Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"
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I have something different for you today. Instead of posting one of my recent Comics Buyer's Guide columns, I'm running a piece I did for GAUNTLET, a terrific magazine which explores "the limits of free expression." The following article originally appeared in GAUNTLET #19 [May, 2000], and was, itself, an expansion of earlier columns I'd written for CBG.
NO HEAVEN FOR SUPER-HEROES
There is no Heaven for the Marvel super-heroes. No celestial reward for Spider-Man, no place of peace for the Incredible Hulk, no eternal joy for the Fantastic Four. Or, at least, that's how it seemed to me as a Marvel Comics writer in 1976, watching an editor blue-pencil Heaven from one of my stories.
I have to explain from the get-go that I don't know WHY there isn't a Heaven in the Marvel Universe. Clearly, and surprisingly for a publisher that avoids using the word "hell" in its comics, there are any number of Satan-like characters waiting to pounce on your soul the moment you buy the farm. Mephisto, nemesis of the Christ-like Silver Surfer, comes to mind immediately. There are others as well, scads of sinister soul-snatchers who can apparently lay claim to one's afterlife on a whim.
"Let's see, Mother Theresa. You were born in a month with a vowel in it. I'm afraid the malevolent Mogoshi has dominion over your eternal existence."
In the Marvel Universe, the way you lived your life has zero bearing on where you go after you kiss it goodbye. These Lucifer wannabes have dibs on you. If I lived there, I would never leave my house. Way too risky. Death is one thing, eternal damnation is a much larger issue.
Try to stay with me as I follow some Marvel Comics editorial reasoning here. From what I understand, Marvel Universe writers cannot use the word "hell," or, for that matter, "damn," in their scripts. These words have been deemed inappropriate for Marvel's young readers.
On the other hand, Marvel Universe writers can stick a woman in a "transpatial bio-molecular displacement" machine which rips her to shreds one instant, reforms her the next, and then repeats the process over and over. Marvel Universe artists can draw this torture in detail. THIS is perfectly acceptable for one of their books, UNCANNY X-MEN #301, to be specific.
Why is there no Heaven in the Marvel Universe? I can only guess. Maybe it was done out of respect for a presumed diversity of religious belief among their readership. Maybe the folks who run the Universe are all atheists or agnostics. But if I cannot tell you WHY there isn't any Heaven in Marvel Comics, I can tell you HOW I know there isn't one.
Because it was edited out of one of my stories in 1976.
Cue the flashback effect.
GHOST RIDER #6 (June, 1974) was the first of twelve issues I was to write. This was the original series of the title starring Johnny Blaze, the flame-headed cyclist created by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog a few years earlier. Ploog had departed for other assignments and this issue was also Friedrich's last.
I recall the issue was running very late. Roy Thomas, then editor-in-chief of Marvel, gave me eighteen pages penciled by Jim Mooney from a Friedrich plot and told me I was the regular writer of the book. I never saw the actual plot, so I made up the story as I scripted it. I think I even rearranged some pages.
Blaze was somewhat different from the version who appears in more recent Ghost Rider comics. He'd sold his soul to the Devil for noble, albeit misguided, reasons. Satan cheated him. (Is that an enormous surprise or what?) Now only his galfriend's "purity of spirit" kept Old Scratch from collecting on the debt.
Once this first issue was scripted and sent to letterer Artie Simek, I had to figure out what to do next. My decision, made with the knowledge that Ploog's eerie art would not likely grace the mag again, was to emphasize a different side of "the most supernatural SUPER-HERO of all!"
Thomas agreed; we were off and riding.
Of course, there was Satan himself to deal with before Blaze could completely put his supernatural origins behind him. I wish I could say the solution was obvious to me, but it took a comment from fellow writer Steve Gerber to show me the way. He jokingly suggested that GOD save Blaze's soul.
