Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

08 April 2011

Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch Classic, v. 1

Collects: Ghost Rider, v. 2, #1-10 (1990-1)

Released: November 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 264 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785137351

What is this?: A new Ghost Rider, proclaiming himself the Spirit of Vengeance, takes to the streets of New York.

The culprits: Writer Howard Mackie and penciler Javier Saltares

Part the First: Why was this so popular; or, The ‘90s were a weird time

Despite Gambit Classic not being a very good book, I can understand the popularity of the title character — Gambit is a mysterious rogue who appears to be on the side of heroes, appearing in the most popular comic book of the time. He’s anti-authoritarian. He shows himself equal and similar to Marvel’s most popular mutant, Wolverine. I don’t necessarily agree with that popularity now. But the rationalization makes sense.

Ghost Rider, v. 2 … It’s a nice visual. I get that. But the stories that started the series, reprinted in Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch Classic, v. 1, aren’t good. At all. Was it just that we enjoyed unfettered violence against criminals? Or were we looking for something empty of deep thought, a sort of guilty pleasure that wasn’t a pleasure and should have made us feel something deeper than guilt? (A super-guilt, perhaps.) Maybe after a decade out of circulation, the public was in the mood for a new Ghost Rider, someone who aped the outward form of the character without any of the (God help me) depth the Johnny Blaze version had?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to figure it out either.

Part the Second: Howard Mackie; or, The architect of sins

No, I’m not going to think about writer Howard Mackie right now. For all my sins, I don’t deserve that.

Ghost Rider: Danny Katch Classic, v. 1 coverPart the Third: Ghost Rider himself; or, The old hero is a new flame

Who is this Ghost Rider? He’s the Spirit of Vengeance, or so he says. Beyond that? I don’t know. Does he have any connection to the previous Ghost Rider? Not that I can see, and in ten issues, he doesn’t really seem to care that much. He does like vengeance quite a bit, and he’s big on the innocents. He has a “penance stare,” which essentially sears the souls of evildoers. Nothing wrong with that, but everyone uniformly calls it the “penance stare” for some reason, without that name being publicized or, you know, obvious. Perhaps he also likes long walks on the shores of Hell and pina coladas. I don't know.

And what about the new host, Danny Ketch? Who is he? I don’t know much about him, either. You would thing, as the hero, we would get to know him. After ten issues, what we know is:

  1. He is a bike messenger of some sort. I think. When the series started, I thought he was a high schooler, but evidently, he’s 19.
  2. He lives at home, with his mother. She’s not bothered when he mysteriously brings home a motorcycle.
  3. He has a … girlfriend? I think that’s the role Stacy Dolan is supposed to fill, but she doesn’t act affectionately toward Danny, and he doesn’t act like he notices she’s a member of the same species, let alone a female. He certainly gives her no reason to like him, and she doesn’t come across as someone that interested in Danny.

That’s it. Ten issues, and that’s it. Danny has the internal life of a goldfish and a good deal less personality.

Part the Fourth: Villians; or, How to make Ghost Rider look well developed

These are who the Ghost Rider fights: Deathwatch. Blackout. Kingpin. Flag Smasher. Masque. Scarecrow. A serial killer named Zodiac. (Or Zodiak — both spellings are used.) Mr. Hyde. The H.E.A.R.T. Corporation, a group of female mercenaries, for Mephisto’s sake. With the exception of the Kingpin, who was about to fall anyway, to call these villains sad is to demean sadness.

The original adversaries are the worse. The H.E.A.R.T. Corporation is an embarrassment, a team of bad girls without the lack of restraint or T&A to appeal to the audience they were designed for; since they appeared in the early ‘90s rather than the late ‘90s, perhaps they were just ahead of their time. Zodiac is utterly generic, except he was given the name of a real, attention-loving serial killer who murdered five people in the Bay Area twenty years before Ghost Rider and was never caught. Blackout is the real nemesis of Ghost Rider, doing him the most damage, but his ability to shut off the lights and his feral nature don’t really work together as well as they should — instead of being creepy, he’s annoying. Deathwatch is a generic corporate thuglord.

As for the pre-existing characters, the Kingpin comes across as a generic corporate thuglord. The Scarecrow, a minor villain, gets a grim ‘n’ gritty makeover and becomes emblematic of the ranting morons who opposed the more violent comic book heroes of the ’90s. Masque never shows up, having the good sense to stay in a Rob Liefeld book. (Not often you can say that.) Flag Smasher is Flag Smasher; nothing that happens is a discredit to such a goofy villain, and the idea of arming inner city youth to destroy a country isn’t the worst in the world.

I will, through gritted teeth, admit to enjoying Mr. Hyde’s issue. He’s trapped as his alter ego, Calvin Zabo, but he still acts the same way he did when he was Hyde — hitting on waitresses and picking fights with bikers. That goes about as well as expected, and we get the same kind of scenes with him as we usually do with inexperienced heroes: the civilian ID huddling in some corner and hoping, almost praying for the superpowers to kick in. It almost makes me feel sorry for Hyde, and then he starts hurting people, so that goes away. And then Ghost Rider shows up, and I don’t know what the hell to think.

