I am going to write about Ghost Rider, now, because you know, whatever man. I grew up reading comics in the nineties, when Ghost Rider enjoyed a renewed popularity, and he (along with Wolverine) was a part of that sort of angsty-violent-anti-hero era of superheroes that teenaged boys are always digging on because when you turn fourteen it’s kind of not cool to be enthusiastic about things that are Nice.
Anyway, perhaps it’s a coincidence of when I was introduced, a peculiar kink in my own psychological history, but I love the hell out of Ghost Rider. (Hahaha, pun.)
The Ghost Rider
For those of you who don’t know! Ghost Rider was originally a motorcycle stuntman named Johnny Blaze, who made an ill-advised deal with the Devil — Blaze’s father was dying of cancer, and Johnny made a pact to let his soul be bonded with a demon to cure the cancer. Johnny’s father had his cancer cured and was immediately hit by a truck, hahah, the Devil is an asshole. In the meantime, Johnny was bonded to the Ghost Rider, a motorcyclist who had a flaming skull for a head. That was in the 70s when he was introduced, and honestly, I don’t know what the Ghost Rider was getting up to at that point; when I started reading him, there was a NEW host for the Ghost Rider (Danny Ketch), and he’d become a spirit of vengeance, just running around, revenging himself on people.
So, there’s actually some really fascinating stuff to unpack in this later interpretation, and I don’t know, a lot of the comics are messy about it — as usual, my understanding of Ghost Rider is idiosyncratic: I just pick and choose the ideas that I like and assemble the perfect Ghost Rider of my imagination.
Fire and Brimstone
One of the things (the maybe four things) that I liked about the first Ghost Rider movie was that whenever Ghost Rider manifested, it was a fucking CATASTROPHE. Parking meters melted, the streets got torn to shit, lizards caught fire, things were exploding, just everything went completely nuts. I like this idea because there’s something very elemental about the idea of the Ghost Rider, though not the way the movie understood “elemental.” Ghost Rider isn’t an elemental, in the sense that he represents the element of fire in your boring, four-element Aristotelian mystic system; Ghost Rider is elemental in the sense that he is like the elements. Like a hurricane or an earthquake or a volcano — the Ghost Rider isn’t an entity, he is an event, and as a consequence, you don’t beat him because you can’t fight him. The best you can do is try to survive him.
There’s a fascinating connection between this and the idea of Ghost Rider as a demon / fallen angel / regular angel that I’ve always wanted to see explored. In the Bible, if an angel wants to interact with a person, they appear in disguise — because in their natural forms, they’re giant flaming serpents (Seraphim) or four-headed monster-men (Cherubim) or huge wheels of fire (Ophanim); there’s something that I find deeply appealing about this, because these angels are so clearly NOT a part of the natural world, and when they appear in their real forms they’re always accompanied by some insane shit: cities being swallowed by tar or showered with brimstone, &c., &c. The idea that the “spiritual” or “divine” world is somehow so hugely powerful and chaotic that just the presence of one of these divine objects in our world is the equivalent to a natural disaster, that there’s a reason that we don’t go around talking to God or the angels or things like that, this is a really compelling idea for me — especially because it makes the Ghost Rider as an object in our universe relatively unique (so: there aren’t SUPPOSED to be demons or angels in the regular world; they’re supposed to act through intermediaries, or as intangible aspects, or in human disguises, because the power that they represent is so enormous that actually manifesting in our world would be endlessly destructive).
(Compare this also to Alan Moore’s notion of the Goetia in Promethea, who are so “dense” that regular matter flies apart when it comes in contact with them; you and I are three-dimensional objects, untroubled by two-dimensional objects because they’re literally completely insubstantial to us — the same is true for four-dimensional objects, to which three-dimensional objects are utterly insubstantial. Light, in our three dimensional world, is actually a shadow of a four-dimensional wave function, man, this is some trippy shit.)
Spirit of Vengeance
Nicholas Cage, when someone (probably looking for a good laugh) asked him what his process was for Ghost Rider: Spirits of Vengeance, said that he painted his face like a skull and had artifacts representing traditional “death gods” — like Anubis and Baron Samedi et al. — just secreted about his person in order to get him into the right sort of feeling for becoming the Ghost Rider. This, I think, betrays a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what a death god is, and of what the Ghost Rider is.
Death Gods, like the ones that Cage cites, are by and large (almost inevitably, actually) good guys. They’re “psychopomps”, deities that lead the souls of the dead to the afterworld. They can be unlucky, and obviously you don’t want to get on their bad sad, but in practically every case the entire point of personifying the figure of Death is not to make it MORE frightening, but to make it LESS frightening. Death is your ally, here to make sure that your spirit doesn’t get lost on your way to heaven; the eternal footman, ready with your hat and coat when the last days of living become unbearable.
Not so the Ghost Rider, though you’d be forgiven for thinking that, because he does have a skull for a face. It’s not just any skull, though, it’s a FLAMING skull, and that’s because the Ghost Rider isn’t a spirit of death, he’s a spirit of punishment. He’s got all the markings: flame, chains, the Penance Stare. I have mentioned before that the Penance Stare is my favorite thing that the Ghost Rider does: he looks into your eyes and inflicts on you the pain that you’ve caused to others.
