Like many another character to arise out of the production methods of the two major American comic book companies, Marvel Comics’ supernatural superhero Ghost Rider — the one with the flaming skull — had a number of creative minds involved in his beginnings.
Or, alternatively, he was in every significant sense the creation of one sole individual. It all depends on whom you ask. (Or perhaps that should be “asked”, as more than one of the principals involved is no longer with us.)
That’s true in regards to a number of other comics characters as well, of course — though in most cases, the difference in opinion doesn’t make it all the way to federal court. But more on that a bit later. For now, let’s begin with a fact that’s not in dispute — to wit, that the flaming-skull guy who debuted in the 5th issue of Marvel Spotlight half a century ago was not the first comic book hero to bear the name “Ghost Rider”.
That distinction, rather, belongs to a Western hero who first appeared in Magazine Enterprises‘ Tim Holt #11 (Nov., 1949). A creation of publisher Vincent Sullivan, editor-writer Ray Krank, and artist Dick Ayers, this spooky-looking-and-acting, but not actually supernatural, champion of justice took inspiration from the 1948 country-and-western song “Riders in the Sky” (a number one hit for Vaughn Monroe in 1949) as well as from the “Headless Horseman” character from Washington Irving’s 1819 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (or at least from the 1949 Disney animated film version of it)* This Ghost Rider ran as a back-up feature in Tim Holt for the next several years, as well as in fourteen issues of his own series, several of which sported striking covers by Frank Frazetta (see left for an example from 1951’s Ghost Rider #4).
The horror-tinged “Ghost Rider” feature didn’t long survive the industry’s adoption of the Comics Code Authority, making its last appearance in Red Mask #50 (Jul.-Aug., 1955). Magazine Enterprises itself went out of business in 1958, and its intellectual property rights were not renewed, or otherwise retained; this ultimately allowed Marvel Comics to bring out its own, rather toned-down version of Ghost Rider almost a decade later, in 1966. Marvel’s iteration changed some details in regards to the hero — his secret identity, his back-story, even the name of his horse — but his visual and shtick remained essentially the same. Marvel even had the original character’s co-creator, Dick Ayers, on board as artist — though the scripts were by a much less seasoned talent, Gary Friedrich.
Friedrich, who was 23 at the time Ghost Rider #1 (cover-dated Feb., 1967) came out, was one of the first new young writers to break in at Marvel Comics, following in the footsteps of his fellow Missourian and good friend since high school, Roy Thomas. Along with scripting Ghost Rider (which ran for just seven issues**) and other Westerns, Friedrich worked as well in virtually every other genre then published by Marvel, including romance, “mystery” (i.e., Code-approved horror), humor, and ultimately, of course, superheroes. His most substantial run, however — and the work for which he’s probably best remembered today, after Ghost Rider (the motorcycle-riding version) — was his six-year stint on Marvel’s premiere war comic, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.
As prolific as Friedrich was at Marvel during this era, the young writer still found time in 1971 to do some work for Skywald Publications — a comics company co-founded the year before by Marvel’s onetime Production Manager (and future Vice-President of Operations), Sol Brodsky. Skywald brought out a few color comics during its relatively short lifespan (it ceased operations in 1975), but its primary focus was black-and-white magazine-sized comics — a format then dominated by Warren Publishing. Like Warren, Skywald took advantage of the format’s freedom from Comics Code restrictions to produce more “mature” material; while this was mostly in the horror genre, the approach also extended to a two-issue experiment with superhero-style adventure called Hell-Rider.
The title feature of Hell-Rider was scripted by Gary Friedrich, with art provided by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito (though the painted cover shown at right was by Harry Rosenbaum). The first issue (cover-dated Jul.-Aug., 1971) introduced the title character — a motorcycle-riding Vietnam veteran who possessed super-strength (the result of taking an experimental drug), which occasionally failed him at inopportune times. His cycle was equipped with a flame-thrower, and his costume was a basic black leather outfit, accessorized with an “H” belt-buckle; he hid his true identity under a helmet-mask with a pitchfork emblem on the front. In his first outing, he’d fight a heroin-smuggling secret society. — and, as you might guess, his capacity for both bone-crushing violence and free-wheeling sex were quickly shown to be considerably greater than those of his fellow vigilantes who worked the four-color, Code-approved side of the highway.
But Hell-Rider only lasted two issues, and though he did a few other stories for Skywald, writing for Marvel remained Friedrich’s main comics gig; early 1972 found him working on Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and of course Sgt. Fury. And though by May his runs on all but the last of those titles had come to an end, Friedrich had something brand new lined up, as we Marvel readers of the time learned in that month’s Bullpen Bulletins column:
My fourteen-year-old self didn’t really need the hard sell. While I had no interest in the earlier, Western Ghost Rider, and was altogether indifferent to motorcycle culture — plus, if I’m to be honest, Gary Friedrich’s writing hadn’t really made a strong impression on me thus far, one way or the other — I was all in on Marvel’s new wave of supernatural series protagonists. That, and the fact that I was already a big fan of Mike Ploog based on his work on “Werewolf by Night” (which had headlined the three issues of Marvel Spotlight prior to the new Ghost Rider’s debut), meant that there was no question that I’d be picking up Marvel Spotlight #5.
But, before we follow in my fifty-year-old footsteps and take a look at the comic itself, let me just say that when the anonymous Bullpen Bulletins scribe wrote that Gary Friedrich “dreamed the whole thing up”, I took them at their word. Why wouldn’t I?
A few words about that great opening splash page’s credits box: The credit for Friedrich having “conceived & written” (italics mine) the story is highly unusual for a Marvel comic of this era. As is, in its own way, the attribution to Roy Thomas (then an associate editor on staff at Marvel as well as one of its most prolific freelance writers, but not someone who’d normally get a credit on a book he didn’t write) for “aid and abetment”. We’ll have more to say about these credits later, but for now, just keep ’em in mind.
