Warning: spoilers for Ghost Rider #1 are ahead!
In Marvel Comics, ghost rider occupies a specific niche that mixes supernatural horror with icons and images of the American West. As the Spirit of Vengeance, Ghost Rider wields a kind of frontier justice by forcing wrongdoers to pay for their crimes, including through the use of his Penance Stare. In the case of Johnny Blaze, his appearance as a fiery skeleton on a motorcycle is undoubtedly one of the most unusual character designs in American comics. In his original 1970s series, Ghost Rider was touted as “the most supernatural superhero of them all”, and while that impact has been muted over time, it’s evident in his new Benjamin Percy series, Cory Smith, Bryan Valenza and Travis. Lanham that Marvel is continuing that legacy decades later.
ghost rider #1 depicts a troubled Johnny Blaze as he recovers from brain surgery after a motorcycle accident. Forged by disturbing visions where his idyllic suburban neighborhood turns into a hellish landscape, Johnny struggles to differentiate between reality and his own trauma, leading his therapist to create a new mantra for him: “monsters don’t exist”. . But as the issue progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnny’s suspicions have some merit, eventually resulting in the neighborhood being exposed as a psychic prison populated by demons.
The art of the number keeps readers in suspense, as it masterfully plays with readers’ expectations, taking advantage of the fact that they are entirely dependent on Johnny’s point of view to guide them through the story. Seemingly innocent scenes like Johnny teaching his son to ride a bike are rendered in a bright, low-contrast art style familiar to Marvel readers, lulling them into a sense of security. This accentuates the supernatural aspects of the story, as the horror of the issue is rooted in the familiar. This approach to comic book art establishes ghost rider not only as a series fundamentally unique among Marvel’s other offerings, but also as a psychological slow burn that urges readers not to take anything from its pages at face value.
As the issue unfolds, the art takes on a transformative quality that is in keeping with Johnny’s growing realization that something is wrong with his town. As he encounters strange slip-ups, such as his stepfather saying “You’re living the American nightmare” instead of “You’re living the American dream”, the art gradually becomes more and more sinister. This comes to a head in Johnny’s therapist’s office, where the painting of a pig above his couch has slowly turned into a violent image, with a wolf finally appearing before Johnny’s eyes and gnawing on the corpse of the pig. The painting’s role in the story serves as a declaration to readers that the art of the act itself hides its own sinister secrets.
ghost rider #1’s art proves that Marvel is fully committed to returning to the character’s roots in supernatural horror. The art advances the psychological elements of the story where his dialogue provides conflicting information, clearly seen in Johnny’s therapist reminding him that “monsters don’t exist”, while the painting in his office becomes more and more more disturbing. This choice takes advantage of the fact that readers, like the ghost rider himself, are unsure of what is real and what is not, and prepares them for the horror that is yet to come.
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