GHOST RIDER #9 (December, 1974) announced "the final fearful showdown with Satan" on its cover. Here's a short summary of the battle: the devil won.
Satan tricked Roxanne Simpson, Blaze's pure girlfriend, into renouncing her protection of the Ghost Rider. This allowed Satan to strip the Rider of his invulnerability and his supernaturally-powered flame-cycle. After blasting Blaze to his feet, the devil made ready to take possession of our hero's soul.
I didn't call him "God," of course, but his identity had to be pretty obvious, even to those readers who, unlike me, hadn't grown up around the Catholic Church's anglicized pictures of Jesus. This individual stepped from the gathering crowd, helped Blaze to his feet, and said:
"As long as there are people of GOOD WILL on this world, Satan, they shall ALWAYS stand between you and your innocent victims. Johnny Blaze's only sin was DESPAIR and that is not sin ENOUGH to condemn him to your domain.
"Johnny Blaze's soul is BEYOND you, Satan. He has EARNED his second chance."
Naturally, Satan vowed "the mortal has not YET seen the end of this." Villains always do that.
"No man lives his life without contending with you SEVERAL times, Satan. Johnny Blaze WON his first battle. The future is up to HIM. For now, remember that he is FREE--that you have NO claim to his soul."
Satan, probably tired of hearing his and Blaze's names over and over in these speech balloons, took his leave of our hero for the nonce. Blaze's query as to the identity of his rescuer was met with a terse "I am...a FRIEND."
That might have been it for my theological adventures in the Marvel Universe had it not been for the fantastic response I got on the story. The initial mail ran about 65-35 positive. Then fans started coming up to me at conventions to let me know how much it meant to them. And we kept getting more letters, overwhelmingly favorable letters, on the issue.
Reader Neal Mayer probably summed up the reaction best when he wrote:
I enjoyed GHOST RIDER #9 more than any other comic this month. GR has always been a very depressing book. There was the Devil, but very little evidence of God. As if evil was in control of our world. I hope pages 27 and 30 are signs of things to come. "I am...a friend." Beautiful.
It was the first time I became aware of my ability to reach people the way comics by writers like Stan Lee, Gardner Fox, Bob Kanigher, Denny O'Neil, and, of course, my mentor Roy Thomas, had reached me. How could I not use that power?
I decided to carry this story of Johnny Blaze to what, to me, seemed like the natural conclusion. I wanted Blaze to accept his new-found faith, grow strong in it, and, ultimately, triumph over Satan once and for all. I saw this as, not the end of the Ghost Rider, but the beginning of even more exciting stories.
The mantle of Marvel chief editor passed from Thomas to first Len Wein and then Marv Wolfman. Both editors were aware of what I had in mind and supportive of it. Over the next several months, the story would build to a resolution in issue #19 (August, 1976). The title of that final chapter?
I had high hopes for that script. I was perhaps prouder of it than any other I'd written in my then-limited career. I mean, talk about being on the side of the angels.
I should have remembered what PROVERBS said about pride.
It was never my intention to get preachy with this material. I would use Blaze's salvation to write Satan and the supernatural out of the series. Thereafter, Blaze would act in accordance with his beliefs, but not proclaim them constantly. I saw Ghost Rider as sort of a spiritual Captain America, though the most profound position Blaze would take was "Do unto others, etc."
The "friend" made his brief reappearance in GHOST RIDER #15 (December, 1975), guiding Blaze through a small moral dilemma to set the stage for the three-issue culmination of the storyline in issues #17-19. A grateful Blaze shakes his pal's hand, tells him he's been a help to him, and rides off into the sunset to do hero stuff. Watching Blaze's dust, the "friend" reflects: "My hand is ALWAYS outstretched...you have only to TAKE it."
Blaze had been working as a TV stuntman for several months as GR #17 began.
Katy Milner, a stunt woman recovering from an injury at a local hospital, suddenly came down with an inexplicable case of demonic possession. She spent a few pages tossing Ghost Rider around the place until he decided to call for an exorcist: Daimon Hellstrom, the son of Satan.