The mysterious cyclist we’ll come to know as the Ghost Rider makes it into the alley — unfortunately, it’s a dead end. He decides his only chance is to bluff his pursuers; and so, when they get out of their car to finish him, he tells them that they’re messing with “the servant of Satan!”
The structure of the Ghost Rider’s origin story parallels that of his predecessor in Marvel Spotlight, Werewolf by Night, in that it begins with a present-day action sequence featuring the protagonist already in possession of his unusual attributes before flashing back to tell readers how he got that way. It’s not the last similarity we’ll see between this tale and the earlier one (which, though drawn by Ploog, was written by Gerry Conway).
The scene in which Johnny Blaze makes a promise to his mother-figure on her deathbed recalls a very similar scene in the first Werewolf by Night story, in which Jack Russell did the same thing.
The preceding panel’s “cold, driving rain“, like the precipitation on view in the story’s opening scenes, represents Mike Ploog’s version of “Eisnershpritz” — in the words of critic Douglas Wolk, “a certain kind of rain that falls only in comics, a thick, persistent drizzle, much heavier than normal water, that bounces off whatever it hits, dripping from fedoras, running slowly down windowpanes and reflecting the doom in bad men’s hearts.”*** It of course gets its name from Ploog’s former employer, the great comics artist-writer Will Eisner.
As our flashback continues, we learn how Johnny kept his promise for the next five long years, even though his refusal to ride led both Crash and Roxanne to believe he was a coward. Eventually, however, he came to realize that his vow to Mrs. Simpson only applied to his riding in the show; and so, simply for his own satisfaction, he began to ride and practice stunts alone and in secret, until one night…
One morning, while the act was on tour, Roxanne took a phone call from their manager that would change the lives of all three of our principals — Johnny, Crash, and Rocky herself. The stunt-riding troupe had at last landed “the biggest showcase in the world” — Madison Square Garden! But Crash was unable to share in the young people’s excitement, for as he explained to them, he’d recently received notice from his doctor that he might not live to attain this goal he’d worked for for the past thirty years — indeed, he’d been given a month to live, at most…
Yeah, “Satan!” That’s the ticket! After all, who among us can’t say that, in times of great personal need, we haven’t sought aid from that infernal Prince of Darkness? I know I have… not, actually. Nor has anyone else with whom I’m acquainted (at least, not to the best of my knowledge). On the other hand, none of us live in the Marvel Universe circa 1972, where devilish entities such as Mephisto and Satannish are every bit as real as Richard Nixon, if not quite so widely recognized. Bearing that in mind, why shouldn’t there be a somewhat more authentic (at least in terms of nomenclature) version of Fallen Angel No. 1 alive and well in the MU, and why shouldn’t there even be books a motivated young man might consult about how best to invoke that Evil One’s assistance (though at the peril of his immortal soul, of course)?
There’s actually a good bit more we could say about the footprint (or should that be hoofprint?) of Satan in early-’70s popular culture that would help provide context for Ol’ Nick’s sudden appearance in this comic — but rather than pull focus away from the origin of Ghost Rider (on any level) in this post, we’re going to leave that discussion for some time later… say, about the time that a certain scion of Mr. Scratch shows up in the pages of this very title, some fourteen months from now.
“Then, as quickly as it began… it is ended…” Satan vanishes, and Johnny’s room returns to normal. But though he’s well aware his life will never return to normal, he figures what he’s gained is worth the cost.
Three weeks later, the act has arrived in New York City. As Johnny hangs around backstage at Madison Square Garden, Rocky comes running up to tell him he has to talk to Crash, to stop him from going through with what he’s about to do…
Crash is adamant, and when Johnny tries to press the point, the older man retorts, “And who’s gonna stop me… not a gutless kid I raised like a son! That’s for sure!” At this, Johnny turns and walks away, though his anger is really just a ruse: “Had to put on that show… though I know he’s in no real danger! I have the Devil’s word on it!” (Uh, yeah, Johnny… about that…) “Still, can even he get a bike over 22 cars?!”
Several hours drag by; and then, at last, it’s showtime:
On the next page, Friedrich wisely lets Ploog’s dramatically-charged art carry the story, with the barest minimum of verbiage…
Johnny straps on a helmet, hops on a bike, and then — ignoring Roxanne’s distraught cries of protest — attempts the same 22-car jump the great Crash Simpson just died trying. Unsurprisingly (since this is the first installment of a new continuing feature), he makes it; somewhat more surprisingly, he afterwards expects Rocky to be proud of his accomplishment: “…Not bad… for a coward, huh?!”
Did you know that the Devil can’t bear to be in the presence of someone who’s “pure in heart” (whatever that means)? I didn’t either (at least not before I read it here). But, of course, neither you nor I have perused Johnny Blaze’s tomes of Satanic lore — and, as unlikely as it seems, Roxanne Simpson has. “I read your books on Satan… when you weren’t around,” she explains to an amazed and grateful Johnny, “and when I entered the room… well, I knew exactly what to do!”
So everything’s fine, at least as long as Rocky and Johnny stay together… or maybe not. The next night, as darkness falls over the city, Johnny begins to feel kinda strange. His head throbs with pain, his body burns with fever…
This first episode of “Ghost Rider” runs for a full 22 pages, but still leaves us with some questions. What, exactly, are this new character’s powers? Is the fire that he summoned and controlled back on page 4 just the ordinary kind of stuff, or something more, well, hellish? To what degree is he under the Devil’s dominion, and to what extent can he act with autonomy? And last but not least, what kind of people/demons/monsters is he gonna fight?
Most of those questions would be answered over the next few issues — though some of the answers would inevitably change and evolve over time, as different creators with different ideas (especially in regards to whether to emphasize the character’s superheroic qualities over his horror vibe, or vice versa) took their respective turns in guiding the Ghost Rider’s destiny. And certain important elements of his mythos, as known to readers of today — the demon Zarathos, the Penance Stare, the Spirits of Vengeance — would be years, or even decades, in coming.
