Agents of SHIELD Season 4 is coming to a close and what a season it is. What made it really cool is its Ghost Rider and Framework arcs. The LMD arc is okay too. We wouldn’t have the framework if it weren’t for that. As Season 4 wraps up and ABC is keeping everyone in suspense regarding Season 5, Ghost Rider is slated to return on the season finale which could turn a fascinating finale even cooler. As a fan, I’m more concerned with Ghost Rider, hoping he goes on to Season 5 or gets a spinoff series as earlier speculated.
Let’s talk more about the Ghost Rider character I fell in love with including his history. If I’m to be asked who my favorite superhero is, it would be Ghost Rider. No, not Superman, not Batman, not Iron Man and not Spider-Man. Admittedly, I consider myself a vengeful guy. I’m a very nice and pleasant guy but cross me, and shit goes down. I believe in the acceleration of karma on evildoers but was raised not to actually pursue it. Ghost Rider is the one that does that.
Ghost Rider is my all-time favorite superhero at least, the Danny Ketch version which re-popularized the mantle; but I’ve grown to like Johnny Blaze as well. There’s more than one? Isn’t Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze in the movies, now it’s Robbie Reyes on TV? Yes, but later on that. Ever since I saw Ghost Rider on a bootleg Flair Card during the trading card days of the 90s, I took a liking to this intensely interesting hero. He has the makings of a villain, the burning skull, the leather, the jeans and the spikes; he wasn’t like all other heroes in spandex that I knew at the time, like Batman or Superman. (Note the year)
Ghost Rider Volume 3, Issue 34 was the first issue of Ghost Rider I read. I immediately liked the art’s dark tone, but earlier issues by other artists were actually better. The following issue fixed my concerns with the bike, but other artists still drew it the modern way. Note I also like occult-oriented TV shows and books which is also a reason why I took an immediate liking to Ghost Rider.
Ghost Riders in Comics
Now, this article is for the benefit of everyone who wants to know more about Ghost Rider and are confused about Ghost Rider’s story, including those who know him from the 2007 movie starring Nicholas Cage and stumbled upon the convoluted world of Ghost Riders in the comics. Yes, there’s more than one Ghost Rider.
Let’s get the various versions out of the way before moving on to demystify the Ghost Rider character.
- The 2007 and 2012 movies centered on the most popular version, that of Johnny Blaze, stunt cyclist who made a deal with the devil to save his father in exchange for his soul. We know how the 2007 movie turned out but more on that later. This Ghost Rider was conceived in 1972.
- Made in the 90s, the second popular version of Ghost Rider was Danny Ketch, a Brooklyn teenager who stumbled on a mystical bike in a junkyard and turned into the Ghost Rider when his sister Barbara was critically injured in an attack. This Ghost Rider is the version in the above images. His appearance, costume and powers was actually used in the 2007 movie. This version actually revived the Ghost Rider franchise and was so popular; he had appearances on most major Marvel comics. His popularity also sparked the interest into making the 2007 movie.
- Another version, predating Blaze and Ketch was Carter Slade, who was also used in the 2007 movie as an Old West Ghost Rider. He was conceived in 1949, but his name was changed into Phantom Rider so as not to confuse him with the motorcycle-riding versions. Why? His story is somewhat different and had little relation back then with Blaze and Ketch. His stories are set in the 1800s. He was given his powers and outfit by a Native American medicine man. In the movie, Carter Slade was also named the Caretaker, a character more associated with the Danny Ketch version.
- Another horse-riding version was featured in a miniseries called Trail of Tears. This time, the host is a confederate soldier named Travis Parham out to get revenge on those who murdered his friend Caleb and Caleb’s family.
- The next Ghost Rider in comics is a woman from Nicaragua named Alejandra. Johnny Blaze wanted to give up the Ghost Rider in exchange for a normal life. A mysterious man named Adam, supposedly the Biblical one, helped Johnny and the spirit moved on to possess Alejandra. Alejandra possessed the power for a while but reverted back to Blaze.
- The most recent Ghost Rider is a Latino named Robbie Reyes in LA. Like Slade, his origin and powers also differ to Blaze, Alejandra and Ketch. Instead of a bike, he rides a flaming 69 Dodge Charger. He later met with John Blaze and Blaze became his erstwhile mentor.
