Way back in the day, when westerns ruled the airwaves and the comic pages, and the smart creators spent their time developing variations on the cowboy theme, there was the Ghost Rider. That’s not the guy who rode a motorcycle while his skull blazed: that concept would be a bit too scary even for the pre-Comics Code 1950s — though definitely a bad-ass concept.
No, when cowboys ruled, a different Ghost Rider appeared on the comics pages. This Ghost Rider may have ridden a horse rather than a hog, and worn a mask instead of blazing with fire, but he still kicked all kinds of evil-doer ass.
This Ghost Rider had the awesome name Rex Fury in “real life”, and unlike our Ghost Rider, Rex didn’t make a deal with the devil or find some sort of resurrected evil spirit inside him or whatever the origin is of the Ghost Rider now. He’s just a guy who gets visited by the ghost of Wild Bill Hickok one day after being shot and nearly drowned before he emerges into an underground cavern:
Sure, it’s kind of cheesy and ridiculous, but whaddya want from a comic book from 1950? It was a more innocent time, and these comics were intended for kids, but there are moments between the lines that are spectacular and stand out as actually pretty spooky. The art by a very young Dick Ayers may be a little flat and cartoony in some places, but when he portrays mystical creepy-crawlies, he has an intriguing sort of power:
And this splash page that takes place in a haunted house has a delightful 1950s B-movie sort of feel to it:
Rex Fury (god I love that name) doesn’t actually have mystical powers when he puts on the Ghost Rider costume, but 1950s comics being what they are, he’s able to do all kinds of tricks when he wears the costume, and Ayers makes many of those scenes awesomely fun:
Even though many of the stories are as silly as you might expect, some actually have real power. This story centers around a lynching committed by a fat white man, and though his victim is also white, there’s an element that makes this fantasy story feel all too powerfully real. So many of the stories in this collection center around corrupt mine owners or rapacious idiots that it’s a genuine shock to see something as powerful as this resonate against real life. In an odd way, the flatness of the fat man’s face in the bottom panels actually gives them even more power, becoming a McCloud-style universal face of evil into which we can see ourselves committing this hideous evil:
There are some stories that hold together wonderfully, showing real craftsmanship. The daft story “The Ghost Train of Golden Gorge!” has some wonderful moments. Notice on the page below how Ayers avoids eye contact all throughout the page until we get that stunned look creeping in through the side of the final panel. It’s probably not intentional that the faces in panel two look like riders on the trains that led to the Nazi Concentration Camps, but even that accidental dichotomy is deeply powerful.
Canton Street Press’s production of The Original Ghost Rider is a delightful collection. Despite a few pages that show that more work could have gone into the restoration of these stories:
This is a fun collection if you have the money to spare. For some of you, it will be worth picking up just for the great pieces by Frank Frazetta:
But for everyone who likes fun, wacky comics that are surprisingly great, this is the book for you.
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