When Jason Aaron started his run on “Ghost Rider” (a run which, it is clear now, will rival that of Bendis and Maleev’s on “Daredevil” or Morrison’s on “New X-Men”, as far Marvel’s recent history goes), it was a miraculously fresh take on the concept. For decades, Ghost Rider had been vamped and revamped, made more magic, or a Punisher with fire for a head. But Aaron took Ghost Rider and dropped him right in the middle of the American Heartland. If those early issues owed their tone to anything, it would be Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s “Preacher.” Funny, harrowing, and uniquely, Americanly, strange. But soon, Aaron widened the scope of the series and introduced the most brilliant facet of his run to date, an entire legacy of Spirits Of Vengeance: Ghost Riders of all stripes and backgrounds, all banding together in an increasingly perilous war with Heaven.
Last issue, the Spirits Of Vengeance lost. All that remains is Sara, the Last Caretaker Of The Spirits Of Vengeance. See, Aaron has a knack for giving every story, and everyone for that matter, a fantastically apocryphal log line. The title of this issue? “Once Were Ghost Riders”. There’s absolutely no way you can beat that. The new storyline opens with her finding her life in even more shambles than she thought, all while she recounts the storied and remarkable history of the American Ghost Rider.
Where early issues had the tone of a Garth Ennis, this storyline echoes the best work of The Coen Brothers, steeped in folklore and pop culture, as effortless in its depiction of gangland America (yes, you’re going to read the line “Holy hell, it’s the Undead G-Men!” and it will be answered with “Hands off the Okie, boys!”) as it is comfortable in a barroom brawl against the undead. It’s as if Aaron has taken that homespun oddness of his run’s first storyline and exploded it backwards in time, remaking America in reverse. (Time also goes in both directions, but I won’t spoil any further.)
Aaron has been joined by two solid, but very different artists over the course of his run, but in this issue, perhaps his strongest partner emerges. Tony Moore might best be known for his work on “Fear Agent” and “The Walking Dead,” but here he gives one of his finest performances as an artist. Handling scenes of pretty heavy melancholy just as deftly as he does the most charmingly ludicrous snippets of Ghost Rider’s America, Moore (who both pencils and inks the issue) never misses a beat. His style, which can only be described as what might happen if John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson drew their pages simultaneously instead of one inking the other, has possibly found its most appropriate subject. His designs, covering centuries of Ghost Riders in a single issue, are perfect right up and down the line. Dave McCaig’s colors also adapt perfectly to every scene, no matter how wide the subject matter may range.
For a title that’s pretty well separated from the rest of the Marvel Universe, it’s a testament to Aaron’s skill as a storyteller that it is in this comic that the stakes have always felt higher than anywhere else. “Heaven’s Black Ops,” as the Ghost Riders are described in this issue, always seem to be dealing with a whole other level of threat. After all, the Armies of God could eradicate Norman Osborn and his PseudoVengers in a second flat. It’s that same skill, though, that keeps “Ghost Rider” such an engaging and clever read. Like the Coen Brothers, Aaron never loses sight of the cultural and emotional detail that so strongly grounds his stories. In such a widescale war of such epic forces, there’s still room for a Spirit of Vengeance to get especially tetchy about interrupting a Billy Joe Shaver song on the Jukebox, or for poor Sara to bury her only friends.
Jason Aaron’s “Ghost Rider” has always been an entertaining read. But as he and Tony Moore expand its mythology even further while simultaneously bringing it back down to the “real” world (well, realer than monasteries and the gates of heaven at least), this book has transformed itself into not just one of the Marvel Universe’s better titles, but quite possibly its best.