Monday, September 16, 2013

Rider on the Storm: Marvel Spotlight 5

Marvel Spotlight #5 (August 1972)
"Ghost Rider"
Written and conceived by: Gary Friedrich
Drawn by:  Mike Ploog
Aid and Abetment: Roy Thomas

So, most of you know the BAB staff tries to work about two weeks ahead on our comic reviews.  As we were in the middle of today's write-up, what should cross the newswires but the following statement (as per Comic Book Resources):
Marvel Comics and writer Gary Friedrich have agreed to a settlement to their long-standing legal dispute over ownership of Ghost Rider, as reported Monday by Reuters. If finalized, the settlement will mark the end more than six years of litigation between the two parties.

Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but according to Reuters, Friedrich's lawyer, Charles Kramer, said the writer and Marvel "have amicably agreed to resolve all claims between, among, and against all parties."

Here is how we began the post prior to this information, and you'll see us tackle issues related to this news as we move through today's book and our thoughts on such.

Karen: We're moving on to the "Anti-Hero" part of our "Invaders and Anti-Heroes'" month. So much to talk about before we even get to the story here. First off, those credits. They become significant when you consider all of the legal issues surrounding Friedrich and Marvel in the last decade or so over who can take credit for creating the Ghost Rider character and who is entitled to what exactly financially from the films and other licensing of the character. All three parties involved in crafting this story -Friedrich, Ploog, and Thomas - have different takes on how the character was created and who came up with what. It's doubtful we'll ever really know exactly what happened. But I find those credits intriguing to say the least. 'Conceived' sure seems to indicate that Friedrich came up with the initial idea; but what does "aid and abetment" mean? Is it the addition of ideas to an existing one? And was Ploog solely responsible for the Ghost Rider's fantastic look, or did Friedrich and/or Thomas contribute to that as well? I don't want to get mired down in what seems to have become an endless argument, but I think those credits do need to be looked at when considering the situation.

Doug:  Funny thing about the ownership of the character, isn't it?  While visually striking, his origin linked to Satan and Satanism would seem to be a barrier to any sort of financial windfall.  However, as the horror genre built and built in film through the 1990s, characters like Johnny Blaze became en vogue.  Let me plead my ignorance here -- Friedrich did not file any lawsuits concerning the character in the 1970s and '80s, did he?  To the best of my knowledge, the lawsuit that was recently settled was brought only after the success (that's a relative term) of the two Ghost Rider films.

Karen: Before I can dive into the story, I have to comment on the art. Ploog!! I love Mike Ploog and I cannot lie. He was the perfect artist for the monster and horror titles. He does a terrific job on this book, and to be honest, I think it's the best thing about this book. I've always felt that the Ghost Rider has a great look, but never had great stories to go with it. His origin is really no exception. Thankfully, we have some beautiful Ploog artwork to look at to get us through it. Not sure if my partner will feel the same way, but for me, it was pretty much what kept me going through a fairly mediocre story.

Doug:  I'm not as big a Ploog fan as you, but I have to agree that he's perfect for the weird or macabre.  His work is sort of illustrative, sort of cartoony, sort of channels the younger Barry Smith, and...  I don't at all dislike it.  It's a different cup of tea that I do find pleasing.  I don't know if I'd like him, however, on a traditional superhero book.  Here -- he's certainly getting the job done!  As to the Ghost Rider's look, I have long felt that his bike was as big a part of him as Cap's shield or Thor's hammer.  We see a "regular" looking motorcycle in this story, rather than the "skull cycle" he'd use later and that might be more familiar to fans of The ChampionsI didn't ever really care when the bike turned to fire, but it fit the demonic motif of the character.

Karen: The story opens on a rainy night. We see a motorcycle approaching through the rain in a sequence of three panels, which then open up on the splash page to show the Ghost Rider. GR rides past a couple of thugs in the act of shooting a man. While he tries to ignore them, they fear he will go to the police (they can't see him clearly and think his flaming head is a glowing helmet), so they jump in their car and pursue him. GR tries to throw them but it's no use. He ducks in an alley -a dead end - and the two men come in, guns drawn. GR pulls his spook routine, telling them he is the servant of Satan, and casts hellfire at their feet. The men now get a good look at him -"He ain't got no face -just a blazin' skull!" - and they are starting to freak out. GR uses this opportunity to race up a conveniently placed board and jump over them and their car and escape. Soon, he reverts back to his human form of cyclist Johnny Blaze.

