows how or why these events happened. I don't know, it's certainly an interesting idea for a villain, maybe one issue just wasn't enough space to really sell me on the concept.
Tony Moore, however, continues to excel on the artistic front, and I'm saddened that this is to be his final issue. While I certainly enjoyed both Roland Boschi and Tan Eng Huat, I think Moore came the closest to fully illustrating the brutality and sheer horror of Aaron's scripts. As with his two previous issues, Moore produces one defining moment here with the Ghost Rider's response to the Skin-Bender's pleas to love her. He pauses, then looks down and says one word: "burn". Showing the Rider from the Skin-Bender's perspective, looking down at the reader from above, really illustrates how much this creature towers above not just regular people but also other "supernatural" entities. It's powerful, and its a great sequence by both Aaron and Moore.
At this point Marvel haven't released any information on what will happen to this series once "Heaven's On Fire" concludes, so this may very well be the last issue of Ghost Rider's ongoing series for some time. If the series does continue on, I hope they can find someone up to the challenge of following Jason Aaron's run. He threw down the gauntlet, folks, and its going to take an incredible writer to pick things up from here.