Pity poor Ghost Rider, one of the most misunderstood characters in the Marvel Universe. For outsiders, the hero is more of a cheap icon to be postered on the walls of angry tweens or painted on the side of a panel van that belongs to a guy who bangs constantly. It's kind of tragic that most people only really associate the character with the laughably bad Nicolas Cage movie adaptations.
But the name "Ghost Rider" dates back to even BEFORE the Marvel age of comics, with his debut in 1949 as a half-undead masked cowboy clad in white (for a completely different publisher, who went out of business and Marvel just kind of "took" once the rights lapsed). It wasn't until 1972 when Roy Thomas (who had just succeeded Stan Lee as Editor-In-Chief) tasked writer Gary Friedrich to update the hero by trading in his white stallion for an oh-so iconic Harley Davidson stunt cycle. With the help of artist Mike Ploog they gave the world Johnny Blaze, the outlaw stuntrider with a backstory more tragic than The Punisher, cursed after making a deal with the devil (the LITERAL devil, which was pretty badass for the time).
But when I say "Ghost Rider" that's probably not QUITE the image you had in mind, is it? The high circus-performer collar, the tights, the anemic motorcycle all seem a little old fashioned, right? No when you hear the name Ghost Rider THIS is probably what comes to mind...
In the year 1990, Ghost Rider went from "Evel Knievel's peyote-soaked Easy-Rider Elvis Cosplay" to "One of the Best-Selling Comics Series in Marvel History" in a single issue. Ghost Rider #1 by Howard Mackie and Javier Saltares just might be the RADDEST 47 pages of that decade. Let's take a look and see why.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Danny Ketch, our new protagonist, who is immediately mugged by teenagers within his first two pages while looking for harry Houdini's grave with his sister. This serves as a proper introduction because Danny is meant to resonate with the 90s comics audience of kids who (speaking from personal experience) ALSO had a lack of female friends and were easily intimidated by pasty white kids. Things take a turn for the worse however, when Danny's sister Barb witnesses a murder by group of GANGSTER NINJAS and she is promptly shot with freaking crossbow
Danny carries his wounded sister to a nearby junkyard but it's no use, there's NINJA GANGSTERS hot on their trail and time is running out. As she bleeds out under a pile of scrap metal, a faint glow can be seen, it calls out to Danny, who is drawn to a mysterious motorcycle, one far too new to be thrown away. Losing all hope, he places his hand upon a glowing sigil and he is imbued with a blinding light that consumes his whole body. As the NINJA GANGSTERS close in, a new hero emergers in a flash of streaking flame. We are given one of the most kickass introductions to a superhero ever in the next splash page. Just LOOK at the raw testosterone on display:
The damsel in his arms, the motorcycle that looks like Kaneda's bike from Akira went through a goth phase, THE FREAKED OUT NINJA GANGSTERS. If there is a single image that screams "YOU ARE READING A COMIC BOOK FROM 1990" more I'd love to see it. This one display of Speed and Power tells you everything you need to know about this character and for a generation of fanboys it was burned into their collective retinas forever. Needless to say, new Ghost Rider makes short work of the NINJA GANGSTERS and attracts the attention of the police, who are VERY suspicious of the big spooky fire chain man standing next to the dying woman.
So Ghost Rider beats the shit out of the cops.
I mean really he just slaps them silly and wrecks their whole deal.
Going by panel count, at this point in the comic Ghost Rider has spent more time messing with policemen than saving innocents or fighting criminals.
Even in open pursuit, the boys in blue are powerless before the Spirit of Vengeance, who shows us that his new ride isn't a mere flammable tron-cycle, but instead a hellfire-powered miniature Batmobile.
Folks, I'm not here to get political, but if there's one thing cooler than beating up NINJA GANGSTERS, it's SMASHING THE CRAP OUT OF POLICE CRUISERS with your SKULL SHAPED COW-CATCHER. Not instructing you to go out and start smashing the state, I'm just distantly observing that when a superhero acts like a jerk to cops, it automatically makes him COOLER. But all that coolness ceases at the break of Dawn when Danny Ketch returns to his human form and visits his sister in the hospital, where he promptly cries like a little baby.
This is one of the key things that made Danny Ketch different (I mean, personality wise, visually he's basically drawn as a Peter Parker clone). He's scared, unsure of himself, emotional. Meanwhile the new Ghost Rider is powerful, gruff, and acts with no hesitation. As opposed to the previous version of the character, who transformed from "Johnny Blaze" to "Johnny Blaze with his head on fire" this version of Ghost Rider mirrors the audience's insecurities, and embodies their power fantasy of "being an unstoppable demonic linebacker in a cooooool leather jacket".
A lot more happens in this issue than what I'm showing you. There's mysterious canisters, the teen bully gang comes back, and the Kingpin is introduced as a criminal rival to the NINJA GANGSTERS, but that would leave you with too many cliffhangers. The whole run is a fascinating glimpse into the id of early 90s comicbooks. For years after this issue, Ghost Rider would be a vital presence in the Marvel Universe, adding him to your book for a crossover was like printing money and he was just as popular as other "gritty" characters like Wolverine, The Punisher, and Venom. Drama over movie rights and tie-ins had sidelined Danny Ketch for a while (though Jason Aaron's work with the entire Ghost Rider mythos has to be one of the most Herculean efforts of resolving canon ever). You can still read these iconic stories digitally on Kindle or comiXology (disclosure, we'll get a commission if you buy it through that link).
You'll even see more panels as hilariously dated as this one!