Just as my Johnny Blaze was a kinder, gentler Blaze than his current counterpart, so was the then-Hellstrom a far more amiable gent than his current incarnation. Except for the occasional nasty remark, usually directed at someone gasping at his glowing trident and red tights, Hellstrom had his dark nature pretty much under control at this time.
Waiting for Hellstrom's arrival gave Blaze a couple of pages to think about his life and, coincidentally, bring any new reader up to speed on same. Johnny's thoughts mostly focused, though, on the absent Roxanne Simpson, his true love who had left the series back in issue #9.
Ghost Rider and Hellstrom wrestle the demons possessing Katy Milner to a first fall when the match is interrupted by a twelve-foot buttinsky in costumed villain drag who introduces himself as the Challenger and offers the Rider a, what else, challenge. The long-winded ground rules go like this:
"There is only ONE way you can save both yourself AND Katy Milner, human. You must complete--alone and unaided--the DEADLIEST race course ever DEVISED--a run that shall challenge you on EVERY level! SUCCEED--and you save two lives! FAIL--and you lose your very SOUL!"
In issue #18, Blaze takes his very best shot at "The Salvation Run," but it isn't good enough. He is assailed by former failures, foes, and even friends, in a sadistic charade designed to crush his spirit and plunge him into complete despair. At issue's end, the Challenger looks like the clear victor.
That brings us to GHOST RIDER #19, the issue in which Heaven was edited out of the Marvel Universe. The title of what was to be my last Ghost Rider story was "Resurrection," which would make no sense by the time it was published.
A quick look at the Marvel offices back then. Though he was listed as editor in the credits, Marv Wolfman had moved on to his new position as freelance writer/editor of his own titles. Gerry Conway was the actual editor, but it was a position he would hold for a mere three weeks. Jim Shooter was his assistant.
"Resurrection" was finished and ready to go to the printers. I was wrapping up some final Marvel business before moving to DC Comics when I was asked to come into the office and rewrite part of the story. I was confused, mostly because I thought the issue was already at the printers.
My confusion turned to anger when I learned Shooter wanted me to...well, maybe I better tell you what was SUPPOSED to happened in the issue before I go into that.
The Challenger turns out to be Satan in disguise. Gosh, who would have seen THAT coming?
Blaze continues to struggle against the Prince of Lies, but he can't win this battle without help. Which arrives in the form of the Friend. Whose Name is now capitalized because I finally accept my obvious lack of subtlety back then.
I've never been able to turn up a copy of my original script for "Resurrection." It was probably lost in all the relocation I did back then. But my memory is pretty clear on the next scene I wrote and how I avoided using the Friend's real Name in it. Like my previous editors on the title, I believed getting too specific might be offensive to some readers.
That's not a problem here, right?
Johnny Blaze accepts Jesus Christ into his life. This gives him the strength to overcome Satan, though with more pyrotechnics than most of us can muster. He retains the Ghost Rider powers he had been given by Satan, but they are his to use as his new faith directs him.
I did not then and do not now feel this story was in any way improper. In a comics universe where Satan exists, even the non- Christian reader should be able to accept the presence of a force opposing the Adversary. My own beliefs notwithstanding, I looked on this as mythology, not theology.
Back to the Marvel offices.
Shooter, an alleged agnostic and a budding control freak, who would become one of the most controversial and oft-hated editors in comics, wanted me to rewrite the issue to remove the key scene of my two-year storyline. Everything that had happened in those tales was to be revealed as the Devil's doing. Even the Friend was to be exposed as a mere minion of Satan. In this fictional universe of seemingly unrelenting malevolence, there was to be no hope of a better existence.
I refused...for more than the obvious reason.
