My Misspent Youth — Ghost Rider by Gary Friedrich and Tom Sutton

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started reading superhero comics — and probably vocalized about my new hobby at tedious length — I quickly discovered that friends, relatives, and acquaintances were all too happy to gift me with beat-up copies of fantastical classics that were just lying around their respective houses. At the time I became a collector, comic book were still available for purchase just about everywhere, and were basically positioned as an impulse item. People would grab them out of a weird curiosity or in a guess about what might appease a youthful visitor, and then the colorful periodicals would get shoved into magazine baskets or junk drawers until someone stumbled across them and remembered the weird little kid who suddenly couldn’t shut up about how much he loved, loved, loved superheroes. It is through that brand of bygone largesse that I came into possession of a battered copy of Ghost Rider #1.

ghost rider 1

Created by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, along with artist Mike Ploog, Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, cover-dated August 1972, and received a promotion to his own solo title the following year. For the new series, Friedrich teamed with artist Tom Sutton to tell the ongoing story of stunt rider Johnny Blaze who was coerced into a pact with Mephisto, the Marvel Comics stand-in for Satan, leading to his regular transformations into Ghost Rider, a leather jacket–clad, flame-throwing supernatural being. Most notably, his head was a human skull rippling with fire. He fought crime, or maybe did Mephisto’s bidding, or maybe just zipped around as a chaos agent. His purpose was never entirely clear to me. Mostly, Ghost Rider was there, it seemed, to give Marvel an especially badass figure on their roster, the sort of character who young acid rock fans might doodle onto the covers of their Mead notebooks.

ghost rider 3

I puzzled over that comic book, doing my level best to unlock its secrets. Although Ghost Rider was just getting started, his world already felt dense with lore. As opposed to other Marvel titles I read, the outlook of Ghost Rider struck me as grim, burdensome, always ready to collapse into existential disaster. I couldn’t articulate these impressions at the time (especially that last one), but I could feel the thickened gloom as I turned the pages. Threats to the ongoing existence of the entire universe were commonplace in my other comics, and Ghost Rider was still the one that filled me with an unnamable dread.

Realistically, the main problem was that I was simply too young for Ghost Rider when it first landed in my hands. Strangely, considering the boney, scalding visage of the main character, no adult in my sphere came to the reasonable determination that the comic book might not be entirely age-appropriate for me. To them, every comic book was basically the same. They were all meant for kids, right? Meanwhile, my soft, vulnerable psyche was inviting rejuvenated nightmares with every re-read.

ghost rider 2

I was able to contextualize Ghost Rider later on, in both its narrative particulars and, maybe more valuably, in its place within the Marvel publishing scheme. Launching in the early-seventies, Ghost Rider was part of the horror comics revival of the day and also exploiting the era’s keen interest in ludicrous stunt riding, the latter fulfilling the Marvel mandate of incorporating the most sensational pop culture trends. Without unduly impugning the sincerity of all involved creators, Ghost Rider was clearly built to tickle a multitude of teen boy predilections. Understanding that was key to appreciating the comic’s warped charms.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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