Doug:  Mike Ploog really varies his camera angles in the sequence with the goons.  It gives the reader a sense of speed in the chase.  I loved the Kirby Krackle in the hellfire, and regarding the "conveniently placed board", did you notice that Ploog drew in two panels prior to the big jump?  I thought that was nice, rather than some silly deus ex machina that just popped up.  Marvel was all over pop culture trends in the early 70s, weren't they?  Martial arts, Evel Knieval-inspired daredevils, etc. were everywhere.  Ah, the legacy of Martin Goodman.

Karen: Before we get too far, I want to mention how Ploog's version of Ghost Rider is actually much cooler and scarier than the later version we're used to. For one thing, the eye sockets are empty -just black holes, and I thought this was really effective. I suppose it removes some of the characters' ability to emote, but it made him a lot creepier. Also the skull is a lot more, well, skull-like; again, it's less like a face and more like a real skull, which I'm sure made it harder to convey emotion. But the whole thing makes for a more frightening character.

Doug:  I think this iteration of Ghost Rider really gives the reader a sense that this guy is a skeleton under that biker suit.  And you're right, some characters just shouldn't have eyeballs, whether in their skull or as seen through a mask (I'm thinking of Batman with the latter comment).  I suppose that the depiction of emotion was not unlike the challenges that drawing Iron Man's faceplate presented.

Karen: Blaze puts on a jacket and goes over to Madison Square Garden, where he is performing his stunt cycle show. He sits back in his dressing room, and it's flashback time. We learn that Johnny's father, Barton, had been a stunt cyclist too, and had died performing. He was then taken in by another rider, Crash Simpson, and his family. Johnny grew especially close to Crash's daughter, Roxanne, and he hoped to join their show. But one day while they were practicing, a bike the two of them were on caught fire. Rocky (Roxanne) jumped off, but Johnny had to get the bike out of the show tent and away from people before it exploded. He managed to do this, and jumped clear of the bike, but Mrs. Simpson came running out of the tent to find him and was caught in the blast when the bike blew. At the hospital, as Mrs. Simpson took her final breaths, she made Johnny promise not to ride in the stunt show. Johnny promised, even though it was his fondest dream. Now for some reason, he kept his promise for the next five years, but didn't tell Rocky nor her father about it -he just refused to ride in the show, and the two of them, being such  kind, wonderful people, decided he was a coward and began treating him like dirt. He hangs around and works as a mechanic while Rocky and her dad continue their show. Then Johnny realizes he can still ride-just not in the show. So he starts riding late at night, and doing goofy stuff, such as riding on his head facing backwards (don't ask me - I didn't draw it). Rocky catches him and realizing that he isn't a coward after all, she's thrilled (what a girl). Johnny finally fesses up about the deathbed promise he made her mom, and Rocky jumps into his arms and kisses him.Oh, how nice.

Doug:  I'm telling you, I could have cued up Kenny Rogers' "Coward of the County" while reading this and it would have been an apt soundtrack.  The middle quarter of this story played a bit more like Young Love than a horror/action book.  I didn't find much depth to any of the characters in this origin story.  Maybe it's no wonder Friedrich didn't want a slice of the pie until after the films!  Have we mentioned yet that the narrative form, with Blaze being addressed directly during the flashback sequence, was annoying?

Karen: Johnny, Crash, and Rocky are together when they get a call from their agent -they've hit the big time, Madison Square Garden. Johnny and Rocky are over the moon, but Crash is despondent. He tells them his doctor said he has maybe a month to live. "I've got the disease...and it's going to get me!" Good grief -this goes beyond soap opera! What's the deal with this unnamed disease? I can only assume Friedrich was thinking of cancer, but why the hesitation in naming it? Or was that in bad taste? It's just so melodramatic. In any case, Johnny and Rocky are crushed. Crash says he wishes he had a son to take over the show, so of course Rocky, even though she knows about Johnny's promise to her mother, turns to Johnny and asks him to do it. He says no, and that she knows why. Rocky then storms out proclaiming Johnny a coward. Oh come on! Crash tells Johnny to get out. These are just wonderful people. Really, why should Johnny even care about these cretins? If I were him, I'd get on my bike and leave them in my dust. But I'm not, so instead, he makes a deal with Satan.

