In which I look at a comic featuring a man whose head is on fire. It’s by Clayton Crain and Garth Ennis; so no soft lads past this point. BRAAAAAAAAAAAS! GHOST RIDER: ROAD TO DAMNATION by Crain, Ennis & Eliopoulos
GHOST RIDER: ROAD TO DAMNATION #1-6 Art by Clayton Crain Written by Garth Ennis Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos Marvel Comics, $2.99 each (2005-2006) GHOST RIDER created by Mike Ploog, Gary Friedrich & Roy Thomas
I’m probably not the audience for this one, as the only exposure I’ve had to motor-biking is when my dad used to go arse over tit every Friday after the pub, sending our fish suppers skidding across the drive’s tarmacadam. Being a small child at the time, the experience didn’t really endear the manly art of riding about very fast indeed to me. But, being a large child at this time, I do quite like the idea of a man whose head is perpetually aflame, which is very much what this comic is about. In fact the book itself mentions the ceaseless flickering of our undead chum’s combustible noggin on more than one occasion. Either because he profoundly underestimates his audience’s ability to retain information or because he profoundly overestimates the humour of doing so, Ennis repeatedly goes out of his way to remind us, in case we had forgotten, that the man with the head on fire we are looking at, is in fact a man with his head on fire. He also has a good beery laugh at the expense of names like Johnny Blaze and Richard Rider because they sound a bit, well, unmanly. Dick Rider! Hurrr! It’s okay having a pop at the camp names from old comics, but if you wrote one of the most hilariously repressed comics ever (Preacher, obviously) you might want to think about motes, beams, eyes and the removal of such. See Matthew 7:3 -7:5, as Garth could no doubt tell you, him being such a keen Biblical scholar.
Or maybe not a scholar as such. There’s his usual guff about angels and devils and Heaven and Hell, which suggests wee Garth Ennis wasn’t listening too hard when old Sister Clodagh was giving it the old Scripture business. The angels are as bad as the devils, seems to be the thing he’s going for here (#EDGEYSTUFF) but it’s all undone by the fact he’s clearly having more fun with the Hellish emissary, Hoss. Hoss is a big fat cowboy type, who is all down homey and grits, and all that big belt buckle stuff; he’s probably a real hoot if you are, uh, well, Garth Ennis. Or Jason Aaron. (Ironically, Jason Aaron AKA "the house-trained Garth Ennis", would later have a really quite decent run on GHOST RIDER.) And get this (it’s awesome) he has a biker (get ready for awesome town) stick his own head up (buckle up! Awesome City limits up ahead) his own anus (HOO! HOO!) and that’s how the guy remains for the rest of these series. Classic, Garth. Just classic. Better yet he’s called “Buttview.” Because he has his head stuck up his butt. Oh, my aching ribs. Yeah, Buttview’s up there with Garth Ennis’ other nuanced creations Arseface and, uh, Shithead. Excuse me while I crush this beercan on my forehead. BOO-YA!
All of which is just Garth Ennis’ usual cheeky playground humour schtick. But his schtick comes unstuck this time out. While it is really super edgey to declaim there is no difference between Heaven and Hell, it is a bit confusing. I’m not sure which creed Ennis is addressing here; which is kind of important if you’re wanting to believe he’s making any points at all; besides how bloody proper bloody hard he bloody is. It doesn’t work, basically. The angels in the book are a couple of effete berks who cause a woman to miscarry because she can see them, and Ruth, a lady angel in a white pantsuit, who makes a kid stick a pencil in his own eye because he can see her wings. Which is the big problem of wearing white pants suits. HA! See I did a joke about pantie pads just for all the manly fellas out there! Hurr! Who’s up for an Indian? Now, as the sages say, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum so it is possible that miscarriages and self-blinding children might be real thighslappers somewhere, but it’s doubtful. It just doesn’t work and the book knows it. The giveaway is that the kid’s traumatic eye injury occurs off panel but we get to see the biker put his head up his butt on panel. The shift from the harmlessly crass humour beloved of booger-eaters the world over, to the sadistically nasty is too sharp. They don’t sit right together. Sure they are both violence but the mix is off. You don’t put pepper in your Angel Delight do ya? Call me picky but I’m not sure miscarriages and blinded children sit so well with, say, Miss Catmint, the mousey downtrodden assistant with the 1970s comedy name. “Oooh, can I just look in your drawers, Miss Catmint!”, no one says but you bet Garth though hard before deleting it. That's right he even thinks hard! What? Yes, I get it: they're all the same, they're all bastards. Great. That's useful. As observations go, it's fit only for funnybooks. And while I have some sympathy for what some inclined towards academia might view as a pointed erosion of the traditional hero (Johnny is basically a clueless f-wit all too eager to think the best of people, even demons), let's not forget it's a book about a man who's head is on fire.
