See, the thing is, there's been a Ghost Rider in comics since 1950. Except he's not always the same guy. Or from the same publisher. Heck, sometimes he's not even called Ghost Rider!
Cover art by Dick Ayers
It all started with Magazine Enterprises' Tim Holt comics. Tim Holt was a famous movie cowboy who has fallen into relative obscurity these days. But, in 1949, he had name-brand sales appeal. In the pages of Tim Holt, one of the back-up features was a comic called The Calico Kid. The Calico Kid maintained a dual identity. He was a spineless wimp most of the time, but switched to his real identity of the Calico Kid- a skilled, tough-as-nails gunfighter - in times of trouble. Except, apparently, that wasn't his real identity either. After being The Calico Kid for all of five issues, it was revealed that that spineless wimp, who was really the Calico Kid was really, really Federal Marshal Rex Fury. The Calico Kid was never mentioned again, and Rex Fury was immediately attacked by renegades and left for dead.
On the verge of death, Rex is visited by the ghosts of Wild Bill Hickock , Kit Carson, Calamity Jane and other dead folks who tried to bring law and order to the West. The Ghosts impart their knowledge of their various skill sets to Rex. Rex also chases down and breaks a great white stallion which he names Spectre.
Donning a phosphorescent costume and a cape that glows on the outside but is black on the inside, Rex Fury begins his new career as The Ghost Rider.
Ghost Rider was a hit and soon got his own series which lasted for 14 issues. He also continued as a back-up in Tim Holt and Red Mask comics.
Of course, like anything popular, there were imitators.
The July-August 1952 issue of DC's Jimmy Wakely featured a spectral menace , called The Phantom Brander, right on the cover (beautifully rendered by Gil Kane). Vin Sullivan, editor of Magazine Enterprises comics, had previously worked for DC, so one has to wonder if this issue caused any bad blood. In any event, this was the very last issue of Jimmy Wakely, so perhaps the real lesson is not to mess with the Ghost Rider!
By the 1960's, Magazine Enterprises had folded and the Ghost Rider name was no longer under trademark.
Original Ghost Rider artist Dick Ayers had moved on to Marvel Comics when, in 1967, they added a "new" character to their stable of Western heroes:
The new Ghost Rider was named Carter Slade. Like his un-connected predecessor, Slade had a glowing costume and a white horse. Unlike his predecessor, there was NO supernatural connection to this guy at all. Whereas ME's Ghost Rider had fought supernatural (or pseudo-supernatural) villains, Marvel's Ghost Rider mostly fought the Old West equivalent of supervillains.
This Ghost Rider's comic lasted only 7 issues. He would, however, be heard from again.
In 1973, Marvel launched a new Ghost Rider. Or, at least, they launched a new comic called Ghost Rider starring a new character named Ghost Rider.
This Ghost Rider was a motorcylce stunt-rider named Johnny Blaze. Blaze had sold his soul to the demon Mesphisto and was cursed to become a demon with a flaming skull for a head. Extremely iconic, yes, but was he really the Ghost Rider? I remember being 5 or 6 and being puzzled by this guy when I saw him on the spinner rack at the drugstore. He looked waay more like a villain to me. Still, he managed to last 81 issues.
Of course having a new comic called Ghost Rider reminded folks there had been an old comic called Ghost Rider. Marvel realized it had a market it could tap into by reviving it's previous character. But if they put out two comics called Ghost Rider, that was going to cause some confusion. Their solution: give the previous character a new name...
Unfortunately, the name Marvel chose for their re-launch of the Western Ghost Rider was Night Rider . If you're unsure why that's unfortunate, "night rider" was the term previously used to refer to the Klu Klux Klan back in the old days when they rode the countryside on horseback, terrorizing the newly-freed slaves of the South. I'm sure the fact that the character dressed from head-to-toe in white only made the unwanted comparison even more common.
This series only lasted 6 issues and was a pared-down reprint of the first six issues of the 1967 Ghost Rider series. It was repackaged with all the dialog and captions edited to say "Night Rider" and featured some very nice covers by Gil Kane. Kane, as you will recall, had done the cover of Jimmy Wakely #18, featuring the Phantom Brander!
Night Rider had folded after only 6 issues in 1974 and 1975. The Character, re-renamed Ghost Rider continued to be published as one of the features in Western Gunfighters.
The motorcyclist Ghost Rider's comic folded in 1983. Johnny Blaze and various incarnations of the Old West Ghost Rider/Night Rider/Phantom Rider continued to appear in various Marvel comics, although even his alter-ego changed a few times to relatives and descendants Hamilton Slade, Lincoln Slade, etc.
In 1990, Marvel decided to give it another go.
This time, instead of the complicated and morally awkward idea of having the hero be a man who sold his soul to the Devil, the Ghost Rider was a terrifying incarnation of the spirit of Vengeance. This Ghost Rider was a young man named Dan Ketch who is possessed by the Spirit of Vengeance and transforms into the Ghost Rider, who looks suspiciously like the previous Ghost Rider right down to the flaming bike and flaming skull for a head. Still scary, but arguably more heroic.
The original ME Ghost Rider made a brief re-appearance in 1999, over at AC Comics. This time under the new name of Haunted Horseman.
Clearly, the Western Ghost Rider was not yet down for the count.
So, what about Marvel's Western version of Ghost Rider? Well, having created this idea that that Vengeance could manifest itself as a flaming-skulled guy on a crotch-rocket sort of opened up the door to a backstory, right?
In 2007 enter writer Garth Ennis who decided the Civil War era was just begging for it's own Ghost Rider.
The title "Trail of Tears" is a little misleading, as he's not actually taking vengeance for the Indian Removal Act, but the setting at least takes us back into the right era.
At any rate, it seems to have opened up the door for other historical incarnations of the Vengeful Ghost Rider, as seen in a cameo in Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven #1:
Personally, I prefer the creepy, atmospheric feel of the original, Magazine Enterprises Ghost Rider. Dick Ayers' artwork is a joy to look at and the idea of a supernatural cowboy (sort of) who fights supernatural foes (sort of) is one well worth playing with.
As a special treat, I've added musical accompaniment to this post:
I'd like to take a moment here to thank Pappy of Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine for graciously allowing me to swipe some Golden Age Ghost Rider art for this post. I didn't end up using nearly as much as I'd planned, but I prefer not to take without asking. And speaking of taking without asking, I also swiped from Don Markstein's Toonpedia. Don, who and wherever you are, I hope you don't mind that I borrowed one of your panel scans.