Doug:  I have no further comment, your honor.

Karen: One might reasonably ask how a grease monkey in a traveling cycle show would have a wealth of knowledge about the occult. This is never explained. We just see Johnny surrounded by piles of books (and a couple of skulls), and are told that he has heard "since childhood" that Satan can perform miracles. Uh, I thought it was God who performed miracles, but OK. Johnny burns some sort of gunk on top of an ox (?) skull and draws a pentagram on his chest in blood and then beckons the Prince of Darkness to appear. A shadowy Satan-like figure shows up and says he'll assist if Johnny will serve him. Now we all know how any deal with the Devil goes down -you always get the short end of the stick. But Johnny makes the deal anyway, asking that Crash be spared from the disease that is killing him. The Devil agrees and then tells him he'll be back soon to collect his fee. Now at this time, this really was supposed to be Satan, THE Devil, which blows my mind, because it just seems like Marvel would be risking the ire of so many religious groups. But things were different in 1972. You had Rosemary's Baby in 1968, The Exorcist would come out in 1973, and nuts like Anton LaVey running around San Francisco...there was definitely a pop culture edge to the subject matter. I know later on GR's origin was retconned and I believe Mephisto substituted for Satan, probably for all the reasons one might imagine. But having Satan in comic books still seems both weird and ballsy to me. I know as a kid things about Satan or demonic possession disturbed me so I tended to avoid them.

Doug:  My mind boggled during this whole satanism scene.  It's personally detestable to me, that A) anyone would know about his "miracles" one's whole life, and B) feel that turning to the dark side (literally, no Force intended) would be the answer to any of life's travails.  That being said, this is of course the pivotal scene in the character's origin and it's really well-drawn by Ploog.  As we both said at the top of today's review, stuff like this is right in ol' Mike's wheelhouse.  So if we had to do this in order to get Johnny Blaze to become the Ghost Rider, I can accept the inclusion of these elements in the story.  However, as you allude to above, it's beyond clunky and just makes Blaze seem so shallow and really makes me question his upbringing.  As you mention Mephisto, when we originally set up the post Mephisto was included in the labels you find at the bottom of each of our posts.  We did that because he was named as a character in the story as per the Comic Book Database.  However, when I read the story I thought that although Satan was drawn and colored as looking like Mephisto, I didn't think we had enough to make that conclusion -- consequently we deleted the name from the labels.

Karen: After his deal with Satan, three weeks pass. Johnny heads to Madison Square Garden the night of the big show, and Rocky finds him. She pleads with him to stop her father from attempting the world record jump.
It seems Crash has decided if he's going to die, he'd rather do it on a bike than in a hospital bed. Johnny tries to talk Crash out of it but he just calls Johnny gutless and Johnny basically walks away. He figures Crash will be fine, due to his deal with Satan. Hey - wait a minute dummy! You asked the Dark Lord to spare him from the disease, not from jumping over 22 cars! Sure enough, Crash rides out and comes up short on the jump. He crashes and is killed.Rocky is in tears. Johnny feels betrayed by Satan (duh), and then for some reason, he figures it's a good idea to attempt the jump himself! With Rocky screaming at him not to try it, he races off and succeeds, becoming the new world record holder. But now Rocky is furious with him. After the show, Johnny goes back to the dressing room and sits, distraught. Who should appear but Satan. Johnny is ticked off, saying the Devil betrayed him. Satan, like any good lawyer, points out the details of the contract and that he upheld his part. Now he's there to collect his due: Johnny's soul! He tells him that from now on, he will be his servant and begins the transformation into the Ghost Rider. Suddenly Rocky enters the room and says that she suspected this! What?? She then commands Satan to return to Hell, as he is in the presence of someone "pure in heart"...oh boy. Satan books it, but says he'll be back for his. Johnny begins to recover and is confused over how Rocky saved him (as are we). She explains that she had read his books on Satan when he wasn't around and therefore knew how to order him away. The two then declare their love for each other. Cue the violins...

Doug:  Johnny Blaze isn't too long on the brains, is he?  After reading this story (for the first time for this review), I'm wondering what is the quality of this character that would make me care for him?  He's not a sympathetic character, and I certainly do not empathize with his decision-making prowess.  So at the beginning when you commented (and I agreed) on the great look of the character -- along with the popularity of motorcycle daredevils in the early 1970s -- that's really all I'm left with.  Unless I would have been a completist as a 6-year old, I'm not sure I'd have gone out of my way to find the next issue.

