So Ghost Rider is a supernatural motorcyclist who made a deal with the devil to save his father, and got a flaming skull-head for his trouble?
Well, no. At least, not to America’s dime-store cowboys back in 1949.
Originally, Ghost Rider was an Old West lawman turned trickster dressed in spectral white. The character’s evolution illustrates just how arcane the history of a comic book superhero can be, 80 or 90 years into the genre.
Rex Fury, the Calico Kid, was already a western hero in a backup feature in Magazine Enterprises’ Tim Holt comics. But in the 11th issue, artist Dick Ayers and writer Ray Krank upped the ante by turning him into a 19th century mystery man superhero.
Nearly killed when criminals disguised as Indians hurled him into a waterfall, Fury finds himself in a hidden cave and, like Will Eisner’s the Spirit, decides to return and ride for justice as his own ghost.
Ghost Rider’s dramatic design — a caped white figure with a full face mask, a pale wonder horse and lots of ghostly tricks — proved popular enough to propel the character into a respectable four-year run in 14 issues of his own comic book, plus appearances in other titles. He might have survived longer if the new Comics Code had not driven most horror comics out of business.
The character’s trademark lapsed and, in 1967, writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich joined with Ayers to bring Ghost Rider to Marvel Comics. This time he was one Carter Slade, tricked up in a costume identical to the original and fighting masked bandits instead of supernatural monsters. With westerns dying in popularity, the title ran for seven issues.
Then, in 1972, Thomas, Friedrich, and artist Mike Ploog used only the name of the character when they created Johnny Blaze, the long-running supernatural Ghost Rider who’s been featured in two Nicholas Cage films.
When the Carter Slade adventures were reprinted in 1974, he couldn’t be Ghost Rider, so — retroactively and unfortunately — he became Night Rider. Too late, Marvel realized that the white-clad, masked “freedom fighters” of the KKK had also called themselves night riders.
Oops. Another retroactive name change quickly ensued. Now Carter Slade was Phantom Rider, a title he came to share with a half-dozen successors, including one in the present day.
Meanwhile, AC Comics has reprinted the adventures of the original Rex Fury Ghost Rider, renaming him the Haunted Horseman to avoid conflict with Marvel. And the Carter Slade character even made it into the 2007 Ghost Rider movie in the person of actor Sam Elliott. In the film, the cursed Phantom Rider is a skeleton in a cowboy outfit riding a skeletal horse.
The late Dick Ayers said Ghost Rider remained his most requested art commission. Unfortunately, he saved none of the original merchandising the character inspired, as he told Comics Journal.
“I had three young sons that played cowboys, and they always wanted to be the Ghost Rider, so my sample drifted off,” Ayers said.