Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Retconning Ghost Rider's Origin (Again)

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from some recently released comics: Thanos # 16, Spirits of Vengeance # 5, and Doctor Strange: Damnation # 1.  If you haven't read them yet and don't want spoilers, please don't read this article.  There are NO spoilers for Damnation # 2, though, which was released today (go buy it, it's quite good).

Ghost Rider is a character with an origin problem, and that's a shame because it all started out pretty simple.  You know the story from the movies: Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the Devil to save his father figure's life but gets cheated, resulting in him becoming the Ghost Rider.  For the longest time, it was theorized that the Ghost Rider was simply the darkest parts of Blaze brought to the fore, but in the early 1980s it was revealed that the entity was an ancient demon named Zarathos that had been bound to Johnny's soul by Mephisto.  The "Satan" from the early issues, the one with which Johnny made his deal, became Mephisto as well (don't even get me started on the nonsensical cosmology of the Marvel Universe's Hell and its various Devils, we'll be here all day). 

The 1990s brought in a new Ghost Rider, who was emphatically NOT Zarathos.  Instead he was part of a line of mystical warriors called the Spirits of Vengeance, who fought Zarathos eons ago and sacrificed themselves to stop him.  The Ghost Rider was one of those Spirits and found himself bound to the body of Danny Ketch, inexplicably the long-lost brother of Johnny Blaze.  A writer change brought forth even more changes to the origin, this time giving the Ketch Ghost Rider a name and backstory all his own.  Noble Kale was a 17th century lad whose father was in league with Mephisto; the elder Kale sold his son to the Devil and had him transformed into "the first" Ghost Rider.  An angel stepped in, gave Noble a semi-permanent amnesiac state, and Mephisto cursed him to possess the bodies of his descendants.  Naturally, Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch were both descendants of the Kale family, but Blaze was never possessed by Noble due to whole Zarathos thing. 

The Noble Kale Ghost Rider disappeared at the end of the 1990s, and when the character returned in the early 2000s it was once again Johnny Blaze as the spirit's host.  It was left really vague which "demon" was possessing Johnny this time around, even with the art clearly drawing him with the same visual look and outfit as the Ketch Rider.  In a run bridging two writers, it was revealed that the Spirit of Vengeance wasn't a being from Hell at all but was instead an angelic entity created by God to punish the wicked.  A whole slew of Ghost Riders were introduced around this time, one from every region on the planet, each with a lineage stretching back to Biblical times.  The story made it clear that all of the other origins for the character were lies and misdirections meant to keep the involvement of Heaven in the dark, and while things weren't absolutely coherent it at least gave the character a solid origin to work with going forward.  Nearly all of the international Ghost Riders were killed and only a few were left in circulation, specifically both Blaze and Ketch.

Subsequent writers only paid lip service to the Heavenly Spirit of Vengeance concept, with it mentioned in passing a few times whenever the character would make an appearance.  A change to a new character as the Rider's host, a girl named Alejandra, did at least confirm that Zarathos was again the possessing "demon" and had been since Blaze had taken back the mantle in 2001.  Still, it seemed like most writers were just happy to ignore the new origin without really addressing it at all.  When Robbie Reyes came around as the "all-new" Ghost Rider, he had a completely different origin involving the spirit of a satanist serial killer haunting a muscle car (though even that's been thrown into question after Marvel Legacy, where Reyes is shown possessing the Penance Stare).

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In the last month or two, though, the character's appearances in various books seems to have outright retconned the Heaven origin out of existence completely.  For example, let's break down the first to be released, last month's Spirits of Vengeance (2017) # 5.  It was written by Victor Gischler and drawn by David Baldeon and was the conclusion to the "War at the Gates of Hell" story-arc, where the Ghost Rider is able to enter a demilitarized zone  between Heaven and Hell in order to stop an archangel from being assassinated by bullets made from Judas' silver coins.

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When Blade questions how Ghost Rider was able to enter the zone at all, what with him being a demon, Hellstrom gives a convoluted explanation as to how that was possible.  According to him, the Ghost Rider being a "demon" is a misconception and that it technically doesn't originate from Hell.  However, for the Rider to be able to enter the Covenant at all, it couldn't have come from Heaven either, following the rules that the comic set up for the storyline.  That alone seems to disavow the Heaven origin, and with the statement that "the Spirit of Zarathos is the ultimate arbiter of vengeance" seems to be saying that only that specific entity is the Spirit of Vengeance and is outside of matters of Heaven and Hell.  Interestingly (or frustratingly), two comics that have been released in the month since Spirits of Vengeance ended may have invalidated the entire end to that mini-series.

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Thanos, by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw, has introduced a future Cosmic Ghost Rider that was revealed to be an extremely insane Frank Castle.  The most recent issue, Thanos # 16, gave the origin story for the Castle Ghost Rider, involving the final war against Thanos that ended with the Punisher's death under a collapsed building.  In his final moments, he thought "I would give anything to punish that purple sonofabitch"; and when he died, that landed him in front of the throne of Mephisto.  And so, Frank Castle sold his soul to Mephisto to become the Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance for a dead Earth.  This, of course, goes back to the original Johnny Blaze origin and the "Deal with the Devil" status quo that places the Ghost Rider firmly as a demon from Hell.  Right?  I mean, Mephisto hasn't been the handler for the Spirit of Vengeance for a few decades now, but this comic seems to state otherwise.  I could maybe just chalk this up to being the results of some future storyline readers aren't aware of, since the Thanos series obviously takes place in an alternate future timeline. 

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Than came Doctor Strange: Damnation # 1, which seems to double down on the Mephisto/Ghost Rider origin connections.  The premise of the Damnation event is that Doctor Strange resurrects the recently destroyed Las Vegas, including all of its dead citizens, and unwittingly opens it up as a portal to Hell.  Mephisto is lording over the city, claiming it as his domain, and overwhelms the city with sin and vice; the assembled Avengers fare no better than the regular citizens, either, as they become engulfed in hellfire.  They stand a few moments later transformed into...Ghost Riders?  This isn't just a visual coincidence, they're named as such in the next issue of Doctor Strange that serves as a tie-in to the event.  So, does that mean Mephisto is able to create Ghost Riders on a whim these days?  If the Spirit (or Spirits, plural) of Vengeance does originate from Hell, how does that jive with the end of Gischler's mini-series that hinged on the idea of the Ghost Rider NOT being a demon? 

Look, I know by now that trying to make sense of Ghost Rider's origin story is a lot like tilting at windmills by this point.  With all of this recent stuff, though, I'm afraid the character is again getting bogged down in contradictions that make Hawkman's origin look as simple as Batman's.  I'm now real curious to see where Damnation takes the idea of all these Ghost Riders, and I'm REALLY looking forward to how Jason Aaron is going to handle Robbie Reyes when he adds him to the Avengers this summer.  Until then, I think I'd give ANYTHING to have a solid, definitive origin for Ghost Rider, both as a character and a story engine.