Hellfire and Brimstone: A Celebration of Marvel's Ghost Rider

Comic books are practically synonymous these days with regard to superheroes and science-fiction, allowing readers to disconnect from reality with a handful of new books each and every Wednesday. Before the capes and tights, however, horror and slice-of-life stories dominated the world of funny books. In the Golden Age of Comics, offerings from some companies (see: Entertaining Comics) were so horrific, graphic, and widespread, the Comics Code Authority was introduced in an attempt to settle the world of publishing.

After a few years in effect, however, the oversight that initially came with the creation of the CCA began to diminish. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and the team at Marvel saw an opportunity and quickly opted to introduce one of the most popular horror characters ever.

Enter: Ghost Rider.

As it turns out, the fan-favorite character was initially imagined as a villain for Marvel's ongoing Daredevil series. Thomas, one of the three co-creators of Johnny Blaze's Ghost Rider, tells ComicBook.com that it only took one meeting between himself, then-publisher Lee, and writer Gary Frederich to realize Ghost Rider was bigger than a one-off villain. Instead, he was a character that needed his own title.

"When I heard Gary's general idea of a Ghost Rider villain for Daredevil, I took Gary in to see Stan and, between the three of us, the character quickly evolved into the supernatural hero of his own comic," Thomas tells us in an e-mail interview arranged by his manager John Cimino.

What did the supernatural elements entail? The committee knew they wanted a character that sold his soul to the devil, and each of the character's creators added their own spin to him. When it comes to Thomas, the skull and a black leather jacket were a must.

But the flame — one of the most iconic looks for any character at the House of Ideas — was added courtesy of artist Mike Ploog.

"The one part I know was entirely Ploog's idea is the flame around the Ghost Rider's skull, since Mike added that while he was drawing the character as I described him, and I hadn't mentioned any flames ... he just said he thought the character would look better if his head was on fire," Thomas adds. "Which it did."

Ghost Rider — real name Johnny Blaze — first premiered in Marvel Spotlight #5 (1972) to rave reviews. Though Thomas couldn't recall any sales numbers, it was Blaze's runaway performance in that series that allowed the character to spin-off into his own title, eventually becoming a cult classic in his own right. That initial series would run for an astonishing 81 issues from September 1973 to June 1983.

But why was the Rider so successful? Everyone was so used to superheroes; and here, you had a character whose story was full of nothing but fire and brimstone.

Ghost Rider (2007) director Mark Steven Johnson thinks it's because of how badass the character looks. The character design itself is carrying a lot of weight on its own.

"It's such a strong, graphic image, flaming skull on a motorcycle. What could be cooler than that? That visual is what got me into the world of Johnny Blaze (and later Danny Ketch)," Johnson tells us. "I was an Evel Knievel fan at the time, as well, and Ghost Rider combined my love of comics with my love for motorcycle stunts."

The thing about a character like Ghost Rider is that the name itself is a mantle handed down from one character to the next. After Johnny Blaze's initial 81-issue run as the character ended in 1983, a new series — starring a whole new Ghost Rider named Danny Ketch — debuted in 1990. The Ketch series ended up being even more successful, running for a whopping 94 issues before wrapping up in 1998.

Coincidentally enough, it's right when that second major Ghost Rider comics story wrapped when Hollywood started looking heavily into adapting comic book properties for the silver screen. Wesley Snipes' Blade was on its way to the box office and 20th Century Fox was laying the groundwork for its own franchise based on Marvel's X-Men.

Suddenly, Ghost Rider found himself in the center of all the hustle and bustle of Tinsel Town. Towards the turn of the century, numerous producers tried getting their hands on the character. There was an attempt by Gale Ann Hurd in 1997 to get a movie off the ground, though that crumbled. A few years later, Jon Voight hired Blade scribe David S. Goyer to pen the script for another stab at the character. At the time, Dimension Films was financing the project alongside Crystal Sky Entertainment, and the production even had Johnny Depp interested in starring. 

Though Depp never inked any deals, there was enough chatter around town it caught the ear of an actor who happened to be a life-long fan of the character: Nicolas Cage. While this iteration eventually had a major star attached in Cage, other pieces started slipping. Stephen Norrington, the director who had just directed Blade, decided to step down from the project.

It wasn't too long before Cage himself decided to pass because of the deteriorating crew behind the camera. Little did he know it would be just a matter of months before finding himself back in the saddle.

