Ah, Marvel Comics in the early 90’s. What a time to be alive!
In 1990 Marvel struck gold almost accidentally with the revamp of Ghost Rider into the version most people are familiar with today (at least visually). About two years later when the speculator market was humming along and everyone was going to be filthy rich forever, they decided to go one further: revamp the majority of the horror comics from the 1970’s. So we got updated versions of Morbius, the Living Vampire, Blade, Frank Drake and Hannibal King, and even the original (well, at least original flaming head version) Ghost Rider himself, Johhny Blaze, joined in on the action.
The line was (re)launched starting in the pages of Ghost Rider, and spinning out to launch a number of new titles for the line. Each title had varying degrees of success, lasting from anywhere from 16 to nearly 40 issues.
So, behold, Marvel horror comics that were not mature-rated but still featured plenty of messed up stuff, all with just the right amount of 90’s angst, gritted teeth, and smoking in situations in which it’s not only nearly impossible practically, but not worth the trouble, such as: while riding motorcycles, while arguing with a flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle, while fleeing the police, while battling demons, etc, etc! It’s great!
While some of the threads that make it a crossover are pretty thin at times, things come together in the end and Marvel had a new toy box for their creators to get weird in! So, without further ado, here are the 5 coolest moments from RISE OF THE MIDNIGHT SONS.
Marvel Horror of the 70’s… in the 90’s!
Marvel Comics had a bit of a monster/horror revolution in the 1970’s; it’s where characters like Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, Morbius, Blade, etc all made their appearances for the first time (at least in their modern versions). After a brief period their popularity cooled off, and it wasn’t until the glorious early 90’s that Marvel polished them off, revamped where necessary, and unleashed them on the fans in all of their monster-y glory.
As someone that grew up watching every horror movie I could find I was all in on this and bought the first 6 issues or so of each title (some weren’t that great as time went on), but the big deal was the story arc “Rise of the Midnight Sons”, which launched Nightstalkers, Morbius, Spirits of Vengeance, and my personal favorite, Darkhold. Combined with the incredibly popular Ghost Rider title, for about 5-6 months this was THE corner of the Marvel U to be reading, and it was awesome!
While the books might not all hold up that well, for the time they were awesome; they pushed the limits of what Marvel, then a slave to the Comics Code Authority (idiots), could get away with in a horror comic. They made these characters relevant, and more importantly, COOL again!
One Hell of a Team
In the 70’s the Ghost Rider was former stunt bike rider Johnny Blaze, who most people are familiar with as Ghost Rider. But by the late 80’s he was a nothing character and the Ghost Rider title was passed on to Danny Ketch, a Peter Parker like character. The new Ghost Rider had the leather jacket with spiked shoulders, the spikes on his wrists, and a bad-ass new bike. He was a huge success right away with his title (written by Howard Mackie with art by Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira) being at or near the top of the sales list every month. There was an itch the writers wanted to scratch, and that was whatever happened to Johnny Blaze? He wasn’t Ghost Rider anymore, obviously, so what happened?
Blaze showed up in the new Ghost Rider title; now cured of the curse of the Rider he was dead set on killing the demon and freeing Ketch. Of course a monkey wrench was tossed into the plan when Blackout, a vampiric villain, tore Danny’s throat out. Force to change to the Rider or die, he was stuck in that form when Blaze came calling. Deciding Ketch’s life was more important than his grudge, he stuck around to help and realized this Ghost Rider was different than his in some ways; sure, he has a never-ending boner (heh) for vengeance, but this one really sticks up for innocent people and seems to actually care about Ketch’s life.
Entering into a somewhat tenuous partnership, Blaze and the Ghost Rider remained a team for quite a few years, and it really started in earnest with Rise of the Midnight Sons. In both the Ghost Rider title and the title they co-headlined, Spirits of Vengeance, we see them encounter the beginnings of Lilith and her demon horde and start trying to put together the pieces of the Midnight Sons.
The Darkhold- Marvel’s Vertigo Title
DC Comics had a cult hit- and sometimes outright hit- with their Vertigo label. Home to such titles as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Garth Ennis’ Preacher, and Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theater, the label allowed creative teams to tell stories not set in the traditional DC universe, per se. Some were, some weren’t, but the creators were allowed to tell stories for mature audiences that struck a chord. Marvel was woefully behind in this arena.
While much of the Midnight Sons line feels like 90’s superhero writers trying to do their genre’s version of the Vertigo titles, Darkhold might as well have had a Vertigo label on it. At least, that was the idea. While the title never had the popularity of any of the other Midnight Sons titles, and was cancelled not too long after the event, it felt like it was a little ahead of its time; at least as far as Marvel comics goes. It was written by the excellent Gerry Conway with art by Mike Ploog.
The story follows Vicky Montessi, who we learn has some family ties to the occult, and who has come to be in possession of pages of the book of Darkhold (a book of immense magical power made by the crazy power Chthon), which makes her a very prominent target for all sorts of nasty folks, creatures, terrors, and shenanigans. She is joined by Louise Hastings, who spent her life fighting the Lilin (a common name for Lilith’s demonic children) and other similar nasty demonic forces, and Sam Buchanan, an Interpol agent who is the ‘what the HELL IS GOING ON!?!? AAAAAA!!!’ character for the audience POV. They honestly don’t serve much purpose for the otherall story of the Rise of the Midnight Sons, but the first issue, which launched as part of the crossover, is intriguing, fast paced, and really, really gross. For a story like this, what more could you ask for?
Vampires, Monsters, and Demons, Oh My!
One thing Marvel has always been hit and miss with, for me, at least, is their monsters. Not the Atlas/Timely-era 50’s monsters- those guys are awesome- but their supernatural monsters. Because of the Comics Code Authority and their rules they could never have anyone be a real monster. It was Morbius, the LIVING Vampire, etc. But man, Rise of the Midnight Sons (and really, to be fair, Ghost Rider before it, among others) does its level best to correct that.
Just look at some of this nastiness. You’ve got worm possession, dudes made out of chunks of different corpses, a disgraced clergyman who fires pieces of himself off like projectiles, Lilith cutting herself open with her own fingernails and birthing a bunch of demons, a possesed half Ghost Rider/half Danny Ketch thing… skinned people, walking corpses, vampires…. say what you will about the story, but man, they went for it.
Self mutilation, possession, murder, torture, psychological torment, dolphin… what’s a term for dolphin murder…. hmm. Rise of the Midnight Sons has got it all, and it’s all… well, it’s all pretty horrifying. While it’s not as gross as say, the Crossed from Image, or even the Walking Dead, for a Marvel comics title from the early 90’s this was pretty crazy stuff. Some of it (the worm guy is really gross) would still turn heads today!
It’s a shame Marvel hasn’t really put the backing into the horror side of their universe as they have on say the cosmic side. Maybe give Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning a Johnathan Hickman on X-Men type deal and let them put a bunch of teams together to re-launch some of these titles. Until then you can catch the Ghost Rider (sort of; it’s a new one) in Jason Aaron’s Avengers, where you can also currently find Blade hanging out. Johnny Blaze is the king of Hell, and most of the rest of them are currently deceased. Oh, well.