Still, in the end, it would be hard to argue that all of the truly essential pieces that make the Ghost Rider the Ghost Rider — e.g., the infernal origin, the flaming skull, the cool ride — everything, really, save for the preexisting name — wasn’t there to be found in the pages of Marvel Spotlight #5. Which makes the question of who contributed what to the book — of what those credit-box phrases “conceived & written” and “aid and abetment” actually meant — of interest to comic book historians and fans.
And, for at least seven years of the early 21st century, of interest as well to the plaintiffs, defendants, and other parties involved in the case of Gary Friedrich Enterprises, LLC. et al v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc. et al.
The Friedrich-Ploog collaboration on “Ghost Rider” lasted for just four issues. Tom Sutton came on as artist with Marvel Spotlight #8 (though Ploog contributed one last cover for that issue), while Friedrich continued as the feature’s writer through the end of its Spotlight run (with issue #11) and the first four issues of the brand-new Ghost Rider title. During that period, the writer continued to write other series for Marvel as well, including Sgt. Fury (naturally) and The Monster of Frankenstein, the first six issues of which found him reunited with Ploog. After 1973, however, the work at Marvel all but dried up — a circumstance that seems to have largely been the result of Friedrich’s worsening problems with alcohol (about which he would later speak quite frankly in an interview for Comic Book Artist #13 [May, 2001]). In 1975, he did a few stories for former Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s short-lived Atlas/Seaboard Comics; a year later, he returned to Marvel long enough to succeed Chris Claremont on the company’s UK arm’s weekly Captain Britain comic, scripting and/or plotting some 26 seven-page episodes before that assignment, too, went away.
By 1978, Gary Friedrich had pretty much hit bottom; as he put it in the aforementioned CBA interview, “I was in too bad a shape to work for a living.” But then, as the year 1979 began, he resolved to get sober and turn his life around — and by all accounts, he was ultimately successful in doing so. The new life he made for himself was one largely separate from the comics industry, however, as after 1979, his only comic-book writing credit was a single story for Topps Comics in 1993. Meanwhile, the Ghost Rider — whose initial series had come to an end in 1983, with issue #83 — received a new lease on life. A new series, featuring a new man behind the visage of the blazing skull, Danny Ketch, was launched by Marvel in 1990; it became a hit, running for eight years and 93 issues.
In 2001, when asked by Comic Book Artist’s Jon B. Cooke about the genesis of Ghost Rider, Gary Friedrich replied:
Well, there’s some disagreement between Roy, Mike and I
over that. [laughter] I threatened on more than one occasion that if Marvel gets in the position where they are gonna make a movie or make a lot of money off of it, I’m gonna sue them, [laughter] and I probably will. Roy’s recollections of the birth of the Ghost Rider and mine vary somewhat. It was my idea. It was always my idea from the first time we talked about it, it turned out to be a guy with a flaming skull and rode a motorcycle. Ploog seems to think the flaming skull was his idea. But, to tell you the truth, it was my idea.
As it happened, the same issue of Comic Book Artist that carried the Friedrich interview had also featured one with Roy Thomas, in which the latter shared some of his own recollections concerning Ghost Rider’s beginnings:
I had made up a character as a villain in Daredevil—a very lackluster character—called Stunt-Master. I took the name from Simon & Kirby’s Stuntman, but I made him a motorcyclist. Anyway, when Gary Friedrich started writing Daredevil, he said, “Instead of Stunt-Master, I’d like to make the villain a really weird motorcycle-riding character called Ghost Rider.” He didn’t describe him. I said, “Yeah, Gary, there’s only one thing wrong with it,” and he kind of looked at me weird, because we were old friends from Missouri, and I said, “That’s too good an idea to be just a villain in Daredevil. He should start out right away in his own book.” When Gary wasn’t there the day we were going to design it, Mike Ploog, who was going to be the artist, and I designed the character. I had this idea for the skull-head, something like Elvis’ 1968 Special jumpsuit, and so forth, and Ploog put the fire on the head, just because he thought it looked nice. Gary liked it, so they went off and did it…
As for Mike Ploog, he’d been interviewed for Comic Book Artist a few years earlier (for issue #2, dated Summer, 1998), and had at that time had this to say on the topic of Ghost Rider:
That was a Roy Thomas idea. Roy asked me if I wanted to do “Ghost Rider.” I thought, “Yeah! Horses! Get me away from these city scenes!” [laughter] It wasn’t until two or three weeks later they called up and said, “Can you do some drawings of costumes and the motorcycle?” This was the first I’d heard about a motorcycle. So off I went; I did a bunch of drawings for the character, and off I went.
CBA: You came up with the idea for the blazing skull?
Mike: Yeah, the blazing skull, the… I tell you, it was a rip-off of the old western one.
On February 16, 2007, Sony Pictures released the theatrical motion picture Ghost Rider, starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes. And on April 4 of that year, Gary Friedrich, true to his word, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois — alleging that Marvel, Sony, and a number of other companies who had licensed the Ghost Rider IP or profited from it in some way, had infringed on his copyright for the character.
I won’t burden you with the full, tortuous history of the case, but in brief: after four years of motions, depositions, etc., in December, 2011, a U.S. District Judge ruled against Friedrich. Following that ruling, Marvel sought $17,000 in damages it said the writer owed it for sales of unauthorized Ghost Rider merchandise. Friedrich responded by appealing the District Court’s decision against him, and in June, 2013, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the earlier ruling, saying the facts needed further investigation at trial. That investigation never happened, however, as by September Marvel and Friedrich had found their way to a settlement; as is typical in such circumstances, its terms were not publicly disclosed. Consequently, the issues at the heart of the case were left unresolved, at least in legal terms.
