Hell Fires Burning
It is not at all hard to visualize Marvel’s Ghost Rider, a character who has more or less enjoyed the same form since its introduction in 1971. The character is flaming skulls and big-act choppers and chains that go on for miles. Leather biker gear that wears more like armor and metal spikes projecting from shoulder epaulets, and tires on fire on a bike that grows as pursuit grows more dogged.
With the sheer visual pleasure of the character, there seems little bad faith in acknowledging that the characterization itself comes as something of an afterthought. Johnny Blaze, circa 1971, was a stunt rider with a penchant for getting duped. To spare his mentor, Crash Simpson, eternal suffering, Blaze agreed to a faustian bargain with a higher order demon. Blaze would become the Ghost Rider, the true Spirit of Vengeance.
But underneath the 70s modernization of Ghost Rider, there is an older deeper connection to an Old West character who at one time held the same name only to later be renamed Night Rider and eventually Phantom Rider. This original Ghost Rider was a ghostly cowboy who haunted Old West ghost towns, righting supernatural wrongs.
While the original revamp of the Ghost Rider might at first seem solid and workable, it quickly comes to naught. What exactly could the story of the Ghost Rider be? How would writers be able to frame an ongoing story around the character? It’s easy to relish in the sheer visual pleasure of flaming skulls and hellhound leather and giant choppers, but what exactly is the definitive arc of the character? Especially when Ghost Rider would be competing for market-share with characters like Spider-Man (powers complicate rather than liberate the character, humanizing the character’s arc), Iron Man (maybe the man who has everything can get the gift of redemption) and Hulk (a human cage for inhuman anger). What if anything, could Ghost Rider be about?
Shaping the definitive vector for the character in an ongoing series seems very much the task of a writer. Since 2005, since the Ghost Rider’s reintroduction into Marvel’s Earth-616 continuity with Road To Damnation, it seems Marvel writers have launched themselves against the character. Almost as if the Ghost Rider itself were an ancient stone temple.
Garth Ennis, scripting 2005’s Road To Damnation with Clayton Crain rendering the artwork, would make a plea for Johnny Blaze’s Ghost Rider as the ultimate blunt instrument. A Kalashnikov rather than an M-16, Blaze’s Ghost Rider was dumb, luckless and brutal. The following year would see the pair re-team for Trail Of Tears which would explore the Old West roots of the character’s earlier iteration in a tale of a post-Civil War America coming to terms with the new economic power of liberated former slaves.
But neither limited series would see the character ready for an ongoing series. Paul Jenkins’ Mythos would attempt the same magic he performed earlier in the decade with Wolverine: Origin; telling the definitive origin of the character. But this too would fall short. Even Daniel Way, the first writer to helm the ongoing monthly for the character, would offer a through-narrative (collecting up the fragments of Lucifer’s soul) that would read more like a protracted skirmish than a bona fide character arc. Even director Mark Steven Johnson’s framing of Ghost Rider as Hell’s bounty hunter in the 2007 movie fails on this account.
Shadowland: Ghost Rider is a significant point on the character’s horizon because it seems the polarity has reversed. Rather than leave the task of shaping the definitive vision of the character solely in the hands of the writer, it seems Rob Williams has drawn on cues from artist Clayton Crain.
There are lush and opulent visuals offered by Crain’s rendering of Ghost Rider blazing across the Pacific and onwards over the Sea of Japan. But there is a deeper more profound artistic choice made with these visuals. Ghost Rider zooming through waves, framed by Japanese fishing trawlers is a reenactment of Hokusai’s “The Big Wave”. Ghost Rider’s precessional movement westwards to ultimately ride eastwards is not merely an atmospheric literary device to allow for the character’s meditation on his situation. Rather, riding over the waters is a weighty framing in the visual mode of those same wrestlings of self.
Read from right to left as would be culturally apposite, “The Big Wave” is an exhaustive depiction of outward surrender and inner struggle. The fisherman in Hokusai’s painting remain still and outwardly calm even as they rush towards the impending wave. However the minuscule Mount Fuji in the deep background and its visual echo as the shape of a nearby wave, speak to an indomitable human spirit contesting its present position as subject to vast, unfathomable forces. Crain’s tapping of the genre of Hokusai’s classic becomes the perfect visual metaphor for Ghost Rider’s dilemma. How could the Ghost Rider, a fundamental supernatural force in the world, so easily become the lackey of manipulators far less powerful than itself?
Johnny Blaze’s move, outwitting rather than outfighting the Hand Ninja Clan, comes as a genuine surprise. And it provides Rob Williams with a real opportunity (perhaps the first in the character’s history) at providing a character arc for an ongoing series. Ghost Rider must be a Ronin, a masterless Samurai. But this opportunity is only opened by Williams at first pulling back and allowing for Crain to direct the course of the story with his visual framing of Ghost Rider’s dilemma across the Pacific. In remaining true to the visual origins of the character, and affording Crain narrative space at the beginning, Williams is able to carve out a deep and abiding authenticity of characterization.
Shadowland: Ghost Rider comes with high accolades. It is one of the top three standalone books this year that simply must be read.
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