Ghost Rider is best known as a Marvel “gimmick” character with a remarkable amount of staying power. This is largely due to his iconic look. I mean, who can deny that a dude with a flaming skull for a head, clad in leather and sitting atop a motorcycle looks pretty freaking cool? While that may be the most recognizable design for the character, that is by no means his only look. Nor was it his first.
This profile will examine the history and characters who have taken the mantle of Ghost Rider and how each of those individuals has been adapted in popular media. To start, we’ll look at the first incarnation of the character, before any supernatural elements were folded into his backstory.
The original Ghost Rider was very different than the version modern audiences are aware of. Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, and Dick Ayers created Carter Slade an old west hero who dressed in a glowing costume and brought justice to the frontier on his white steed. Since Slade has no connection to the latter (more popular) incarnation of the character, he has retroactively been named The Phantom Rider. However, that hasn’t stopped the character from being adapted into other media that’s associated with the more well-known version.
Slade appeared in the 2007 film Ghost Rider as former Spirit of Vengeance and mentor to the film’s hero. Played by Sam Elliott, the role was combined with that of Caretaker and elements were given to Slade’s backstory that tied into the origin of the Rider. Slade’s descendant, JT Slade, has even made a recent appearance in the 3rd season ofAgents of SHIELD. Played by Axle Whitehead, this version takes little from the source material and reimagines the character more as an Inhuman version of the X-Men’s Gambit. It remains to be seen if he’ll show up in the subsequent season.
Created by Thomas and Friedrich with Mike Ploog, the second Ghost Rider hit the scene in the 1970’s at the height of the stunt-bike, daredevil craze in American pop-culture. Seen as a sort of Evel Knievel with supernatural powers, Blaze’s soul was bonded with the demon Zarathos as revenge for backing out of a deal by Mephisto, one of Marvel’s notorious underworld villains. With that, he was forced to travel the world on his motorcycle to punish the wicked and assist the innocent. Even after passing Zarathos’s Spirit of Vengeance to another host, Blaze remained on the scene as an ally and accomplice to other supernatural heroes in a team known as the Midnight Sons.
Blaze has only recently been seen a suitable subject for adaptation. Prior to the 2007 film Ghost Rider, he hadn’t had any appearances (see below) in television or film. In said movie, he’s portrayed by Nicolas Cage as somewhat of an aloof stuntman who tries to ignore his other-worldly power. While the film sticks to the source for his origin, the rest of the story adds an odd amount of light-hearted humor to the character. Cage returned in 2012 for a pseudo-sequel called Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance that tried to return some of the darkness and horror to the character and his story. Since then, Blaze has only made one more appearance: an episode of the animated series Hulk and the Agents of SMASH guest-starred Blaze as Ghost Rider and featured Fred Tatascoire in the role.
Even though Johnny Blaze is most associated with the character, Dan Ketch is probably the most recognizable in the role. Created as a successor to Blaze by Howard Mackie and Javier Saltares, Ketch’s “chains and spikes” design is the most easily identified trait of Ghost Rider’s (except, of course, for the whole “flaming skull” thing) for a generation to come. Ketch became the Rider after touching a mystical sigil that passed Zarathos’ power to him. The character collected a colorful assortment of enemies and allies in his tenure on the bike but seems to be somewhat forgotten as an unwarranted “also ran” version of the character.
Dan (who’s name was derived from Jack Ketch, famed executioner) was the first of the heroes to be adapted. While initially seen briefly in a vision Gambit has on an episode of the 1990’s X-Men cartoon, he later showed up in episodes of Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk in the same decade. He was notably voiced by Richard Grieco in both shows. The former series featured a wonderful moment where Ghost Rider uses his Penance Stare on the villain Galactus which causes him to feel the suffering of the billions of lives he’s taken. In live action, Ketch has technically been adapted once. The film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance revolves around a young boy named Danny whom Blaze must protect from the demon that fathered him (who also gave Ghost Rider his power). Danny is played by Fergus Riordan in the film.
In 2014, the character was reimagined and reintroduced to the world of comics with the Marvel NOW! event. Created by Felipe Smith, the new Rider is Robbie Reyes, a teenage mechanic who is killed while trying to move out of the crime-infested streets of Los Angeles. He’s resurrected by a demon and is tasked with solving the murder of Eli Morrow, a spirit who is bound to Robbie’s muscle car. That’s right, unlike Blaze and Ketch, this incarnation of the Spirit of Vengeance drives what is essentially a Dodge Charger. The decision to move from motorcycle to car has proven to be very controversial to some fans. While it doesn’t specifically change anything about the character, it is an odd choice given that the word “rider” is in his name.
Even though he’s a new character, Robbie has already been slated for adaptation. With the rights to Ghost Rider and all associated characters reverting back to Marvel, said characters have begun being interspersed within the television series Agents of SHIELD. As mentioned above, JT Slade made an appearance last year while the villain Blackout was an antagonist in the show’s first season. Now, in its 4th season, Gabriel Luna will be bringing Reyes to life. It remains to be seen how much of an impact he’ll have on the overall plot, but early advertising has been revolved around the character (which was the case for the Secret Warriors last season and we all know how that turned out) so here’s hoping he’s given a prominent role.It seems like Ghost Rider is destined to always be on the fringe of larger acceptance. While the character is technically the head of a film franchise, neither entry was very successful at sticking in the minds of fans or filmgoers. Even now, he’s being introduced to a new audience as a guest star instead of a headliner. Hopefully,this new appearance will provide more opportunities for exposure. With that, be sure to look for him on Agents of SHIELD when it premieres on September 20th.