Monday, April 16, 2012

GHOST RIDER, WOLVERINE, PUNISHER: HEARTS OF DARKNESS - December 1991


Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), John Romita, Jr. (penciler), Klaus Janson (inker), John Wellington (colors), Joe Rosen (letters)

Summary: Blackheart manipulates Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and Punisher into traveling to the small town of Christ’s Crown in their civilian identities. They stay at Flo’s Boarding House and grow attached to Flo’s daughter Lucy. Blackheart appears to them in the night and makes his offer -- their greatest desires if they join him in assassinating his father, Mephisto. When they refuse, Blackheart steals Ghost Rider’s motorcycle and kidnaps Lucy. Ghost Rider finds another motorcycle and follows Wolverine and Punisher into Hell. They eviscerate Blackheart and take Lucy back home. Before Ghost Rider leaves, Mephisto hints that his origin will soon be revealed.

Continuity Notes: Ghost Rider’s ability to power up with a different motorcycle (one he steals from a local bike shop) is treated as a major revelation. Mephisto’s hints of more revelations apparently didn’t pan out since Howard Mackie left the Ghost Rider series before giving the Daniel Ketch version of the character a definitive origin.

Production Notes: This is a forty-eight page bookshelf format one-shot, retailing for $4.95. The front and back covers fold out to reveal a larger image.

Review: Hearts of Darkness was pretty much a license to print money in the early ‘90s. There are so many copies floating around now, it’s hard not to find one for less than a dollar. While this is shamelessly commercial, there is something to be said for a one-shot that pairs the hottest, grittiest stars of the day in one story and lets John Romita, Jr. go crazy with giant demonic images and manly action. But the story…well, is anyone shocked that the writing isn’t the selling point on this one?

The premise attempts to expand upon a storyline set up for Blackheart in Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil run; Blackheart admires man’s freewill above all else, but has none of his own so long as his father allows him to be worshiped as a demonic idol on earth. If you think that doesn’t make total sense, I agree. I don’t recall the concept working too well in Blackheart’s original appearances, even though Nocenti/Romita still used the character rather effectively. Mackie picks up the idea and creates a new scheme for Blackheart -- he’ll assemble three representatives of the new breed of hero, heroes “on the edge,” and mold them into his father’s assassins. There is some logic behind this, as it’s hard to imagine old Marvel stalwarts like Thor or Silver Surfer accepting a hit job on anyone, even Mephisto. And yet, if he’s looking for hired killers, why not hire villains? And why are two of the three heroes he’s assembled characters with no supernatural powers? And is the Ghost Rider of this era even supposed to be a killer? I thought he had a moral code against killing.

Assuming that you buy the premise that Blackheart’s plot needs heroes willing to live in “the gray area,” the execution still has problems. The little girl Lucy is clearly here as a cipher to be rescued; absolutely no effort is put into giving her or her mother any personality. We’re also never shown why any of the heroes have formed such a bond with the girl. It’s not hard to infer why each one would grow close to Lucy (Punisher lost a daughter near her age, Wolverine tends to form bonds with young girls, and I believe Ghost Rider lost his sister in his origin story), but the story keeps their relationship extremely superficial. There’s also a fundamental moral question relating to the basic plot that isn’t addressed. Why wouldn’t any of these heroes be even slightly tempted to kill Mephisto? He’s the Satan of the Marvel Universe, the cause of all evil and suffering. I get that they’re supposed to be heroic enough to reject a personal reward for killing, but aren’t they willing to consider the offer solely on a humanitarian level? I’m not saying Mackie should’ve had any of the heroes buy into the plot, but there is an opportunity to present the characters with a worthy moral conundrum. Just as John Byrne once justified Galactus’ existence in Fantastic Four, perhaps we could’ve even learned why exactly the Marvel Universe needs an entity like Mephisto.

Despite my gripes, I have to give Mackie his due for one scene. Mephisto has lured the heroes to Christ’s Crown with letters promising information on their pasts. Ghost Rider’s offers information on the mysterious “Soul Crystal,” the Punisher is promised the location of one of his family’s killers (which he knows is a lie, since he’s already killed them), and Wolverine is offered information about his adamantium skeleton. Wolverine’s casual dismissal, “As though I care.” sums his character up beautifully. Before Wolverine got dragged into story after story relating to his past, this was the extent of his concern. Wolverine didn’t allow his past to define him; he’d found redemption with the X-Men and that was the end of it. That’s the attitude that suits the character, and I can’t think of anything that’s been tacked on during the past ten or fifteen years of “revelations” that’s added anything of true value.

Anyway, the story’s an excuse for the three toughest vigilantes of the day to slash up demons together. It accomplishes that much. John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson are perfect for the material, the production values still hold up to this day, and it’s possible to follow the story without actually reading any of the words. The core audience got exactly what they wanted, assuming they didn’t try to recoup their five dollar investment.

4 comments:

Edward said...

I remember this one fondly because I was just getting into comic books back then.
John Romita Jr. rules.

Robert said...

Really interesting to see that John Romita Jr followed up the 'Blackheart' storyline established in Daredevil in the late 80s. I have reviewed the issues relevant to that on my own blog. In terms of DD, I'm not sure the Christ's Crown saga is too fondly remembered though, like you, I think Ann used it well to ask some theological questions. I wonder if John or Howard Mackie were the leading forces in doing this story? Intriguing...

The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

Man, this makes me feel old. I remember when this hit the stands and it was pretty much the hottest thing since the invention of fire. Those pages still look great.

wwk5d said...

An interesting sign of the times: Ghost Rider's name is above Wolverine's.

The only thing about this that still holds up is the artwork.

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