Among the official court documents accessible via this link (albeit not without a fair bit of effort, not to mention the potential for financial expense) is a “Declaration of Gary Friedrich”, dated October 17, 2011. I’ve excerpted and arranged the passages most relevant to the current discussion below; though I’ve reformatted it for easier reading, all of the text is Friedrich’s (with the exception of a few clarifying phrases set in brackets):
As a young boy, watching “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando and other motorcycle movies of the same genre put the initial idea of a motorcycle riding hero in my mind… While a teenager and young man, I watched motorcycle gang films starring the likes of Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and believed the black leathers of the motorcycle clubs and gangs that were pictured (and were sprouting up in my home town) had a sense of cool power. It was for that reason that I ultimately chose black leather to be the wardrobe for the character I was creating and eventually put into Marvel Spotlight, Vol. I, No. 5 (“Spotlight 5”)…
During the late 1960’s, Evel Kneivel, a real life motorcycle daredevil who would use his motorcycle to jump cars, canyons and other obstacles, began to rise to popularity. The influence of Evel Knievel and other cycle stunt riders made me begin to evolve my contemplated character from a mere motorcyclist into a motorcycle stuntman, similar to Knievel.
Over these years, although far from an everyday project, I would continue to periodically think about my evolving character, including his physical attributes,
In 1968, my friend Paul Schade and I decided to go on a trip to California for the summer… While we were in California that summer, a high school friend of ours, C.L. Slinkard decided that he and his pregnant girlfriend would ride out from Missouri to California on his motorcycle to visit. When Slinkard showed up on his motorcycle with his pregnant girlfriend on the back on a Triumph, his red hair coming out from his boney face, it instantly clicked to me that my character would have a skull for a head with flames around and coming out of it. The addition of the flaming skull idea lead me to imagine my hero being a motorcycle stuntman by day in normal human form, but as being somehow connected to the devil at night when he would transform into the flaming skulled version of himself…
[Circa 1970] Sol Brodsky, an old friend with whom I had discussed my evolving motorcycle hero character, asked me if I would write some comics on a free lance basis for Skywald Publications, which Brodsky co-owned. Skywald was forming a line of adult comic books and Brodsky told me he remembered I had a motorcycle character. I held back the complete concept of the superhero character, but in light of Brodsky’s enthusiasm for a motorcycle character, did discuss a different type of motorcycle character with him, along the lines of a human vigilante character on a motorcycle.
I held back my evolving character because I was concerned about the publishing set up at Skywald and the quality of the artwork done in the Skywald publications, and so I did not want to risk my superhero and story on the Skywald venture. I joined with Brodsky, Herschel Waldman, Ross Adru, and Mike Esposito in jointly creating a purely human motorcycle vigilante comic book character called “Hell-Rider” and retained my idea for the supernatural, stunt jumping, demon character for use at another time…
In 1971, I learned that the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was beginning to lighten up its standards for certain areas of comics, which I recognized would now allow me to go forward with my character and story when I decided it was ready. With the CCA changes, the code began to allow more adult oriented content to be included in comic books including demons and supernatural elements that had been previously been restricted. As a result of the change in the comic’s code, I determined that it was time to try to launch my character and its origin story.
I began to focus on the characters and story for the first time with a serious thought that I could publish and sell an actual comic book telling the story. Just before putting pen to paper, and after rejecting the idea of having my hero sell his soul to the devil to save the love of his life as being too cliché, I decided instead that he would sell his soul to save her father. I decided that the stuntman would be named Johnny Blaze and that he would be an orphan being raised by the father of the girl that he loved, who he would then save. I also decided that Blaze would be somehow following in the footsteps of his adoptive father as a stuntman, and would be physically fit, tall, blonde, wholesome, and attractive, and an antithesis to the supernatural hellish persona I decided would be called Ghost Rider.
With the look of my hero’s human and supernatural personas and the general framework of my story in place I sat down and formalized my characters and story in writing, at home, on my own time and at my own expense. I created the characters of Blaze’s deceased father (naming him Barton merely for the alliteration) and the separate father figure he would save to join [sic] (naming him “Crash” due to his stuntman career) and described them along with Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider and Johnny’s love interest Roxanne, and fleshed out the story in a detailed written synopsis. When I completed it, the detailed written synopsis provided a full description of storyline, character names, description of the characters… as well as key action panels that would be in the comic book itself. The name of Johnny Blaze was inspired by his alter ego’s flaming skull and Roxanne was named after a lead guitarist in a band I had played in the 60’s.
After completing the synopsis, I approached Magazine Management [parent company of Marvel Comics] through Roy Thomas with a proposal that I write a comic book featuring by new hero and that MMC [i.e., Magazine Management Co.] publish it. I described my new hero, related characters and origin story, and presented Thomas with my written synopsis that described the developed characters and story as well. Thomas agreed that my new characters and origin story sounded like a viable storyline and characters but indicated a meeting with Stan Lee, who still headed up the Marvel division of MMC at the time, would be necessary if I wanted MMC to publish my book.
Thomas told me he was going to set up a meeting with Lee and give my written synopsis to him and I believe Lee received my written synopsis from Thomas prior to my meeting with Lee. Thomas set up the meeting between Lee and me. In the meeting I described my motorcycle riding Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider human/supernatural character and the characters of Roxanne Simpson, Crash Simpson, and Barton Blaze and the origin story and plot, and my background on what the characters would look like, including Ghost Rider’s flaming skull and black leather suit. At the meeting, Lee listened to me and agreed that MMC would go forward with the project that I initiated, and agreed that MMC would publish the comic book that I would write…
Thomas suggested to me in that meeting that Mike Ploog be brought in to illustrate the comic book, and I agreed… Following the meeting, I met with Ploog and ensured that he received my previously prepared written synopsis detailing the story, the look of the characters and the key panels that would need to be drawn. I also spoke with Ploog and gave him additional instructions, and he was instructed what the characters were to look like in specific detail, how they are to drawn and what should be drawn in the key panels…
I’ve quoted from Gary Friedrich’s statement at considerable length, largely because I suspect that very few people not directly involved in the court case have actually read it; and as Friedrich seems to have give very few interviews over the course of his life — sadly, he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in August, 2018, at the age of 75 — it may well be the only detailed account of his version of Ghost Rider’s beginnings that we’ll ever have. Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog, on the other hand, have both given their respective versions in multiple interviews and in other articles over the years (see “For further reading“, below), as well as in sworn depositions for the court case, given in 2011.
