SPOILER WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for various Ghost Rider comic book stories. Proceed at the risk of incurring the wrath of Zarathos.
With “Agents of SHIELD” adding Ghost Rider to its roster Season Four, new comic book readers and established ones alike might want to peruse some of the various Spirit of Vengeance adventures at Marvel Comics over the years. As one of the most powerful and visually badass characters in the history of the company, it’s no surprise that Ghost Rider has cultivated such a passionate following. Luckily, he’s not just a pretty (flaming) face.
Regardless of who stars as the titular hero, Ghost Rider’s street level-meets-supernatural adventures have been just as fun and compelling as his iconic look. His stories have captivated readers throughout his countless appearances, either as cameos in other books or in his own solo series. But what are some of the stories you absolutely, positively have to read while getting fired up for his starring role on TV? Allow CBR to help, with the following list of top Ghost Rider tales!
13. All-New Ghost Rider: Engines of Vengeance
Roughly two years before his appearance in the new episodes of Agents of SHIELD, East L.A. mechanic Robbie Reyes became a muscle car-driving Spirit of Vengeance in the first arc of the “All-New Ghost Rider” title. In “Engines of Vengeance,” written by Felipe Smith with kinetic art from Tradd Moore, you’ll get to know how Reyes is depicted in comics while watching him on the tube. Issues #1-5 see Robbie murdered and later possessed by Eli Morrow to stop drug lords, gang wars and Mister Hyde, all while caring for his disabled brother Gabe. Thanks to his appearance in Agents of SHIELD, Robbie Reyes will be returning to the comic book page in another series that will surely see him wreaking fiery havoc on evil doers.
12. Fear Itself: Ghost Rider
Vengeance isn’t confined to just one gender as Marvel’s 2011 company wide crossover “Fear Itself” showed readers. In it, a woman named Alejandra Jones becomes Ghost Rider after a being named Adam removes the curse from Johnny Blaze. Blaze’s freedom comes with a price as he must ally himself with Mephisto to save humanity. Blaze frees Alejandra from Adam, but she chooses to not let the former Ghost Rider train her as she goes out to find sinners and clean up the world, all while using powers previous Ghost Riders had never exhibited. Not only was this an interesting way to introduce a new concept to the Ghost Rider lore, with Alejandra being the first female Rider, it was also a decent character piece that showed the difference between Jones and Blaze’s approach to vengeance: a staple in the Ghost Rider tradition.
11. Marvel Spotlight #5
This is the one that started it all, introducing Marvel readers to the character who was literally hell on wheels. While he was neither the first Ghost Rider (that distinction belongs to the 1967 western character at Marvel), nor the last, Johnny Blaze is perhaps the best known of the bunch and remains as the name most readily associated with his gruesome counterpart. Creators Roy Thomas, Gary Frederich and Mike Ploog brought Blaze to the comic book pages in 1972’s “Marvel Spotlight” #5, igniting a legacy that has tripped through hundreds of comics and two (admittedly dicey) films. In his debut issue, Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the devil to save his mentor and father figure, Craig “Crash” Simpson. The result of his Faustian pact was Blaze becoming a motorcycle-riding vigilante with supernatural powers and a flaming skull. This classic Bronze Age entertainment mixes eerie horror and superhero action that has so far lasted the test of time. For new Ghost Rider fans and old hat completists, it is not to be missed.
10. Hearts Of Darkness
Danny Ketch, later revealed to be Johnny Blaze’s brother, was the Ghost Rider of the 1990s. In fact, to many fans, he remains the image most often conjured when the character is mentioned. Teaming Ketch’s Rider with other popular anti-heroes Wolverine and the Punisher, made perfect sense from a sales point of view — it was a dream match-up for the grim, gritty storytelling so popular at the time. “Hearts of Darkness” by writer Howard Mackie and artists John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson sees the lethal trio pitted against the nefarious demon known as Blackheart, who plans to tempt them into helping him kill and usurp the ultimate big-bad in the Marvel universe, Mephisto. That goes as well as you might expect, leading to a fiery conflict with the Lord of Hell, himself! As huge as its final battle is, “Hearts of Darkness” is also one hell of a ride along the way. While his Ketch resembles Peter Parker at times, John Romita JR’s art is at its level best, particularly when it comes to his Blackheart. A sequel titled “Dark Design” was published in 1994, but the original is, without question, the king of all Marvel anti-hero team-ups, and a great place to start for new Ghost Rider fans craving a deeper dive into his dark mythos.