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(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

After attempts at a Ghost Rider flick by Hurd and Voight fell by the wayside, the character caught the eye of his first major movie studio. When the attempt by Voight and Dimension failed, Sony's Columbia swooped in and got the rights to the character. Columbia locked down the rights in the spring of 2002 and by April 2003, Johnson had boarded the project fresh off of the Ben Affleck-starring Daredevil.

Furthermore, Johnson was quick to reach out to Cage to gauge interest. As the helmer tells us, there was no other actor considered for his take on Johnny Blaze.

"Nic was always the choice for Ghost Rider. He has such a love for this character. There was never talk of anyone else playing Johnny Blaze," Johnson adds.

With the Face/Off star on board, it was game on. Though scripts for a Ghost Rider movie existed out there in the ether, Johnson started his take from scratch. In fact, his first pass at a script included a legendary Ghost Rider villain that still has yet to be seen in live-action.

"In my first pass at the script the villain was Scarecrow," the filmmaker remembers. "I always loved the Marvel version of Scarecrow and thought he would have made a really cool and sinister adversary for Ghost Rider."

Unfortunately for Johnson, Warner Bros. had just released Batman Begins, a film that features Cillian Murphy's Jonathan Crane — a.k.a. DC Comics' Scarecrow — as the main villain.

"The studio was afraid it would get confused with the DC Scarecrow and so we ended up with Blackheart," Johnson says, fully aware that the baddie was one of the biggest criticisms of the movie. "That was a tough character to crack. The Son of the Devil. Wes Bentley did a great job, as did Peter Fonda as Mephisto. But I never got the story right. A hero is only as good as his villain. And we never quite got the villain and the villain agenda down."

In a sick twist of fate, Goyer — the screenwriter behind one of the earliest iterations of the Ghost Rider script — also happened to write Batman Begins as one of his first post-Blade movies to make it into production.

With Cage and a relatively unheard-of villain on board, Johnson put his pedal to the metal. In the days prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the director says it was similar to the Wild West. There was no need to be connected to other Marvel characters, and each production had to do its own thing, with nothing having a canon or continuity to respect.

"Movie rights were set up all over the place. It was so early then," Johnson reminds us. "You had to fight for everything. It's so much better today. Nobody questions the Marvel Universe now. The fans always knew. But now everybody knows how incredible and rich the universe is."

Just because those rights were all over the place — Sony had Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and Spider-Man, while 20th Century X-Men and the Fantastic Four — that doesn't mean Johnson didn't work with familiar faces. Avi Arad served as one of the producers on Johnson's Ghost Rider. At the time, Arad had an assistant by the name of, you guessed it, Kevin Feige.

"Kevin was on both Daredevil and Ghost Rider under Avi Arad, who set the foundation for all of this. Kevin was always brilliant," the director says. "Kind, but supremely confident. His knowledge about this world is second to none. I'm really happy for him. It's just been a meteoric success."

Despite Feige's loose involvement, Johnson seems well-aware his take on the character wasn't a runaway success. While it performed well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, the movie was panned by critics and fans alike — but that doesn't mean it was an all-around failure. As VFX Supervisor Kevin Mack tells us, the character's revolutionary look required the invention of new software in the land of visual effects.

"Nowadays, effective fluid dynamic simulation tools for creating fire effects are available off-the-shelf in several commercial software packages. When we created the fire effects for Ghost Rider, we had to create the fire simulation tools more or less from scratch at Imageworks," Mack says.

The visual effects artist adds, "There were some commercial tools available at the time for simulating fire, but they were not capable or flexible enough to meet the needs of such an ambitious project. The tools we built allowed us to control both the look and behavior of the fire to achieve the best effect for each shot."

Between Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Sony grossed nearly $379 million globally, a pretty sizable amount in a pre-MCU world. Still, the character quickly disappeared from the silver screen and wouldn't reappear for nearly another half-decade.

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(Photo: Sony Pictures)

Film or not, Ghost Rider has been a constant in Marvel's publishing efforts. We've already talked about the first two major volumes of the character's comics history — one involving Johnny Blaze, and another with Danny Ketch. The character returned in 2001 for a six-issue miniseries with Marvel's adult-oriented Marvel Knights run. That was then followed by Ghost Rider Vol. 4, another six-issue miniseries, this time written by Garth Ennis.