Doug:  Ploog again does a fantastic job during the Madison Square Garden scene -- I particularly like the panel when Crash elevates over the 22 cars.  How about Blaze telling the stage manager to have the crowd held?  After a man just died on the scene?  And then they allow him to make the exact same jump??  My suspension of disbelief was tried as much in those six panels as it was when Blaze went after the devil so seemingly quickly.  And Rocky's knowledge of the occult?  Ugh.  Just dumb.  I'd also argue her purity of heart, as she was pretty cruel to Johnny at times earlier in the story.  I'm all for the merits of tough love, but she was nasty at times.

Karen: We then see how Johnny first turned into the Ghost Rider later the next night, which lead into the beginning of our story. With our flashback over, we're back to square one, with Johnny still wondering what he can do, trapped in this cycle of man by day, monster by night. What will happen if someone finds out? He picks up the paper and on the front page is a story about the two thugs and the mysterious "Ghost Rider". Johnny decides he needs to leave New York, find a place where he can hide, and think about what to do. But then the change comes over him, and once again, he is -the Ghost Rider.

Doug:  This feature followed the Werewolf By Night strip, and I have to wonder if fans back in the day felt like they'd gotten the same deal, different look?  We previously reviewed the Werewolf's debut, and this tale doesn't really separate itself from the traditional day-OK, night-monster motif.  It also evokes a Hulk-vibe, with the protagonist as a wandering fugitive, trying to exempt himself from situations where he might cause harm to others or be found out.

Karen: As I said at the top, I thought this origin was pretty crappy. I love the Ploog art though, and it's all that kept me going. But the characters are such awful people, and the fact that Johnny Blaze turns to Satanism as casually as a person might try Weight Watchers is pretty bizarre. Still, I'd recommend reading it just to see Ploog's work -he does interesting things with panel layouts, his light and shadow effects are terrific, and overall it's just fun to look at.


Edo Bosnar said...

I was never into Ghost Rider - aside from Champions and his guest appearances in other books, I never read any GR stories. So thanks for the thorough review - I'll know to avoid this. Regardless, I'm glad to see a settlement was reached in that case between Friedrich and Marvel; I hope that some decent monetary compensation will go to Friedrich (although I think Ploog and Thomas should get some of this as well).

Otherwise, I share Karen's admiration for Ploog's art. I'm most familiar with his excellent work on Man-Thing. He was definitely a master of the horror genre, but given how much he was obviously influenced by Will Eisner, it would have been interesting to see his work on a character like the Spirit, or some kind of hard-boiled detective or crime stories.

david_b said...

A couple of things come to mind..:

1) To read the wikipedia entry for Ghost Rider, it makes for a good synopsis of Marvel creative forces at that time (further illustrated in the Howes 'Untold Story' book, but like most other non-business tales, not nearly as in-depth from the creative point of view..). The crux of the legal argument seems to have been whittled down to the visual 'Who created the flaming head..?' question, which took the character from the forgettable DD villain to one of those Marvel horror/occultic origin stories circa 1971/72, filling the pages of some early Defenders issues (before they got their own title), Son of Satan, the Cat, Dracula.., etc.

2) I actually had this issue for a spell, it was given to me with a stack of other comics around 1974 by one of my Dad's friends, but got rid of it at some point when I deemed it a conflict to my religious leanings. I'm not sure what this 'premiere issue' is going for these days, so I probably should have kept it for investment purposes.., I suppose.

Much like what Karen said, his stories never lived up to his striking appearance or potential. It's like, "He's cool-looking, but what do we do with him...??"

Doug's correct that Marvel was trying for a lot of different in-vogue genre's back during that time.., just seeing what would stick. I believe readers just got bored with GH. Without reflecting emotion, or perhaps developing a buddy or mentor relationship of any kind, it's just basic melodrama with a cyclist with a flaming head crackin' heads every 4th page.

I only really know 'the Orb' from MTU 15 (a great team-up story by the way..) but did he even have a rogues gallery..?

Anonymous said...

Not a lot of heroes created in the 70's by Marvel have lasted. The Falcon, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Ghost Rider, the new X-Men... did I miss anybody?

Anonymous said...