What’s great about this is that it’s got this sort of Old Testament, Wrath-of-God punishment quality to it, which we already know isn’t exactly right. Ghost Rider is not a spirit of justice, because justice is meant to be productive and compensatory. It’s not about punishing people simply for the sake of the harm that they’ve done — that’s a primal need that we all have when we see someone do something wrong, just a righteous anger to see them hurt the way they have hurt — but the point of justice is that it’s a socially-acceptable way to mediate that need, so that we improve and protect our society, instead of just reacting in anger.
But the Ghost Rider is divine vengeance, so he doesn’t give a shit about any of that. Let’s say you shot someone in self-defense, or you broke somebody’s heart when you realized you didn’t love them anymore, or you paralyzed someone in a car accident when you were sixteen and have been ridden with guilt ever since — the Ghost Rider doesn’t care. And, presented this way, no amount of pain that you’ve caused someone else could be worth the punishment that he inflicts on you, because HIS punishment is all that pain at once. It’s merciless and limitless and there’s just something impressively divine about a punishment like that, like from the old, pre-civilization days when the punishments of the Gods were presumed just BECAUSE they were the punishments of the Gods, however harsh they looked to us.
And so, in addition to being a kind of volcanic, physical catastrophe wherever he goes, the Ghost Rider is also a walking psychic catastrophe, indiscriminately and remorselessly turning our own transgressions back on ourselves, because even the kindest of us cannot live in the world without bruising it in some way, and even the smallest transgressions are overwhelming when they’re collected, collated, and thrown back in our faces all at once. The Ghost Rider is the avenging angel that Batman, in Batman Begins, refuses to be — the Batman attempts to restore justice to a corrupt world; the Ghost Rider doesn’t care about the relative success of society as a whole. The Ghost Rider is just here for the express purpose of punishing the wicked.
(In this respect, he’s an awful lot like the Robot Santa from Futurama; ostensibly he’s here to sort the naughty from the nice, but bad news: you’re all naughty beneath the Penance Stare of the Ghost Rider.)
The American Mythos
The last little bit that I like about the nature of the Ghost Rider is this connection to the American West and to what I’ll call “Engine Culture”, I guess, in that the American West is sort of also the place that you think of when someone starts talking about those loud, powerful, elemental MACHINES that governed the growth of our culture: cars and motorcycles and Mack trucks and locomotives, those forces all seem to have their natural home in the West. The Ghost Rider always seems to fit the best in those long stretches of desolate desert road, well outside of the cities and (sorry, Texans) far from actual civilization. Those are the places where there’s still a sense of ghosts in the US; lonely places are the kinds of places that are usually haunted, and dead lonely places, full of ghostly motorcycles and ghostly locomotives and all the crazy shit from our weird cultural history, cobbled-together from movies and books and America’s own abiding religious history.
The West is a really fruitful ground for the Ghost Rider, and not just because of the recurring symbol of longhorn skulls. It’s got cowboy ghost stories, a deep sense of the fire-and-brimstone religiosity of American Baptism, a culture of motorcycles and cars and trucks, a sense of lawlessness hearkening back to the Wild West Days, that attitude of a Lone Force for Justice trying to impose order on a chaotic world. All of this combines with what I also like about the Ghost Rider to give it a real sense of enduring myth. It’s one of the few instances, I think, in which a comic book has come close to actually creating a piece of folklore for American culture — or else, created a piece of fiction that resembles folklore closely enough that they could be seamlessly integrated.
The Hero of the Story
What I like about the character, and what I don’t particularly like about the movies, is that the Ghost Rider isn’t a superhero at all. The character of Johnny Blaze / Danny Ketch is really close to a Bruce Banner kind of guy, with the Ghost Rider as his hulked-out alter-ego. The Ghost Rider isn’t going around and doing good in the world; when he actually does GOOD, as opposed to just meting out divine punishment, it’s basically an accident. And Johnny Blaze is tasked with “controlling” this power — an idea that’s kind of misleading. Johnny Blaze can’t control the Ghost Rider, because the Ghost Rider isn’t a part of him, it’s just inside him. The Ghost Rider is like an atomic bomb of divine justice, and Blaze’s only “control” over him is that maybe he gets to decide how close he is to the bad guys when he sets it off.
So, you’ve got something that’s less like a superhero, Spider-Man or Batman or Superman story, and more like a Wolf-Man or My Own Worst Enemy story: Johnny Blaze is trapped with this thing inside him. He can’t kill himself, because it won’t let him. And he can’t give it to someone else, because 1) he doesn’t know how, and 2) even if he did know how, it wouldn’t be right to let someone else have to deal with this shit. He can’t even hide out in the Canadian Rockies like Bruce Banner does, because the Ghost Rider drives him to seek out evil, and because it can take over whenever it wants and just tear off towards civilization.
The story can become an allegory for PTSD (the first biker gangs were formed by ex-soldiers from WWII, and the idea of the Returning Soldier fits in pretty nicely with this: long, lonely motorcycle roads through desert wastes, tired of the pain that he’s caused others, but still carrying a deadly weapon inside him). It’s in part about an ordinary man subjected to forces beyond his control, and ultimately (which I think is also ironic) about how he can fundamentally make amends, or at least obviate, the damage that the Ghost Rider causes — that is, Johnny Blaze spends his time trying to provide the mercy and justice that the Ghost Rider ignores.
There’s just so much here that I like — the reluctant hero archetype, the interrogation of the mythic culture of the American West, the angel-demon-divinity theology of it. It’s kind of a shame that the movies, for whatever reason, don’t seem to be that interested in that sort of thing because, as I said, the Ghost Rider has all the necessary elements to absolutely become a part of American folklore.