Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Weird Western Hero: the Ghost Rider

Before Marvel had their flaming skeleton on a motorcycle they had a Ghost Rider.  Schoolteacher Carter Slade, who moved out west to make a difference educatin' youngins I reckon but ended up, through a series of events, dressing in a white outfit covered in glowing dust and fighting crime.  The character was stolen from the defunct (and thus public domain) Magazine Enterprises character known as the Ghost Rider 18 years before.  Now Marvel's Ghost Rider wasn't very popular.  Most likely it was because the Comics Code was still in strict mode so no supernatural fun and since it was the Old West no supervillains either.  So he got cancelled and in 1972 the motorcycle guy showed up.  But Marvel wouldn't let old GR go, so they renamed him a few times and still nobody gave a coyote fart.

But there was once a better Ghost Rider, a real Ghost Rider, and he fought owlhoots and villains and monsters aplenty with his sixguns and his steed.  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Rex Fury, THE Ghost Rider:
How is this not awesome?


U.S. Marshal Rex Fury was captured by Apaches working under the command of white renegade Bart Lasher.  Rex and his companion Sing Song were thrown into the legendary Devil's Sink, a watery whirlpool from which none had ever returned alive.  Arriving in an underground grotto Rex lay nearly dead when he was approached by the ghost of Wild Bill Hickok.  Informing Rex that he was balanced on the border between life and death, and thus able to speak with the deceased gunfighter, Bill took Rex into a pseudo-afterlife where a team of the greats of the west made up of Kit Carson, Calamity Jane and Bill Tilghman charged Rex Fury with protecting the innocents of the west from evil and trained him in the use of sixguns, rifles, tracking, tomahawk throwing, bow and arrow and such.  Showing him to a plain where ran a great ghostly white horse, the ghosts instructed him to capture the horse for his own steed, then gifted him with his ghostly white outfit.  Instructing him to stop a quarrel between two prospectors before it turned to murder, which he did.  Then he awoke and thought it a dream until he discovered Spectre, the ghostly white horse waiting for him outside of the secret exit from the grotto of Devil's Sink.
He would then acquire for himself a suit of white like the one he'd been given in the otherworld, dusting it with phosphorescent power to make himself glow in the dark and set out on his mission to fight evil using the skills taught to him by the ghosts of the western heroes.

Except that's not quite how it happened.

The above origin is from The Ghost Rider #1 (1950, Magazine Enterprises).  It is a retelling/retcon of the original story as it appeared in Tim Holt #11 (1949, Magazine Enterprises).  In that story Marshal Rex Fury and his companion Sing Song were set upon by Apaches led by renegade Bart Lasher and thrown into Devil's Sink, but at the bottom they found a grotto and free from their bonds they survived.  Fury created the ghost identity to capture and expose Lasher, who believing it was the ghost of Rex Fury himself (he wore no mask) fled only to fall to his death, impaled on a broken wagon wheel.  Justice served, Fury added a mask and upheld the law by day as a U.S. Marshal and captured those that escaped the law by night as the Ghost Rider.  Originally he used his glowing costume and clever tricks to force confessions out of criminals and justice was often served by the agency of higher powers.  The supernatural, when it was in a story, was merely hinted at and usually had a simple ruse as its source.  In 1950 that changed, as noted above, and the Ghost Rider would find himself facing any number of seemingly supernatural threats with the aid of his keen mind and ghostly training.
See the little inset picture to Tim's right?  Eventually the Ghost Rider would get his own series thanks to his growing popularity, and Tim would become the Red Mask as well.  Costumed cowboy heroes were coming into vogue, it seems.

From issue 6 through 10 of Tim Holt Rex Fury was known as the Calico Kid, your standard dual identity spineless wimp by day, heroic avenger by night.  No great shakes given the usual fare of western comics.  It was the shift to the pseudo-supernatural Ghost Rider that marked the rise of the character's popularity.

Like most western heroes of any era that aren't comedic in tone, Ghost Rider was a master of gun, whip, lariat, horsemanship and all the other cowboy hallmarks.  He was also very smart and liked to set up clever traps to reveal villains, many of which were cold-blooded murders and employed tricks to simulate supernatural things themselves.  Then old Ghosty would show up, use his tricks to scare 'em shitless and save the day.  Typically the monsters in a GR story were just men, evil men, but men all the same.  GR would figure out their tricks and expose them (I assume you've seen an episode of Scooby Doo) but there was always that origin story that left the supernatural aspects of the character open to interpretation, and once he met the skeleton of a late Apache chief that was mobile enough to shake his hand and talk with him.
Not the real Frankenstein Monster, but in fact Harry Bennett murderer and thief.  GR defeated him through his skills and the use of a magic lantern to project a false image.

In the comics themselves GR did not use any supernatural powers.  His best tricks were centered around using the expectations and fears of others to his advantage.  His costume glowed in the dark, as did his weapons and his horse, but he kept the inside of his cape a stark black, and would use it at times to cover parts of himself to make it seem as if he were a disembodied head or an arm, thus scaring his quarry into giving up or making a mistake.

Whether truly supernatural or just clever stories of horrific western action, the original Ghost Rider is a great example of the early Weird Western genre.

Now git on out of hyere until next time we make camp on the trail.  We got pumpkins to light.

"Ride like the wind, Spectre, evil is afoot and the night cries for vengeance!"


  1. I remember Ghost Rider when he was Carter Slade. I read one story about him, in a Rawhide Kid comics I think: he died at the end.I think his brother then took the mantle? I don't know why but I still remember him.

  2. Well noted, my friend. Yes the Marvel redo of the original Ghost Rider. I found the Marvel GR, not the Johnny Blaze, but Slade, to be less satisfying. Still, he's a cool character all the same. Marvel made the western GR into a villain via a possessed descendant and, well, that's not cricket.

  3. I love ghost-like vigilantes, I guess that is why he had such a strong impression on me.

    1. I can certainly see the appeal. The flaming skeleton on a motorbike was my first encounter with Ghost Rider and being a young boy how could I not find a flaming skeleton appealing. The Spectre from DC, and a knock off character called Mr. Justice from the 40s were also fun as they were truly ghostly.