Everyone Knows About Ghost Rider in Film
Now, except for the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider, the others are somewhat inter-related. With regards to the story of the Ghost Riders, let’s begin with the perspective of the 2007 movie for the benefit of non-fans. Also, this seeks to resolve some confusion about the mess of stories regarding the Ghost Rider which began about two-thirds of the Danny Ketch stories.
The 2007 movie centered on the most popular version, that of Johnny Blaze, who was also the current Ghost Rider at the time the movie was made. The movie’s origin story was close to the comics but not quite. In the comics, Johnny was indeed the son of Barton Blaze and Naomi Kale. Naomi left her family, and Barton later died doing a stunt when Johnny was still young. Johnny was adopted by stunt cyclist Crash Simpson who became a father figure to him. Simpson’s daughter Roxanne later became Johnny’s love interest.
In the movie, Roxanne was simply a local girl who fell in love with Johnny. Barton Blaze took on Crash Simpson’s role from the comics. When Barton was dying of cancer, Johnny made a deal with the devil (Mephisto, short for Mephistopheles which is another name for the devil) so Barton would be cured. Barton was indeed cured but instead died doing a stunt. Blaze was angry at Mephisto for tricking him, but Mephisto was determined to get Johnny’s soul. In the movie, Mephisto imbued Johnny with the power of the Ghost Rider.
Things were different in the comics. Barton’s dead, Crash was dying of cancer. Blaze made the deal. Crash still dies. Mephisto claims Johnny’s soul, but Roxanne intervenes and identifies herself as a pure soul that drives away the devil. Mephisto angrily retreats but not before bonding Johnny Blaze with a demon which would later turn him into the motorcycle-riding, flaming-skulled, hellfire-powered Ghost Rider at night. This Ghost Rider doesn’t have a flaming motorcycle though his bike does have special properties, He doesn’t use a chain nor does he have a penance stare like in the 2007 movie. His costume resembles that of a stunt cyclist. Tights instead of leathers as seen below.
Johnny Blaze, Daniel Ketch and Howard Mackie
The demon bonded to Johnny would later be known as Zarathos who would increasingly try to take over him. In the span of Johnny’s adventures, he would later meet the villain named Centurious, a seemingly immortal being who has a grudge on Zarathos. Blaze gets rid of Zarathos using an artifact called the soul crystal. Centurious and Zarathos are both trapped and seemingly end up fighting each other in the crystal forever. Blaze moves on, marries Roxanne and raises a family. Happy ending? Not quite.
Years later, teenager Danny Ketch and his sister Barbara walks inside Cypress Hills Cemetery, New York and become caught in a crossfire between two criminal organizations. Barbara is mortally wounded by an arrow to the chest, and Daniel carries her to a nearby junkyard. Threatened with death and desperate for help, Danny finds a junked motorcycle with a glowing gas cap. When his blood soaked hands touches the gas cap, he became Ghost Rider.
This Ghost Rider’s powers and appearance, his bike as well as his obsession with vengeance and innocent blood became an instant hit with fans and me as well. He became so popular that he was featured in most Marvel comic books and animated series. He also revived interest in Marvel’s supernatural lineup made up of Blade and the Nightstalkers, Morbius the Living Vampire and the Darkhold Redeemers.
This Ghost Rider goes on to fight his own villain lineup while trying to find out his true identity. He doesn’t remember who he is but blindly goes about his purpose of avenging the spilling of innocent blood. His story eventually leads to his connection to Zarathos starting with the return of John Blaze.
John Blaze returns to destroy the demon that haunted him in order for him to have peace of mind but later finds out that the spirit inside Danny Ketch is not Zarathos but something entirely different. However, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of Zarathos’ story. John then gains his own powers after being exposed to Ghost Rider’s hellfire. He is able to channel hellfire through his shotgun (as seen in the 2007 movie) and command a hellfire bike with flaming wheels of his own. John later gets involved in Ghost Rider’s adventures leading to a spinoff called Spirits of Vengeance. The spirits of vengeance, along with Marvel’s other supernatural heroes then fight an ancient evil called Lilith, mother of demons and succeed.
Writer Howard Mackie, who was involved since the first issue wanted to connect the stories of this Ghost Rider and Zarathos. First, Danny meets up with a character named Caretaker, a member of an ancient race called The Blood seeking to mentor the spirit within Danny. The Caretaker in the 2007 movie was a nod to this character but was made into Carter Slade a nod to Marvel’s first Ghost Rider. Danny later learns that he can summon Ghost Rider at will as opposed to him needing to touch his bike’s gas cap.