In general, Thomas’ various accounts have lined up closely with his recollections from the 2001 Comic Book Artist interview quoted earlier, although some new details have been added here and there. Perhaps most significantly, Thomas has said that the name Johnny Blaze was conceived not by Gary Friedrich, but by Stan Lee… who may or may not have made other contributions to the character’s origin, as well:
So Gary and I marched into Stan’s office, and Gary spitballed the general concept to Stan. Stan approved it immediately. The only thing he insisted on, then or soon afterward—and I’ve no idea why—was that the alter ego of this Ghost Rider be named Johnny Blaze. Neither Gary nor I was wild about that moniker, since the Human Torch’s real name was Johnny Storm…too close…but Stan was adamant, for some reason. So Johnny Blaze it was. Stan may have made a few other “suggestions” that were incorporated into the origin later by Gary, but I’m afraid my memory’s a blank on that. (Introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Ghost Rider, Vol. 1 ).
In the same introduction, Thomas notes that he doesn’t believe that Friedrich’s original conception was for a supernatural character, since such a character wouldn’t have made sense as a Daredevil villain.
Meanwhile, Mike Ploog has largely backed down from his offhand claim (in his 1998 Comic Book Artist interview) that he came up with the Ghost Rider’s blazing-skull look, stating in his deposition, as well as in a couple of more recent interviews, that he really can’t recall who was responsible for the idea.**** Ploog has also acknowledged a general fuzziness about where and when he had discussions with Thomas and/or Friedrich about designing the character, which is understandable; as he told the lawyers in 2011: “You know, it was 40 years ago.”
In the end, then, it basically comes down to two relatively complete, but very different accounts. Gary Friedrich’s is the history of an idea first conceived of by him alone, at a young age, which then developed over time, accruing influences from popular culture as well as inspiration from personal experiences, until it was at last fully fleshed out and set down by him in the fixed form of a complete comic-book plot synopsis — which only then was shared with any potential collaborator or publisher. Conversely, Roy Thomas’ is the alternate history of that idea, which in his telling began as Friedrich’s idea for a new villain in an existing Marvel Comics title, then got bumped up to a feature at his (Thomas’) instigation, and was ultimately fleshed out by himself and others (including Gary Friedrich) under the auspices of Marvel.
I’m fully prepared to believe that both men’s accounts have been delivered in complete good faith, and that they represent the honest recollections of their respective proponents; they are, nonetheless, almost wholly incompatible with one another.
Some of you out there may be wondering what, if any, difference that makes, in terms of the legal ownership of the Ghost Rider IP. Surely the central question is about the comic book industry practice of “work-for-hire”, and whether Marvel Comics can claim “corporate authorship” of any character or story produced (and paid for) under the 1972 version of such terms — regardless of whether one person came up with the whole character concept (including his visual and backstory), or four or more people did. And that may well be true, from a legal standpoint. Still, in looking over the various court documents, it certainly seems to me that Friedrich’s lawyers believed that establishing their client’s all-but-complete creation of Ghost Rider prior to any involvement by anyone else associated with Marvel was an important part of their case — and, conversely, that Marvel’s lawyers thought it was just as important to establish that the character’s genesis was more of a committee effort.
And aside from the legal issues, surely it matters simply in terms of comic book history, and of posterity giving creators their proper due. For myself, I find that I keep coming back to that credits box on the first page of Marvel Spotlight #5, and its use of phrases that were so unusual — maybe even unique — for the mainstream, four-color comics of that time: “conceived & written…”; “aid and abetment…”
Those phrases came in for attention in Gary Friedrich’s lawsuit against Marvel, as well. In his October, 2011 declaration, Friedrich stated:
After the final work was done on Spotlight 5, the pages were returned to me, and I added the “credit box” to the splash page in which I noted that Spotlight 5 had been “conceived and written by” me. Thomas saw that credit for me and never took issue with it. He merely added a credit for himself, indicating he had aided and abetted me. I initially contemplated removing the credit that he had added, but eventually approved it due to his role in setting up the meeting with Lee. I believe that Stan Lee also saw the credit given to me, and he also never took issue with it.
Thomas was asked about the credits box in his deposition for the case; but rather than quote the answers he gave there, I’m going to share his version of events that appeared in Alter Ego #169; which, while in agreement with the deposition on the facts, is somewhat more detailed, and definitely more frank:
When I saw the first story’s credits as Gary had scripted them, in some early stage, they said it was “conceived and written” by him. I’ve always assumed that, since he hadn’t used the verboten word “created,” Stan let that credit stand when he eventually saw it… and Martin or Chip Goodman, whichever one was officially publisher at that time, didn’t object, either, if they ever saw it. And the credit was, of course, accurate… although I’ll admit I do think of Mike Ploog as a co-creator of Ghost Rider, since he was the first to actually draw him, and was crucial to designing him visually.
But I had contributed to this Ghost Rider, too—especially, by my lights, to his look—and ordinarily, at that time, my name wouldn’t have been in the credits of any story I didn’t also script. So I had the letterer add, at the end of the credits: “Aid and abetment – Roy Thomas.” I wanted some acknowledgment of my contribution, without altering Gary’s main credit…
He never said anything directly to me about my added credit. But someone—I forget who—told me that, while the inked and lettered original art was lying on [then production manager] [John] Verpoorten’s desk, Gary saw the credit I’d added, grumbled, “F***ing egotist!,” and stomped out. I never brought that up to him, ’cause what good would it have done? But I guess we both had strong feelings about what we did on “Ghost Rider.”
Yeah, I guess they both did… which makes it a shame that, in the end, they couldn’t agree on exactly what it was that each of them had done to contribute to the creation of this enduring character.
