Art by Kael Ngu/Marvel

by Clyde Hall. While the Spirit of Vengeance is away, supernatural forces will engage in all manner of earthly affray. It’s part of Johnny Blaze’s return in this week’s Ghost Rider #1 and mentioned in one of the better parts of the book. That would be the introduction of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Talia Warroad, now working for the FBI following the government’s dismantling of Nick Fury’s covert organization, who’s noticed a drastic spike in paranormal events over several months and seeks a quick half mil in funding to find the source. Agent Warroad’s not one for proper channels or protocols since her previous job as a lone operative in a division tasked with monster hunting. The Bureau, along with her by-the-book-bound partner Agent Whilmer, must pine for the Spooky Mulder days and his “out there” searches for the truth. 

Despite her Lisbeth Salander vibes, Warroad’s account and its time frame correlates with the last few months in the life of Johnny Blaze. After suffering a terrible motorcycle accident, he’s slowly recovering. His skull fracture and head trauma have resulted in partial memory loss, heightened anxiety, anger issues and even hallucinations. But, with the help of his wife, his kids, and his friends in the small town of Hayden’s Falls, he’s getting better—though Hayden, it should be noted, is a Welsh name meaning ‘heathen’. Let the foreboding begin. 

To stay grounded, his court-appointed therapist suggests Johnny use the mantra “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Blaze does, but he’s found more solace in alcohol, drinking heavily and passing out before he can fall asleep. Because sleep is when the night terrors happen. Waking up screaming, fighting with enemies that aren’t there, and scaring his loved ones, Johnny’s a mess.

As the narrative by writer Benjamin Percy continues, our protagonist’s feelings of confusion and disorientation increase. The perception of his life becomes a rearview mirror reflection, its distance and shape distorted. The hallucinatory hell spawn rendered by artist Cory Smith sufficiently tasks Blaze’s grip on reality, as well—and that hold was tenuous even before the arrival of Zeb, a strange outsider who enters Johnny’s life and unravels the very fabric of his existence, culminating in a town-wide confrontation. One ending with a departing motorcycle trail of hellfire.      

Percy’s story effectively puts us into the boots of Johnny Blaze and his battles with fear, alcohol, trauma, and recovery. We relate as our hero wrestles with frustration. Despite a satisfying, idyllic life, there’s something vital unaccounted for. An amputated part of his past creating psychic phantom limb syndrome. 

With an unfamiliar character, this approach might work better. For Johnny Blaze, a Marvel character with a half-century of history, the truth of the world constructed around him is either very obviously a sham, or everything we’ve known about Blaze is subject to change. Hayden’s Falls being populated by long-dead people once loved by Blaze is a tribute to Rider lore, but when we share his perception of them as thinly constructed illusion certain opportunities are missed. Showing us what a second chance with these characters actually means for Blaze could have drawn us further into his story. How surrendering this reality, be it actual or artificial, just means seeing them die again. Instead of building empathy, this part of the narrative is less layered, less emotional.  

Smith’s art taps both the haunted psyche of the hero and the ichor of his waking visions. From Blaze’s accident and its wince-inducing aesthetic, to the slavering, tentacled figments Johnny’s medications are meant to subdue, a gallery of horror is on display. Especially effective are scenes when hell comes calling with its sideshow of suffering splayed across the town square. Bryan Valenza’s colors keep up with Smith’s transpositions between normal reality and a fetid unreality, wrapping like tendrils around Johnny’s perception; the hues transition the story from Pleasantville to Paradise Lost with velocity even a stunt cyclist can appreciate. Knowing the right tonal quality for a cute puppy on one panel and a pit denizen that would make Carpenter’s Thing queasy in the next is a gift Valenza displays often in this issue.

With his usual flow of dialogue which frames but never obscures, VC’s Travis Lanham brings us a lettering bounty. His speech-fonts-of-the-damned sidle against the comfortable sounds of small town life. The hellish rending of dimensions and the subsequent inhuman lamentations unleashed across this issue’s final pages provide a soundtrack for illusion’s last stand. And its death rattle. 

Ghost Rider #1 is a productive, if not potent, return for Johnny Blaze’s Spirit of Vengeance. For new readers, the character introductions of Zeb and Talia will likely enhance the tale. They’ll also have no difficulty grappling with any backstory trappings from previous Ghost Rider iterations. As for fans of such iterations, the exclusion of those histories, coupled with a $5.99 cover price, might lessen the satisfaction. Rife with eerie moments and fiendishly twisted imagery, this debut falls short of investing us fully in our hero’s plight—and something a motorcycle daredevil like Johnny Blaze should never do is fall short.

Marvel / $5.99 
Written by Benjamin Percy.
Art by Cory Smith.
Colors by Bryan Valenza.
Letters by VC’s Travis Lanham.

‘Ghost Rider’ #1 is available now. For purchasing information, click this.