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He’s Riding Through Your Town With His Head On Fie-yer

July 18, 2013

Or so sang Henry Rollins in his cover of the Alan Vega song Ghost Rider, as featured on The Crow’s soundtrack album.  The song goes on to proclaim that ‘America is killing it’s youth’ – well, I don’t know about that, but if I didn’t know better I’d say Marvel Comics are going out of their way to kill the character to which the song refers, or they’ve been be trying to kill my appreciation of him at least. Poor old Ghost Rider… he really hasn’t a good time of it of lately.

My first encounter with the Spirit of Vengeance was a reprint of the 90’s Danny Ketch version in a Marvel UK publication called Havoc  that collected various strips together in an anthology-style format. If memory serves this title featured the likes of Deathlok and Conan, but it was Ghost Rider that caught my attention most.  I dunno, I suppose for some odd reason the idea of a scary-looking demon bloke riding a big flaming motorbike in a spiky leather jacket appealed to me as a 14-year old heavy metal fan. The fact that at the time he was fighting  what was essentially a bunch of  ninjas was also a plus, certainly

With his flaming Hellcycle, burning chain, penance stare and his bad-ass attitude Ghost Rider was certainly one of my favourite characters in the early days of my comics habit. I’d go as far to say that Mark Spector: Moon Knight issue number 25 – which features a guest appearance by old flame head – is possibly still one of my favourite single issue stories after all these years, and that’s probably due to cool sequences like Ghost Rider leaving a fiery trail as he zooms up the side of the Statue of Liberty  Though having everyone’s number one schizophrenic Egyptian-themed Batman knock-off in the story is a bonus as well, of course.

You could almost think that adolescent Iron Maiden fans were the target audience here

You could almost think that adolescent Iron Maiden fans were the target audience here

After reading the Ketch storyline I ended up digging up the original Johnny Blaze run from the seventies. The Blaze Ghost Rider is a great of example of two of the trends prevalent among Marvel characters at the time. Firstly, he was a bit darker than the clean cut characters of the Golden and Silver ages what with his back story of a Faustian pact with dark forces to save a friend dying of Cancer.  Secondly, he was an attempt by Marvel to cash in on two hot trends of the time.  I’m pretty sure Johnny’s look and backstory owed a lot to the popularity of heavy metal and stunt riders like Evel Knievel.  This was a pretty common editorial approach in the seventies and earlier eighties, with characters like Iron Fist (Chop-Socky movies), Power Man (Blaxplotation) and Dazzler (Disco Music/Roller Skating) being the result.  I’m just surprised we didn’t get characters like Space-Hopper Man or Captain Clackers.

Anyhoo, while he was a dark character for the era the Johnny Blaze period was still a lot more lighthearted than the Ketch run (though it did touch on drug addiction at one point if I remember right) but still very enjoyable.  Plus Blaze had a stint in The Champions, possibly the greatest superhero team of all time, which made his history even richer. It was all good fun suff that I remember fondly, so I was pleased when a modern version of Blaze turned up towards the end of the Ketch run in the late nineties. That particular storyline did get a bit wacky towards the end (What with extra spiky demon biker Vengeance joining the family for example) but I was still sad to see it come to an end.

Then things started to go a bit wrong. After some time in comic limbo, Ghost Rider was re-launched with some fanfare around 2005.  I assume this was because the movie was in the works and Marvel wanted to make sure the character was firmly back in the geek consciousness for that momentous cinematic event. This would be a good thing, you might think, and normally you’d be right.  However this re-launch was doomed as far as I was concerned due to Marvel’s choice of writer.  For some reason there is an obsession in the comics world that whenever you wish to attempt a story line that is mature, edgy and dark there’s only one name that should be top of your list of potential writers, and Marvel got that very chap for the Ghost Rider gig – Garth Fucking Ennis.

You may have already guessed I’m not a fan of Mr Ennis’ work, and you’d be quite correct. I’m aware that everyone’s tastes are different and all that guff, but I’m genuinely baffled as to how our man Garth has managed to build up the popularity and fan-base that he has.  I did like some of his Punisher stuff to be fair, but even in that strip he couldn’t help himself and every now and again he had to throw in some rubbish like a man stumbling around with his testicles in a Styrofoam cup.  Or the sequence in which a woman was bleeding to death from a gutshot but still felt the need to proclaim she was ‘so wet right now’due to being sexually excited by all the violence going on around her.  Seriously, I’ve got some pretty low standards so when I think a comic is little more that puerile, moronic rubbish then something is very wrong.

Anyway, it came to pass that Ennis gave us the six-part story Road to Damnation, which was based around the classic Johnny Blaze version of the character.  Sort of.  It seems Garth wasn’t too interested in the character’s back story or the way the Marvel universe worked and so just set off doing it his own way.  Firstly, he rather missed the point that Johnny Blaze didn’t sell his soul to the devil as in a pointy bearded, pitch-fork wielding Beelzebub, rather it was to a demonic, otherworldly entity.  The difference is important – the Marvel universe has never featured a full on Judeo-Christian style mythology, but has instead had a watered down version that could sit more comfortably alongside their wacky versions of the Greek and Norse gods that are also a feature of the setting (Blaze teamed up with Hercules in The Champions after all). But Garth isn’t interested in that.  Instead he trots out a full-blown Catholic style, Dante-ish vision of Hell and Heaven complete with twinkly angels and choirs of infernal nasties just so he can take another pop at the religions he seems to have such an issue with. Dude, we got the point in Preacher. Time to move on, maybe?

