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Ghost Rider #1-6: Road to Damnation

Andrew Welsh

Anyone familiar with Ennis's other comic projects knows that he doesn't readily tip-toe around issues possibly offensive to the church or the far right.

Ghost Rider #1-6

Publisher: Marvel Comics
Subtitle: Road to Damnation
Contributors: Clayton Crain (Artist)
Price: $2.99
Writer: Garth Ennis
Item Type: Comic
Length: 22
End Date: 2006-04
Start Date: 2005-11

In the annals of fiction there are several legendarily bad decisions that individuals tend to make. One of the most common is for the average Joe character to trust a foxy lady that is unusually interested in him; she nearly always turns out to be a ruthless assassin or space alien in disguise and the guy inevitably ends up dead or with his brain in a jar. Another classic blunder is to assume that an uncharted planet's life forms are naively friendly. Bringing gifts and various signs of goodwill is always a nice idea, but the savvy space explorer will always have his trusty laser rifle close at hand for Plan B. A third poor decision that seems to crop up again and again is the sell-your-soul-to-the-devil instant success scam. This one seems to reel in more unfortunates than pyramid schemes, despite the fact that it really never pays off with anything other than a nasty heat rash along with an unpleasant case of eternal torment.

We're reminded time and time again that the devil is sort of like a loan shark, but not nearly as trustworthy or hospitable. The Prince of Darkness simply doesn't seem to feel that he needs to play the game like everybody else, so unless you have god-like fiddle skills, it's usually a bad idea to do business with the embodiment of evil. Johnny Blaze's run in with old Scratch was no exception, though historically Blaze, better known as Ghost Rider, is said to have made a pact with the demon Mephisto, who was merely impersonating Satan. As one might expect, the deal went sour and Johnny Blaze ended up bound to the demon Zarathos and thus became the leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding, chain-wielding, skull-flaming hellion that we all know and love. In Marvel's new Ghost Rider mini series, Road to Damnation, the distinction between Satan and Mephisto, and "super-powerful hellspawn" and Zarathos is not made, but this doesn't really damage character continuity and, in fact, makes the story far friendlier and simpler for readers who aren't familiar with Ghost Rider. When you start throwing in lots of complicated minor character names while omitting expository dialogue (for the sake of a 22 rather than a 57 page book), readers begin to wonder if they're looking at a DC title.

Road to Damnation is certain to excite more than a few comic book fans solely by its parental advisory warning. I usually enjoy an advisory if it means "depiction of characters who talk and act realistically" rather than pure gore or profane language for its own sake. In keeping with this, characters in this series speak and react in a manner that feels identifiably familiar even though the persons and events are wholly otherworldly. The advisory on the cover also paves the way for a surprisingly callous Marvel product. The disregard for human life is taken to an unusual -- unusual for comics anyway -- extreme in order to show characters' obdurate temperaments more clearly. And while this Ghost Rider series has its fair share of reasonably explicit gore and violence, the carnage supplements the story well. Writer Garth Ennis and artist Clayton Crain appear very conscious of the boundary between excessive and tasteful and successfully deliver writing and art that feel mindfully balanced.

Also to be found in the new Ghost Riders series are some subtle (and not-so-subtle) political, religious, and social overtones. Anyone familiar with Ennis's other comic projects (Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher) knows that he doesn't readily tip-toe around issues possibly offensive to the church or the far right. It is unlikely mere coincidence that one of the prominent "bad guys" is an oil baron who uses his money to escape legality and morality, or that the only sides of Christianity presented are extremes such as the KKK and a rich church that goes out of its way to exemplify prosperity. And might it be yet another fluke that hell and earth are connected through Texas?

Ennis's polarized characters, however, essentially seem a humorously aloof look at American society rather than an actual maleficent attack on particular members. One gets an impression of amused disparagement or playful criticism rather than doom saying. The good humored demon Hoss at one point chuckles that the forces of hell are funded by the world's billionaires. Additionally, the archangel Ruth is seen throughout the series inflicting far more violence and bloodshed than any demon, causing traditional views concerning the spiritual realm to be constantly turned on their collective head. It's as if Ennis is saying that, in a larger sense, people simply believe whatever makes them feel safe and happy and that we are often blind to or ignore reality. To illustrate this, Ennis's angels and demons are selfish, bad tempered, and unapologetically disloyal. Ghost Rider represents the eyes of the reader and he is time and time again appalled by what he sees. As conventional wisdom disintegrates before him, he ascertains the true mechanisms of the celestial realm and finds them to be less than magnanimous. Any subscriber to the angel fanaticism of pre-millennial infamy would be wholly disgusted by Garth Ennis's dark vision of the spiritual world.

The heavenly and demonic conspiracies, numinous action, and imaginative characters give Clayton Crain excellent fodder for his digital artwork. I hope that comic artists never completely abandon their pens and pencils for mice and keyboards, but Crain certainly presents a formidable exemplar of the excellent work of which digital artists are capable. The fire and lighting that accompany Ghost Rider's hellishly fiery persona from page to page are brilliantly vivid. The blazing dark metal of Ghost Rider's motorcycle and his flaming skull are skillfully contrasted with the allusively Cthuloid demons that relentlessly confine him to hell.

And enjoyable and imaginative tale, Ghost Rider: Road to Damnation is well worth the price of admission for fans of Ghost Rider or Garth Ennis, as well as first time readers. If nothing else, the trade paperback would function beautifully to offset your mom's Touched By an Angel DVD collection.

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