For further reading:
Arndt, Richard J., “‘Gary Friedrich and I Were a Part of Each Other’s Lives for More Than 60 Years’: A Conversation with Roy Thomas about Their 6-Decade Friendship,” Alter Ego #169 (May, 2021), pp. 3-42. The centerpiece to a special memorial issue of Thomas’ comics history fanzine, dedicated to Gary Friedrich’s life and career.
Ash, Roger, and Eric Nolen-Weathington, Modern Masters Volume 19: Mike Ploog (TwoMorrows, 2008). Ploog discusses his work on Ghost Rider on pages 24 through 26.
Johnson, Dan, “On the Highway to Hell (Marvel-Style): Back Issue Talks Ghost Rider with Mike Ploog,” Back Issue #15 (Mar., 2006), pp. 67-70.
Simon, Alexander L., “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Gary Friedrich’s Battle With Marvel For Artist Rights,” 35 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 211 (2015). An article for a legal journal which discusses the history of the case, then argues that the court should have ruled that Friedrich retained the copyright for Ghost Rider. Available for download as a PDF here.
Thomas, Roy, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks — Vol. 1: Ghost Rider (Marvel, 2019).
West, Daniel, “Who Created Ghost Rider? The Not-So-Secret Origin of Zarathos!” During the period that the Friedrich vs. Marvel case was active, Australian blogger West posted regular news updates, as well as a variety of actual court documents. His most useful post overall may have been this one from November, 2011, which featured lengthy excerpts from the depositions and other official statements made by Friedrich, Thomas, Ploog, Lee, and others, arranged into a coherent chronological narrative.
And Now for Something (Almost) Completely Different Dept.: If there’s anybody out there who, even after reading such a lengthy post as this one, is up for still more of my ramblings about fifty year old comic books — or who might simply be curious about what it would be like to have a conversation with me on the topic IRL — I was recently a guest on the The Fantastic Comic Fan podcast to talk about 1972 in comics (or at least January through March of that year; you may not believe this, but I have an occasional tendency to be long-winded). I also joined several other guests for a special episode honoring the recently departed Neal Adams. My thanks to host Ronald-Thomas Fleming for both opportunities.
*Per an interview with Dick Ayers published in Alter Ego #10 (Autumn, 2001).
**Following the debut of the new, cycle-riding Ghost Rider, Marvel opted to reprint some of the Western hero’s adventures under a new title. Originally they went with Night Rider — which was a really bad idea, because, well, the Klan. Thankfully, that appellation was soon replaced with “Phantom Rider”, which is the name Marvel uses for their masked, white-garbed, white-horse-riding hero to this very day. Meanwhile, the original Ghost Rider stories published by Magazine Enterprises, and since fallen into public domain, have been reprinted by AC Comics under the title “Haunted Horseman”. And the (hoof) beat goes on…
***Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo Press, 2008), p. 166.
****One aspect of Ghost Rider’s conception that every account appears to agree on is that the character’s appearance owes nothing whatsoever — at least not consciously — to the obscure Marvel (then Timely) 1940s superhero, the Blazing Skull — despite the fact that the two characters basically have the same head. Thomas noted in his 2011 deposition that though he did take note of the resemblance between the two designs, it wasn’t until after Ploog had already sketched the flames around the skull of Johnny Blaze’s alter ego. (It would have been odd, indeed, if Thomas hadn’t made such a mental connection, considering he’d recently given the Golden Age character a cameo in Avengers #97, which came out just five months prior to Marvel Spotlight #5.)
Great write-up, Alan! I recall a few months later, my brother’s best friend of the time, Kent, was all ga ga about Ghost Rider. Of course, Evel Kneivel was still a big thing too among kids (and kids at heart) of the time, with E. K. “action figures” being popular too. I got the last of G. R.’s appearances in Marvel Spotlight and several of the first few issues of his own series, although didn’t start collecting it regularly until issue 10 (which featured Hulk on the cover but was actually a reprint of this first appearance, which I had missed). As a “super-hero” mag, IMO it was rather run of the mill, but when it got back to emphasizing supernatural elements and particularly when the Ghost Rider persona became separate from Johnny Blaze, under Michael Fleischer, it really got much more interesting.
As to Gary Friedrich’s own writing, as a kid I hadn’t read enough of his material for his name to make much of an impression on me, and I haven’t read a whole lot since. Based on what I have read, I’d assess him as average, capable enough, and occasionally compelling, but not one I’d regard as among the better comics writers. HIs legal case, of course, echoes that of Gerber over Howard the Duck, albeit with more complexities over the genesis of the concept — there wasn’t any dispute that adding a cigar-smoking, talking duck in a business suit in a Man-Thing story was entirely Gerber’s madcap idea, abetted only by Val Mayerik providing the first visuals. Hmm, and Gerber was another Missourian. Notably, Thomas purposely avoided creating distinct original characters for Marvel, totally understanding that they’d be owned by Marvel, although he did significantly update several old characters, most notably the Vision, which while very different conceptually, still closely resembled the old version, far more than the new Ghost Rider resembled the old. I hadn’t previously been aware that it was Lee who coined the name Johnny Blaze, although it’s not surprising. Not just reminiscent of Johnny Storm, but also of that old PSA character Johnny Smoke, the deadly, horse-riding cigarette — yet another hot-headed Johnny!. It might have been over 50 years since I heard the refrain of the “song” but it somehow still lingers in my mind — a Google search brought up the anti-smoking cartoon which ran on tv in the 1960s but which I’m sure I saw at school but I’ve no distinct memory of the ad’s visuals, just of that haunting voice singing “Johnny Smoke, Johnny Smoke ….” Strange what sticks in our memories.
I enjoyed Ploog’s art — a bit on the cartoony side sometimes, but made for fun perusing, with many striking images. HIs work with Gerber on Man-Thing is one of my favorite runs.
