Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ghost Rider #3 July 1990: "Deathwatch"

Here we are at issue 3, the finale of the first story arch for this all new, all different Ghost Rider. Short version: stuffed between Danny Ketch's discovery of a haunted motorcycle and that erasable Blackout's shenanigans, there's the plot. The case that the Cypress Pool Jokers stole from Kingpin while Deathwatch was trying to steal it (witnessed by Danny and Barbara Ketch) turned out to be full of some weird canisters. Those canisters have finally be reclaimed by Deathwatch & Co. and he promptly fills us all in: 

They're full of a deadly biological weapon which will cause half the population to die outright, and the other have to turn into homicidal monsters. Deathwatch wants to release this stuff because the only thing that gives him pleasure is other people death (so he can watch). 

Kingpin's man shows up, and there's a fun page breakdown where a huge army of Kingpin thugs appear at the snap of a finger. I love all the shades of blue and the great rhythm the panels set up -- slowly moving to the "snap" and then the dutch angle extreme close up of Deathwatch's surprise followed quickly by the wide shot of the 50 dudes that just showed up out of nowhere.

Deathwatch basically gives up at this point and splits, so Blackout takes advantage of the situation by slashing the Kingpin's rep's throat, gouging out the eyes of Deathwatch's thug, grabbing the canisters and taking a female CPJ member hostage. 

I like this page layout for a few reasons. The colors are pretty great for one, with the bright red ninja in the foreground moving across the panels on the bottom, and the deep blues on top. Also love that GR hits him so hard the whole panel vibrates. 

Also love that Blackout is basically just speaking in metal lyrics at this point. 

GR catches up to Blackout, and they finally throw down. Blackout bites him, apparently puncturing GR's jacket, and gets half his face scorched off by an explosion of Hellfire (TM). He survives, disfigured, and runs off. 

Weird side detail, the narration box says "Blackout's mechanical fangs"...they don't look mechanical, but if that's the intention, that's some more gold to mine with this character.  

The day is saved and we get to peek in on  Wilson Fisk as he ponders the skyline and and wonders what Punisher and Daredevil are up to. I like this bit because it's some nice characterization of the Kingpin -- he's a criminal, but he's also a legit businessman. More or less he just operates in all possible business ventures and doesn't really have much (if any) concern for the law, just results. Destroying the world would be bad for business, so he intervened. He has a lot in common with Doctor Doom in this regard. 

The issue closes with Barb Ketch still in a coma and Danny feeling guilty and unsure about everything.

The issue closes out with a fun Stan Lee's Soapbox entry, where Stan waxes poetic about why Marvel comics are the best. He even throws around "Marvel Zombie." 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ghost Rider #2 June 1990: Do Be Afraid of the Dark

Ghost Rider #2 keeps up the momentum in terms of story and action, gives the read more of a sense of GR's methods and abilities and most importantly introduces your new favorite villain. 

First, a fun little aside -- Issue #2 features a shot of the Daily Bugle with a fairly typical headline: "Ghost Rider Terror Spreads," and of course, big photos of dead bodies. This doesn't really stand out that much on it's own, but it is a pretty strong contrast to what we saw in a panel at the very end of issue #1:

See the difference? "Alleged Criminal Ghost Rider Saves Child"? J. Jonah Jameson never "alleged" anything in his life. Should read: "Ghost Rider Threat to Child's Life" or something. Obviously, the copy editor responsible for that headline was sacked immediately. 

Anyway -- back to the mater at hand. GR is making up for lost time terrorizing street urchins. This is a cool page layout that shows some of his "enhanced interrogation techniques" and his nifty ability to ride straight up walls. He sort of did this in issue #1, but it was a little ambiguous. Here, its very clear he can pretty much defy gravity. 

The page layout is noteworthy in the way it expertly leads your eye around the page with the bright yellow cues from GR's flames. Gregory Wright was the colorist on these issues and that's a job that's easy to over look, but very important to the finished product. Wright really gets to shine in this issue, as you can see in this next sequence: 

When I mentioned your new favorite villain, this is what I was talking about. The face-punching action takes a break and you get a low, cinematic sequence introducing a character and moving in close. Suddenly the lights go out, the color shifts and gets darker on every panel. 

The next page is in near total darkness as the man discovers the intruder in his house - an intruder who is immune to his attacks and threatens to murder the man's family right in front of him. The frames tighten in because they're just showing essential action in total darkness -- until it flashes open on a big panel showing the intruder, still in shadow but his presence dominates the page. 