Three editors had approved the overall GHOST RIDER storyline and every previous issue. This script had been approved by then-editor Wolfman. I'd done my job to the satisfaction of the men I'd answered to up to this point. I couldn't prevent the new guy from butchering my work-for-hire, but I wasn't under any obligation to wield the cleaver myself.
This, I was informed, was conduct unbecoming a professional. My story was redrawn and rewritten without my cooperation. Shooter then refused to remove my name from the credits.
One development did survive the revisions: "Katy" was a false identity constructed by one of Satan's demons. The stunt woman was really Roxanne Simpson.
Had I continued to write GHOST RIDER, the reunited Blaze and Simpson would have gotten married, had kids, and real-life things like that. Hey, I like to think of MY father as a super-hero. I wanted to bring that into the comics I wrote.
So that, my patient readers, is why I felt there was no Heaven in the Marvel Universe. Small wonder that it so often appears to be such a cold and gloomy place.
Consider the above article a slice of "I was there" history. The restrictions applying to Marvel Universe stories when I first wrote the CBG columns on which this piece was based, and which were still in place when I rewrote them for GAUNTLET, are clearly not in effect under editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. Whatever my misgivings about some current Marvel policies, I applaud the publisher giving its writers more freedom in this area. Three cheers and a tiger to our pal Joey.
While these Ghost Rider tales were being published, I was the darling of Christian comics fans everywhere. After that butchered last issue appeared, some of them gave me the benefit of the doubt long enough to hear the unpublished side of the story. Of course, in recent years, what with my battles with the Christian Coalition and other religious right wingnuts, I suspect that part of my fan base has shrunken considerably.
However, I did take enormous satisfaction in writing MARVELS COMICS: DAREDEVIL last year. In that one-shot, which purported to be the Daredevil series published in the Marvel Universe itself, I recast the title hero as a demon who, having glimpsed Heaven, was determined to earn a place in that most blessed of realms. In this noble quest, my demon was aided by a Hollywood stuntman. It was 25 years later, but my vindication was sweet.
Why rehash all this now? The preservation of even this minor bit of comics history would be sufficient justification on its own. But, yes, there's more.
Shooter has returned to Marvel Comics, albeit as a freelance writer. In a sort of weird preemptive strike, Quesada decided to give an "in your face" response to objections over this development before any such objections were made. Depending on how one looks at it, Quesada's statement was either completely unnecessary or an incredible time-saver: answer any possible critics at the same time you send out the initial press release.
Since Shooter has been out of the comics business for a number of years, Quesada's retorts...Can we still call them retorts if he isn't responding to actual comments?...may well have confused some younger comics readers who don't know who Shooter is/was and don't know anything about his history with Marvel and Valiant and Defiant and Broadway Comics.
My own experience with Shooter was limited to pretty much what you've read above. I wrote a handful of stories for Marvel editors during his time as the company's editor-in-chief, but never worked with him directly. Other comics professionals could tell you more about the man and his manner, but, hey, if they wanna do that, they can start their own online columns.
I'd be lying if I claimed I wasn't resentful, then and now, of how Shooter screwed up my Ghost Rider story. It was the worst kind of editorial tampering; holding the issue back from the printers to impose his personal philosophy on it was both a disservice to his employer and an insult to this writer. End of story.
I have little doubt that there will be comics pros outraged at the thought of Shooter working for Marvel again, but I'm not one of them. Though I don't have a high opinion of the man's writing--I think he peaked when he was writing Legion of Super-Heroes stories in the 1960s-I think it's way cool that Marvel's doors have opened wide enough for him to return. I'd think it's even cooler that the doors have opened for some of the TRULY great writers from Marvel's past. And I'd probably plunge into hypothermia if other favorite writers of the 1970s and 1980s found the Marvel doors just as open and inviting for them.
I'll be back next Friday with more stuff.
<< 12/07/2001 | 12/14/2001 | 12/21/2001 >>
Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined.
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THE "TONY" SCALE
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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