GHOST RIDER # 79
The next night, Vincenzo has a nightmare about what's going on in the Freakmaster's new freak tent in the center of the Carnival. Blaze sneaks inside, only to find a large room with schematics detailing how the Freakmaster plans to turn all the Carnival workers into man-made freaks. The villain enters the room, saying that he's glad he has the chance to get rid of Blaze so soon after his arrival. Four motorcycles roar into the room, half-man/half-machines like Renaldo wanted to turn Blaze into. When they attack, the Ghost Rider manages to force himself into control of Blaze's body. After a brief battle, Zarathos defeats the cycle-men, and then turns his attention to the Freakmaster. Ralph Quentin enters, telling the demon to take him instead. He was the owner of the Carnival where the Freakmaster's parents died, and that he deserves to suffer for what he did. The Ghost Rider pauses, unsure of which men deserves punishment more. In this moment of doubt, Blaze manages to wrest control from the demon. Johnny tells the Freakmaster to take his people and leave immediately, before Zarathos again regains control. The Freakmaster agrees to leave, happy that he's finally broke Ralph Quentin into never knowing peace.
The next day, as the freaks depart, Johnny attempts to talk to Quentin, but is ignored by the man. Before Blaze can follow, a voice from the past interrupts him. He turns to find Roxanne Simpson, his former love, standing behind him.
The Freakmaster first appeared in shadow in Ghost Rider (1973) # 70, the same issue in which Renaldo "rescued" Jeremy from the Carnival.
Though her identity has been kept secret, Roxanne has been searching for Johnny since Ghost Rider (1973) # 74.
This issue was reprinted in The Original Ghost Rider Rides Again # 6 and the Essential Ghost Rider vol. 4 trade paperback.
The first of those three essential parts is the emergence of a good villain, this issue giving us the first full appearance of the Freakmaster after months of dealing with his proxies and underlings. After all the build-up, the character took me by surprise by how unassuming he was - a small man in glasses, a suit, and a particularly dorky haircut. He looks about as menacing as a puppy dog, and his initial conversation with Johnny works hard to sell him as the polar opposite of what we'd come to expect. The Freakmaster comes at us not with maniacal laughter, but with sinister compassion that is all the more chilling in hindsight when his evil plans are exposed later on.
The second important thing is an appropriate mood, absolutely imperative for a horror story such as this to get right. Bob Budiansky, whose artwork has always been excellent on this series, somehow seems to really darken up his work with this issue. The atmosphere feels like it could choke you while you're reading, this foreboding air of menace hanging over every panel. I can't quite put my finger on it, maybe its the inks or the colors in this issue, but the whole art package just looks bleaker than the issues before it. Considering the nature of the storyline here, thought, a bleaker outlook is certainly welcome. The horrific nature of the storyline hits all the right notes with some fantastic moments. Renaldo's capture and eventual fate, the revelation of Freakmaster's plans for the Carnival troupe, the Ghost Rider's wavering moment of doubt on who deserves punishment more between Ralph Quentin and the Freakmaster...all just perfect.
Finally, that third essential ingredient to a successful serial comic book is the cliff-hanger ending, and hoo-boy do we get a doozy of a cliff-hanger in this one. Back, 50 issues after her disappearance from the book, is Roxanne Simpson, the original love of Johnny Blaze and the woman to whom he owes his life. All the pieces were being moved into position for the series' eventual finale, and Roxanne's return works to bring things full circle with an ending that made me beg to read the next issue.
I've said this a dozen times before but it always bears repeating: if you haven't picked up the last 15 issues of the first Ghost Rider series, you can't truthfully call yourself a Ghost Rider fan. The book has yet to be as good as it is here. Absolutely recommended.
Ghost Rider # 79
Title: "Shades of Gray!"