Although I don't know too many other people who share my love of comics, the DM from my D&D game is a die-hard Ghost Rider devotee. Therefore, I was pleased to break the news of the new Essential Ghost Rider to him last month. He was certainly intrigued at the prospect of reading the earliest 28 or so appearances of Johnny Blaze for a mere $17, although he would have preferred a similar collection of Dan Ketch, the second brash biker to don the mantle of the Ghost Rider (The Blaze-Ketch debate does seem like one of the more one-sided arguments in geekdom, certainly more so than your Kirk-Picard or Joel-Mike disputes). Once again I'm forced to assume that the book's arrival was dictated by Hollywood, having been meant to coincide with the now-postponed Nic Cage movie, as is standard procedure (although I will gladly eat those words in my upcoming Essential Spider-Man 7 review), but fortunately the Essential is here to stay. And so my friend and I, the aficionado and the neophyte, obtained our copies and settled down to enjoy them at the same time. I had hoped that our experiences could have been equally satisfactory, but it is my sad duty to report that it was not the case.
In 1972, seasoned Marvel scribe Gary Friedrich ostensibly created the Ghost Rider for the purpose of wedding two of the hottest fads at the time: motorcycling and Satanism. In the premiere issue, orphaned stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze learns that his beloved adoptive father, Craig "Crash" Simpson, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given one month to live. And so, doing what any rational human being would do in a similar situation, Johnny conjures up Satan and deals his soul for the cure. Optimistic after hearing the Dark Prince's promise that Crash will not die of cancer, Johnny gets to enjoy his business transaction for three more weeks until Crash perishes in a motorcycle accident (Man, if you can't trust the Devil...). So naturally ol' Scratch shows up to collect his prize and transform Blaze into a servant of the Inferno, but the blasphemous process is halted halfway by the intervention of Roxanne, Johnny's foster sister and burgeoning love interest. Consigned to an existence as a quasi-demonic entity fighting against the foul machinations of Hell, Blaze pledges to serve the forces of good with his powers borne from the touch of ultimate evil. From then on, the streets of the Marvel Universe would be haunted by the Ghost Rider, a hard-bitten hero with a serious chip and a fiery skull on his shoulders.
As Ghost Rider hits the road for the first time, he meets plenty of colorful new friends and foes. Foremost among his early rogues' gallery is the Witch-Woman (just try to keep that Eagles' song out of your head), a young Native American college student who becomes Satan's catspaw thanks to her cultist roommate. Despite many early appearances, she drops off the radar rather quickly which is a shame. I felt she served as a cathartic example of what Johnny would have become had the Devil got his way. The Orb returns after his tussle with GR and Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #15 and leads Blaze on a manic chase across L.A.'s Ventura Highway (just try to keep that America song out of your head). By the way, neither the Team-Up issue nor Johnny's oft-mentioned Marvel Two-in-One appearance are included in this volume; you'll have to scare up the first Essentials of both series for those stories. Blaze also befriends Daredevil's former enemy the Stunt-Master (They both like motorcycles and live in Southern California so why can't they get along?), then he leads a small cadre of bikers in repulsing the Hulk (no, seriously), and later becomes the final opponent ever to face the WWI hero Phantom Eagle (because WWII heroes just sell more comic books). Lastly, Johnny finds a powerful albeit unlikely ally against the schemes of Satan with Daimon Hellstrom, the self-styled Son of Satan (You just couldn't lose money on a Satan story during the Nixon administration, could you? The nation must have been Satan-crazy!).
However, you may be disheartened to learn that the Ghost Rider is not only cursed by the Devil but also by extremely inconsistent and wishy-washy plotting. In the beginning, Johnny Blaze was transformed into the Ghost Rider against his will when the sun went down and he possessed the powers of super-strength and durability, hellfire projection, and he could instantly create a motorcycle (and only a motorcycle, apparently). After Tony Isabella took over scripting duties from Friedrich he took away the bike-creation perk and made it so that the flaming visage of the Ghost Rider arises whenever "there's danger around" (Ridey-Sense ... tingling! Sorry, couldn't help myself). Next he set his sights on the frequently kidnapped (even by superheroes' girlfriends' standards) Roxanne and made her leave her half-demon honey only to quickly bring her back in the clumsiest way imaginable (I'm not even going to dignify it with an explanation). Plus, the villain Snake-Dance was introduced with awesome snake powers like summoning hordes of snakes or shapeshifting into a giant snake, but then he claims in his second issue that he's a charlatan and all of that was just smoke and mirrors (Buh!). Initially the Orb claimed to be a vengeful apparition; once the second issue started, he was suddenly back in his old flesh and blood. In the last story arc, the man who put a million dollar bounty on guest-star Karen Page was revealed to be Death's-Head, Karen's criminally insane and allegedly deceased father, and once he has her in his clutches he pulls of his mask and becomes another Daredevil villain entirely with only the slightest motive for having wanted Karen in the first place. There are so many 180 degree plot turns like this in this book; I don't think many of them were intended to be surprise twist endings, I think they were indications that the writers changed their horses in midstream. From reading the Ghost Rider section of my Marvel Encyclopedia 5: Marvel Knights, I know only to expect more complete character overhauls in future stories, primarily that some writer down the road will claim that the Satan who empowered the Ghost Rider is actually the Silver Surfer's malefactor Mephisto, who is also a different Satan than the Satan who sired the Son of Satan, who isn't actually "the real Satan" either. It's starting to feel like my head's the one that's on fire.
Frankly, my head kept on hurting until the final page was turned. The early stories about the cat-and-mouse game with the Devil held my interest, but the sudden restructuring into standard superhero brawls with the Trapster was a gearshift that stalled my enthusiasm. I have it on good authority that there will be better, steadier Ghost Rider tales in the future. But between the trite Faustian origin and the writers who simply cannot make up their minds on the direction of the series, I think this inaugural collection is going to be a tough sell for non-fans. And so, with sincere apologies to my good buddy, I'm afraid that Marvel's literal Hell's Angel doesn't quite lay claim to my Essential-loving soul.