By Don Alsafi. The vast majority of the comics we’ve looked at to date have either been event books (like Marvel Legacy #1), comics featuring characters returning after some time away (like the Hunt for Wolverine one-shot, or Runaways), or the relaunch of a continuing character with a new volume or title (like Avengers or The Immortal Hulk). This time, though, we’re doing something new. Very new, in fact, as the character in question debuted for the first time just half a year ago.

The recent Thanos ongoing series began in November 2016, with the first twelve issues written by Jeff Lemire (who relaunched The Sentry just last week). Issues #13-18 were written by up-and-comer Donny Cates, however – and every issue of that arc sold out immediately, with #13’s introduction of the Cosmic Ghost Rider currently on an improbable fifth printing! Whatever inspiration Cates was channeling on his Thanos run, the readership responded in spades.

So who is this new character? Well, this issue’s recap page spells it out in a concise-yet-dizzying summary: “Frank Castle was a decorated Marine and upstanding citizen when his family was killed in a mob hit. From that day, he was a force of retribution [as the Punisher]… until he died. And then returned as the Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance. And then became Galactus’ herald. And then came to be the Black Right Hand of Thanos… And then he died for real.”

Wow. Um. Okay. That’s certainly a heck of a place to start…!

Cosmic Ghost Rider #1Cosmic Ghost Rider #1

Written by Donny Cates.

Art by Dylan Burnett.

Colors by Antonio Fabela.

Letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles.

Talented creators, right out the gate. For as rabidly devoted a fanbase as Donny Cates has inspired, you might be surprised to discover just how relatively new he is to the comics industry. His first professional comics work was only five years ago, with miniseries like Buzzkill and The Ghost Fleet for Dark Horse. But he arguably didn’t start really knocking readers off their feet until the release of his creator-owned God Country series from Image Comics – which premiered only 18 months ago, in January 2017. Since then, he’s impressed with the Image series Redneck and the disturbing Babyteeth from AfterShock, and steered Doctor Strange during its Marvel Legacy relaunch last fall.

Artist Dylan Burnett is an even more recent find, with his first series being Heavy Metal’s five-issue Interceptor in 2016 – which, funny enough, was written by one Donny Cates! He then moved on to illustrating Weavers for BOOM! Studios and a number of the Gold Key characters like Turok and Magnus for Dynamite Entertainment. This week’s release, then, marks his Marvel Comics debut.

Art by Dylan Burnett. Colors by Antonio Fabela. Letters by VC's Clayton Cowles

Interior page from ‘Cosmic Ghost Rider’ #1. Art by Dylan Burnett, Antonio Fabela and Clayton Cowles/Marvel

No more Mr. Nice Guy. After a compact three-page recap of the character’s journey to date, the story proper opens with Frank Castle having been rewarded for his life (and second life) of service with a place in Valhalla, the Norse afterlife for celebrated warriors. But Frank? Frank ain’t happy about that. Not one bit. (Note that this is clearly a future timeline version of Frank Castle, as opposed to the Punisher currently running around the Marvel U.)

Writer Chuck Dixon has talked about how his old editor, Don Daley, used to have a drawer filled with what he laughingly called “The Ultimate Punisher Story”. Scripts and scripts by both aspiring writers and working professionals, all endeavoring to tell the “last” Punisher tale, in which Frank Castle accidentally kills an innocent, and then – faced with the horror of what he’s done – gives up his one-man war on crime. The editor, and Dixon, were astounded not just at how every one of these scripts told the same story, beat for beat, but also at how they all got the character of the Punisher massively, inarguably wrong. The Punisher has never thought of himself as a hero. Frank Castle has never been under any illusions as to the atrocity of his mission (and thus would not be shaken to his core by the revelation of that atrocity). He knows, and has always known, that he’s a monster – but he believes and accepts that some of the evils in this world need a monster to fight them.

So when Frank finds himself honored with a final resting place in Valhalla? He’s pissed. The Punisher may have been a necessary evil, but he rails against the idea of being given some kind of cosmic reward for it. He rages at Odin about this, and Valhalla being no place for the likes of him… and Odin relents. He turns Frank back into the Cosmic Ghost Rider, and offers to send him back out into the universe, to any destination in all of time and space.

And Frank thinks about the evil still left in the universe. And he chooses.

Cosmic Ghost Rider #1

Interior page from ‘Cosmic Ghost Rider’ #1. Art by Dylan Burnett, Antonio Fabela and Clayton Cowles/Marvel

A story of vengeance, with moral debates. So one thing you can’t deny is that Donny Cates certainly understands Frank Castle’s character. Frank’s voice can occasionally seem a little off – dialogue like “When I’s doing what I did back on Earth” doesn’t entirely match the speech patterns we’ve seen from Castle over the past four decades – but your mileage may vary. (At least it’s nowhere near as grating as when modern writers replace Ben Grimm’s use of the word “the” with a dumb-sounding “da”.)

Of course, the character is so offbeat, and starts in such an unusual place – being dead and all – that it takes a little while for the actual plot to kick in. But when Odin sends him back out into the cosmos, Frank goes after one of the biggest villains in the Marvel Universe – and the choice he makes after confronting this fiend is truly surprising. It’s only in these final pages that the comic seems to reveal its potential thematic intent, with future issues perhaps asking: Where does evil come from? When is someone (whether antihero or villain) truly irredeemable – and when is redemption not too late?

These are weightier questions than most superhero comics tend to ask and that, combined with the Cosmic Ghost Rider’s utterly bonkers character premise, gives the book something of an indie comics feel. In that, the comic shares an idiosyncratic approach with a few other recent launches on the fringe of the Marvel mainstream, like the paranormal New Mutants: Dead Souls miniseries, or last week’s genre-riffing The Sentry. So it’s appropriate that Marvel have tapped indie artist Dylan Burnett for the comic, with art featuring crazed eyes, deep blacks, and jagged lines. (Even the Rainbow Bridge looks more like a lightning bolt than a curving arc.)

Cosmic Ghost Rider #1

Interior page from ‘Cosmic Ghost Rider’ #1. Art by Dylan Burnett, Antonio Fabela and Clayton Cowles/Marvel

The oddest Marvel creation in years. At the end of the day, the Cosmic Ghost Rider is… well… weird as heck! It’s such an utterly bizarre concept that it’s frankly hard to foresee CGR becoming a real breakout character in the way that Venom once did thirty years ago. (Side note: Donny Cates also launched a new Venom series last month, to an astounding level of both consumer and critical acclaim.) But for those who have been thrilling to the recent Thanos series, and are waiting for that story to come back – in whatever form it eventually does – this looks to be a fun side quest in the meantime, featuring of one of its major characters.

And for those Marvel readers who are always looking for something a little off the beaten path?

Well now. You can’t get much further than this!

7 out of 10

More Building a Better Marvel…

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