GHOST RIDER # 81
Zarathos finds Centurious and attacks, quickly overpowering his foe. Just as quickly, however, the Ghost Rider finds his power fading away and Centurious (who was feigning defeat) easily beats down on the demon. Centurious explains that without Blaze's soul, Zarathos will grow weaker and weaker until he finally dies - that is the revenge that Centurious has planned for his greatest enemy. Centurious buries Zarathos under the collapsed church, then explains to Roxanne that he will let her live out of remorse for her lost love. After the villain departs, Roxanne sees Zarathos painfully dig himself free from the wreckage. She tells him that they need to reunite him with Johnny, which Zarathos hates but ultimately accepts.
Elsewhere, in the cave that serves as Centurious' new headquarters, Pastor Domblue turns against his master now that he sees how evil he truly is. In response, Centurious mortally injures his Sin-Eater and declares that he will find another to wield the Soul Crystal. Roxanne and Zarathos arrive, only to be swarmed upon by the soulless townspeople of Holly. The Ghost Rider manages to crawl to his enemy, and with the last vestige of hellfire he can muster, Zarathos splits the Soul Crystal in half, sucking Centurious inside it and freeing all of the souls it had taken throughout the centuries. However, this means that Zarathos has been denied his vengeance on Centurious, and he no longer has the strength to split the Crystal again. The Sin-Eater, barely alive from his wounds, tells Zarathos that he can use his power to send him into the Soul Crystal to gain his revenge. However, Blaze has awoken in the void and begins to struggle for control of his body. Roxanne realizes the mistake that Johnny is making, and she begs him to relinquish control to the Ghost Rider. Blaze agrees, trusting in Roxanne's love for him, and gives up the fight - which allows the Sin-Eater to send Zarathos into the Soul Crystal after Centurious. Roxanne rushes to Johnny's side, and the two realize that the Ghost Rider is gone and their curse has finally ended.
Later, Johnny and Roxanne discuss their future now that the Ghost Rider curse has been broken. They're finally free after so many years, and they decide that they have all the time in the world to plan their future. However, the Soul Crystal still lays on the ground, which splits open and allows the Crystal to fall down into Hell - and into the clutches of a laughing Mephisto. Zarathos and Centurious are trapped within the Crystal for all eternity, their struggle never to end...
The fact that being separated would eventually kill both Blaze and the Ghost Rider was revealed in Ghost Rider (1973) # 44.
This was the last issue of the series until Ghost Rider (1990) # 1.
In the past fifteen issues, the creative team of Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis, and Bob Budiansky turned around a title that was becoming stale and transformed it into an absolute must-read title. Unfortunately, not enough people were must-reading it to keep sales from dipping down below the cancellation radar. As I said above, though, it's a rare thing to get a cancelled series that has enough forewarning to actually deliver a satisfying conclusion to the series (most end on cliffhangers that have to be resolved in other titles years later, if that). After ten years on the road, Johnny Blaze is freed from the Ghost Rider curse and given a chance at a happy life. At the same time, DeMatteis and Budiansky are able to wrap up the story of the Ghost Rider himself by bringing together the origin story of Zarathos with the villain that quickly became the book's ultimate nemesis, Centurious. Not only that, but they managed to bring things full circle back to the beginning by giving Johnny another chance with his first love, Roxanne (who, for once, saves the day without being the damsel in distress!). My one, lone disappointment with this issue is that the fantastic supporting cast of the Quentin Carnival doesn't get a send-off as well, but I have no problem with the focus on Johnny and Roxanne.
The best aspect of the DeMatteis/Budiansky run, in my opinion, is the characterization of the Ghost Rider himself, Zarathos. In particular, this final issue shows just how evil the demon is, while at the same time makes you want the Ghost Rider to win. He's a pathetic figure, and it's to DeMatteis' credit that he actually makes the reader feel sympathy toward such a deplorable character. Zarathos deserves his vengeance against Centurious at story's end, and the fact that the demon's irrational desire for revenge allows him to blindly imprison himself for all eternity makes perfect sense considering the way he's been portrayed in the series over the last year.
You can't forget the role of DeMatteis' partner-in-crime either. Bob Budiansky wraps up his 50 issue association with the character by providing the usual stellar art job. While the artwork lost just a bit with the departure of inker Dave Simons, Budiansky still gives an impressive showing in this final issue. One of my favorite aspects of this issue is how frail and sad the Ghost Rider becomes as the story progresses, with his hellfire barely flickering by issue's end. I honestly can't find anything about this issue's artwork that I can complain about.
While I would have loved to see the series continue under this creative team, I can't deny that they produced a pitch-perfect conclusion to the series that didn't leave a dry eye in the house. This is one magnificent, if bittersweet, comic.
Ghost Rider # 81
Title: "The End of the Ghost Rider!"