Even in the midst of such a large scale and ponderous crossover, I find Marvel these days to be the home of quiet and impressing surprises. One of the most consistent levelers of that surprise is Jason Aaron. After impressing me with his brief stint on “Wolverine” I figured I had to try out “Ghost Rider,” and I found myself enjoying a Spirit Of Vengeance comic for the first time since Texeira, Saltares, and Mackie parted ways lo those many years ago.
It’s a bit too reductive to say that Aaron’s turned “Ghost Rider” into “Preacher On A Motorbike,” but I guess that works as an Elevator Pitch for his approach. Even while there is an overarching Heavenly Saga about a War With Angels and the shadowy reappearance of someone from Johnny Blaze’s (and Marvel’s) storied past, Aaron has shifted the book primarily into a Heartland Horror Comic. His first storyline was a blissfully over the top grindhouse (I really couldn’t think of a better description, sadly. Sorry, readers.) of cannibals, killer nurses, and highway hauntings. It also featured one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever read in a comic, starring what can only be described as The Intersection From Hell.
This first part of Aaron’s “God Don’t Live On Cell Block D” retains all of the grisly charm of the first storyline when it comes to high concept. Johnny Blaze has broken into a very grittily strange prison looking for more answers about the Angel Zadkiel who has made his life (*chuckle*) hell.
The one (significant) way in which the book parts ways from its previous installments is in the artwork. Huat’s style couldn’t possibly be more different from the brush-heavy and loose inks of the previous issues of the book. He takes a kind of Adam Pollina approach to his exaggerated figures, and it might all fall apart if it weren’t for inspired, watercolor color art of Jose Villarrubia. I don’t doubt that some readers will be a bit taken aback by the change in tone (and Huat’s art does indeed fundamentally change the feel of the book) but when you see the reveal of the main antagonist on the final page, you realize that the previous style just wouldn’t have really worked here. One thing Ghost Rider is curiously lacking in the issue is a skull for a face. I suppose it’s possible that the transformation is only truly complete when he has a bike to ride, and that bike is (for obvious reasons) nowhere to be found inside this prison.
So, we’ve got a completely new art style and a Ghost Rider with no ghostface or anything to ride. So why is this book still as great as it ever was? Well, for everything that’s changed, the most important aspects of the book are still the same. There’s still Aaron’s perversely wicked version of Heaven. There’s still the creeping dread of a Mid-America gone horribly wrong. And there’s still his version of Johnny Blaze walking around, a hard boiled Johnny Cash with a motorcycle and hellfire running through his veins.
Even in those days as a kid when I really loved “Ghost Rider,” it was a fundamentally silly approach to a Spirit Of Vengeance. Riding up the sides of buildings, whipping pumpkin bombs back at the Hobgoblins that threw them. It was a superhero book with a Horror Comic’s rogues gallery. Aaron has turned “Ghost Rider” into the pulp horror comic it always should have been. When you’ve got a demon riding a motorcycle, the last thing you need are goofy antagonists in green fishnet. You want dark highways, and all the haunted American roadstops where they end up.