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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 30, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: MARVEL'S ORIGINAL GHOST RIDER (1967-1971)

To repeat one of my observations on null-myths from this essay:

...when I originally started using the term "null-myth" here, I was primarily applying it to story-elements whose mythic content was negligible in their execution (albeit not potential).
And:

....because of my realization that on occasions a given work may have symbolic potential, and yet does not use it because of some flaw in the execution, I've started utilizing "null-myth" as a label for all examples of "frustrated mythicity"

I've devoted a handful of posts lately to the Gary Friederich/Mike Ploog Ghost Rider of the horror boom, so it occurred to me to go back and reread the first Marvel character of that name. Though I was a hardcore collector by 1966-67, it's my memory that I didn't buy the seven issues of the character's own magazine on newsstands, nor his second series as a feature in the 1970s anthology comic WESTERN GUNFIGHTERS 1-7. I wasn't aware till long after that period that there had been an almost identical "Ghost Rider" from the Golden Age, published by Vincent Sullivan's "Magazine Enterprises," and that one of the creators of that character-- though he credited Sullivan with dreaming up the basic idea-- was Dick Ayers, who penciled all the episodes of the Marvel character until his arc concluded in WG #7. Indeed, this blogpost and its responses include the assertion that Marvel may have cancelled the featured title because of a threatened lawsuit from Sullivan.



I remember getting a very basic enjoyment out of the first seven GHOST RIDER issues, because it was a very basic imitation of earlier Marvel features. The first issue introduces schoolteacher Carter Slade, journeying to a podunk Western town when he comes across an apparent Indian massacre. He tries to stop the Indians, who turn out to be white men in masquerade. Slade is shot and mortally wounded, but an orphan boy comes across his body and tries to take him to town. Instead the boy encounters a tribe of real Indians. The tribe's medicine man Flaming Star not only saves Slade from death, he gives the schoolteacher a sacred mission: to become a white-garbed crusader for western justice, using a special set of illusion-tools that Flaming Star has devised. Slade duly signs up for the task of becoming the Ghost Rider with very little protest, and gains the orphan boy Jamie as a confidante.

Slade meets the rest of his cast upon arriving at the podunk town: beautiful Natalie Brooks, her hothead brother Ben (who becomes the town sheriff in the first issue), and Natalie's fiancee Clay. Slade is immediately smitten with Natalie, which was surely Gary Friedrich's attempt to emulate the soap-opera melodrama prevalent in most Marvel titles of the decade. For the next seven issues, Slade tries to balance his duties as a teacher with fighting costumed varmints like the Tarantula and the Sting-Ray as the Ghost Rider, all the while mooning over a woman who vaguely suspects his affection but is still deeply in love with her fiancee.

I don't know if the GHOST RIDER magazine could have succeeded at the time had there been no prospect of a lawsuit. Both Marvel and DC continued to publish westerns throughout the 1970s, so clearly someone was buying them, even in reprint form. But the feature had a number of problems, for both Friedrich's writing and Ayers' art were never more than adequate. Around the same time John Buscema's art was becoming a dominant Marvel house style, despite the fact that the artist had little interest in superheroes, and Ayers' largely functional layouts probably wouldn't have grabbed the typical Marvel reader for many more issues, anyway. The lawsuit, if genuine, would have made the matter academic, as Marvel would soon divert the trademarked name into a property that no longer resembled any Vince Sullivan work: the Friedrich/Ploog "Ghost Rider."



Further, though Friedrich and Ayers had earned some fan-respect for their collaboration on the "Sergeant Fury" title, neither one succeeded in giving the Sagebrush Spook a memorable rogues' gallery. But even more germane to my topic of the "null-myth" was the aforesaid angle of the "romantic fantasy."

It was typical enough for Marvel titles to deal in romantic conflicts, sometimes between the main hero and some male member of his support-cast. Marvel's flagship title FANTASTIC FOUR started off by suggesting that Ben Grimm might nurture some affection for the fiancee of his friend Reed Richards. However, in the next few issues there were no more overt hints of Ben being interested in Sue Storm, and the idea that she was already Reed's fiancee was also dropped. The "sympathetic villain" Sub-Mariner showed up and started questing after Sue's affections, but he wasn't one of the main heroes in the title. Thus GHOST RIDER seems to be the first time a central Marvel hero become besotted with another man's fiancee. He nobly kept his feelings to himself, but the one time Natalie suspects his affection, she maintains a loyal attachment to her fiancee Clay-- which, for most readers, would have signaled that the whole romantic fantasy wasn't about to go anywhere.

I mentioned that Natalie had a brother, Sheriff Ben Brooks. He was clearly constructed by Friedrich and Ayers as a cowtown version of J. Jonah Jameson. He immediately took a dislike to the Ghost Rider despite the hero's good deeds, and so existed largely to complicate the main character's life. But where the Jameson character in SPIDER-MAN took on a fairly logical psychology over time, Ben Brooks was just a functional plot-device, nothing more.

As I re-read these old comics, though, I thought of a possible fix: what if the fiancee Clay had been the one who had an irrational hatred of Ghost Rider, and what if he, rather than the negligible brother, had been the sheriff? Clay was never shown to be aware of Slade's affection for his intended, but it would have made for a slightly better psychological myth if he'd been the one repeatedly gunning for the Ghost Rider, his animus stemming from some subconscious awareness that the Rider and his romantic enemy were one and the same.



To be sure, I know why Friedrich didn't go that way: Clay also had a double identity, functioning as one of Ghost Rider's villains. But even when this fact was revealed, Friedrich didn't seem to know how to get any dramatic heft out of it. Friedrich left the series before its final issues in WESTERN GUNFIGHTERS, and writer Len Wein stepped in with a story that terminated Carter Slade's career as a hero, and transferred the mantle to Slade's brother Lincoln-- though this transfer also became academic in the wake of a new and different Rider.



All that said, in a strange way Carter Slade's history as a man tempted to be a seducer ended up being transmitted to his brother. Re-dubbed "the Phantom Rider" in later Marvel comics, Lincoln did what Carter would not, succumbing to his passions and using drugs to seduce the superheroine Mockingbird-- who was, at that time, the wife of superhero Hawkeye. So in a strange way, the "frustrated mythicity" of the original Marvel Ghost Rider bore fruit in another incarnation.


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