Part the Fifth: Howard Mackie (again); or, If you have nothing nice to say

Howard Mackie has a family and friends who care about him. Presumably, he has parents and children who love him very much. They shouldn’t have to hear about what I think about Howard Mackie. Therefore, I will pass over Mr. Mackie at this time.

Also: Mark Gruenwald seemed to believe in Mackie’s talent. That’s something I have to digest before I say anything about him. On the other hand: Did you know Mackie wrote Ghost Rider for more than 5 ½ years without giving the Ghost Rider an origin? I have trouble believing in 5 ½ years of mindless violence on top of mindless violence, but it actually happened!

Part the Sixth: The art; or, I blame YOU

Danny Ketch has a great art team, with Javier Saltares providing the pencils and Mark Texeira doing the pencils. Saltares and Texeira are the only real draws for this book. Saltares has the sort of look you want for a book like this: gritty yet vivid, exaggerated while maintaining some sort of grounding in the real world. This is exciting art, although it does have its problems; subtle emotion — not that the script seems to deserve or call for it — seems to give Saltares trouble, and there are times when I just can’t figure out what the hell is going on. Like when some street punks squirt a homeless person with a water pistol and her jacket catches fire. What’s in that squirt gun? Or was it supposed to be an accelerant, which was lit on fire by something else? That makes sense, given that the punks later flip lit matches around.

A little off topic there, sorry. I’m not sure how that little thing annoyed me when there was so much out there to … Anyway. Texeira is a great artist, but I don’t know how to evaluate his inking here. Since the art looks generally excellent, I’ll assume he’s a good part of it.

Part the Seventh: Children in jeopardy; or, Is there a subtext in here?

There is a lot of violence against children here. A teenage gang / social club are menaced by the Kingpin and Deathwatch’s goons, and one of them (and Danny’s sister) get stabbed through the chest. Blackout murders an entire family — mother, father, and child. A subplot has Scarecrow murdering children. Flag Smasher arms kids, which necessitates Punisher and Ghost Rider beating some of them up. Zodiac isn’t really bad until he murders a child; the other four people, evidently, were understandable. Masque kidnaps kids for … I say “I don’t understand” a lot, but #8 and #9 are baffling. Why does Masque want kids? Why doesn’t he ever appear? Why do other mutants wander through the issues? Why does X-Factor show up without doing anything? Why is Pixie killed? I don’t know, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to know. Anyway, the kids seem to get the short end of the victim stick here.

About the time Mackie started writing Ghost Rider, he and his wife had their first daughter. Is it the concern of a new parent for his child? Resentment for the loss of youth, taken out on fictional surrogates? Or is violence against children just a topical news trend expressed on the comics page? I don’t know.

Part the Eighth: Howard Mackie (yet again); or, I can’t omit this, nor can I resist

Ghost Rider was Mackie’s first regular writing assignment. It shows. Although the these are recognizably, undeniably comic books in every way that matters, they don’t maintain that coherence once you start looking closely at them — much in the way a pointillist painting only resembles a representational canvas when you look at large parts of it but dissolves into meaningless points of color once you focus in too closely.

The characters are ill defined and raise not one iota of sympathy or even interest in the reader. Their emotional bonds are tenuous at best, dissolving into nothingness at the every panel border. The villains are cardboard at best and seatfillers at worst. The dialogue contains phrases no one has ever said before in the history of this or any other sentient species. The plots are meaningless violence piled upon meaningless violence, with deaths that are occasionally noted before the plot moves on.

Yet this series was popular, and its popularity allowed Mackie to get gigs writing Gambit, various Spider-Man titles, and X-Factor. I blame society, and by society, I mean everybody but me. Surely you need to step up and take responsibility, even though I bought this book and you might not have. Shame on you.

Part the Ninth: The Verdict; or, Good God, don’t buy this

Like many people, I’ve talked about how many comics creators have aped the “mature” approaches of Alan Moore and Frank Miller without understanding the subtleties of what’s they are doing. Danny Ketch Classic is a master class on that idea. The deaths pile up with little emotional weight. There’s nothing here that asks the reader to empathize or engage with the material on the page. Things happen; the Ghost Rider shows up to put an end to them; and then more things happen. It’s a pointless cycle without reason or an end. What is supposed to be the Ghost Rider’s moral gray area turns into a moral vacuum; not only are there no strong moral figures in the book, there’s no real expression of strong moral values.

I really disliked this book. I found it vacuous and bad and … and … agh my head hurts. Danny Ketch Classic is a leading cause of deep hurting.

I guess what I’m trying to say is if you’re looking for Saltares art, buy something else.

Rating: Half Marvel symbol (½ of 5)

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