After spending a month talking about the strange world of inter-company cross-over comics, reaching the absolute zenith with the incomparably weird Archie Meets the Punisher, I figured it would be nice to spend a month just talking about relatively simple stories. And, I say relatively because I’m still obviously going to talk about strange Marvel stories, but I suppose a little less hard to wrap your head around than Batman and the Hulk hanging out with Skrull gods. And, with that intention, I get to do something that I haven’t gotten to talk about too much here on the site, Ghost Rider! Weirdly, I haven’t had too many chances to talk about Ghost Rider, primarily because for some reason there aren’t that many Ghost Rider issues in Marvel Unlimited, which is my primary source for these insane stories. Because, I feel like I should be talking about Ghost Rider all the goddamn time. He’s a stunt driver who has an ancient demon in his soul, causing him to occasionally have a flaming skull for a head, and who is largely cashing in on the trend of Eval Kineval, and he fought a bunch of characters who were likewise cashing in on the Satanic Panic of the seventies and eighties. That just seems like a custom-made character to discuss here on Marvel Madness. So, I’ll do better to find more of these fun stories, but in the meantime let’s talk about Ghost Rider having a fun drag-race in the desert with the grim reaper.
The story begins, rather weirdly, with Ghost Rider racing around American West, heading from Utah into Colorado, when he suddenly get a very vivid flashback. Why this issue had to be a flashback, specifically to a time when Johnny Blaze had less control of his Ghost Rider powers, I have no idea. But, regardless, Johnny starts to remember a time a few years ago, back when he was fairly new to being a Ghost Rider, back when he transformed into Ghost Rider whenever he or someone around him was in danger, and with very little self-control. And, while he was driving around in the desert one night, he found his head suddenly catching ablaze, meaning something bad is about to happen. he’s pretty concerned about why this would be the case though, since there doesn’t appear to be any immediate danger around him. But, as he’s pondering, he finds a sudden downpour spring up around him, despite no sign of inclement weather. And, what’s more, he suddenly finds a strange figure standing in the road, waiting for him. So, Johnny slams on his breaks, and skids to a halt in front of the the figure. Who, is of course Death.
Which, I’m not going to lie, is a little weird. Not because it’s the personification of Death, no that happens all the time in Marvel Comics. What’s weird is that Death typically takes the form of a woman in these comics, especially ones written by Jim Starlin, what with all his work with Thanos. And, since this comic is written by Starlin, it just seems strange that Death is taking the form of a biker, complete with some sort of cosmic goggles. But, regardless, Death is here, and it has an idea to float past the Ghost Rider.
Death has arrived essentially because it thinks Johnny has spent his entire life courting his own death, what with the stunt driving and all, and has finally arrived. Death explains that it usually just shows up and takes people, no real show, but it has recognized a very unique spirit inside Johnny, even more so than the Spirit of Vengeance which makes him the Ghost Rider. Death has recognized him as a true hero, and thus has devised a challenge. Death has three challenges that it hopes Johnny can best, and if he does, he will have earned himself an honorable life, and will be left alone, and if he fails, people will die. And, it really seems like there’s no choice for Johnny, which obviously freaks him out.
Death then introduces his first game with Ghost Rider. Which is based entirely on speed. See, they’re currently on a highway that remains straight for five miles. And, at the end of those five miles is a man named Richie Petrillo whose motorcycle has broken down in the middle of the road. Death suggests that they race to Richie. If Ghost Rider gets there first, he’ll be fine. If Death gets there first, Ghost Rider will have to witness the innocent man dying. Johnny is pretty upset about this offer, since it could lead to a random man’s death, but it’s clear that Death is going to make him participate, whether he likes it or not, so he decides to do his damnedest.
Ghost Rider and Death race off down the highway, all while Richie is trying to fix his mysteriously broken bike, complaining about his bad luck. And, before he knows it, he spots two bikes rapidly approaching him, which surely must contain who riders who will be willing to lend him a hand. So, Richie wanders out into the middle of the road and begins flagging the two rider down, only to notice that they appear not to be slowing down. And, as they get closer, he notices that their heads are definitely just skulls, which obviously makes him a little concerned. All the while Johnny is trying to push his bike to the limit, to squeeze past Death, but it turns out that the Grim Reaper has a really good mechanic, and he’s able to zip ahead of Ghost Rider, tapping Richie on the shoulder as he passed, causing Richie to collapse into a pile of bones. Which, causes Johnny to freak out.