After an elipis, its still dark. In a typical super-hero comic, you probably wouldn't get this page -- it would have just ended with the threat and picked up later without showing what may have happened. Here, you see first that the man is not only dead, but hanging from the ceiling. The family he was trying to protect is also dead, and the intruder is smiling and covered in blood. 

The "intruder," of course, is none other than M-F'ing BLACKOUT!

I've expressed my love for Blackout repeatedly during the "Month of Midnight Son-Days," but his first appearances really show you why he's such a great villain. This introduction is classic horror stuff, with perfect pacing and delivery -- and it sets up a great visual gimmick that works just like the music in Jaws.   

 The very next page opens with the a slight variation on the blues we'd just seen, and Danny is startled by hearing a noise. Is it the same intruder?

...nope, its just his mom (flash change to brighter colors). Classic slasher-movie style fake-out scare. But later, a parallel sequence is set up with one of the Cypress Pool Jokers (who are apparently a gang of 6th graders). Establishing shot with narration, interior of potential victim (great product placement: "Man this Nintendo is HOT!"), sudden change in lighting...

Screams in the dark. Close-ups and then -- surprise: Blackout is there. 

"Oh yeah, and while you were playing Nintendo, I MURDERED YOUR PARENTS!"

After making sure the kid has a chance to fully absorb the horror of his family's brutal death by his hands/teeth, Blackout cold throws the kid out of a window. FYI -- its been about 3/4 of the issue of his first appearance, he's been on maybe 7 pages total and his body count is at 5 innocent people going on 6. 

So, while Blackout is a horrifying unrepentant splatter-punk monster, this is still ultimately a super-hero story so the kid is miraculously rescued by Ghost Rider. The story falters a little here though, because they've set up a really compelling and thematically appropriate adversary - Ghost Rider's whole thing is getting vengeance when innocent blood is spilled and Blackout is basically dumping it all over the neighborhood - but their first meeting basically boils down to: "Uh, yeah so...I'm just gonna split. See you later, pal." 

Pretty anti-climactic, to say the least. Also a little confusing. It looks like Blackout and GR are maybe a yard apart, why doesn't he chase him? 

Blackout's super powers get stated explicitly during a little exposition break with Deathwatch. They describe it as "light dampening abilities" - which sounds suspiciously like mutant talk to me. He's also able to tolerate Deathwatch's weird psychic surgery/death memory power, which is why they're best buds I guess. Blackout does the killing, then Deathwatch, well, "watches." 

Its also suggested that Blackout has light sensitivity which could be a "skin condition" as they say on this page, but its also implied by his big teeth and bloody mouth that he may also be a vampire. Its pretty ambiguous, but those details don't really matter all that much. In fact they basically enhance his mystique. As does his apparent lack of motivation outside of a desire to murder. 

Anyway -- we'll see more of him later. This being a standard comic, it has some fun extras in there, including this "Stan's Soapbox" column written by Stan "The Man" Lee telling you how loyal readers can demand the Spider-Man newspaper strip in their local papers. 

Also of note were these sweet Nintendo game ads -- 

This one promises that YOU could win a shopping spree with a ninja! How awesome right? The kid in the shopping cart kind of looks like the Cypress Pool Joker who got a visit from Blackout. I wonder if that kid was playing "Wrath of the Black Manta?' 

There's also this great full page ad for Double Dragon II. I have very clear memories of studying this drawing and copying it in my sketchbooks. Awesome example of promo-art from this period. Love how it looks like an action movie  poster. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Ghost Rider #1 May 1990: Life's Blood

Somebody much more serious and fiscally responsible should probably monitor my eBay habits. But, honestly, if I see a complete run of Ghost Rider vol. 3 from issues 1 - 43 for less than $1 an issue, who on Earth could blame me for clicking "Buy Now?" 

Granted, I already have quite a few of these, but this super-sweet bulk lot has been the most cost effective way to fill out my collection. When this package showed up the other day, I had to dig in immediately 

43 issues is a lot of comics* -- given the slow decline in quality/fun I discovered by covering every Midnight Sons cross over last year, I've decided to only cover the issues/stories that are worth talking about. Starting with issue #1. 

"Life's Blood" is 46 pages of action, 0 pages of advertisements/letters pages/filler of any kind. It was written by Howard Mackie (who wrote the title through issue 69), with pencils by Javier Saltares and inks by Mark Texeira. Texeira's inking style is very "heavy" and sometimes overshadows the original pencil work, but its also really unique and lively. The description of his role on the team changes a little from issue to issue, but eventually he will become the lead artist and its his style that really defines this character for me. 

*Iowa Hawkeye coffee cup shown for scale, and because Iowa is great. 

