"Ghost Rider" was one of several horror comic books that Marvel put out in the early 1970s where you got hooked on the title because Michael Ploog was drawing the book and then he moved on to something else and it was just not the same with the replacement artist. This happened with "Werewolf By Night," "Monster of Frankenstein," and "Ghost Rider." No wonder the fact that Gene Colan was the artist on "The Tomb of Dracula" from start to finish was one of the reasons that comic book was far and away Marvel's best horror title. Ploog's distinctive style made him ideal for drawing horror titles (only Berni Wrightston was better, but he was working for DC), which is why the four issues of "Marvel Spotlight" that he drew that introduced the character of Ghost Rider are the best in this collection of black & white reprints.
As our saga begins we meet Johnny Blaze, the son of the famous stunt motorcyclist Barton Blaze, who is the headliner at Crash Simpsons' Daredevil Cycle Show. After Barton is killed doing a dangerous stunt, the orphaned Johnny is raised by Crash and his wife Mona. Traumatized by the death of his father it takes Johnny a while to ride one and look death straight in the eye, and when he does at the age of fifteen his motorcycle catches on fire, explodes and kills his foster mother. She makes him promise never to ride in the show. Johnny keeps his promises, but Crash and his daughter Rocky think it is because he is a coward, but Johnny practices on his own (he only promised not to ride in the show, right?). The he learns that Crash Simpson has less than a month to live.
So Johnny calls on Satan to spare Crash from the deadly disease that is killing him. The Prince of Darkness agrees and will be back one day soon to collect his fee. Crash decides to go for the world's cycle jump record (22 cars) and is killed (he did not die from the disease did he?). Johnny then performs the jump himself, which does not exactly endear his to the distraught Rocky, and then Satan shows up and intones: "From this day forth...you will walk the earth as my emissary in the dark hours, and in the light, you will join me in Hades!" Rocky intervenes to send Satan back to Hell, but each night Johnny Blaze becomes a burning skeleton. He just usually wears biker leathers so that all you see is his burning skull.
Actually it is not Satan but the demon lord Mephisto, but we do not learn that for a while and it really does not matter unless you are trying to reconcile the Marvel Universe with Judeo-Christian traditions. What is important is that while Mephisto was forced to leave without Blaze's soul, he was able to graft the essence of the demon Zarathos to Blaze's body. It takes Johnny a while to learn this and he thinks the Ghost Rider is just his own dark side manifested as a burning skeleton. The early stories keep the focus on what is now Johnny Blaze's Daredevil Cycle Show, and Mephisto brings back Crash Simpson as a slave to sacrifice his daughter to his dark lord. Unfortunately, by the time we get to the end of that storyline Ploog has been replaced by Tom Sutton as artist and it is just not the same. Part of the problem is that coming up with stories that bring together Satan and motorcycle each month becomes a bit difficult, which would explain why the comic featured more multi-issue storylines than most Marvel titles. This is why we get stories like "Death Stalks the Demolition Derby" ("Ghost Rider" #4) and our hero riding against the Stunt-Master (#7). Then there is the powerful stranger with the long hair and bear in "Ghost Rider" #9. Could that be....Him?
After that point the Ghost Rider takes on the Hulk (#10-11), the Phantom Eagle (#12), the Trapster (#13), and the Orb (#14), as he ends up in Hollywood as a movie stuntman and gets romantically involved with the actress Karen Page. This explains why Daredevil pops up at the end of this collection. By the time we get to the point where the Ghost Rider is fighting Spider-Man, the Thing, Hercules and a bunch of other superheroes in Hell to try and rescue the mysterious Jesus-like figure and save Karen (#18), "Ghost Rider" has jumped a whole lot more than the shark. Writer Tony Isabella creates one of the most convoluted storylines of all time and when the Son of Satan returns to help our hero (#17) trying to figure out what it all means is just not worth the effort. However, of the artists that replaced Ploog I have to say that Frank Robbins did give the book a unique look and his name should be included on the cover instead of Herb Trimpe (Robbins drew four issues included here and George Tuska three, while Trimpe just did the Son of Satan origin).
"Essential Ghost Rider Volume 1" collects together "Marvel Spotlight" #5-12, "Ghost Rider" #1-20, and "Daredevil" #138, which is the penultimate story in the collection because it is a crossover with "Ghost Rider" #20. Also, "Marvel Spotlight" #12 ends up being another crossover because Ghost Rider has his own comic book at that point and the spotlight is now on "The Son of Satan." Chances are that is one Marvel comic book that is not going to get the Essentials treatment, so this may well be the only time you see this "Ominous Origin Issue!" reprinted. In case you were wondering, yes, "Ghost Rider" was better than "The Son of Satan," a note on which I have to end.