As the title implies, Ghost Rider: Return of Vengeance #1 brings back the iconic 90s Marvel character Michael Badilino a.k.a. Vengeance. Co-creator Howard Mackie even returns to script this one-shot revival with another Ghost Rider staple, artist Javier Saltares, on pencils. It should be a triumphant return for the character and these creators, and though there is some admiration to be gleaned from their ability to keep those mid-90s aesthetics alive in a modern comic book, it also seems to spotlight the shortcomings of these types of characters in the Marvel Universe.
Officially, Badilino has been dead in the Marvel U since 1996 so this is frankly a return that is long overdue for the Spirit of Vengeances, but from frame one it becomes clear that this grim and gritty aesthetic that fueled Ghost Rider comics of that era needs to find new juice to survive. Much of the issue as a whole takes place in hell, as could be expected, and “expected” best describes almost everything about the one-shot. Hell has big nasty monsters with ridiculous names? An unimaginative depiction of the underworld with fire and lava? Surprise betrayals and nonsense symbology? It was there in the 90s and it’s here today!
This isn’t to say that everything about Return of Vengeance feels stuck in time, as appropriate as that might be for the narrative construct of Hell, but it’s entire DNA is built on a character who by design is simply “Ghost Rider but bigger and pointier,” a staple of new, edgy characters. Where Mackie succeeds in his scripting, however, is by writing a tight narrative that touches on all the bases of Vengeance’s origin while also gearing him up for a return to the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately what the issue does on the whole is simply illustrate how rudderless the demon/hell storylines here are. They require reinvention, not a retread.
Saltares does tremendous work with the visuals of the story, even if it feels mighty similar to comics you read over 25 years ago. Extreme close-ups on a pre-Vengeance Badilino and other demons offer a rare examination of the monstrosity of these Marvel characters which feels unique. He also delivers solid action for the many and varied beats that occur in the brisk 30-page read, and to be frank, Vengeance himself has never looked better than he does here. For all of my moaning about the 90s wheel spinning going on, the character does look pretty dang cool.
Character design overall, though clearly influenced by the pastiche of a time when Spawn was a bestseller, is a strong suit for the entire issue. Classic Ghost Rider characters Skinner and Anton Hellgate make appearances throughout and Saltares’ design work on their aesthetic makes them look awesome alongside new additions to the litany of monsters that live in Marvel’s hell. This one shot’s visuals do all the heavy lifting—no contest.
If you’re after a quick rush of 90s nostalgia in the form of a brand new comic, it would be difficult to top Ghost Rider: Return of Vengeance #1. Though Mackie and Saltares have created a tale that seems ripped from the stands of the last time Vengeance was relevant, it doesn't inspire confidence in his return to the Marvel Universe at large. Vengeance and related spirits will need a fuel-injected reinvention that takes the concept to roads less traveled, especially ones where scorched track marks haven't already burnt a path we've all seen before.
Published by Marvel Comics
On December 30, 2020
Written by Howard Mackie
Art by Javier Saltares
Colors by Arif Prianto
Letters by Joe Sabino