This week’s Retro Review takes us back to the 1970s series GHOST RIDER, the Hell cyclist whose career
began in the try-out book MARVEL SPOTLIGHT and was soon rocketed into a series of its own that spanned
81 issues. After the series ended, the character was pretty much forgotten, but was revived several years
later in a newly revamped version of the original—one that I can best describe as being of the “new Coke”
flavor. Still another GR series sprung to life even later as part of Marvel’s largely forgettable 2099 line. This
review concerns the original 1970s series, by far the most imaginative and (in my humblest of opinions) the
only one ya really need to have in your collection.
You may be familiar with the origins of this character, but to the uninitiated, here’s an overly brief summary:
Stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze makes a pact with the devil. Devil collects his due. Blaze is cursed and is soon
inhabited by a demon spirit that takes over the human side of the cyclist. Blaze becomes a living skeleton of
terror and hellfire known as the Ghost Rider. And they lived happily ever after.
During the first 25 or so issues of its run (as well as the 7 issues of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT that starred GR),
GHOST RIDER was kind of a strange enigma. Part demon, part super-hero, the title did not quite follow the
strict horror genre that was evident in Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s brilliant TOMB OF DRACULA series.
Rather, Ghost Rider mixed it up with demons one month, the Incredible Hulk the next. In addition, Johnny
Blaze was soon pulling double-duty as he became a cast member in the short-lived Champions series (a west-
coast super-hero team created by Tony Isabella and inherited by Bill Mantlo; its roster also included the Black
Widow, Angel, Ice Man, Hercules, and probably one or two other characters I’m forgetting). GR battled along
side of Daredevil in a two-part story that also crossed over into the blind super-hero’s own mag, and he
appeared in MARVEL TEAM-UP fighting with Spider-Man.
Following a lengthy run of offbeat stories by writer Tony “the tiger” Isabella, Jim Shooter, clearly in over his
head, hopped aboard and just as quickly hopped back off the series. It was at that time when writer Michael
Fleisher and artist Don Perlin signed on as the creative team. And that’s when the scary fun began.
The onset of Fleisher and Perlin’s collaboration featured a well-crafted two-parter guest starring Dr. Strange,
master of the mystic arts and all around nice guy (though given the amount of green tea he doubtless ingests,
the man could likely benefit from the occasional Altoid). But then, something extremely unusual and brilliant
occurred: The guest appearances by other Marvel characters stopped. There were none. Not a Hulk, Spider-
Man, or Captain America. Not a Ms. Marvel, X-Man, or Human Torch. Perlin and Fleisher took GR on a solo
trip through suburbia; it would last nearly 20 issues in duration before the first established Marvel characters
would begin appearing in the series. Incidentally, one such co-star was the original Ghost Rider (a western
super-hero who appeared in a short-lived 1960s Marvel series and an even shorter series in the 1950s).
Here’s the thing that made Fleisher and Perlin’s treatment of Johnny Blaze so enjoyable. The writer/artist duo
stripped down the character to his roots. Blaze became a drifter, wandering from town to town across the
heartland of America. Like the character of “David” Banner in Incredible Hulk TV series of the time, Johnny
Blaze met an array of new characters each issue, and seldom saw them again. Fleisher’s stories began to
focus on the Jeckyl and Hyde elements of Blaze’s demonic transitions. His writing largely leaned toward
horror, with satanic cults, demonic bounty hunters, and vampire bats taking center stage. Perlin, who was
doing both pencils and inks on the series, captured the demon in a way few artists could hope to imitate. His
panels were dark and moody. The demon’s flaming hell-cycle flowed across the page with a surreal
eloquence. Unlike the artists before him, Perlin did not make the mistake of drawing eyeballs in the demon’s
skull. Rather, he rendered sparks of flame, creating a truly horrific portrayal of a character that Needed to be
portrayed as truly horrific. He depicted Blaze not as a pretty boy with long, flowing hair, but as a kind of down-
on-his-luck has-been, whose hair was often a mess and whose face was often in need of a shave. Moroever,
Perlin’s rendition of Johnny Blaze seemed to quietly accentuate the fact that Blaze was indeed a man
This writer-artist duo literally transformed Johnny Blaze and his demonic alter-ego. Blaze as Ghost Rider was
no longer the west coast crime-fighter from the Champions, but rather, an urban legend that would appear in
times of need, wreak vengeance upon evil doers, and depart into the darkening desert highway in a trail of
orange and crimson flame. That is the crux of Fleisher and Perlin’s work on this series; it is what sets them
apart from their predecessors and their successors. Simply put, it really was magic in the “macabre Marvel
manner.” And this, I believe, seems as good a place as any to segue into this weeks’ review…
Ghost Rider, no. 40 (January 1980 [street date October 1979])
Writer: Michael Fleisher
Artist: Don Perlin
Editor: Roger Stern
In the 1970s, nuclear power was kind of an enigma to the public at large. Most people had heard of it, but few
really understood it or its potential benefits (and dangers). This all changed on March 28, 1979, when an
accident occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, PA. The TMI incident was
the culmination of both human and mechanical error. Here’s how it went down:
A partial core meltdown occurred when an equipment malfunction led to an interruption in the water supply of
the number 2 reactor’s control rods. Plant operators followed predetermined steps to accommodate for the
water flow interruption. A back-up pump was activated; however, the back-up pump’s valve had been
accidentally closed the previous day, so no water entered the cooling loop. Workers then lowered the control
rods deep into the reactor core and subsequently opened a pressure relief valve to release the increasing
build-up of steam. Although this worked, a crucial equipment malfunction occurred: The valve remained open;
it failed to close when the pressure returned to a normal level. Workers next activated the emergency core
cooling system to compensate for the water loss and to preserve the submerged core. Although this
precaution worked, it succeeded only partially because an operator misinterpreted the water level controller
readings. This combination of mechanical failures and operator mistakes resulted in partial core meltdown.
