Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost Riding Into the Sunset, Part 4: "The Last Temptation"

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 look back on the various "final issues" of the series and how Marvel managed, more often than not, to royally fuck things up.

Oh Ghostie, you have NO IDEA...

So, we've finally made our way to the 1990s, which saw the character reach the heights of his popularity at the start of the decade and an abysmal drop toward cancellation at the end.  It's undeniable that when Ghost Rider launched in 1990 it was one of the biggest hits of the decade, propelling the series and character into the upper-echelons of Marvel's stable.  Ghost Rider was suddenly being spun out into a whole family of titles and crossing over with the likes of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and Jim Lee's X-Men.  Howard Mackie and his artist collaborators (most notably Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira) were able to tap into something truly special with Danny Ketch, and it translated into Ghost Rider being one of the most popular characters around.  Naturally, that didn't last forever, and the crash was pretty severe.

In the mid-1990s the comics industry nearly collapsed under its own weight, with the speculator boom of the early part of the decade drying up and leaving Marvel Comics nearly bankrupt.  While some of Marvel's core characters, like X-Men and Spider-Man, were able to weather the turbulent times, other properties weren't so lucky.  Characters like the Punisher and Ghost Rider, who only a few years before had been major money makers, weren't selling like they used to, and it inevitably doomed their titles.  Howard Mackie left the series in 1996 and the writing chores fell into the hands of Ivan Velez, who kept the series going while introducing his own ideas and direction for the character.  Even more important, I think, was the change in the book's editor at the time.  Bobbie Chase had been the book's editor since the first issue, and during the editorial shake-ups at Marvel around this time (chaos would be the appropriate term, I think) the book was placed under the stewardship of James Felder.  From some accounts I've read, it was Felder that ultimately drove Mackie away from the series, though not maliciously.  They just didn't agree on where the series should go, so Mackie stepped away from his creation.  Velez kept the series afloat with some perfectly fine storytelling, supported by continuing artist Salvador Larroca.  It was during this time, however, that some really questionable decisions were made to try and drum up interest in the book.

Oh, the humanity!
Suddenly, Ghost Rider had a new costume and a new motorcycle and a new logo and even a new origin story!  Instead of the dark, menacing artwork that had made the series so popular, the artistic chores were given to the faux-manga stylings of Pop Mhan.  Ghost Rider was clothed in a red and yellow jumpsuit with gigantic zippers and tiny yellow chains, generating one of the most garish eyesores in comic costume history.  Long time readers were being driven out of town with pitchforks by this point, and it was clear that the creators and editor didn't know what to do to save the title while sales were tanking lower and lower each month.

Editor Tom Brevoort took over with issue # 85 and immediately went about trying to right the ship before it capsized.  Within a few months, everything about the series had changed yet again, but this time it was in an attempt to recapture what had made the series so popular at its beginning.  The black leather and spiked outfit returned along with the artistic team of Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira, which saved the book artistically.  The one holdout from the Felder administration was writer Ivan Velez, who Brevoort retained to take the book in a new direction.  That led to "The Last Temptation", an ambitious storyline that would wrap up Velez's outstanding plot threads, definitively tell Ghost Rider's origin, and catapult the series into a new and interesting status quo.  The storyline did all of those things and did them rather well, in my opinion, it was just a case of "too little, too late".

Hail to the King, baby!
All of that preamble has finally set the stage for the point of this freaking article, namely the final issue of the 1990s Ghost Rider series and the circumstances surrounding its publication.  Remember back in Part 1 of this article series, where I talked about how the final issue of the 1967 Carter Slade series went unpublished and the series ended on a cliffhanger?  And then how that lost final issue was finally published years later?  Well 1998 saw a repeat of those events, and it mired the character in a clusterfuck of continuity that almost doomed him from ever making a return.  In fact, when the character DID finally return years later, it was Johnny Blaze and not Danny Ketch, who was deemed a "toxic character" at Marvel.

So what happened?  Due to Marvel's dire financial state, they weren't allowed to publish any comics that might not make back the money it cost to make them.  Ghost Rider, due to the pathetic sales figures it had even after Brevoort's attempt at resuscitation, was slotted for cancellation with issue # 94.  It wasn't a big surprise, the book had been headed toward cancellation for months, and  it at least allowed Ivan Velez to finish up "The Last Temptation" and pen a true "final issue" that would give Ghost Rider a new status quo for other writers to run with in the future.  So "The Last Temptation" ended in issue # 93 with a big shock: Ghost Rider killed Blackheart and became the ruler of Hell, while Danny Ketch was left dying in Cypress Hills Cemetery!   The next issue blurb at the end of # 93 sums up what was coming in the book's final issue:

But then, over the Christmas holiday break, something tragic happened.  While Tom Brevoort was off for the holidays, someone in the financial department flagged Ghost Rider # 94 as a potential loss of revenue and spiked it, even though the issue was written and drawn, with inks halfway finished.  By the time Brevoort returned to the office after New Years, the decision was final and there was nothing he could do to get the comic published.  Ghost Rider was left with a cliffhanger as the series finale, but it wasn't the last we'd see of the character that year.  There was a guest-appearance in the (sadly doomed) Werewolf by Night series, which made use of Ghost Rider as Hell's ruler and was set between the events of issues 93 and 94.  So as it stood, Ghost Rider was left as the King of Hell and Danny Ketch was seemingly dead.  Then came Ralph Macchio, Howard Mackie, and Spider-Man...

Retcons, sweet mercy the retcons!
With the series dead in the water and the character lost in cliffhanger cancellation limbo, editor Macchio approached Mackie in his capacity as the writer of the ongoing Peter Parker: Spider-Man series and requested he use Ghost Rider as a guest-star.  Specifically, he wanted Mackie to bring back HIS version of Ghost Rider, the one he had created without all of the baggage and backstory that Velez had added to him in the past several years.  Mackie agreed, though he's stated many times that it was not out of any disrespect toward Velez or his work on the character, he'd in fact not even read his successor's Ghost Rider run.  Still, suddenly Ghost Rider was back on Earth saying that everything about his origin as Noble Kale as his time in Hell was lies and manipulations.  He met up with a very-much-alive Danny Ketch, the two merged once again, and Ghost Rider rode away with his circa 1995 status quo back in effect.

Unfortunately, this last-ditch attempt to salvage the character didn't work, and the Danny Ketch Ghost Rider wasn't seen again until 2008, a decade later.  Except...remember how I said Ghost Rider # 94 was fully written and drawn before the plug was pulled on it?  Ghost Rider fans remembered, and over the years they practically beat Marvel over the head with their demands for that issue to be published.  Velez's script for # 94, titled "Acabado", was leaked online and published in its entirety, and following that Javier Saltares posted several of his finished art pages for the issue.  Finally, in the 2006 run-up to the Ghost Rider movie release, Marvel was searching for as much Ghost Rider material as they could find to push out.  In a move no one saw coming, Ghost Rider # 94 was finally published under the title "Ghost Rider Finale", and closure was finally given to the 1990s incarnation of the character.  Of course, it didn't jive at all with what had been done by Macchio and Mackie in that issue of Spider-Man, but it ultimately doesn't matter.  When Ketch finally did reappear in continuity, it was all a moot point.  Still, just having that final issue in our hands validated a lot of the dedication we fans have for the character, and it was a small victory that felt really fucking great.

The last ride of Noble Kale, from "Finale"

Next time, we'll look at some of the ancillary titles from the 1990s, like Ghost Rider 2099 and Blaze, and how they handled things when the cancellation guillotine came down. 

Tom Brevoort's intro text from "Finale"