Then, a mysterious villain orchestrates attacks on Ghost Rider and Blaze. Besides, the mysterious villain, Mephisto gets involved and introduces Vengeance. A more menacing Ghost Rider look-alike akin to Spider-Man’s Venom. Vengeance wants revenge on Zarathos for an unknown reason and like Blaze goes after Ghost Rider.
The mysterious villain attacks Blaze’s Quentin Carnival which Blaze inherited from the Simpsons and Vengeance joins in. Blaze and Ghost Rider temporarily are taken away from the battle by Mephisto who is also curious as to Ghost Rider’s identity which confirms that Ghost Rider, at least in Mephisto’s eyes isn’t Zarathos. Both make it back. The battle seems hopeless until one of Blaze’s carnival staff magically destroys the attackers and almost destroys Vengeance. The mysterious villain later reveals himself as Centurious who somehow got out of the Soul Crystal. Lilith returns and then teams up with Centurious, both wanting an artifact called the Medallion of Power.
Caretaker describes the medallion as a powerful magical artifact which was used by The Blood with the help of some spirits of vengeance in the fight against a once-powerful Zarathos. Zarathos was then a powerful demon who competes with Mephisto in the collection of souls. Mephisto then enslaved Zarathos when he was weakened in battle with the Blood and the Spirits of Vengeance. The Medallion was later broken into four pieces and given to several families to be kept through the generations.
Lilith and Centurious attack Ghost Rider and Blaze. In a subsequent battle, Blaze defeats Vengeance then Caretaker later convinces Vengeance to go with him. Through Centurious, they find out that shards of the Medallion of power was within Blaze and Ketch. Blaze, Ketch and Vengeance team up to defeat Lilith and Centurious. When Centurious is defeated, a newly-reformed and powerful Zarathos appears, all the time hiding within Centurious piggy-backing in his escape from the soul crystal. Ghost Rider and the others escape, and through Caretaker, Blaze and Ketch find out that they’re actually brothers.
When Caretaker explained the origin of the medallion and the Spirits of Vengeance, a panel shows more than three spirits which teased fans that there could be more than three (excluding the Phantom Rider type). This would haunt fans for the rest of the series and would later be resolved.
The Danny Ketch story is integral here as it plays a large part of how the rest of Ghost Rider’s story goes. So far so good, the story seems to be solid. Why did Vengeance team up with Ghost Rider and Blaze? When Blaze fought vengeance and almost killed him, Vengeance turned out to be a cop name Michael Badilino, the son of an earlier Badilino who was fried by the earlier Ghost Rider (Blaze/Zarathos) and went crazy and killed his family. Driven by revenge, Michael made a deal with Mephisto to get revenge on Ghost Rider. Mephisto actually knew a part of the medallion was in Michael and the demon simply awakened the spirit within Michael which was bonded to the piece. Writer Howard Mackie made the story as if Mephisto had long orchestrated for the Medallion of Power to be brought together, all the way back since he first approached John Blaze. Dan and Johnny each held a piece within themselves.
In the 90s while Marvel’s mutants and the Avengers were fighting Onslaught, Marvel’s supernatural heroes including Dr. Strange were busy fighting Lilith and Zarathos’ forces. Lilith and her Lilin were defeated when the Spirits of Vengeance used the Medallion of Power to send them back to their dimension but unfortunately brought back Zarathos’ own followers known as the Fallen, powerful former members of the Blood. Long story short, the heroes which include Blaze, Vengeance, Morbius, Blade, Doctor Strange, Hannibal King, Frank Drake seemingly kill Zarathos and the Fallen but Dan and Ghost Rider die in the end. Vengeance temporarily takes the Ghost Rider mantle.
A new villain, Anton Hellgate resurrects Ghost Rider by bombarding Cypress Hills cemetery with mysterious energies. He later reveals himself to the spirits of vengeance and inadvertently causes the death of John’s wife Roxanne, and their children go missing. John gets despondent, and the spirits go their separate ways. After this, the medallion ceases to matter for now as Ghost Rider moves on to a different path without writer Howard Mackie.