Ghost Rider begins screaming at Death about how unfair this whole thing is, and threatens to quit participating. But, Death doesn’t really care about Johnny’s complaints, and informs him that he’s free to quit whenever he wants. But, if he does so, he’ll immediately kill Johnny, and still kill the other two people he had planned, and it would be all his fault. So, Johnny decides to go through with it again, even though there’s no way he can outpace Death’s speed. But, Death lets him know that that advantage won’t matter as much with the second challenge, which involves the two of them doing a cross-country race through the desert. No roads, and no rules.
Ghost Rider feels a little more confident with this race, but he’s definitely going to give it his all when he learns the identity of the next victim. A young girl named Anna Devere who has gotten lost and is wandering the desert looking for her parents. Johnny is disgusted by Death choosing this victim, but he gives it his all, racing after Death as fast as he possibly can. Johnny unitizes all of his skills to get through the various obstacles of the desert, but just can’t seem to shake Death. Until he decides to do something risky. He parts from the straight line that they had been travelling in, and ends up taking a dangerous jump that luckily pays off, launching Ghost Rider into the air, and over Death. And, it paid off. He gets to little Anna first, and is able to defend her, claiming his victory. Which means it’s time for the third challenge.
Death then begins to monologue to Johnny, informing him that the first two challenges were really just warm-ups. Death didn’t care about either of those souls, it just wanted to find something that would get Johnny all pissed off and ready to be in his finest form. Because the third test is the big one. They’re going to race each other, and if Johnny loses, he dies. Death points out a specific mountain top in the desert and informs Johnny that it’s the finish line. If he can reach that point without getting touched, he’ll survive the night and can go on his way. But, if Death is able to tag him, he’s dead.
And, Johnny responds by blasting Death with a concentrated bout of hellfire, hoping that it will cause damage to his bike, or at least serve as a distraction so he can gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work, and Death ends up completely unphased. And pissed off. So, Johnny and Death begin racing through the desert, desperate to reach that mountain top. And, no matter what he does, Johnny can’t get away from Death. The Reaper seems to be a perfect biker, with flawless form, and he’s able to to get through any possible obstacle. So, Johnny decides that he needs to do something unexpected. He’s going to cheat like a dirtbag. So, while the two are struggling to stay on one thin cliffside, Johnny just drop kicks the Grim Reaper, causing it to fall off the cliff and land below with a fiery explosion. And, with that little bit of metaphysical murder, Johnny is able to win the race, save his life, and race off for further adventures while never wondering what they did with that lost little girl they just abandoned in the desert after saving her.
Johnny Blaze 100% left that lost little girl alone in the desert. But, he also saved her life, so I guess it’s even? Putting that aside, this is just a fun little story. Ghost Rider is a character that I don’t have the most familiarity with, but everything I have read I’ve enjoyed quite a bit. Especially the Jason Aaron stuff, which I honestly could probably do several Marvel Madness posts about. But, it’s these older stories from when the character was first introduced that I find the most interesting. Leaning into that weird cultural moment in the 1970’s when American were fascinated with stunt shows, truckers, and he open road, Ghost Rider should be a concept that’s too tied to a specific aesthetic to still be going strong. And yet, it’s also the story about people who get possessed with the literal embodiment of vengeance, turn into flaming skeletons, and ride cool vehicles, so it’s also a timeless work of genius. And this story really shows off the kind of fun ideas that they could do with Ghost Rider. Death shows up fairly frequently in Marvel Comics, but I don’ think I’ve ever seen it show up in such a petty manner, just arriving to challenge one of the heroes to some feats of strength. And to take the form of motorcycle races for the souls of the innocents is such a fantastic idea. It’s just a fun little issue that probably won’t make any list of classic stories, and that you could probably pick up pretty cheap at a comic book store. Which is kind of my wheelhouse here. Lots of people talk about the defining stories that everyone remembers from Marvel, I’m here to look at the forgotten gems that made up the bulk of their output, and that are no less special.
Ghost Rider #35 – “Deathrace!” was written and penciled by Jim Starlin, inked by Steve Leialoha, colored by Petra Goldberg, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, and edited by Roger Stern, 1979.
Categories: Marvel Madness
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