Friday, 3 June 2016

Ghost Rider #25 (May 1992)

J-Max was challenged to review 30 issues of Ghost Rider in (roughly) 30 days. Should J-Max succeed he shall earn his freedom (probably not). However should he fail in this task then he shall be subjected to an attack by Bees...DEADLY BEES.

So let's join him for his review of Ghost Rider #25

You Can't Go Home Again.

Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Ron Wagner (artist), Gregory Wright (colourist), Mike Witherby (inker).

Overview: Dan receives a phonecall from an old "friend".

1 DAY UNTIL Beemageddon!

Issue 25, the big milestone issue, you know that because the book proclaims it on the front cover. Up until this point, Ghost Rider had been really good with avoiding gimmicky covers other than that issue 15 glow in the dark cover which I could never get to work. Before turning to page one, I was struggling to get past a pop up section in the middle of the book and hold it flat so I didn’t have any immediate spoilers literally hit me in the face.

By the time the comic had arrived at its third year, Mackie had written himself into a corner. We still had no origin story which wouldn’t have bothered a reader too much were it not hammered in their faces almost every issue seven through eighteen like some school bully jeering at you from across the playground. But, it seems, either to increase sales by having privy information that readers lack or simply due to not having written one yet, nobody is saying a word. 

Instead, Mackie sent Ghost Rider on a rampant destruction of the comics villains. As exciting and intense as this was during the latter half of year two: I couldn’t help but think Ghost Rider was digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole. What’s left of an action comic with well crafted, for the most part, villains when all those villains are dead?

It seems Mackie agrees with this point as perhaps Ghost Rider most formidable foe - Green Goblin to his Spiderman - Blackout returns and we return to their dramatic conflict. The origin story simply abandoned because how could it be otherwise?

Some psychotic, bulldozer of a man is laying waste to Manhattan and babbles about being removed from an organization called The Firm who will let him back in with Ghost Riders demise. It turns out to be surveillance footage being observed by a shadow organization during some board meeting and it looks like these may be the new big bad now Deathwatch is out of the picture. The man was used as a test dummy so they could assess Ghost Riders wanton take down of him but now they want to test on the creature himself. They give the task to Blackout, who they have released from prison, and promise that should he be successful his facial features will be restored.

 It’s good to have Blackout in the story again as it avoids the danger of changing too much in the comic and making it deviate too much for its frequent audience but by this point I really need the origin story to begin paying off. Yes, I’m not dropping this. Bare in mind, this is something that the comic has been making a big deal about since the same time Blackout killed Barbra which was over a year and a half ago. Even with this being a double sized issue, I’m beginning to feel cheated as a reader. 

Meanwhile back at the Ketch residence Dan’s mother is having a birthday party while a massive drawing of a Pepsi bottle dominates the table – is that really necessary? Ok, I’m picking too much now. Fair and balanced. Fair and balanced. Move forward. Dan almost seems to be in denial when Blaze calls him as he begins mentioning rudimentary details about his mum’s party; the name of every person there etc. until Blaze cuts him off and asks him how he is. Dan really hasn’t been there for her as much as he’d like to be and it seems he’s overcompensating for this here. There’s a great sense of realism in the scene. Later, he approaches Stacy with confidence assuming everything will be ok again and is shocked when she isn’t interested. Against Blaze’s advice. Dan has retreated too far into the Ghost Rider identity and it has cost him his own.

The Firm release Blackout attached with a homing beacon and pursue to ensure his cooperation. Unfortunately for them, it was all a ruse to be released from captivity. Blackout no longer cares about promises of repairs to his face, about working under anyones banner for protection. All he cares about is revenge. He kills the two trackers quickly to prevent The Firm fom discovering the betrayal and sets out for Dan. 

In a scene worthy of Stephen King a phone call comes through to Dan’s kitchen and when he answers it Blackout creepily sings Danny Boy down the line to him. I began playing the song while I continued to review. The comic hasn’t lost its ability to toy with the reader and pull in several directions at once. Blackout informs Dan there are “no hard feelings” and hopes he can forgive him for his past wrongs. He hangs up. Dan’s face is a mixture of fear, confusion and horror at this literal wakeup call. He freezes, hand on phone. 

The phone rings again only for the villain to inform him it was a joke. “I’m coming for you, Danny…but first, I’m going to kill someone close to you tonight.” The call ends. Dan looks out the window to his bike. Sees the medallion and pulls his leather jacket up as he prepares to leave. The phone rings again. “Oh, one more thing…feel free to come after me. Try to stop me. I know you want to. I welcome the struggle, but if that flaming headed freak shows up they all die. I know where they all live, Danny…Stacy, Jack, mommy. I’ll bathe in their blood. He hangs up for the last time as Dan stares down at the phone in his hand with open mouthed, painful astonishment. 

Mackie is often accused of being a hack writer. But he can carefully develop humour, tension, revulsion and tragedy in his story and sometimes pull all these together in one scene. The number of calls and look on Dan’s face are awkwardly funny and intended to be. The language is harsh and cold and intimidating. These scenes only work if the characters do, if we are invested in them and their development has worked. Mackie has achieved all of this He has a keen sense of pacing that can play very well to Ghost Riders advantages. 

The problem is not the characters, the art, action; battle between good or evil. It’s the promising of depth and offering none. The hint at some massive underlining of every single event when all the fans of this comic really want is an off the cuff, visceral action story which is investable because of its human characters.

In the end, Blackout leads Dan into a trap. Tears his throat out. And dumps his body on the grass. We are left with just the Ghost Rider character. Now free to do whatever he wants without the restriction of Dan’s personality. 

And, quite honestly, who cares? With the death of Dan, the book simply becomes aggressive, splashy, dark action without any depth or joy or compassion to invest in. In a way the childish pop up page with Ghost Rider falling on Blackout is the bookmarker to this abandonment.

 Ghost Rider punches Blackout for a bit, then another villain for a bit, then the police chase him, then he locks Blackout in a coffin. The comic couldn’t finish quick enough for me. Too much damage had been done. Dan’s dying words summarize exactly how I felt by the end of this milestone “Just cold.”

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