The Divergence and Ivan Velez
Blaze goes on his own adventures in search of his missing kids who were taken by another Blood member named Regent. It turns out that Roxanne, before dying promised the children to him in some kind of deal. Blaze escapes the limelight after this. Vengeance also goes his separate way but goes crazy later on in a mission for SHIELD against the organization known as The Hand. This is the part where things change from a seemingly concrete Ghost Rider origin to a confusing one.
The writer who replaced Howard Mackie begins to set up Ghost Rider’s origin when Ghost Rider and Blaze reconcile to go after a crazy Vengeance on a murder spree. Ghost Rider and Vengeance fight and while fighting, Vengeance uses the penance stare on Ghost Rider which results in a strange effect. Ghost Rider sees a woman being burned at the stake which he considers as his “sin.” Gaining some sanity, Vengeance destroys himself and takes Hellgate and his minions with him leaving Ghost Rider unstable.
Because of the resurgence of the suppressed memory, powerful spirits known as the Furies are released tasked to kill Ghost Rider. The furies were apparently summoned as a curse by the burning woman. Ghost Rider and Blaze later find out about the burning woman with the help of Dr. Strange and sorceress Jennifer Kale. The burning woman was actually Ghost Rider’s wife, Magdalene. Ghost Rider was then known as a man named Noble Kale and the period was during early colonial America.
This is where writer Howard Mackie and Ivan Velez’s stories begin to get conflicted. Left me scratching my head for sure. Caretaker described earlier that Ghost Rider and Zarathos’ history go back for millennia. The events described here go back only a few hundred years. This is where Ghost Rider lost me and probably a lot of Howard Mackie/Ghost Rider fans. Now, a writer has to be given a certain degree of freedom to do his job effectively. Ivan Velez had been okay so far, up to the final issue of Volume 3. What this reader doesn’t appreciate is him ignoring what Howard Mackie had built since issue 1. For me, Salvador Larocca’s art improved a lot during his run. Unfortunately, the series went downhill after another artist change.
Before, despite the story, the art was intense under Salvador Larocca who went on to pencil the X-Men. However, manga and anime came into popularity and creeped into the comics scene. Uncanny X-Men was great under Joe Madureira, but Ghost Rider suffered under artist Pop Mahn. I hated to admit it, but the art sucked. I could live with the new costume and even thought that it would be cool as a manifestation of a higher power level for the character, like in Dragonball Z, in case Ghost Rider fought toucher opponents. But the art really sucked. I’d rather if Brett Blevins returned who was the guy who penciled the first Ghost Rider issue I ever bought which was Ghost Rider 34. The return of the original artist Mark Texeira (Issue 1-26) unfortunately didn’t help the failing book. The book was eventually cancelled before the final issue due to Marvel Comics almost going into bankruptcy. Issue 94 was a victim of Marvel’s financial dilemma as Marvel had to go anorexic and go bare-bones (pun intended). The final issue of volume 3 was never published until years later as part of marketing the 2007 Ghost Rider film.
Back to the story, they discover that Ghost Rider was actually a man named Noble Kale son of a pastor of a small town. A woman named Magdalena came to town during a harsh winter as part of an older version of the Quentin Carnival. She later stayed to become Noble’s wife. The two later had a child. One night, Magdalena discovers that the pastor was actually a warlock who uses dark magic to ensure the town’s prosperity. To hide his secret, the pastor accused her of witchcraft and was to be burned at the stake. Noble tried to stop it but was tortured and kept away. Magdalena was burned at the stake but not before cursing the town by summoning the Furies. The first victim was Noble’s little brother. To stop the furies, Pastor Kale made a deal with Mephisto in exchange for Noble’s soul. Noble was imbued with the power of the spirit of vengeance and became Ghost Rider and defeated the furies. Pastor Kale then offered Noble’s son to the Ghost Rider to eat, but Noble would rather kill himself than do the horrible act. Mephisto then set to claim Noble’s soul but instead was stopped by the archangel Uriel because Noble’s soul was too pure for hell. They settled for a compromise where Noble would stay in a void and inhabit the bodies of his bloodline to mete vengeance whenever innocent blood is spilled.
This origin story by writer Ivan Velez sought to bring Judeo-Christianity back into the Ghost Rider mythos.