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Credit where credit is due: Jim Shooter’s writing tenure on Ghost Rider was very brief, but he’s the guy who originally started treating GR as a separate (and demonic) character. This approach was right up Fleischer’s alley though, as he really leaned into it and produced many good (and dark) stories when he came aboard. Ghost Rider might be the most underrated title of the Bronze Age.
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I actually owned the first issue of Hell-Rider, back in the day. That is, until my mom found it and between the title and all the naked and nigh-naked women depicted within, immediately threw it in the trash. She was right in that the only real reason I bought the book was for the sexual innuendo, but I still mourned the loss, even though, as I remember it, I found the story to be lacking and the art fairly unimpressive. Apropos of nothing, this is also around the time I bought the first issue of Marvel’s b&w Star-Lord comic, featuring a very different version of Peter Quill than the one we know now and his sentient spaceship, uh, “Ship.” I don’t have that one any more either (though if I did, imagine how much I could have sold it for on Ebay when the first Guardians movie came out), but it’s not because my mom threw it out; I’m sure I just lost it. The Star-Lord book has nothing to do with supernatural motorcyclists, but in my head both Hell-Rider and Star-Lord exist side by side and I can’t talk about one without at least mentioning the other.
As for Gary Friedrich, I’m pretty sure that right up until this morning, if you’d mentioned him to me, I would have assumed you were talking about Mike Friedrich, laughed sardonically, and gone on about my day. Were they related? Am I mis-spelling one of their last names and just really out in left field? I feel like if they were related, you’d have mentioned it, Alan, but maybe not. You’re a busy guy these days being a world-famous blogger and now a podcast star (listened to your first two eps on the FCF podcast and you were great), so maybe you just missed it, but I don’t think so. From the sound of it, Gary’s comics’ legacy wasn’t all that profound beyond the hullaballoo of his Ghost Rider lawsuit, so it doesn’t sound like I missed much.
Can we talk about Ploog now? I love Mike Ploog and though, thanks to this blog, I have gone back and gained appreciation of his comics work in Werewolf By Night and Frankenstein and now, Ghost Rider, my first real introduciton to his work was the 1977 animated film Wizards by a post-Fritz the Cat and pre-LoTR Ralph Bakshi. I don’t know why they chose to do the flashbacks in much of that film over Ploog’s static artwork (I assume it was cheaper), but Ploog’s work was gorgeous and easily one of my favorite things about the movie.
As for the lawsuit, I don’t know why Gary bothered. As I understand the whole “work for hire” agreement Marvel and DC used back in the day, once he used Ghost Rider in a Marvel comic, it belonged to Marvel no matter when he came up with the idea and that was that. While I appreciate the struggle for creators’ rights as much as the next guy, I really don’t know what Friedrich was hoping to gain here, other than maybe a “created by” credit on the film and some of that movie money, which Marvel still doesn’t seem all that anxious to share with the comic book side of the desk to this day.
As far as the story itself goes, it’s wonderfully drawn for 1972, but the story is rushed (ie: Johnny and Roxanne’s romance and Johnny’s study of Satanism) and it’s major elements pretty much only make sense in that tried-and-true “comics logic” way that we all look back on with a fond nostalgia, even though it was lazy and slipshod and just another example of how poorly the industry viewed comics as a whole.
Ghost Rider. I liked the two movies (didn’t love them, but I liked them) and I liked the character OK on Agents of SHIELD, but the comics, not so much. I guess this young Baptist boy in 1972 was too worried about picking up a book and selling my soul to the Devil like Johnny did. Though if the Devil would be played by Peter Fonda like he was in the movie, I do have some questions about Easy Rider (Hell-Rider? Ghost Rider? Easy Rider?) I’d like to ask. Thanks.
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Thanks for the kind comments on the podcasts, Don. And for the record, Gary and Mike Friedrich weren’t related, 🙂
I was never a huge Ghost Rider fan, but used to own an early issue with The Orb who was a suitably bizarre villain who, when he removed his helmet, had skidded on his human face in a high speed motorcycle accident.
Only in comics, folks!
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The Orb had been introduced in Marvel Team-Up #15; don’t think he appeared in Ghost Rider’s own mag until much later. Apparently the avant-garde musical group the Residents wouldn’t let him join them despite his having his own eye helmet. The Orb band wouldn’t have him either.
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That’s the one I had, MTU #15.
So… this week you write a completely fascinating article on the 1970’s motorcycle Ghost Rider and Tom Brevoort does one on the earlier Western version. To complete this circle of serendipity, I’d started the week looking up the history of the eponymous song. Weird, huh?
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Weird, indeed! My timing was predetermined by MS #5’s 50th anniversary, but you and Tom seem to have gotten here on your own. (For anyone curious, here’s a link to Tom’s blog post: https://tombrevoort.com/2022/05/28/the-first-ghost-rider-story/ .)
Love that Frazetta cover, but I always thought the western Ghost Rider looked like an “albino” version of Zorro.
We’re really into the Bronze Age now. When the Comics Code changed and Marvel started launching all the horror characters (and GR himself is definitely a horror character, even though most of his earliest stories were superhero stories), the tone of the whole line got darker, more sophisticated, and more adult. This had effects both good and bad, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the flavor of the line didn’t change; it clearly did.
With Ghost Rider, specifically, there’s something about this character design that is absolutely captivating. It was love at first sight when I discovered him on the comics rack and he’s one of my all-time fave characters. I wrote an extensive article on him for Back Issue #95 several years back, if anyone would be interested in catching up on his Bronze Age exploits. Also wrote about my early infatuation with GR on my own blog (cheap plug) here: http://crustymud.paradoxcomics.com/?p=38
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I read your BI article as part of the prep for my blog post, crustymud! I’ll definitely check out your blog post, too.
Excellent post Alan! Well researched, well written, well presented, full of humor. Obviously, your recent podcast work isn’t causing you to neglect or short-change your blog.
