“Road to Damnation”
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Garth Ennis has been on quite a roll. I’ve forgiven him for that waste of perfectly good trees known as Goddess, as he has enjoyed phenomenal runs on Hitman, Preacher, Hellblazer, and Punisher. Quietly, he has established himself among the top echelon of comic book writers, alongside Ellis and Morrison, especially for writing redeemable bastards. Which makes him a perfect match for giving voice to the character of Ghost Rider.

Making his first leap into the spotlight in 1972, at the height of our fascination with daredevils, Ghost Rider has remained a perennial fan favorite. Like Aquaman and Black Panther, he is a B-list character that has been resurrected several times as different writers have tried to nail down him character definitively. But they keep trying because the image of a leather jacket wearing biker whose skull and cycle are on fire is just plain cool.

This also means that the years have brought a tangle of continuity issues that any new writer has to either cut through or ignore. His story, at its core, revolves around motorcycle stunt driver Johnny Blaze who has made a deal with the devil, Mephisto in the Marvel Universe, in order to save the life of his friend who was dying of cancer. Selling his soul for a boon in a fixed game, Johnny Blaze becomes bound to Zarathos while his friend, cured of the cancer, ends up dying in another motorcycle stunt. Blaze and Zarathos eventually battle for control of the body.

In Ennis’ hands, gone is any mention of Zarathos or Mephisto, and Ghost Rider becomes almost a mythological figure, a boogeyman of the spiritual realms. All Johnny Blaze, doomed to damnation after making his pact with Satan.

The digital art by Clayton Crain is gorgeous to look at (again, artists drool at the prospect of drawing Ghost Rider) and proves a great match for Ennis’ story. It’s the Ennis portion of the story that gave me pause. Having read the best of his work, familiarity bred … familiarity. Ennis doesn’t quite phone this story in, but he uses many of his rhythms, characters, and flourishes in this story. Hell and Earth somehow connected in Texas. The gamesmanship of spiritual forces, with the angels and demons not being all that different from one another. All that was missing was his love of soldiers and war stories, though it was hinted at with his fallen reverend character.

However, it’s obvious that Ennis keeps returning to spiritual themes for a reason, a showcase for his various issues with the Church, religion, and how God is depicted. Christianity, for him, is seen through the lens of the KKK and the corrupt rich church, complete with corrupt/fallen leader. Though some will surely say that this is a relevant image, my biggest beef is that it has become such a tired trope that writing this is lazy. And for a writer as talented as Ennis, such cliches are actually beneath him. It’s kind of like writing the evil businessman, which sadly, Ennis also does in this run.

However, his depiction of heaven and hell, angels and demons, are straight out of Medieval times, treating the imagery of the Bible to establish a grand mythology, much the same way the movie Constantine did. Yet this does touch on the nearly universal intuition of a cosmic conflict. That there are gods, angels, demons, principalities and powers engaged in a cosmic battle of good vs. evil, wreaking havoc on creation, bringing ills on humanity as collateral damage. This sense of a spiritual conflict has found its way into various mythologies and religious practices, yet our modern, Western mind has dismissed it as ignorant, primitive, or superstition. People believe what makes them feel safe, but this intrusion of the supernatural into the ordinary is what gives horror much of its thrust.

In a way, myth anticipates reality. Our world is largely shaped by this war between good and evil, both on an individual level (with our personal struggles), on a communal level (as humanity relates to one another), and on a spiritual level (the behind the scenes conflicts of the spiritual realm). Yet, according to the Christian story of the Bible, the devil and his kingdom of powers and demons is defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus, the God-man as warrior, defeating these forces in unexpected, even counter-intuitive, ways. Through Christ, Death and evil are overthrown.

Ghost Rider, with his flaming skull and motorcycle, was a chain wielding hellspawn long before Todd McFarlane’s Spawn made it cool. This is a great jump on book for new readers as everything is as new to this “recalled to duty” Ghost Rider as it is to us. However, as a fan of Ennis, it felt like he just threw in all the things he was known for–from violence to his crass humor and his stock badass characters–without stretching for anything new. All this to whet our appetites, bring Ghost Rider to the forefront, in order to prepare the way for the feature length movie from Sony Pictures due out February 2007 and starring Nicholas Cage.

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