Then there was Ghost Rider Vol. 5, the character's first ongoing in over a decade that started off written by Daniel Way before then-newcomer Jason Aaron took over the pen. That series ran from 2006 to 2009, but that's not all. Throughout the years, there were plenty of spin-offs, mini-events, limited series, one-shots, and the like.

They all led up to 2014 when the character received his biggest change yet.

It was then that an all-new Ghost Rider was introduced with the name of Robbie Reyes. Created by Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore, this version of the character traded in his motorcycle for a hot rod. Instead of selling his soul to the Devil, Reyes was possessed by the spirit of his psychopathic uncle Eli Morrow, a former servant of Johnny Blaze while he served as the king of Hell.

It's this version of the character that ultimately became an Avenger, where he still remains an active member to this day. It also happens to be the version of the character fans last saw in live-action on Agents of SHIELD, even though it wasn't always that way. As SHIELD visual effects supervisor Mark Kolpack recalls, the ABC series had the rights to Johnny Blaze before Marvel Studios decided to snatch them away at the last minute.

In fact, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and crew were set to film a Season 3 post-credits stinger teasing the character when the call came down that Ghost Rider was off the table.

"The tease that never got shot was going to be this," Kolpack recalls. "It was supposed to be a husband and wife at one of those Storage Wars-kind of bidding places. They bid on a storage locker and then they open up the locker and they're going into it and going, 'Wow. What the hell is all this?'"

That's when the original Spirit of Vengeance was set to come into play.

"Then they started seeing posters of the Daredevil motorcycle stuff and there was a leather jacket there and a motorcycle. There were all these little tidbit clues that were going to be in there to foreshadow and tease everybody for Season 4," the artist adds. "But Marvel took away the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider, so they changed it quickly to the LMD Aida business where you saw there was a shadowy figure behind fog glass with a female voice. That was actually Maurissa's voice because of having to put together something really quickly."

As fate would have it, however, not all was lost. The call from the studio eventually came back saying the SHIELD crew could use Ghost Rider after all— just not Johnny Blaze or Danny Ketch. Instead, the network show was allowed to use Reyes and his Hell Charger.

From there, it was off to the races.

In typical Marvel secrecy, Gabriel Luna didn't even know he was auditioning for Ghost Rider. He and his agent had their suspicions on who the character was, but it wasn't until he signed his Marvel contract that the House of Ideas made it official. As the SHIELD star recalls, he auditioned in-person for Whedon, Tancharoen, and then-Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb on a Saturday, and by that following weekend, he was already filming.

"I left the [the audition], felt good, and got the call the next day — which would have been a Sunday — that they liked what I put down and they wanted me to play the Ghost Rider," Luna tells us. "I had a week to go to costume fittings, and for them to get my jacket made, and to get fitted for my light shroud. I had this shroud with LEDs all over that I wore over my head."

He quickly follows it up, "And yeah, by that Friday I was filming. So from the time I met with them on Skype to the time I was on set was about a week's time and everyone else was having fun at San Diego promoting the show while I was there day one smashing a Nazi with my car."

For Robbie's "flame-on" look, Kolpack looked directly to another popular Marvel character. Believe it or not, the SHIELD Ghost Rider effects were largely inspired by 20th Century's work on Deadpool.

"I saw Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool, and I went, 'Oh, there it is. There's the answer,'" the artist says. "The squash and stretch. It doesn't matter that his mask was able to do this."

It was just a measure of adapting that process and multiplying it for a character like Ghost Rider, whose head was covered in a ball of flame rather than in a stretch mask.

"So I designed a couple of things. He had the optic nerve openings in the back of the eye orbits that would glow, so it gave you the sense of eyes back there without any eyes," Kolpack says of his Reyes design. "Then we did the squash and stretch on his eye orbits so when he scowled, you would see it actually. The skull would actually reshape giving us a sense of what he might be thinking about or questioning in the moment."

It's the intricacies of something like that which drew Luna to the role in the first place.

"That's what I loved about Felipe [Smith]'s writing was just the soulful nature of Robbie as this intelligent young man," the actor says. "His responsibility, his paternal nature, all these really beautiful qualities that he had that existed in the prior iterations. So that's what I love about this particular Ghost Rider and it all comes from Robbie and just his ... I always said in interviews it's his love for his family, his love for his brother is the superpower, and that's what gives him the ability to rein in the flaming head."