9. Ghost Rider: Hell Bent And Heaven Bound
“Hell Bent and Heaven Bound” marks Jason Aaron’s beginning on “Ghost Rider.” This arc, consisting of issues #20-25 of his 2008-2009 run, sees Johnny Blaze searching for the angel Zadkiel while Heaven is in the middle of a war. It also marks the return of fan favorite Danny Ketch. Its deliciously over-the-top plot, mixed with motorcycle-based supernatural action, makes this arc feel like the best drive-in Grindhouse movie to ever come to comics. Hell, this should have been the Nic Cage movies! Even if you don’t normally read comics, this is the perfect Ghost Rider story to check out. With its marriage of horror and action, along with Aaron’s unique storytelling style and grasp of character, this doesn’t feel like your typical superhero comic book and can thus be enjoyed by fans who are either unfamiliar or disenfranchised by the capes-and-spandex spectrum of the medium. It’s a fantastic entry point into the Ghost Rider character, which is even further expanded upon by Jason Aaron throughout his critically-acclaimed run. Check it out! We promise you won’t be sorry.
8. Ghost Rider v1 #49-50
If you’re into that drive-in movie vibe in your comics, you will also have to check out Michael Fleisher and Don Perlin’s 1980 tale of Johnny Blaze in “Ghost Rider” #49-50. Johnny Blaze travels back in time to the old west and meets the original Ghost Rider, who is called Night Rider in the book (and later renamed Phantom Rider). This one’s got something for everyone: cowboys and Native Americans, gigantic birds with lightning vision, frontier voodoo, and of course, a team-up that makes Kirk and Picard’s in Star Trek: Generations look like senseless mush (which it kind of was, but we digress…) This is bodacious Bronze Age fun from the same year that gave us John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” There’s magic, time travel and adventure for western, horror and superhero fans alike. With its focus on the tradition of the Ghost Rider legend (at least in name), no true fan should skip this story. In many ways, this was the first Rider story to tease the character’s legacy, which now continues with the appearance of Robbie Reyes in “Agents of SHIELD.”
7. Ghost Rider v1 #68
Roger Stern wrote some of the best comic books of the Bronze (or any other) Age, and his take on the Ghost Rider character is no exception. “The Curse of Johnny Blaze” offers up the origin of the titular Spirit of Vengeance with some extra little details, delivered to the reader in the form of a confession by Johnny Blaze at church. The story has a plot twist worthy of “The Twilight Zone” or “Frailty,” and an ending which shows that Ghost Rider is truly a Spirit of Vengeance. Stern has worked his magic on trippy tales like Doctor Strange and more light-hearted fare in his Spider-Man stories, but this issue of “Ghost Rider” will send chills up and down your spine. It will also make you wish he did more creepy ghost stories like this one. As enjoyable as “Marvel Spotlight” #5 and “Ghost Rider” #49-50, Stern’s story here should not be missed by old school fans, those new to the Ghost Rider bandwagon or really just anyone looking for a good old fashioned ghost story.
6. Ghost Rider Annual Volume 3 #2, Wish for Pain (1994)
Warren Ellis’ first American comics story, which is the main feature in this annual, is positively chilling. The framework of the story is basically a battle between Ghost Rider and Marvel’s Scarecrow (not to be confused with DC’s Jonathan Crane), while at the same time offering a terrifying and nuanced origin story for the villain. From the insight into the Scarecrow’s past to Ghost Rider’s methods of stopping (and punishing) him, page after page of this epic drawn by Javier Saltares is filled with what would these days be called “WTF” moments, but resonate with timeless terror. It’s also a fantastic character piece, exploring the differences and similarities within the battling nemeses. This, of course, will surprise no one who is a fan of Warren Ellis. Damn creepy, and perfect for those Ghost Rider fans looking to have the crap scared out of them, this story is guaranteed to make you sleep with the lights on. What happens to Scarecrow at the vengeful hands of Ghost Rider will be burned in your mind for years to come. Pun definitely intended. Pick this annual up… if you dare!
5. Ghost Rider: Road to Damnation
In the year 2000, “Preacher” creator Garth Ennis revitalized the Punisher to well-deserved acclaim. He did the same thing with Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider five or so years later with “Road to Damnation” featuring art by Clayton Crain. As the demon Kazaan literally tries to bring about Hell on Earth, Johnny Blaze, who has been trapped in hell for two years, makes a deal with the angel Malachi: if he and his flame-headed alter ego Ghost Rider help stop Kazaan, they will be freed. Ghost Rider must race against the archangel Ruth and the demon Hoss, with the winner of the three having to face Kazaan and hold the fate of humanity in their hands. This has all the great elements that Garth Ennis’ stories usually do: darkness, humor and a characteristic atmosphere that isn’t typical of most other writers’ styles. Like the character of Ghost Rider, who quite literally rode the line between superhero and horror movie antagonist, Ennis blended genres in a way nobody previously believed possible. If this isn’t in your Ghost Rider collection, it should be. It’s damn good reading.
4. Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears
After the success of “Road to Damnation,” Garth Ennis and artist Clayton Crain returned for “Trail of Tears.” This time, the Spirit of Vengeance is Confederate soldier Travis Parham. He is saved by former slave Caleb, who then becomes the Ghost Rider of the book thanks, in part, to a cave full of skulls. Upon leaving Caleb to seek his own fortune, Parham learns what hell truly can be in this masterfully crafted saga that shows readers that vendettas can span generations. This creative team raised the bar on not only Ghost Rider stories, but on how comics should be in general. With his perfect blending of genres and more of the great storytelling that made Garth Ennis a household name, “Trail of Tears” is an incredible reading experience from start to finish. It pulls no punches and doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of its two prevailing themes: vengeance and racism. It’s like some of the best of Serling, Roddenberry or even Mantlo. For this reason, “Trail of Tears” should be on your Ghost Rider shelf, or in your longbox if you read single issues.
3. Ghost Rider and Blaze: Road to Vengeance
Before Marvel Knights, and even before Marvel Edge, there was the unfortunately short-lived imprint known as Midnight Sons. Capitalizing on the craze for bloodier, grittier comics at the time, Midnight Sons was populated by the darker supernatural heroes in the Marvel Universe. Crossovers were a regular treat in the shadowed pages of these comics, teaming up characters that were often background noise in other Marvel events. “Road to Vengeance: Missing Link” was one such saga, with the “Ghost Rider” book (starring the Danny Ketch version) and “Spirits of Vengeance” acting as chapters feeding into the overall arc. Most of the story focuses on the past of Ghost Rider-esque character, Vengeance, who learns of his past. It also features the devilish machinations of regular series baddie Lilith and Zarathos, the demon that Mephisto bonded with Johnny Blaze during his tenure on the fiery motorcycle. Despite what you might think, the nostalgia around the Midnight Sons period should take nothing away from the enjoyment (or impact) of those stories. The work of Howard Mackie and Ron Garney truly stands the test of time in this demon-drenched saga, which remains a firm “must” for any and all Ghost Rider fans!
2. The End of Ghost Rider
Like Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis has written some of the best comic books in the Bronze Age. Perhaps best known for his Spider-Man and Justice League stories, he also wrote ten issues of the first Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider book (#67, #71 and #74-81). He ended his all-too short run and the entire series with “The End of Ghost Rider” arc. A former servant of Mephisto Centurious, traps Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze in a soul crystal. The resulting battle for control of Blaze’s body breaks the jewel, freeing Blaze from Zarathos. Of course, that isn’t the last of the demon, who returns many times to make Johnny Blaze’s life hell through the years. In “The End of Ghost Rider,” J.M. DeMatteis has crafted a truly dark comic. It may even rival the more well-known books in his library of creations over the years, like “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and his run on Justice League Dark. Beyond anything else it achieves, however, is that fact that DeMatteis gives Johnny Blaze a satisfying conclusion to his first series of adventures behind the flaming bike. Fans of DeMatteis and Ghost Rider alike should not miss this one at all; required reading for every Ghost Rider fan.
1. Rise of the Midnight Sons
This was the official start of Marvel’s Midnight Sons imprint. Like all comics, there were some good and bad stories published under its masthead at the time, but “Rise of the Midnight Sons” definitely falls into the former category. Lilith, the Mother of all Demons, has been resurrected, and it’s up to Danny Ketch, Johnny Blaze and others from the dark mystical corners of the Marvel Universe to stop her. Like “Road to Vengeance,” while this may be a book that could be mired in too much nostalgia, for us, it still holds up today. At the same time, not only is it a great showcase of some of the more under-utilized characters at the time (and now, for that matter), it’s also an interesting look back into some of the prevailing themes of the time. With appearances from characters like Blade, Hannibal King, Morbius the Living Vampire and of course, our flaming chum, the Ghost Rider, “Rise of the Midnight Sons” contained an unholy host of disquieting demonic action and literally wicked cameos! Like the rest of the comic books on this list, this now-legendary crossover will fire up your appetite for Ghost Rider and set your flaming wheels spinning for more!
Which unmissable Ghost Rider did we miss? Set your Penance Stare to full-blast and drop your unholy knowledge in the comments section!
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Ghost Rider” airs on Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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