It’s not exactly new since it was explored also in the Johnny Blaze (Volume 2) stories. The 70s was a time when the horror theme was quite popular with news of Satanism up ‘til the early 80s. It’s a bit of struggle to pinpoint where God’s pantheon exists within the Marvel universe of cosmic beings, Beyonders, Celestials, Asgard, Olympus and other pantheons. Heck, even angel Angela from Image Comics’ Spawn series came to Marvel and became Thor’s sister. Her Heven, is described to be a detached 10th realm from the original nine realms of Asgardian mythology. Since Angela is identified as an angel in the Image Comics universe, Heven would be synonymous with the Judeo-Christian heaven and at the same time, be the detached tenth realm. Marvel prefers not to describe everything in detail since these issues can rub certain people the wrong way. Before we go crazy here, let’s move on.
This story is later expanded to Dan and Johnny’s real mother Naomi Kale who was a Ghost Rider herself. It’s unknown though if Noble is aware of himself within Naomi or he is as amnesiac as he is with Danny. Naomi left the family in order to find a way to release Johnny of the curse. She made an unknown deal where Johnny would become free of the curse but she didn’t know that despite her efforts, Barbara would be next in line and that Johnny would later become a different Ghost Rider himself. Naomi dies presumably from cancer and was forgotten until the final issues of Danny Ketch Ghost Rider.
Ghost Rider, with the help of Blaze managed to stop The Furies and is again alone until Blackheart, current ruler of hell hatched a plan to destroy Ghost Rider by creating more “spirits of vengeance.” Pao Fu, from an unfortunate Chinese illegal immigrant; Wallow, from a suicide victim suffering from depression which is very different from the Wallow from the first Ghost Rider film, and Doghead from a Latino immigrant and his dog. They attacked Ghost Rider, seemingly killed him and brought him to Hell.
In hell, Ghost Rider is revived by a kiss from Black Rose (the corrupted form of deceased Roxanne Blaze). Blackheart separated the spirit of Noble Kale and Danny Ketch leaving Dan on Earth while for some reason, Blackheart sought to marry Noble Kale with Pao Fu and Black Rose. On Earth, everything seemed to be fine for Dan until Ghost Rider’s memories start to overwhelm him and for some unknown reason, Naomi’s spirit needed those memories to be brought to Noble Kale. Off to hell they go. The marriage in hell turned out to be a farce and Blackheart actually wanted to play with his food before killing it. With the help of Dan, Naomi and the hellbound Vengeance, they thwarted Blackheart’s plan to ruin the prophecy wherein the angel of Death is sent to end the ruler of Hell, who happens to be Blackheart. Dan returns Noble Kale’s memories to Ghost Rider who remembers that he is, in fact, the angel of death and proceeds to kill Blackheart. With Blackheart gone, Noble Kale, Ghost Rider, becomes the ruler of Hell. Dan returns to Earth to live a normal life. Roxanne is resurrected and returned to Blaze. Roxanne becomes short-lived though as future writers didn’t have this final issue to work from. Noble Kale goes back to Earth in order to find himself and continue his adventures as Ghost Rider. Vengeance becomes ruler of hell by proxy.
After this, I tried so hard to search on when Mephisto actually returned to hell after he was killed by Blackheart in the trade paperback The Dark Design. That story featured Ghost Rider, Wolverine and Punisher. Mephisto just came back, end of story. Blackheart is also inexplicably alive again in some other comic. Well, that’s Marvel.
The franchise seemed dead for the rest of the 90s until they brought back John Blaze as the Ghost Rider in a series called Hammer Lane. According to a blog I read earlier, Danny Ketch, formerly a license to print money became a toxic character within the company despite his Ghost Rider’s costume and power set getting used in the Ghost Rider film. Because the last issue of Danny Ketch’s Ghost Rider wasn’t published, Roxanne didn’t make it in this series and is presumed dead which extends all the way to Blaze’s long-running series Vicious Cycle. Let’s assume she died in-between these events. So did Blaze’s kids, Craig and Emma despite him finding them at the end of his short-lived ongoing Blaze series. It also wasn’t explained how he returned to having the flaming skull while having a similar costume and power set like Dan’s. Zarathos, who supposedly died has reconstituted within Johnny, and the spirit that resided in him when Zarathos was absent is inexplicably gone. I will have to speculate that the power Blaze had was simply residual energy from the part of the medallion that was within him. Anyway, Zarathos is back but in a minor capacity, no longer the godlike being he was when he first returned. It was on and off when it came to Johnny Blaze in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Check out Part 2 of Ghost Rider De-mystified here to continue on.