Sunday, August 2, 2015

Marvel Collectors' Item Classic #40: Controversy is the Ghost Rider

Isabella v. Shooter on Ghost Rider #19
(in their own words, as compiled by Matthew R. Bradley)

The war of words waged over this issue (which my learned colleague Professor Flynn correctly called “convoluted and exhausting”) rivals any battle depicted inside a comic book.  Keeping my editorializing to a minimum, I will allow the principals to “speak” for themselves, synthesizing their accounts from the following:  Isabella’s article for Comics Buyer's Guide #1628, posted in one of Tony’s Online Tips on the World Famous Comics site; his interview with Jon B. Knutson for Jon’s Random Acts of Geekery!; a transcript of Jim Shooter’s testimony from the court case regarding the ownership of Blade, posted on 20th Century Danny Boy; Shooter’s comments from a post on his own site; and a rebuttal to another Shooter post from Tony Isabella’s Bloggy Thing.

The roots of the conflict go back to #9, after Tony “wrote Blaze into such a [sic] end-of-an-issue jam that I literally didn’t know how I would get him out of it in the next issue...Previously, Blaze had been protected from Satan’s wrath by the purity of love-of-his-life Roxanne Simpson.  I took that away from him, leaving him vulnerable to the Big Evil.  It made for a great cliffhanger, but I had written myself into a corner.  [Then Steve Gerber], mostly in jest, suggested I have God save GR.  It was a crazy idea, but just crazy enough to work.  Getting prior approval from [Roy Thomas]…I introduced ‘The Friend’…He looked sort of like a hippie Jesus Christ and that’s exactly who He was, though I never actually called Him that in my stories,” as the Tiger related.

It could be argued that as an agnostic (albeit a church-going one), I have no dog in this fight, yet his logic has always appealed to me:  “The readers loved the idea…It allowed me to address a disparity that had long bothered me…Though we had no end of Hell(s) and Satan surrogates in our comics, we had nothing of Heaven, save for the mythology-based Asgard and Olympus.  It was about time we heard from God.”  Unfortunately, nothing gets people’s dander up like religion, and therein lies the tale Tony relates.  “I left [Marvel] because I had accepted a job as an editor and writer at DC, but, even if that hadn’t been the case, I would have left anyway after Jim Shooter got through butchering what was supposed to be the culmination of a two-year storyline.

“Shooter changed my story—after it had been completely penciled, scripted, lettered, and inked because he personally had a problem with my use of the Friend/Jesus character.  This despite my ongoing story having been approved and supported by [Roy and his successors as EIC, Len and Marv]...Decades after the fact, I’m still angered by the sheer arrogance of the man and have come to believe that the comics industry is all the better for his absence from it.  In Shooter’s version of my story, the ‘Friend’ turns out to be some demon in disguise, which, of course, made no sense to anyone who’d read the previous issues featuring the character.  In my version, Johnny found salvation by accepting Jesus Christ and reclaimed the soul he had given to Satan.”

As for future issues, “Johnny was now free to begin a new life...Had I continued on Ghost Rider, you wouldn’t have seen either Jesus or Satan in the book again.  Johnny would have led his new life according to Christian principles, but without the heavy religious overtones I’d brought into the book specifically to bring Johnny to this point.  He would have continued his dual careers:  working as a Hollywood stuntman and helping people as the Ghost Rider.  He and Roxanne would have married and had as normal a life—kids and all—as possible in a super-hero comic book.  I’d always pictured Johnny as a motorized cowboy and this new direction would have transformed him from Kid Colt Outlaw to the Lone Ranger,” Tony told Knutson in his interview.

Whether you agree with his use of the “Friend” or not, and whether you like what he had in mind for Johnny or not, it’s clear that Tony’s storyline was drastically altered without his consent, and that’s gotta suck.  In fact, the bone of contention is not whether Shooter had provided what the lettercol euphemistically calls a “scripting assist,” but how and why.  “Tony had introduced some religious references into the story that I thought were inappropriate. He had Jesus Christ appearing as a character.  I didn’t think that was a good idea.  So, as was my usual custom, I called Tony and I tried to work it out with him.  You know, it’s always better if you can get the writer to make his own corrections,” as Jim testified in Wolfman v. New Line Cinema Corp. et al.

