Charm, Not Drama, Drapery And Horses, Not Bullets And Suffering: 31 Days Of Atlas #11

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Mike Ploog’s cover to the Ghost Rider’s 1972 debut.

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There is a great deal that’s in retrospect amusing about the way in which Fleisher and Colon’s Grim Ghost constantly aped the form of Marvel tales of the period without ever convincing as either a viable simulacrum or a compelling new spin. Even where the resurrected Ghost’s “black steed” was concerned, it neither offered impressive competition to its rivals or a fabulous alternative. For Marvel’s supernatural protagonists such as 1972’s Ghost Rider and 1973’s Son Of Satan also came with their own mystic forms of transport. With the Ghost Rider, all leather jumpsuit and fiery skull, came his motorbike, imbued with all the spurious glamour and genuine menace of gang culture. With the Son Of Satan came “the demon-drawn chariot of Satan”, a flying bronze age number pulled by three flame-exhaling horses. These were visually enticing means of passage, which carried with them, for all their absurdity, a sense of fascination and intimidation. Added to tales marked by an excess of angst and four-colour menace, they underscored the essential out-there seriousness of  Marvel’s Satanically-informed superheroes.

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Herb Trimpe & John Romita’s cover to the 1973 debut appearance of Daimon Hellstrom.

But as we discussed yesterday, The Grim Ghost couldn’t begin to compete with the very styles and characters that he was clearly going to have to challenge for market square. It was a problem that extended down to the details of his image. Not for the Ghost the appearance of a reactionary-baiting flaming skeleton, or cape partially across a bare chest marked by a Wheatleyesque pentagram. Instead, The Grim Ghost was a figure dressed for the pulp fictions of several centuries before, while his “jet-black steed”, so well-groomed and turned out, appeared, by contrast, relatively benign. The question, for example, of how to make a wingless flying horse impressive, even unnerving, was never adequately solved, as can be seen below, where the cackling Ghost’s stallion appears to have disastrously leapt, rather than flown over, from a warehouse roof. The awkwardness of Colon’s design lends every impression that the horse is out of control and plummeting, straight-legged, to an exceedingly nasty collision with the ground. In truth, it’s a scene, shot through with Colon’s characteristically humorous style and weighed down with Fleisher’s entirely unnecessary and retrogressively purple prose, that seems to have come from a Mad Magazine parody. To see this is to expect the following panel to feature a pair of horribly crumpled vigilantes lying disconcertingly prone before their gangster prey;

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Nor does the following panel, below, rescue the situation, in that the manner of the Ghost’s landing is never given to us. Instead, the mood of the situation deflates from an eccentric, hysterical spectacle to a strangely passive scene. This too reflects the weaknesses in Colon’s more dramatic work during the period. The sight of The Grim Ghost and his horse being sprayed with bullets should be an intensely kinetic one. Within the bounds of the Comics Code Authority, the reader should wince at the thought of the prospect. Yet here, there’s no sign of bullets landing, of danger threatening, of terrified gangsters resorting to appalling violence. Nor are we given anything more that a vague sense that the Ghost has been lent a drama-undermining invulnerability to mortal weapons.

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But there is, in the figure of The Grim Ghost and his spectral horse, a wonderful sense of calm. It may not be appropriate to the scene, but in itself, it shows several of the strengths of Colon’s technique in the period. Few comics artists of the period could draw horses with the accuracy and allure that Colon could. Similarly, The Grim Ghost’s poise as he dismounts is exemplary, beautifully observed and marked by a real concern for the twists and folds of the character’s costume. Indeed, the contrast between gun-toting thieves and Satanically-powered crime busters is extremely marked. The latter convinces and delight, while the former most certainly don’t. For Colon’s hoodlums appear unconvincingly stiff, their heads much larger than comics convention would dictate, their anatomy seeming far more a product of imagination than observation. It is as if two different artists had been at work, with a single inking job creating a greater sense of similarity than have might otherwise have occurred. Even the unconvincing background, with the cross-hatching effect that merely suggests too-swiftly finished work, suggests a team of artists with varying degrees of skill at work rather than a single master.

But if action and menace weren’t qualities that Colon cared to incorporate into his style, his love of old-fashioned comics storytelling absolutely shone in the Colonial period flashbacks. Here again, Colon’s wonderful facility with horses and costume matched to his richly comedy-drama style produce storytelling to savour and celebrate. There are undeniably elements of his page design that prompt questions. Why the decision to cut off the head, as it were, of the leading horse in panel 1? Isn’t the appearance of the Ghost in panel two just a touch too dainty, just a touch too lack in intensity, in drama? But these quibbles can’t undermine to any substantial degree the zest and joy expressed in this sequence of panels. Colon gives every impression of having a ball here, and that enthusiasm radiates winningly off of the page;

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Had The Grim Ghost been a historical comic about an 18th century American highwayman, then it might still be remembered with a considerable degree of fondness and respect. True, it would have been highly unlikely to survive more than a few issues. But then, The Grim Ghost as a 20th century mystical vigilante only made it to three issues before cancellation anyway.

31 Days Of Atlas continues tomorrow, with a look at another of the first wave of Atlas comics, Ironjaw …

 

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