It's that care that turned Luna's Ghost Rider episodes into some of the most well-received of the show's illustrious seven-season run. It's also that care that had Marvel Television eyeing a spin-off Ghost Rider show almost instantly after the character debuted.

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When Luna first signed his Marvel deal, the actor says it was always the goal to give Ghost Rider his own show. In fact, Luna tells us Marvel Television executed his "hold clause" almost immediately after the character's live-action debut in the SHIELD Season 4 premiere. In layman's terms, that means Marvel paid Luna to keep them at the top of his list. The company was so deadset on making a show with Luna as the lead, they paid him to either not work, or agree to quit work in order to return as the Spirit of Vengeance.

Once the actor finished his work on SHIELD, he began working with Marvel TV executives on developing the show, a situation that turned out to yield slow results.

"A year goes by and we were still trying to find the right showrunner and meanwhile they're picking up my hold again, so every six months, they would give me my fee to keep them in first position," Luna says. "And I just really loved that character. I really loved the people I was working with, so I elected to grant them that, always with the promise that we'd get there. We'd get this show across the finish line."

More time goes by. After Marvel Television picked up his hold a couple of times, Disney finished a deal to acquire 20th Century Fox. While that move was ultimately responsible for the launch of Disney+ and Marvel Studios' absorption of Marvel Television, Luna says it initially provided some momentum towards those behind-the-scenes plans. The company was showing it was willing to take pretty substantial risks.

After all, it was also right around this time Hulu officially greenlit the Ghost Rider series Luna and so many others had worked hard on.

"We were in full pre-production at that point now that Disney owned Fox and we had the Hulu relationship, that all would work out," the actor recalls. "I was doing everything in my power to make sure my mind and body were all prepared for a few-month-long engagement trying to get our show up."

Then something happened few saw coming. Marvel Studios absorbed Marvel Television, meaning long-time TV exec Jeph Loeb was without a job and Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige was overseeing all television production. Shortly thereafter, virtually all of Marvel Television's productions were either cancelled or put on hold.

Alas, a Ghost Rider show wasn't in the cards at Hulu, and whatever really happened there, we'll likely never know. Luna, however, says he's gotten reassurance from Hulu executives it wasn't the character or his portrayal, it simply wasn't in the streamer's "overall plans."

"It was really disappointing just in the end. I remember at the time I tried to have some perspective on it and you can't look back. You've got to just keep on plugging forward," Luna says.

Having been one of the primary architects for the character on SHIELD, Kolpack was once in the running for the same position on the Hulu show. When push came to shove, the VFX maestro opted to move on because of monetary restraints implemented by the streamer.

"I had to pass on it because I couldn't get into a situation, as I told them, where I'm struggling with the budget to try to do the creative and we're trying to pare the creative down," Kolpack recalls. "And it was really unfortunate because Gabe wanted me to do it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to direct some. All this stuff. But I felt I couldn't do my best with not as large a budget. So I had to regretfully decline and that was sad because I wanted to do it, Marvel wanted me to do it, Gabe wanted it. It was a logical process that I would have, but then it didn't happen anyway."

He wouldn't get into exact numbers or details, but Kolpack mentions that Robbie's visual effects were a substantial part of the SHIELD budget. In the episodes Ghost Rider appeared, his VFX alone cost half of the show's budget. To compare, Kolpack says the show typically employed two or three Houdini artists on the show, artists who are masters of some of the industry's leading software. When Ghost Rider joined the show, however, Agents of SHIELD was forced to employ 16 of those "Rolls Royce" artists, as Kolpoack calls them. 

Whatever the case, Luna says he would have given up his salary just to see the show come to fruition.

"I would give all the money back just to do the show, just to give everything I have to that character for what we had, for that plan that we had," the actor somberly remembers. "But you take the pay off and you move on, you move forward, and you try to continue your work."

That plan they had involved four separate shows — Ghost Rider, Helstrom, and two unannounced series — airing separately before crossing over in a "Defenders-esque" crossover.

"I remember when I was pitching stuff, I had a really awesome idea that would have kept Robbie in L.A. and that would have pitted us against classic Ghost Rider villains," the actor says. Those classic villains? Luna then namedrops Lilith, Marvel's Mother of Demons as a big bad. "And I think it would have led up to her being the big bad of what we were initially trying to start, which was this four-show, very Defenders-esque thing that was going to happen."

Luna goes on to remember some of the show's proposed plot, saying his version of Ghost Rider was going to be a character anyone could see themselves playing.

