Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ghost Rider -- the character Stan Lee stole twice

Stan Lee's claims in the Sixties that he didn't read other comic books were a lot like Milton Berle's claims that he didn't listen to other comics' material. Lee had spent two decades in a closely-knit industry jumping on trends and borrowing ideas, starting with DC and EC derived books and ending with an unacknowledged appropriation of Julius Schwartz' successful formula for rebooting Golden Age heroes with science fiction origins and streamlined looks.

The difference between Berle and Lee was that a large part of Lee's audience didn't get the joke. Many of them had gotten serious about comics in the mid-Sixties when Marvel had hit its stride and really was putting out the best and most innovative comics. For them, Lee's comically over-the-top claims seemed entirely reasonable.

It's safe to assume that in 1967, few of those teen aged fans had any idea that Marvel's new Western themed hero, Ghost Rider, had a strong resemblance to another company's hero, a resemblance that included having the same name, costume, concept, atmospheric look, and artist. The retread only ran for seven issues but that was enough for Marvel to claim ownership of the name and, a few years later, launch another Ghost Rider.

If you had to lift a character you could certainly do worse. Ghost Rider was one of the last great superheroes of the Golden Age, sharply written by Ray Krank (with guidance from Vince Sullivan) and beautifully drawn by Dick Ayers with an occasional assist by Frank Frazetta. Don Markstein described him as "perhaps the most visually striking comic book hero of the decade," but you can judge for yourself.

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