“He was adamant.  He just absolutely refused to be cooperative about making any changes.  And so it was a big enough deal that I went to Marv and I asked him…what he thought should be done.  And he asked…could I make the changes?  And I said, yes, I could.  So I laid out…what should be drawn.  I had four or five new pages drawn to replace pages that had been already drawn.  And I rewrote, I would say, about half of the book.  And I changed the course of the story so that it no longer had the religious references.”  The felicitousness of the “equal time” argument notwithstanding, erring on the side of caution when depicting Jesus—or not—seems sensible; at issue, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the degree to which Jim had Marv’s, uhm, blessing.

With his arrival just announced on the previous month’s Bullpen Page, it seems unlikely that Shooter would have made such a move on his own initiative, which supports his blog comments:  “Roy, for whatever reasons, was a supporter of Tony Isabella’s.  What discussions they had…before I [was hired] as associate editor, I don’t know.  Len and Marv, I can assure you, were NOT supportive of where Tony was going…[Marv], my boss, ORDERED me to have the issue in which Jesus revealed himself definitively REWRITTEN and REDRAWN as necessary to eliminate the religious references…. At that time I had no authority to make massive changes like that…unless the EIC commanded that it be done….I don’t remember who did the new art.”

“Stan and everyone else in the office I spoke to at that time opposed the ‘Christianization’ of the Marvel Universe, that is having Jesus Christ established as a character and Satan clearly characterized as the Christian Satan.  [They all] felt that such matters should be left open to personal interpretation, just like in the real world….If a character expresses a belief, that’s fine.  It’s that character’s opinion.  Bringing in God or his Son and definitively proving that the Christianity is the official doctrine of Marvel is another thing entirely….That’s a recipe for disaster….Tony tried to have Ghost Rider redeemed by Christ in the flesh, on panel.  I thought that I’d better ask Marv about that when I saw it.  He thought it was inappropriate.  So did Stan.”

Clearly, the editorial process failed Isabella—things should never have reached the point where such radical revisions were necessary—so Tony gets the last word:  “[Shooter] claims he…was acting under orders from…Wolfman.  This despite Shooter himself telling me at the time that my story offended him and that was why he was rewriting it. This jibes with the memories of other Marvel staffers at the time, who have also told me the issue was ready to go to the printers when Shooter abruptly pulled it back….[Marv] and I have talked on occasion about those years and seem to agree that we all made mistakes in handling our various positions of authority.  Unless and until Marv himself tells me otherwise, Shooter gets the blame for undoing [my] storyline…”


  1. Ah, the controversial Shooter years begin. I am not a fan of the man. As a writer he never even came close to guys like Thomas, Starlin, Wolfman, Gerber or Moench. But at the beginning his editorial instincts were sometimes spot on. As here. Or with the X-Men.

    You are right of course. This idiotic idea for the Ghost Rider, who was especially dull under Isabella, should never have been greenlighted in the first place. Not because of the christian overtones, but the idea isn't workable. Why should Blaze remain the GR if his soul is redeemed?

    The EIC merry-go-round at the time must have been a stressful time for the writers.

  2. Well Professor Matthew, you managed to be more interesting writing about Isabella than any single thing he wrote during his run on Ghost Rider. Not that his replacement, Gerry Conway, is proving to be any better. How could something like Iron Fist get cancelled while Ghost Rider limped along and along and along...

  3. I completely concur with Professor Tom's analysis of your spot-on coverage, Professor Matthew.

    I will remind you all, though, that, similarly, at one time long ago, serious film scholars made light of the contributions to film history made by Ed Wood, Del Tenney, Larry Buchanan, and, yes, even Duke Mitchell.

    Someday, and that day may (hopefully) never come, a director will make a film of Tony Isabella's life.