Issue one starts out with a pretty strong literary statement with a full page devoted to two quotes. The first one, "Revenge proves its own executioner" is attributed to John Ford. I immediately thought of the American filmmaker John Ford, which would have been appropriate, but this is actually from the Jacobean era playwright. The second quote is from...Ghost Rider himself. 

On the one hand, I wish they'd just stuck to Ford's quote. Or maybe also had from 20th Century Ford, like "When in doubt, make a Western," and its a little weird to quote a fictional character that the reader hasn't been introduced to, especially when the line is so literal. 

On the other hand, though -- this is a perfect example of the tone of this book and I can very easily imagine myself as a young man copying GR's words down on the back of my English notebook and/or jean jacket.

The set-up in the first several pages of the issue involves Danny Ketch and his plucky sister Barbara creeping around Cypress Hills Cemetery on Halloween night to try and take pictures of any weirdos they find there doing stuff at Houdini's grave (although Houdini was actually buried in Queens). And they do find some -- first a gang of very clean cut street toughs calling themselves "The Cypress Pool Jokers" (which actually sounds like a pretty legit Warriors-style gang name, and is significantly tougher sounding than "Yancy Street Boys" -- also Mackie apparently grew up in Cypress Hills, so I'm thinking this might be an in-joke), and then a bunch of ninjas. 

Yeah, ninjas. Remember, this is 1990 we're talking about. New York was rife with ninjas. 

Anyway, the Cypress Pool Jokers (CPJ - as they say on the street) run into the ninjas who are doing a deal for a mysterious briefcase and Danny and Barb get caught in the cross fire. Barb is seriously injured and Danny drags her to hide under some wrecked cars in the cemetery-adjacent junkyard. 

The ninjas employ every trick they know to get Danny and Barb to reveal themselves. While hiding, Danny is drawn to a weird glow in the pile of junk. It turns out to be the gas cap of a modest looking motor cycle. When he touches it...


Ghost Rider's first order of business is to haul ass around the cemetery, beating the shit out of the ninjas he could catch and then racing off to catch more. The NYC PD show up and assume GR is the bad guy. This is shown in an excellent set of break downs -- the action jumps from panel to panel, which zip back and forth along with GR's movements. The Police are beside themselves in the face of all this mayhem -- and the coloring lets the flames really pop off the page -- its fantastic. 

In addition to providing explosive action, you get to see very early on how formidable GR is -- he causally flips a police car with one hand, for example.

There are a couple of times where police make a point of disbelieving that the flaming skeleton wearing a leather jacket in front of them is actually a flaming skeleton. Given all the crazy stuff your average Marvel NYC cop must see, its not impossible to see how they'd assume "freaky mask," but you kind of wonder why they don't just take everything at face value. I mean, the Fantastic Four live just a few blocks away...

Anyway -- GR tries unsuccessfully to catch the ninja's leader, a guy who identifies himself as DEATHWATCH, and he eventually turns back into mild mannered Danny Ketch. Danny is reeling from a double dose of guilt over what happened to his sister Barbara, who is now in a coma, but has survived, and all the havoc he caused as Ghost Rider. 

It's a classic Marvel origin story: good natured weakling transformed into super-powered bad ass by a twist of fate, struggles with his new and old responsibilities and, of course, being "misunderstood." Its a little like Peter Parker turning into The Hulk, by way of Dr. Donald Blake's walking stick/Mjolnir gimmick. But hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? 

While that action resolves, we learn that the CPJ got their hands on the macguffin brief case and that its full of weird containers of some unknown substance. Deathwatch and his ninjas want it back, as do Kingpin's gang. 

There's a pretty sweet scene with The Kingpin that hearkens to his Daredevil appearances from around this era. The page layout is pretty cool, and you get some great expressions -- particularly Fisk's smile after tasting his own blood. Kingpin isn't completely necessary to this first story arc, but including his organization in the plot helps ground Ghost Rider into the Marvel Universe in general and the "street level" corner of that world. It's an interesting choice given the supernatural elements of the character that they went this way and not with say, Doctor Strange (who doesn't show up for several more issues). 

Deathwatch is shown to be not only a villainous ninja-by-night, but also a villainous crime lord/executive by day. His punishment of his henchman leads to what is is undoubtedly the best line in this issue, if not every comic book published that month: "Thanks, Carl." 

Like I said at the start -- this is a double-sized comic with -zero- ads in it. Its loaded to the brim to wild action told in a really compelling, cinematic style. Its loud and crazy and a blast to read -- its no wonder why Ghost Rider would become one of the break out hits of the early 90's. 

Check back soon for my take on issue #2, which features the first appearance of your new favorite super villain!