After that, Garth opens his big bag o’ cliches and throws a nice collection of his regular nonsense at the pages. Outrageous Deep South accents? Check.  Over-the-top violence with severed arms and spines all over the shop? Check. Disgustingly decrepit old man in a wheelchair on life support? Check.  Character with an absolutely hilarious anus-themed gimmick? Check and Check.  Thanks Garth, not only have you given us the wonderfully endearing and timeless character ‘Buttview’, you’ve actually managed to write a Ghost Rider story so poor I don’t even want to keep the graphic novel on my shelf. On the plus side, however, the book did have some OKart. Actually, if it was illustrated by an artist I can’t stand as well, say Rob Liefield maybe, then it would have been some perfect storm of comics-based Ben annoyance which might have finished off my appreciation of Ghost Rider there and then, rather than just giving it a sound kick in the nuts.

I'm not sure what's more striking here - the demonic, flaming shotgun or that bloody wig

I’m not sure what’s more striking here – the demonic, flaming shotgun or that bloody wig

After Garth Ennis’s dispiriting efforts I didn’t give much consideration to Ghost Rider for a while, but I knew that the movie was on the horizon.  I’ll admit that from the very earliest days of the internet rumors I had a bad feeling about it, primiarily due to the casting of  Nicolas Cage in the lead role, a casting decision that I found somewhat baffling if I’m honest. Still, when it finally came out I faithfully tramped down to my local cineplex, paid my money and took my chances.

Yeah, I wasn’t impressed.

The movie wasn’t the worst I’d ever seen and still had some entertaining moments but it had a heck of a lot wrong with it.  A half-arsed plot, a fundamental misunderstanding of the Ghost Rider character and his powers, ropey villains, uninspiring fights and nowhere near enough high-speed motorbike chases were all negative points, but the biggest bugbear that stood head and shoulders above all the rest was Nic Cage as Johnny Blaze.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should blame the scriptwriters, director or Cage for the fact that Blaze was played as a mentally-impaired Hillbilly dosed up on extra-drowsy Night Nurse (‘D’you like eye-tallian food?’), but given Nic is the public face I’ll direct my snark in his general direction I reckon. That good ol’ boy routine might have served him well in Con Air but it didn’t do any good here.  Actually, know I say that I’m not even sure Cage’s Dukes of Hazard impression even did him any good in that movie either.  Whenever anyone talks of that movie fondly it’s normally because of John Malkovich’s scenery chewing turn or Steve Buscemi’s mild-mannered serial killer character, nothing to do with Cage’s ‘The South will rise again’ act.

It might be going to far to say Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze is the worst casting a superhero movie ever-  given we’ve had David Hasslehoff as Nick Fury and Shaquille O’Neal as Steel in the past – but he probably makes the top five.  I understand Cage (due to being a comic geek himself) has always wanted to play a superhero role and so probably jumped at the part without much thought, and the studio was probably just chuffed to have a big name on the project, but it was simply a bad call that meant an already iffy film ended up being another terrible blow to the Ghost Rider franchise. A more damaging one than Garth Ennis managed too, I’d say, what with it being much more widely seen and more publicly known. I understand a sequel was made, and I understand said sequel features the talents of fine actors such as Idris Elba and Anthony Head which may elevate it above it’s predecessor, but I haven’t watched it yet… after all, Nic Cage is bloody well in it as well, and I don’t fancy sitting through another ninety minutes of a Conway Twitty-style Johnny Blaze.

Normally I’m pretty laid back about this kind of geek-sacrilege.  In a previous post I went on about how people should chill out and not get so wound up about tweaks made to their sacred cows when they’re made into films or similar, but sadly I can’t practice what I preach when it comes to Ghost Rider.  Maybe I’m just being a bit unfair – after all, Ennis has plenty of fans in the comics world and they can’t all be fourteen year old boys, can they? And maybe I was expecting too much of the movie given how much I’d enjoyed films like Spiderman, Hellboy and X-Men 2. And it was still better than Daredevil or Elektra. But still, I don’t think I’ll be paying a great deal of attention to Ghost Rider projects for the foreseeable future.  I’m just not sure I can take much more flame-head themed disappointment.

Of course, if Marvel Studios somehow managed to get the rights to the character back and decided to reboot the character… well, then I might be interested.  I can’t see it ever happening if I’m honest, but I’d more than likely watch a Ghost Rider movie that came from the studio that gave us the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Avengers movies, if they deemed tackling a character with such a chequered past wasn’t too much of a risk.

As long as they didn’t cast Nicolas Cage,  of course.

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