Ghost Rider, 2099, and futures past

It occurred to me, recently, that when Marvel launched their 2099 comics in the early 1990s, the setting’s distance in time was twice that of the “Marvel universe’s” origin. The fictional world’s pre-war beginnings lay a little more than 50 years in the past; 2099 lay more than 100 years in the future. Now, as of 2020, the present has moved to a point midway between both.

Taking stock, I feel that 2099 has aged well beneath accumulating dust. The original line, at least, may be approaching the threshold of “old/obscure comics.” The 25-issue Ghost Rider 2099 series written by Len Kaminski is probably there, and worth more appreciation than it probably has, or than at first glance it probably appears to deserve.

The series’s strong start accounts for much of its worth after a quarter-century. Nothing about Ghost Rider 2099 was really groundbreaking; realistically all of the pieces had been used before. But during the first dozen issues they were chosen and assembled very, very well.

The artwork helps a lot. Chris Bachalo‘s drawings are pretty to look at, and gifted the series with a few truly memorable designs, particularly the bizarre “Ghostworks.” The storytelling also feels perfectly timed and balanced, though. Plenty of settings and characters are introduced, but things happen every issue. There’s a sense of “openness” and freedom to how widely Ghost Rider ranges, at will, from a gang encampment to the C-suite to a round-trip errand from the Midwest to New York.

The Ghost Rider is not there to “play in a sandbox,” the Ghost Rider is there to make big, hands-on changes to a world filled with things he doesn’t like.

This is a possibility available for any fantasy fiction, including all superhero comics and especially a sprawling “imaginary story” like the 2099 line. The great majority of major superhero comics are ultimately informed more by preserving an existing order than by changing it, though. For various reasons, a lot of 2099 stories inherited this tendency; the two series which I still own in full were probably the two biggest exceptions to that.

Doom 2099 began with the more typical, cautious approach, but abandoned caution when the series passed to Warren Ellis in its third year. Beginning with issue #26 Doom went “widescreen,” e.g. toppling the American government, rewriting time, and prompting shakeups of every other 2099 ongoing including Ghost Rider.

The intersection of the two cyberrevolutionaries, in the “One Nation Under Doom” extended line-wide event, produced a sudden swerve from the first to the second of three “eras” for Ghost Rider 2099.

Dr. Doom meets the Ghostworks, art by Kyle Hotz

Looking back, what was omg-cool for a teenager now seems to hover on a border between creative injury and artful incorporation of chance. For the most part Ghost Rider 2099 stood on its own with minimal dependence on previous Ghost Rider stories or the rest of the 2099 line, which seems to help it remain standing decades later as work one can still read and recommend.

The exception of “One Nation Under Doom” actually exposes the deeper strength of an author who could sustain the series’ own mission and flavor, though. I have no idea what Kaminski might have done, otherwise, but he made this editorially imposed “event” more or less work as an extension of the first Ghost Rider 2099 era. A 20th century supervillain briefly conquered 2099’s corporate oligarchs, including Ghost Rider’s major antagonists—but Ghost Rider’s fascination with the act as a masterpiece “hack” preserved some of the series’ cyberpunk integrity. Outlaw Ghost Rider temporarily became “federal marshal of Transverse City”—but the cops continued to hate him, even as he lost the trust of his former allies. Etc.

The operative word for the series after its first year is, nonetheless, “work” for the most part. Ghost Rider 2099 is worth a look, today, mostly because of a near brilliant Act One followed by two lesser acts, of quality and brevity that the initial promise is at least respected.

The stories in Acts Two and Three are mostly a combination of characters and plots introduced in Act One, plus a succession of antagonists who frankly develop a “monster-of-the-week” pattern. The later acts can feel both like marking time, and hurrying plots toward resolution ahead of schedule.