The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is basically a kind of cut down Wacky Races with Hell, Ghosty and Heaven all competing to stop Squiddlybipbopbop the Demon from bringing Hell to earth. Ennis makes such a hash of explaining things that I’m a little unclear really about why anyone is doing anything. Particularly as it all seems to revolve around keeping schtum about some kind of spiritual insider trading so that God doesn’t catch on. Now it’s been a few decades since Sunday School but I’m pretty sure one of the big things about God is that whole omniscient thing so, uh, I guess omniscience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be or someone’s been overselling The Big Yin for the last few thousand years. Or, uh, muhwuhmuhmu, look his head’s on fire! Did we mention his head's on fire! Basically, when it comes to specifics this plot has a strong air of oh, is that the time, must dash! Which is fair enough since this is a comic featuring (and it’s important to bear this is mind) a man whose head is permanently aflame, so no one’s expecting intellectual rigour. Worse though is the brevity of the race. There’s all of one fight scene involving a bus full of hapless chumps being wielded like a mallet, and then the various racers are where they need to get to. Why they couldn’t appear right where they needed to get to in the first place, what with them all being supernatural and that, is a question only someone who doesn’t know how hard it is to fill six issues would ask.
On the upside Clayton Crain’s art is…difficult to judge, honestly. Mainly because it’s really dark for the most part, not in a “Ooh! Kind dark! Kinda edgey! That won’t play in Peoria!” way, but in a “Hey, Who forgot to pay the light bill!” way. Squinting through the gloom though, he seems to have an ambitious array of grotesquerie on display. His Hell is a kind of smouldering meatscape, with Ghost-ado being pursued over what looks like barbecue holocaust by escapees from a demon butchers. He has a lot of fun visualising the demons, especially Shabbadoowaaa who is all spinal cord and wheels, like some kind of roaring, sentient, apocalyptic car accident; definitely Hellish looking. The normal scenes obviously interest Crain less, but they are okay; he has a lot of fun with the bloated paraplegic businessman, but the more normal folk get short shrift. But no one is reading a Ghost Rider comic to see thrilling evocations of the mundanity of day to day life. No, they are here to see nauseating physical monstrosities and a man with his head on fire. And there is where Clayton Crain delivers. In spades. The ace of spades! I loved the liquid quality of the flames crowning Ghostarino's dome in particular. In fact Crain’s art is probably better than it looked to me, because he’s obviously using them there computers, and back in 2006 that was a pretty avant garde. Also, In the interests of not being a total jerkwad I went and looked at the preview pages on Comixology and I have to say that his art pops a lot more in digital. A lot of the FX such as the butane-blue flames are so blurry in print as to not be worth the bother. So I binned all my dark unto uselessness scans and skanked all the panels off Comixology. It seemed like the only way to give Crain a fair shake. No, it's okay, I'm made of time. There's nothing I'd rather be doing with my swiftly disappearing lifespan. Anyway, Digital did the art some favours, but it didn’t improve the script. Funny that. It's a good book to look at, but not so hot to read.
Fair’s fair though, the art makes GHOST RIDER: ROAD TO DAMNATION a step up from autopilot Ennis (oh, throw a stick you’ll hit one), sure and it’s not a big step. The book struggles to be more than a six issue round of Garth Ennis Bingo (1st Prize: a big auld steak and a six pack o’stout. 2nd Prize: A dog-eared Sven Hassel novel. 3rd Prize: That ‘70s poster of the tennis player scratching her bare arse). And don't worry he manages to get in the old maudlin whinny of "Noo Yawk! As pretty as a fair Collen passed out in her own sick with her drawers round her ankles! Oh, New Yawk! Let me paw your arse!" Christ, show some decorum, man. What is it with the Irish and New York? Whatever it is, give it a rest. Mainstream North American genre comics being what they are It’s not uncommon for Ennis (or anyone) to do work-for-hire about a central character he clearly has little interest in, but unfortunately here he seemingly struggles to find anything he does have an interest in. But, you know, it’s w-f-h so maybe he had an editorial remit to fulfil rather than this being a personal work of searing truth; The Ghost Rider Story He Had To Tell. You know, all that waffle falafel they come out with. (“After I handed in the final draft of SPIDER-MAN: BOOMBOX BOONDOGGLE I wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”) It reads like someone rang him and said, “That Preacher you did? The kids like that, Garth, so do six issues of that stuff. Just remember to stick a bloke whose head is on fire in there. ” And he saw the cheque and went, “Konichi wa! Fair dinkum, boyo!” and got stuck in. And why not? We’ve all got bills to pay. This was EH!
NEXT TIME: More GHOST RIDER by Garth Ennis? JUDGE DREDD mayhap? Or a Euro-Comic? I don’t know, I’m trapped in a Hell of – COMICS!!!