What was Ghost Rider ever About? Capital A. What was the book’s high concept? Batman was always easy. It was about a Dark Knight who in fighting conventional crime with extra-conventional means, opened the door of out-of-the-ordinary criminals. Uncanny X-Men was Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The ongoing tale of duty beyond accolades, of saving the very people who hated you. And Fantastic Four was about a new pioneer spirit, leading us not into the West, but onwards into tomorrow.
If there was trouble with the high concept of Ghost Rider maybe it’s because there’s trouble with the high concept of Ghost Rider as a character. Flaming skulls and flying chains, bikes and leather, Ghost Rider just looks cool. But where’s the through-narrative? There’s something close to a lingering permanence with the premise of other stories. There will always be intolerance, so there will always be an Uncanny X-Men. Tomorrow will always be tantalizingly out of reach, so there will always be a Fantastic Four.
But Ghost Rider?
Ghost Rider always seemed far more situational. His story arose from his conflicts which seemed like limited engagements. Daniel Way, first regular writer of the character’s 2006 series (the most recent ongoing monthly for the character), certainly wrote in that style. The major conceit saw Satan wishing to escape Hell and manifest on the mortal plane. And naturally, the Ghost Rider was there to stop him.
By the time Jason Aaron took the reigns from Way, Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze (the original Ghost Rider from the ’70s and ’80s) had to prevent the rogue angel Zadkiel from taking the Holy City of Heaven, all the while contending with his brother and ’90s Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch.
But these read very much like skirmishes, however protracted they may have been. These were interregna in the ongoing story of the Ghost Rider. In fact to find any kind of longevity to the character, to find anything resembling a writing that asserts Ghost Rider as an institution in the popular imagination, you’d probably have to go back to the ’90s to writer Howard Mackie’s beautiful and painstaking work done on the Danny Ketch character. That’s what Marvel’s Senior Veep for Publishing, Tom Brevoort refers to as the ‘supernatural urban western mystique’ of that era’s book.
But was this localized-skirmish style of story told by Way and Aaron necessarily a bad thing? Actually, no. Both Way and Aaron’s style of storytelling was deeply reflective of the zeitgeist at that time. With Ghost Rider locked in the fray with clear and achievable outcomes (and more so, achieving those outcomes), a deep need in the American psyche was answered. If Ghost Rider could do it, then maybe we could pull out of Afghanistan. Maybe Iraq wouldn’t become an inter-generational war.
But the politics of 2006/2007 seem convincingly at an end. It’s time for a new kind of story. 2010’s Shadowland: Ghost Rider One Shot really threw down the gauntlet. Writer Rob Williams was able to hold back on narrative complexity and offer artist Clayton Crain the spotlight. How does one tell an authentic tale about a character with origins steeped in vibrant artwork? Why not give the artist full scope to guide the story?
Williams’ ceding of center-stage to Crain in last year’s One Shot proved incisive. The book was an unqualified success. But with this year’s Ghost Rider 0.1, meant as a kind of warm-up lap, a Ghost Rider-in-a-nutshell for the forthcoming series, pushes Williams back into the foreground.
The narrative thrust with 0.1’s ‘Give Up The Ghost’ relies almost solely on Williams. In this standalone introduction to the forthcoming series, Williams reintroduces an even more wizened, even more embittered Johnny Blaze. Gone is the craggy, irascible but ultimately rooted Johnny Blaze of Jason Aaron’s era, and in his place is the easily-duped but no-less-irritable new characterization.
Once again Johnny Blaze finds himself a pawn in the game of mysteries entities. This time, a timeless cowboy named Adam who offers Blaze’s Ghost Rider a strange medicine in the form of a bitter root and an opportunity to exorcise the Ghost Rider.
Will this be the dawn of a new kind of Ghost Rider? One that will hark back to the ongoing-ness that Tom Brevoort once oversaw during the ’90s? Perhaps the larger question is will this new characterization of Johnny Blaze succeed?
Will this newer, more whiny Johnny Blaze tap the same psychological real-estate as the brilliantly scripted Johnny Drama from HBO’s Entourage? Or will there be an outcry for the more in-control Johnny Blaze of the Aaron era?
Or will, as the cookie-page seems to indicate, Johnny Blaze be entirely marginalized from the title, giving way to the female Ghost Rider?