Radioactive gas was released into the atmosphere a few days after the accident; fortunately, the amount of
gas released was insignificant and did not cause harm to local residents. TMI reactor 2 cleanup operations
produced over 10.6 megalitres of tainted water that was processed, stored, and ultimately evaporated safely.
There were no injuries or adverse health effects from the TMI accident. Nevertheless, the accident at TMI
changed the course of nuclear power’s acceptance by a now nervous public, and it brought the potential
dangers of nuclear power into the mainstream media.
In the months and years that followed TMI, it was not atypical to see works of fiction (regardless of the medium
or end product) in which the threat of a total meltdown was the story’s focal point. Which (finally) brings me to
our story at hand.
The tale opens with the Ghost Rider blazing along the side of a speeding passenger train at night in a deluge
of rain and lightning. While the passengers enjoy overpriced bottles of Budweiser and Old Milwaukee in the
club car, GR crosses into the path of the train and races across the tracks to the astonishment of the train’s
crew and passengers. Moments later, he reverts to his human persona of Johnny Blaze. He notices a house
in the distance, but before he can reach it he’s run down by a drunk driver (a fellow so inebriated that he
doesn’t realize he’s hit someone and who doesn’t bother to stop). Fortunately, Blaze is not seriously injured,
and the couple within the house (and older man and his daughter) race to Johnny’s aid and help him inside.
Blaze recognizes the old man as Dr. Thurgood Vance, who was once the country’s foremost scientific
proponent of nuclear power but has become its “most indomitable opponent.” In the back-story we learn that
Vance, his daughter (Angela), and Angela’s husband (Bill), all worked at a top-secret nuclear research facility,
and that an accident occurred that killed Bill and exposed Angela to a high level of radiation. Angela, who was
pregnant at the time of the exposure, gave birth to a baby that was “all mutilated and deformed as a result of
the nuclear accident.” Dr. Vance tells Blaze that he later killed the child with his bare hands in what he
considers “the most morally courageous act I have ever performed in my life.” Dr. Vance was tried for his
crime and served time in prison. However, his crusade against the evils of nuclear power continued following
his release from prison. He takes Blaze into a basement laboratory and shows him a nuclear suit “equipped to
provide anyone who wears it with awesome nuclear powers.” Dr. Vance tells Blaze that he’ll one day wreak
vengeance upon the scientific community that mocked him and his work.
Without warning (and really, when DO they give warning?), a group of gangsters appear. Though they don’t
proclaim themselves as such, I’m assuming they are part of the notorious Kansas Mafioso. They kidnap Dr.
Vance, daughter Angela, and the suit of awesome power and leave Johnny behind. Before Johnny Blaze can
decide upon a course of action, the gangsters escape in their bright-red helicopter. Um, I was kind of lost a bit
with this one. I mean, gangsters with bright-red helicopters? I’ve seen plenty of gangster movies but can’t
recall seeing too many gangsters using helicopters as their method of travel. “Hey Pauly, get the cannoli off
the propeller would ya, they’re for ma. Now get over here an’ help me…I’m tryin’ ta whack this guy here.” Of
course, it IS Kansas. Are there roads in Kansas? I really don’t know. So I’ll do Fleisher a favor and give him
the benefit of the doubt on this one (though one day I will come to him and I will ask of him a favor that he
would be wise not to refuse me, this favor that I will ask of him one day).
It’s tough to feel any sympathy for Dr. Vance. I think the tragic loss of his grandson, coupled perhaps with the
fact that he helped bring about that loss by murdering the child, caused Vance’s “Sane-o-Meter” to be slightly
off balance. The mob holds Dr. Vance’s daughter hostage, but this doesn’t seem to really cause him concern.
He robs banks and kills security guards in his nuclear suit, not to help save his daughter, but rather, to
“[arouse] an apathetic public to the horrifying dangers of nuclear power.”
