As the riders loped on by him, he heard one call his name.
“If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range,
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride,
Tryin’ to catch that Devil’s herd, across these endless skies.”
—(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend by Stan Jones
“She’s gaining on us, mama, and she’s got murder on her mind.”
—Fred Gandy as Herman the German in Death Race 2000 (1975)
On the outskirts of Doomstadt, the capital of Battleworld, stands the Killiseum. “Gladiator fights! Monster slaying! Executions! But no attraction so popular, exciting or dangerous as the Ghost Races!!!”
Marvel’s Secret Wars summer crossover event is full of possibilities. In the aftermath of the destruction of the multiverse, Doctor Doom has created a new world where the heroes and villains of past worlds are merged together, folded together, into realms exotic and new. The premise of Secret Wars is that on Battleworld anything can happen. Combinations and settings that continuity would have never allowed are suddenly fair game. The superhero genre, at least for the summer, can be stretched to the limit.
Ghost Racers, by Felipe Smith and Juan Gedeon is a perfect example of the potential inherent in this premise. In this series, Marvel’s Ghost Rider characters are thrown together to do what they do best – ride. And ride they do, around the track of the Killisuem, with blazing wheels and blazing hooves and blazing guns. The premise is simple – the demon riders are forced to race one another for the amusement of the masses and for the chance to escape from the hellish torments to which the losers are subjected.
These superheroes have been translated out of the Marvel Universe and dropped into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It is Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000, only this time the drivers’ are demon possessed. In place of David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, we have Johnny Blaze, Robbie Reyes, Carter Slade, Daniel Ketch and Alejandra Jones, ghost riders all, demons behind the wheel, astride the machine, in the saddle.
Smith’s story moves fast and furious as we are dropped immediately into the chanting crowds of onlookers and then, just as quickly, into the race. The engines rev and the crowds roar. The announcer draws us in and puts it all on the line. Then the demons take to the road.
Gedeon’s work is marvelously good, bringing this static medium to motion, evoking speed and power and fury and vengeance with lines that seem both hurried and precise at one and the same time. Tamra Bonvillain’s colors are equally fluid: brown and gray and hellfire orange against a purple sky.
The rendition of Carter “Satan Stomper” Slade is particularly compelling. In his human form, he is a quiet old man. When possessed by his demon, he is a blind cowboy zombie centaur. Six shooters in his hand, Gatling guns at his sides, the “undead throughbreed” is a revelation in Gedeon’s hands. He is menacing, terrifying, hellish. Equal parts Frankenstein from Death Race 2000 and equal parts “Rider in the Sky.”
And in all of this, the human hosts at the heart of this tale are not lost. We feel the losers’ pain and their anger. We feel the winner’s triumph and humanity. We also get a sense that Smith has something of a lesson to teach here, about the madness of crowds, the thirst for ever bigger and better thrills, the powerful interests that manipulate our desires and shape our destinies. It feels like Smith is setting us up for something even bigger than this riveting first issue, as if the charnel speed of the race track is itself a metaphor for the dangerous race that these characters are going to run, off the track as well as on, a race that those of us on our own planet may sometimes find ourselves running as well.
“She’s gaining on us, mama, and she’s got murder on her mind,” Herman the German says to Matilda the Hun. These characters know what that means.
The fact that there can be so much of importance going on in a story about a demon race on a planet called Battleworld speaks volumes, both about the talent behind this book and the potential that Marvel has built into what is shaping up to be a Secret Wars series that is worlds better than any that have gone before.