Ashley Wood artwork

The artwork doesn’t help. After Chris Bachalo left the series, Kyle Hotz finished up Act One; I enjoy his work, and it was a good fit for those particular stories, I think, as well as an okay fit for the series. Ashley Wood, who drew most of the remaining issues, was another story. At its best, his work was hard to swallow for a teenager who regarded Ron Lim as pretty much the ideal drawing style. With maturity, I appreciate Wood’s work more, but it still wasn’t really great for Ghost Rider 2099. Potentially a very good match for the supernatural contemporary Ghost Rider, murky expressionism and barely implied settings were not a great match for a cyberpunk world of tomorrow, no matter how dystopian. Worse, the last two or three issues lose even the aggressive brushwork which at least matched the series’s rage-against-the-machine energy.

But Ghost Rider 2099 maintained some contact with that energy, with its own concept and purpose and some of its smaller accents from first issue to last. Richard Starkings‘s 1990s desktop-publishing lettering, which got a bit heavy handed in other settings, probably never made more positive contribution to a series than it did to Ghost Rider 2099, where the loudness and computer-generated character not only complemented the series, but provided a degree of visual consistency across 25 issues. The occasional use of excerpts from fictional travel guides was sparing enough that it never became tiresome, but sustained a novel signature which had memorably kicked off issue one, page one.

Most important of all, Ghost Rider 2099 sustained its contempt for corporate greed, corrupt systems, and the everyday conformist System Justification which enable them.

The sharpness of this contempt varies over the course of the series. In the first few issues it’s a damn chainsaw. A story at the first year’s end memorably features rich assholes literally preying on poor people through monstrous prosthetic bodies, each sharing the name of some notable dickwad from the American right; this was hardly subtle, but the directness still feels delightful 25 years later. A dialogue a few issues earlier about the War on Drugs is also a nice effort at subversion, in a comic book aimed at teenagers, although it also feels a little wide of the mark; the inconsistencies in America’s drug prohibition have probably had a lot more to do with racism than with an official preference for relaxants over mind-expanding alternatives.

All in all, though, Ghost Rider 2099 still feels relevant to an extent which is both creditable and frustrating. It isn’t terribly deep, as sociological criticism, yet it’s actually more honest and insightful than way too much of what passes for our serious, substantive political debate.

It’s fascinating how I can keep coming back to Ghost Rider 2099, and to the Ellis stories in Doom 2099 which might be considered a literary sibling. The 2099 project as a whole varied quite a bit, no surprise; overall it was fun, with plenty of okay work which can still be enjoyed, as well as more than enough mediocre failures best forgotten. The original 2099 line finished with something of an ugly crash, which Ghost Rider 2099 ended in time to avoid. Since then 2099 has basically become one more “toy chest” in the big Marvel Universe sandbox, from which e.g. the future Spider-Man or Doom are occasionally drawn for a play date. I don’t mind this, but it seems as well that Ghost Rider 2099 has basically been forgotten.

One might say that 2099 “jumped the shark” when playing with toys eclipsed vision. The original lineup was from the outset uneven (looking at you, Ravage 2099) but seemed to share some attempted creative vision. The launch of Fantastic Four 2099 and X-Nation 2099 probably marked the complete loss of that. In their different ways, neither title seemed to have any persuasive sense of a reason for existing.

The good stuff was not found among toys. The good stuff was e.g. Warren Ellis’s double act of dimwit-patriot president and leering malevolent handler, who several years after they knocked aside Doom in a corporate counter-coup seemed eerily to have prefigured Bush and Cheney. The good stuff was Ghost Rider 2099 not only flashing middle fingers at right-wing oligarchy, and exposing TV journalism’s hypocrisies, but reminding the left that distrust and mutual sabotage may be encouraged by our enemies but is usually practiced eagerly enough without help.

Ghost Rider 2099 didn’t have the answers. But, along with better bits of 2099 generally, it not only asked significant questions but acknowledged that these were not new questions, and made it clear that without some different thinking, those same questions by themselves will just coexist with the system rather than challenge it.

Graham Higgins drew the Ghost Rider meets Dr. Doom scenes which opened “Act Two,” with a cartoonish style from which the series then veered wildly away

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