Today we’re going to talk about Ghost Rider.
No not that one, this one.
As I have stated time and time again the Golden Age of comics was a bit…weird and it may seem difficult to believe now but there once was a time when superheroes were not the reason kids bought comic books.
After the Allies punched Hitler’s dream of a thousand year empire for real the superhero comics fell by the wayside. Post WW2 was filled with all sorts of different genres like romance,
Supernatural and horror stories,
There was a time when Westerns, with all their stories about lone gunmen bringing justice to the wild frontier and some questionable stereotypes of American natives and Chinese, ruled the comic book world. In fact, Timely Comics, the company that would later become Marvel Comics, survived the post war years by producing Westerns, some of which were worked on by Stan Lee himself. Into this post war Western boom rode the Ghost Rider.
Origin and Career
The Ghost Rider was originally conceived as a Western vigilante lawman named Rex Fury aka “The Calico Kid”. He had a standard pulp and superhero origin where he decided to adopt a colorful costume to fulfill the kind of justice he believed the system couldn’t deliver. He would ride a black horse called Ebony and travel the West disguised as a bumbling salesman in order to fool criminals.
He was assisted by a Chinese migrant worker named Sing Song (yeah, stereotypes and lack of cultural sensitivity was another hallmark of the Golden Age) who helped Rex after the Calico Kid saved him from being framed for murder.
However, Rex Fury was being published just as the comic industry was changing from vigilantes and outlaws to more mature books so Rex was given a new origin and costume. After Rex is attacked by a white bandit named Bart Lasher who disguises his crew as a group of blood thirsty Indians (like I said…not very culturally sensitive) and throws the hero and his sidekick into a swirling abyss known as the Devil’s Sink. Rex and Sing Song survive and Rex decides to adopt a more supernatural guise to terrify criminals and the superstitious. By covering his clothing and cape in phosphorous he is able to appear as a glowing white spectre known as “The Ghost Rider”
You can read his origin story here, although I should warn you it is not for those who are easily offended at traditional stereotypes of Asians and Native Americans.
After adopting this new persona the Ghost Rider began his new career as a vigilante that terrified would be criminals as a ghost like creature. Due to the growing popularity of horror comics in the early 1950’s the Ghost Rider’s enemies became more supernatural as well, from criminals impersonating monsters including such as the Harpy and Frankenstein’s monster.
But by 1952 he was fighting actual supernatural threats such as a dragon.
So what happened?
1954 happened. That was the year a child psychologist named Fredric Wertham published a book that is infamous to the comic book industry, Seduction of the Innocent.
Wertham was concerned that comics filled with violent images and supernatural stories were corrupting the youth of America and would lead to misbehavior and juvenile delinquency (a popular form of media coming under fire because of fears that it might turn children into savage little psychopaths? THAT’S new!). There was a Congressional hearing were Wertham testified.
And rather have Congress and a mob of angry parents put them out of business the comic book companies got together and created the Comics Code Authority, an organization that would monitor every comic ever published and censor images or themes that were deemed too risque. One of its most enduring legacies was the CCA stamp which you can find on a lot of older comics.
Despite their best intentions the Comics Code was devastating to the industry. Crime comics were heavily censored (you couldn’t show a crime being committed and the criminal had to always lose in the end) and horror and sexually themed comics were outright banned. This led to a lot of companies going out of business with only the big titles like Superman and Batman holding the kind of numbers that allowed them to survive.
Sadly the Ghost Rider was one of the many characters to fall victim to the new era of comics and his title was ended in 1954. The good news is that he is currently in the public domain so if anyone wants to resurrect the character they are more than welcome to.