Ghost Rider didn't appear in the British Marvel comics until 1976 and I'd heard of him before I saw him - I thought he'd be a ghost riding a horse which is much spookier than motorbikes. How is he a ghost? Surely Demon Rider/ Devil Rider/ Death Rider / Skull Rider would have been more appropriate. I saw Ghost Rider 2 on DVD last year, it was awful. I didn't see Stan Lee in a cameo role, obviously clever Stan knows which ones to avoid !

Doc Savage said...

Can't say I ever owned an issue of Ghost Rider. I saw him a few Champions comics, I guess, but know him mainly from guest starring in the infinitely superior '70s-motorcycle-stunt-craze-inspired Human Fly. I just don't see much appealing about Ghost Rider aside from a really cool visual. Did they delve into his Satanic connection much in his series or did they chicken out? Haven't seen the films, either...the only thing appealing there is the really cool visual of Eva Mendes.

Fred W. Hill said...

Other aspects of this Ghost Rider's creative background are that among the many obscure Golden Age characters of the company that eventually became Marvel Comics was the Blazing Skull -- obscure but not entirely forgotten as he was one of the characters Roy Thomas and John Buscema had Rick Jones conjure up in the concluding issue of the Kree-Skrull War not too long before G.R. made his debut. Then, of course, there was the original Ghost Rider, a supernatural-themed cowboy hero, created in 1949 for another company but eventually transferred to Marvel in 1967, in a brief series written by ... Gary Friedrich! I'd be surprised if no one had previously come up with the idea of mixing the images of a flaming skull with a leather-clad motorcyclist, even if Friedrich & Ploog were the first to come up with their particular version and used in an actual story rather than just a cool image.
Anyhow, I got a few of G.R.'s appearances in Marvel Spotlight, and collected most of his self-titled series. Can't really say what prompted me to keep collecting it as too many stories were rather lame, especially when they tried to treat G.R. as a typical Marvel superhero. Much more entertaining, IMO, was when the Ghost Rider's personality seperated from that of Johnny Blaze and the stories took on more of a genuine supernatural/horror theme rather than Blaze play-acting at being a demon while tangling with actual demons or costumed cutups.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love a flaming skull-headed black clad superhero on a motorcycle!

Seriously, though, I'm glad Gary Friedrich settled his lawsuit with Marvel; I hope it brings some sort of closure to all parties, although I don't know if either will be fully satisfied with the eventual spoils.

I've always loved the striking visual appeal of the character - he's the perfect amalgamation of all the different genres Marvel was into at the time (horror, daredevil, superhero), even though I agree that his stories and character development (both main and supporting) were not so great. I personally liked him as one of the Champions, never really dug too much into his solo stories.

Friedrich's lawsuit reminds me of Stan Lee's lawsuit against Sony Pictures after the first Spider-Man movie was a huge success. As for who really created GR, I believe even though Friedrich probably came up with the initial concept, the GR we all know was a collaboration between him ,the artist and perhaps even the editor. It's the same story with various other creations like Spidey or Superman - they all came about through the combined efforts of several people, their individual level of contribution being lost to the winds of history.

- Mike 'where can I get a poster of that flaming skull?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Matthew Bradley said...

Quelle coincidence--we've just covered GR's debut in today's August 1972 post over at Marvel University. I would agree on the main points here: cool art, cool-looking hero in general, stupid story (no surprise coming from Gary Friedrich), character with potential whose solo strip was pretty consistently mediocre.

Not sure of the exact timing of the Friedrich v. Marvel lawsuit, but I do know it had to be before the second film came out, and the reason I remember that is that there was some talk of urging people to boycott the sequel due to Marvel's (or maybe Disney's, since I believe they had acquired Marvel by then) heavy-handed treatment of Gary. Again, not to get bogged down in the details of the case, with which I believe the corporate colossus in question hoped to put the fear of God into any other creators who might have been uppity enough to want a piece of the pie, although I think it may have backfired against them. I think the primary bone of contention among many observers was the countersuit filed against Gary for selling GR sketches or something of that nature. Like, it wasn't enough that they were (or appeared to be at that time) crushing him with their mighty armada of lawyers in his own suit, but they added insult to injury with the countersuit.

Clearly I am not Gary's biggest fan, and I believe there were several mitigating factors that undercut his legal position, but talk about piling on!

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