"There was a great opportunity missed for a character that was truly beloved and, for a Mexican-American superhero to be prominently displayed, 'American' being the operative word," he adds. "I'm always trying to tell people that the goal is, of course, to have ourselves represented on screen, but beyond that, the ultimate goal, the next step is to have others who don't look like us see themselves in us and that's what I was hoping to achieve at that show and I think we were there."

To date, Marvel Studios has yet to release a project featuring a Latine character in the title role. Just recently, the studio started casting for a Latino actor for a Halloween special, one rumored to involve Werewolf by Night.

All that said, the actor admits we'll probably see the character sometime again, likely sooner rather than later. While he'd like to jump back into the role of Robbie Reyes, it needs to be the right story.

"I try to stay in the moment. This is interesting, in talking to you, it's the first time I've done some recollection of the experience. You never say no. You always say that it comes down to the story," he adds. "If it's a great story and it makes sense and if I still feel the way I felt when I was reading for Jed and Moe that first day with Sarah Finn, it was a few years back, if I still feel it's just like breathing, that's what I felt with the character previously, then absolutely."

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(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

As for the future of the family of Ghost Riders, it's arguably never been brighter — especially when it comes to opportunities within Marvel's publishing arm. Not too long ago, both Blaze and Ketch starred in a mini-series from Ed Brisson and Aaron Kuder. Robbie Reyes has been made a member of Jason Aaron's Avengers, and the latest character to don the Spirit of Vengeance is pulling double duty.

Earlier this month, Marvel revamped its Marvel Unlimited digital app by introducing a line of digital-first comics. Kushala — an Apache who lived during the 1800s and is both the Sorcerer Supreme and Spirit of Vengeance — is one of those characters to receive their own digital series. 

But who is she?

"It's like she went to basically save her soul, but in doing so, really just amplified her power to such an nth degree, that she really couldn't control it, and it became something so powerful," series co-writer B. Earl tells us. "In adding into the mythos of what Robbie Thompson, who created her, what we did was add that the Vengeance is not a demon. It's not Zarathos, it's not connected, really, to Johnny Blaze's Ghost Rider and that part of Vengeance, but it's connected to the Vengeance of a God planet, which in a lot of ways connects back to the indigenous side."

B. Earl's writing partner on the series is Taboo — the rapper of Black Eyed Peas fame. He tells us Kushala's miniseries is very much rooted in hip-hop.

"That's something that we deal with as performers, and as artists, so it spoke to us on so many levels, not just like fans of the comic, or of the character, or the hero-villain or villain-hero, but also as a performer, that spoke to me on so many levels," Taboo adds. "And then the fact that we got to write, Kushala, who's a powerful Apache woman, for me as a Native American, it's like it was a blessing to be able to tell that story, do it in a very genuine, authentic way."

While Kushala is guaranteed an eight-issue series on Marvel Unlimted, the duo does tell us they have pitched something else to Marvel head editor CB Cebulski.

"We like demons, monsters, creatures, and things like that, but what we want to do is always figure out ways to ground it," B. Earl concludes. "So, we have something in the works, we can't say much more than that. It's hopefully going to have some big characters, characters that are very well known in the Marvel Universe, and it will have definitely some horror elements to it."

Between now and the end of November, one new issue will be released exclusively on Marvel Unlimited every Thursday.

Could the character see the silver screen soon again? Thomas tells us Marvel hasn't contacted him about using Ghost Rider in any live-action project. Referencing Jim Shooter's comments about Secret Wars earlier this fall, the legendary creator reminds us all Marvel can do whatever they want with their characters.

"No, Ghost Rider — like Secret Wars, for that matter, as I'm sure Jim Shooter agrees — belongs to Marvel under the work-for-hire circumstances under which we developed those concepts," Thomas said. "It'd be nice to be consulted about characters we've created or co-created, but Marvel's under no obligation to do so."

He concludes, "But Ghost Rider? I've never been given (nor asked for) any specific credit or money for Ghost Rider, to the best of my knowledge. I'm happy with my arrangements with Marvel on many other concepts I co-created or developed, however, and no quarrel regarding the character."


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Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance are streaming on HBO Max while Agents of SHIELD Season 4 is streaming on Netflix.

Who would you like to see play Ghost Rider next? Would you rather see the character in a movie or TV show? Let us know your thoughts either in the comments section or by hitting our writer @AdamBarnhardt up on Twitter!