Blaze, meanwhile, realizes that ordinary Kansas law enforcement is no match for Vance and the Kansas
mobsters with whom he’s allied himself. Thus, he unleashes the persona of Ghost Rider proclaiming that they
“deserve whatever G.R. does to ‘em.” This statement is particularly telling of the series at this point. With this
one sentence, Fleisher has solidified the fact that Blaze and his alter-ego are two separate entities, neither of
whom is apparently responsible for the other’s actions.
The Ghost Rider quickly metes out vengeance upon the majority of the thugs. Vance, however, escapes by
helicopter (and again, I’m going to assume that sometime during his life he learned how to pilot a helicopter
[perhaps at the Corleone Copter School?]—that, or the chopper includes a set of easy-to-fly instructions). Dr.
Vance hightails it to a cabin in the nearby foothills where the gang leader waits with Vance’s daughter. The
lone mobster is delighted to learn that his colleagues have been captured, noting that “now we can just split
the boodle two ways.” (FYI, “boodle” is well regarded by Mafioso scholars as slang for “cannoli” or so my
informant has said.) Vance, however, has his own agenda. He kills the thug, declaring that the stolen money
will be used “to advance the cause of bringing a halt to the deadly spread of nuclear power.” Ah, Dr. Vance, if
only you could have given a few elocution lessons to George W. Bush and explained that it’s not actually
Angela is astonished as her father reveals his next, and deadliest, plan—to destroy the Wichita-Karcinoma
nuclear power plant. Angela protests, asking him to stop to consider all the innocent lives that will be lost
should he undertake such a venture. He reacts by giving her a hard slap across the face and, noting that
even his own daughter has turned against him, leaves. GR appears and assures Angela that her dad will
soon be tasting the sweet, scrumptious flavor of Hell fire. Angela, doting daughter to the end, pleads with GR:
“He’s my father! Maybe I can still make him listen to reason.” Well, you probably think you know where this
one is going, though you may be surprised. Vance breaks into the power plant’s control room and the workers
panic and flee. Hearing footsteps behind him, Dr. Vance lashes out with a lethal blast of radiation from his
nuclear suit and realizes, too late, that he’s just given his own daughter a delicious hollow center.
Still in denial for his actions, Vance proclaims that he didn’t kill his daughter. Rather, THEY did—ie, politicians,
nuclear regulators, lazy journalists, the Philadelphia 76ers, and ESPECIALLY Herman’s Hermits, whose
popular single, “Mr. Vance you’ve got a hollow daughter,” no doubt hit very close to home. Vance causes a
huge slab of equipment to drop upon GR, literally crushing the demon beneath tons of metal. Yet not even
this set back can delay the spirit of vengeance.
A bit of an egoist, Dr. Vance flies above the nuclear plant, realizing the meltdown will soon be at hand and that
he will doubtless be killed in the blast; he envisions himself as a kind of modern-day Nathan Hale, “I regret that
I have but one life to give for my country.” One? But what about all those dead mobsters?
Seconds later, in an amazing demonstration of power, GR guns the throttle on his demonic motorcycle and
scales one of the plant’s concrete cooling towers. His cycle jets from the top of the tower and collides with
Vance’s helicopter in an amazing explosion and the wreckage crashes violently to the ground. Moments later,
the skeletal figure emerges from the flames and with his right hand conjures forth the Satanic cycle. He rides
into the night, “leaving behind a trail of ashes and parched, scorched earth.”
Mafia jokes aside, Perlin and Fleisher’s tale of one man’s obsession is as relevant today as it was 25 years
ago, perhaps more so. Sadly, as history has shown us, fanatics will stop at nothing to see that their
“message” is heard— it happened in Munich during the 1972 Olympic games, it happened in Oklahoma City,
New York, and it’s happened a lot more than you or I probably know. So if anything, the character of Dr.
Thurgood Vance is, to me at least, as real as Tim McVeigh or Mr. Bin Laden.
As for the visuals, Perlin’s art is perfect for this tale. Dark. Moody. Understated. I couldn’t imagine anyone else
executing this story with such perfection. For example, Perlin’s portrayal of Dr. Vance within the nuclear suit is
ideal—it’s a clumsy-looking suit, almost comical in design, like something from a 1950s horror movie. But the
actions Vance takes while wearing the suit quickly dispel anything humorous about his physical appearance.
As for the demon, well, GR and Perlin are the perfect combination. GR is portrayed as menacing, not
muscular; demonic, not super-heroic. And the flame cycle never looked better.
The GR stories that Michael Fleisher and Don Perlin crafted in the late 1970s to early 1980s are among the
high points of mainstream horror comics. During a time when it was standard fare to super-heroize many
horror titles (probably in hopes of attracting non-horror fans), Perlin and Fleisher’s GHOST RIDER stories,
like Wolfman and Colan’s aforementioned TOMB OF DRACULA series, gave us good reason to be afraid of
the dark. Just read one late at night, alone, in your basement; as you make that long walk up the darkened
stairs to bed, you’ll know what I mean.
G h o s t R i d e r 40 (J a n u a r y 1 9 8 0)
d a v i d y u r k o v i c h