Obviously, I’m entering one of those periods where I have time to catch up on commenting. I definitely did not read Marvel Spotlight #5 when it came out, not because of Agnes, which was still a few weeks away, but because (as I wrote a couple of years ago in a response) I was scared of skeletons. Although I got to read everything that my father put out in his drug store, I recoiled at any story with a skull on the cover (which meant that it was not uncommon for me to completely skip over issues of “mystery” comic titles). I did start reading Ghost Rider as I started getting over this (I’m still unnerved by skeletons) and the fact that the artists who drew him in this era were not Neal Adams style realists (as I recall anyway). I did wind up reading the Ghost Rider origin story in a reprint.
While your comments were very funny Alan, and I don’t know if you meant your plot comments as serious criticism, my issues with the plot are different than yours. The notion of Johnny Blaze seeking out Satan is no different than most every other “mystery” story that came out in that era and before, both in the Marvel Universe and in other comic company lines. In fact, re-reading the story now, it looks like an old fashioned “mystery” story that veers into a super-hero story. My problems with the plot, and they really stick out because this is meant to be a continuing series with permanent characters, are events like Roxanne reading Johnny’s Satan books and never saying anything (although re-reading that did answer some pointed criticisms I had about an early 1990s plotline I have fairly recently read). Also, having Crash Simpson and Roxanne consider Johnny a coward because he wanted to keep a promise to his “adopted” mother seems rather shallow and harsh.
The Friedrich lawsuit, which I had never heard of before now, is rather sad for reasons that you and others have covered. I can see Stan Lee insisting on using the name Johnny Blaze. I always thought that it was a tacky pun.
However, reading your blog post raised a question in my mind that I never thought of before and I apologize if you discussed in a blog post at the time. How did Marvel get Comics Code approval for Silver Surfer #3 with Mephisto before the code revisions in 1971? Mephisto was clearly meant to be Satan at the time.
Finally, in addition to commemorating the 50th anniversary of comic books like you do, I also commemorate the 50th anniversary of historic events. I was watching a news broadcast which originally aired 50 years to the day of this blog post (May 28, 1972) which covered President Nixon’s trip to the Soviet Union and showed some of a televised speech he was allowed to make to the Soviet people (of course the Soviets provided the Russian translation). Shortly after the 3:10 mark in this video, Nixon quotes Stan Lee without attribution. 😀 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnGQb_6uOg8
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Thanks for sharing the Nixon clip, Stu — I had no idea!
As for Mephisto and the Code — it seems odd, but the CCA doesn’t seem to have had any problems with the Devil (or devils in general), or with Hell. Perhaps because they’re religious concepts? In any event, as you pointed out, the “deal with the devil” bit was a mainstay in the “mystery” comics of the era, and that was true as much before the 1971 Code revisions as after. There was even a short Spectre story (drawn by Bernie Wrightson) that came out in early 1969 that dealt with that theme.
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This post got me thinking about doing a post of my own— perhaps for Halloween— on the Devil in comics, particularly Marvel comics. Satan was all over the place at Marvel in the 70s and then disappeared completely by the early to mid 1980s, apparently by Marvel’s own choice, replacing him with Mephisto, basically. Which is unfortunate, because Satan— particularly as portrayed here and in Son of Satan— was a much more compelling character. Mephisto feels like a cheap imitation by comparison.
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In the early 1990s, in keeping with Marvel’s turn to darker comics, Son of Satan returned in a series called Hellstorm (not a typo) in which Satan made appearances. On the other hand, starting in the late 1980s, Mephisto began to be overused to the point of it being laughable–he probably appeared in more comics than anyone outside of Wolverine and the Punisher (maybe even more than Spider-Man). As you undoubtedly know, Mephisto wound up being retconned to be the being to whom Johnny Blaze sold his soul.
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I always figured that the decision to retcon Satan into Mephisto had to have been some kind of corporate mandate from above, but if you’ve read my article in Back Issue #95 (cheap plug) you know that this was solely the decision of writer Roger Stern, who actually characterized the presence of Satan as a character in the comic as a “weakness.” I love ya, Rog, but I fiercely disagree with you on this one!
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About Mephisto and the Code…I wondered about that also so a couple of years ago I send the question to Brian Cronin at CBR and this was his response. “I think it likely came down to the fact that Lucifer/Satan has had a long history of appearing in all sorts of classic literature and thus, the character was not seen as quite as tawdry as, say, a werewolf. Plus, of course, the whole Bible thing, as it is would be tough to say that someone featured in the Bible was somehow not allowed to be in a Comics Code approved comic book.”
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Then there was this controversy in GR:
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Thanks for the cheap plug, Chris!
Back to the Satan issue for a sec: The idea that the figure of Satan carries any real religious weight is rather misguided. Nearly everything the general public knows of Satan came down to us from Milton’s Paradise Lost and general superstition, not the Bible. This is why the use of the character in comics (or anywhere else, really) should never offend anyone on religious grounds. Here’s a good read for anyone interested in the religious history: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/how-the-serpent-in-the-garden-became-satan/
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“The idea that the figure of Satan carries any real religious weight is rather misguided.” Respectfully, crustymud, I think that statement is overbroad. If by “religious weight” you mean “authentically derived from the Bible”, then, sure. But I learned about Satan in church; and the Satan I learned about there was quite recognizable in pop cultural artifacts like Marvel Spotlight #5. Not that I thought the “real” Satan went about making contracts with people for their souls (that was doctrinally unsound). But the fallen angel, who tempted Eve in the Garden as a snake, all that stuff? I learned it through formal religious instruction. Whether or not it was based on a correct, scholarly reading of the Bible or not, it was still religious, as I believe most people understand and use that word.
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Sorry for casting too wide a net—sometimes it’s easy to forget how large a nation we have in the U.S. and how widely our individual experiences vary, which naturally includes religious teachings and practices. I just meant to point out that what we know of the stereotypical Satan comes almost entirely from Milton and not the Bible. Apologies if I offended anyone, as that certainly was not my intention.
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No offense taken on my part, crustymud.