In any adaptation from print to screen, there are going to be some changes from the source materials. This is more true in comic books than most print sources; comic books (well, superhero comic books) usually have decades of stories for moviemakers to choose from, and many of these stories contradict each other. This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles showing how the comics have changed on their way to the silver screen.
Johnny Blaze: In the original comic book stories, Johnny Blaze’s father dies in a stunt when he’s still a boy, and he’s taken in by his father’s stunt-rider colleague, “Crash” Simpson. Crash becomes his surrogate father, and Johnny falls in love with Crash’s daughter, Roxanne, while becoming a stunt motorcycle rider himself. In the movie, Johnny rides with his father and falls in love with Roxy on the side.
The deal: In the original, rough and tough Johnny makes a hurried study of the occult when he learns Crash is dying of cancer. He then makes a deal with the devil — all right, a devil — that Crash won’t die of cancer. Crash doesn’t — he dies during a stunt, just like Johnny’s biological father. In the movie, ol’ Mephistopheles approaches Johnny out of the blue and makes a better deal, that his father will be healed of his lung cancer. The elder Blaze dies anyway during a stunt, which seems petty of Mephistopheles.
The devil you know: In the comics, Johnny Blaze made the deal with Mephisto, not Mephistopheles. Although the name of the former echoes the latter, there is not a one-to-one correspondence here; the Marvel Universe has no “Satan,” instead having quite a few major demons who might lay claim to being the Judeo-Christian tempter: Mephisto, Satannish, Lucifer, Avarrish, etc. However, given the Faust overtones of the Ghost Rider story and name recognition, Mephistopheles is probably the better choice for the name.
The life of a stunt rider: As originally conceived, Blaze was a sideshow artist — very, very good at stunts, but it was clear he wouldn’t make a fortune with his abilities, not even when he worked as a stunt man for a TV show. In the age of Tony Hawk, however, the movie made the choice to make Blaze famous and admired.
The Legacy: As the movie states, there was a Ghost Rider before the flame-headed, motorcycle-riding hero. There was a Marvel Western hero called the Ghost Rider, which debuted several years before Johnny Blaze. The original Ghost Rider was Carter Slade, as he was in the movie, but there was nothing supernatural about him: he wore a phosphorescent costume and rode a white horse while performing his vigilante deeds. Carter was only the first to use this motif; his brother Lincoln and Lincoln’s modern-day descendent Hamilton followed in Carter’s hoofprints. After Marvel began publishing the modern version of Ghost Rider, they changed the character’s name — first to Night Rider, then to the Phantom Rider.
Ghost Rider: What is Ghost Rider? It is strange the core of a character can shift so much in the comics, but it’s true. As originally conceived, the Ghost Rider is merely the powerful alter ego of Johnny. Later, it was revealed Mephisto had bonded a vengeance demon named Zarathos to Johnny’s body; Zarathos was dormant at first but eventually began to struggle for control. Eventually, the two made their peace to work together. However, there was also a second Ghost Rider: Johnny’s long-lost brother, Danny Ketch. He was bonded to the spirit of one of his ancestors, Noble Kale, who was also Ghost Rider. In the movie, Ghost Rider is merely a supernatural bounty hunter for Mephistopheles, which is a lot less convoluted.
Roxanne “Roxy” Simpson: The love of Johnny’s life never showed that much cleavage in the comics, but geez, it’s the most promient part of Eva Mendes’s character.
Blackheart: Blackheart was the adversary of the second Ghost Rider in the comics. Just as in the movie, he is the son of Mephisto, who has rebelled against his father. Although he can make himself look human, he prefers his demonic form. In the movie, Blackheart remains in human form even after absorbing many spirits; he seems to look demonic only to intimidate or in a lapse of concentration.
Contract law: When Johnny first gets his powers in the comics, Mephisto laid claim to his soul. This claim is exorcized by the purity of Roxanne’s love for him. (The supernatural / theological implications led to Jesus Christ guest-starring in a few comics of the original Ghost Rider series, although he was not explicitly named.) In the movie, Mephisto offers to release Johnny from his contract if he hunts down Blackheart. Mephistopheles is true to his word, but Johnny rejects the offer so he can retain his powers to do good.
Powers: Hellfire has always been the Ghost Rider’s main weapon, although in the comics he learned very early how to use the flame to burn the soul instead of the flesh. In the comics, Johnny's motorcycle caught on fire — hellfire — when he became Ghost Rider. Later, he made make his motorcycle completely out of hellfire, not using a normal bike for any purpose as he did in the movie. That often left him stranded without a bike if his powers were exhausted or he needed to travel as Johnny Blaze. The use of the chain and the “penance stare,” which assaults the victim with all the evil they have done to others, weren’t abilities of the original Ghost Rider; they were powers of Ketch, the second Ghost Rider. (The shoulder spikes on the jacket is also closer to the Ketch version of Ghost Rider.) The “Spirit of Vengeance” tag also was attached to Ketch rather than Blaze, although Blaze has claim to it now.
So overall, the movie is relatively faithful to the comics, although not literally so; they kept the spirit of the two different Ghost Rider books and merged them into one instead of trying to adapt one single Ghost Rider story. (Not that there are many classic Ghost Rider stories to adapt, as there are with Spider-Man and X-Men.) Most of the changes from Johnny’s origin are for the sake of simplification. It’s hard to blame the moviemakers of not retaining the spirit of Ghost Rider.
Which is fine, because there’s so much more to blame them for.