MARVEL SPOTLIGHT ON GHOST RIDER # 5
Johnny's father, Barton Blaze, died in a motorcycle accident when his son was very young. Johnny was then adopted by Crash Simpson, another stunt rider that ran his own cycle show with his wife Mona and daughter Roxanne. Johnny grew into adolescence, and had followed his step-father's footsteps by taking up cycle riding. When he was fifteen, his motorcycle caught fire during a practice session. Though he attempted to save his family, Mona Simpson is killed in the bike's explosion. Before she dies, she makes Johnny promise her that he'll never ride in the show due to the danger, which he agrees to. Five years later, Johnny is discovered riding in secret by Roxanne, who tells him that she is in love with him. Later on, Crash tells the two that he has cancer,and that the show's performance at Madison Square Garden will be his last, if he lives to even see that.
Determined to keep his step-father from dying, Johnny researches some occult books, finally using them to summon "Satan" (actually the demon lord Mephisto, in one of his many forms). In exchange for Johnny's soul, the devil will spare Crash Simpson from the cancer that's killing him. Three weeks later, Crash tells Johnny that he plans to try and break the world's cycle jump record at the Garden. Johnny knows he'll be fine, due to the deal he made with Satan. When Crash attempts to jump it, he doesn't make it, and dies in the resulting accident. Furious at what happened, Blaze suits up, mounts a bike, and does the same stunt...and makes it, breaking the world record. That night, Satan returns to claim Johnny's soul, claiming that he only said he'd spare Crash from the disease and nothing else. As Mephisto prepares to take Johnny to Hell, Roxanne enters and banishes the demon with the pure essence of her soul. She tells Johnny that she read his books behind his back, and learned how to send the devil away. The next night, however, Johnny begins to burn with fever, until his head suddenly transforms into a flaming skull. Every night since, he has undergone the transformation into...the Ghost Rider!
The name of the demon inhabiting Johnny Blaze is revealed to be Zarathos in Ghost Rider (1973) # 77.
The real reason Roxanne was able to drive Satan away, and the origins of the Spirit of Vengeance itself, was revealed in Ghost Rider (2006) # 18. Here is my working "theory in progress" for how all of this went down: Zarathos was originally an angelic Spirit of Vengeance who experienced an "overdose" of power (a consequence of the Spirit's power as explained in Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch # 3) and tried to enslave the world. He was stopped by the world's other Spirits of Vengeance (as told in Ghost Rider (1990) # 43) and while part of his power was trapped inside the Medallion of Power his corporeal form was turned to stone. He was released from his stone prison and began terrorizing Earth once more (as shown in Ghost Rider (1973) # 77) before Mephisto defeated and enslaved him. When Mephisto made his deal Johnny Blaze, the angel Zadkiel intervened and made Blaze a host to a Spirit of Vengeance. But it was Mephisto who ensured that the Spirit inside Blaze was his "fallen Spirit" Zarathos, as a sort of compromise between Heaven and Hell. Such a compromise had been reached centuries before when Hell and Heaven intervened in the life of Noble Kale, another host to a Spirit of Vengeance (as told in Ghost Rider (1990) # 92).
This issue was reprinted in Ghost Rider (1973) # 10, The Original Ghost Rider # 1, Marvel Milestones: Ghost Rider, Black Widow, & Iceman, Essential Ghost Rider vol. 1, the Ghost Rider: Highway to Hell special, and Ghost Rider: Cycle of Vengeance # 1. It was also retold by different creative teams in Ghost Rider (1973) # 68 and Mythos: Ghost Rider # 1.
Originally conceived as a potential villain for the bi-monthly Daredevil series, writer Gary Friedrich, editor Roy Thomas, and artist Mike Ploog created the Ghost Rider as the newest character to debut in the pages of Marvel Spotlight (following the debut of Werewolf by Night a few issues previous). The strength of Ploog's design for the character is undeniable, giving the Ghost Rider the greatest visual appeal of any comic character in existence (at least in my opinion, anyway). It was left to Friedrich to concoct an origin tale to match the visual aesthetic, and it's here that we're first introduced to Johnny Blaze, a stunt-cyclist who sells his soul to the Devil to save the life of his step-father.
It truly is a classic story of love and desperation, but there's a nagging problem squatting at the heart of the character's origin. In blunt terms, Johnny Blaze is an idiot. Some fans have said that Blaze is unsympathetic due to his stupidity in making a deal with Satan and then being surprised when he gets shafted. I'm personally on the other side of the fence on this argument, because to me the stupidity of Johnny's decision is what makes him such a great character. Blaze is a man who cares about nothing but saving the life of his father figure, caring nothing about the consequences for himself. Yes, it was a stupid move, but it was also an understandablyhuman move. Friedrich crafts and molds Johnny into a tragic and enduring character in his origin story, adding such poignant moments as the death of Mona Simpson and Johnny's agonizing over whether he should ride motorcycles again or hold true to his promise to stay out of the cycle show. It helps considerably that Friedrich chose to show the origin in flashback, narrated by Johnny, in that it gives the events an emotional weight beyond just reciting past facts. The only quibble I'll mention in the actual origin story involves Johnny's promise not to ride in the cycle show and his refusal to come out and tell Crash and Roxanne the truth...why would he think that being branded a coward would be better than telling them about the promise? I suppose it could relate back to Johnny's own guilt over Mona's death, him paying silent penance for his misplaced responsibility, but it still smacks a bit of unnecessary drama.
This issue also introduces us to Roxanne Simpson, a character I essentially despised in the book's early days. Friedrich has the poor girl bouncing from one manic emotional state to another in the span of just a few pages, and it honestly makes the gal look completely unstable. She loves Johnny, then she hates Johnny...then she loves him again, only to hate him again. By the end of the issue, I'm not even sure if she's made her mind up yet - and it's ultimately a moot point, since she's only here to fill the "damsel in distress" role.
The script for the bookend present-day scenes are a bit overwrought, spilling over with some pretty awful purple prose that would make Chris Claremont's head swim. But it does help to establish the book's mood, an atmosphere so dark and depressing that it's almost difficult to read through. This is not the happy-go-lucky super heroics of most Marvel titles; it's a stop along the road for the more mature storytelling that would evolve from writers like Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin later in the decade.
The main contributor to the bleak atmosphere is artist Mike Ploog, the master of Marvel's 70s horror output. He immediately steps up to bat and creates the Ghost Rider's world on his own terms, grounding the book in extreme realism despite the fantastic and horrific design of the title character. The flashback origin, which takes up the bulk of the issue, floats by in an almost dream-like state, appropriately filtering the events through Johnny's own perceptions. Until Don Perlin comes along, no artist was truly able to recapture the power that Ploog brought to the series, and this first issue was arguably the masterpiece of his brief run.
The Ghost Rider's introduction has many high points and fewer, but still numerous, low points. It's worth owning for its historical importance, but it also contains a pretty decent story as well. Just don't expect the next few issues following it to be given such praise...
Marvel Spotlight On Ghost Rider # 5
Title: "Ghost Rider"