Marvel Madness in the 70s

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Witchy Woman

While the title of Spotlight’s eleventh issue (“Season of the Witch-Woman!”) seems to refer to the famous Donovan song (“Season of the Witch”), I always felt the Witch-Woman character was likely inspired by the more contemporaneous Eagles song:

… The lyrics “she’s been sleeping in the Devil’s bed,” along with references to skin turning “red” (Native Americans like Linda Littletrees were referred to as being red-skinned in less enlightened times), would seem to lend at least a little credence to my suspicions.

Regardless, the story here is an odd one, as it’s almost entirely an extended monologue by Linda, wherein she reveals to the captured Ghost Rider just how she was forcibly inducted into a Satanic cult when she went away to college back east. Ghost Rider, in near-comedic fashion, manages to escape while she’s inattentively blathering on. After his escape, Linda threatens to use her Satanic powers to immolate herself, but GR can’t bear to watch and simply rides off into the sunrise as Linda appears to have killed herself. Much of this makes no sense, and nearly all of it will prove to be pointless, ultimately, in the larger plot.

But let me digress briefly here… putting story aside (something I’m admittedly loathe to do under most circumstances), I have to say the artwork here is positively succulent. There’s also the nostalgia factor working in this issue’s favor for me, as Spotlight #11 happened to fall into my hands at a young age via one of my older cousins and it certainly had a powerful effect on me. Tom Sutton’s Satanic imagery was deeply unsettling, while his portrayal of that sexy-coed Satan cult stirred feelings that I should have been way, way too young for at the time.

The kinkier aspects of Littletrees being bound spread eagle like that should have gone way over my head, but on some primal, animal level they registered. Sutton’s imagery here was at once terrifying, unnerving, and a turn-on, which is quite the trifecta. So even with all of the story deficiencies, this is still a good read for me.

Back to that plot, though… what does it all mean? Linda/Witch-Woman’s mission is to destroy Blaze, apparently, but Satan just revealed two issues prior that he can’t let GR die by mortal hands without losing his claim on his soul. So what is the point of all this? Plus, now that we know Satan was the “master” that Linda/Witch-Woman was referring to the previous issue, why would Roxanne’s death have made their efforts a lost cause (as Linda stated at the time)? I understand that Rocky’s purity makes her anathema to the devil, but that wouldn’t seem to require that Satan has to keep her from harm at the hands of others. If she died as a result of the reckless stupidity of Snake Dance (as well as Johnny, to a lesser extent), wouldn’t that have been to Satan’s benefit? What sensible motivation could Linda/Satan have had to save her, then?

Also: The way GR just hops onto his chopper and rides off was the cheapest of resolutions. To get away that simply, that easily, was just senseless (though admittedly, also kinda funny in its way). Didn’t Witchy catch him in the first place with magical teleportation? Why couldn’t she simply recapture him the same way? This feels criminally sloppy.

Letter column announcement from Marvel Spotlight #11.

The issue was the final Spotlight with Ghost Rider as the title feature. As mentioned in my BI article, the next title feature was supposed to be “The Mark of Satan” featuring the Devil himself as protagonist, as revealed in the lettercol of this very issue. But two months later we get Satan’s “son,” instead. Now the letters pages were often completed in advance of the rest of the issue, but even so—how seat-of-the-pants can you get? Clearly, this was a major change taking place very late in the process. And when you consider that this new feature was meant to crossover with the new Ghost Rider title, you have to figure this messed with the plotting of both titles to some extent.

Ghosty’s Title Debut

Ghost Rider’s adventures would continue in the premiere issue of his own magazine, which came out later that same pub month (August 1973). It picks up the storyline with Linda Litttletrees in a catatonic state at home with Sam Silvercloud and her father—who claims that this is how he found her, lying in her own bed. How did she get there? What happened to her self-immolation? If that was supposed to be some kind of trick for Blaze’s sake, what was it meant to accomplish? Anyway, her father says she’s possessed, which prompts Sam to contact famous exorcist Daimon Hellstrom. But before he can arrive, Satan takes full possession of Linda’s body and he/she escapes. Meanwhile, Johnny Blaze is shot by the police as he attempts to reach Rocky in the hospital.

When night falls again, Johnny turns back into the Ghost Rider and returns to the cycle show, but too late to stop Bart Slade from attempting the Copperhead Canyon jump in his place. Prior to the jump, Rocky declares, “for a rider with no more experience than you, it’s suicide!” Two panels later, she’s kissing him on the cheek and wishing him luck. Should we infer, then, that Slade never rode in the show and only has a little (at best) experience on a cycle? To say nothing of the injured leg he’s got? So why in the name of sanity is anyone letting this happen?

Naturally, Slade dies in the attempted jump. I’ll give Friedrich credit for this much: it was certainly the most (or only, actually) realistic outcome. GR then scoops up Rocky and takes off with her in a truck, leaving the remains of “the man he once called his best friend” in a twisted, flaming wreck at the bottom of a canyon with barely a note of sadness in his voice. Outside of a brief mention on the first page of the following issue, Bart Slade will never be referenced in the strip again.

The Son of Satan

The following issue, Daimon Hellstrom has arrived at the home of Linda and her father, requesting that his wrists be bound by a chain of ankhs and that he be locked in a room before sundown. A Satan-possessed Witch-Woman/Linda Littletrees then catches up to GR and Rocky and magically whisks GR away to hell, leaving Rocky in the clutches of a biker gang led by “Big Daddy” Dawson. Back at Linda’s home, Sam Silvercloud releases Daimon so that he can find Linda.

The storyline continues in Spotlight #12, the first issue with “The Son of Satan” as the title feature. It’s a fairly straightforward tale, detailing some of the background of Daimon Hellstrom before he journeys to hell to rescue Johnny Blaze and Linda Littletrees. The story ends with Hellstrom leaving Johnny and an unconscious Linda in the desert. The opening of Ghost Rider #3 then recreates this scene as Johnny (now in Ghost Rider form) and Linda are left in the desert again after having a slightly different farewell conversation with Hellstrom. Gary Fiedrich was writing both GR and the “Son of Satan” feature, so why these two scenes would be so inconsistent is a mystery.

Though now stripped of her Satan-fueled powers, Linda still proves useful when she tutors Johnny into creating a motorcycle made of fire, which he can use to escape the desert. As Linda can’t ride the cycle, GR promises to send help for her once he reaches the nearest town. Unfortunately, come the dawn, he transforms back into Johnny Blaze while still on the dissipating hell-cycle and ends up in a freeway accident. Meanwhile, Big Daddy Dawson (on his own now, the rest of his motorcycle gang having disappeared somehow) decides to hold Roxanne Simpson for ransom.

By the time Johnny Blaze comes to in the hospital, it’s nearly sundown and he changes back into the Ghost Rider. At almost the exact same moment, Big Daddy shows up holding Rocky at gunpoint. (Not exactly the smartest way to kidnap someone—you’re supposed to hold her for ransom at some location unknown to the person you’re demanding money from, dumbass, so they can’t find you.) This goes precisely as well one would expect, and while trying to escape on the freeway, Big Daddy ends up croaked when GR’s flame blows one of his tires.

Meanwhile, I guess it’s safe to assume that Linda Littletrees is dying of exposure and dehydration out in the desert.

Viva Las Vegas

Ghost Rider #4 begins with GR on the run from the cops. Makes sense, given that (intentionally or not) he just killed Big Daddy Dawson, plus a few other people, possibly, in that freeway chase last ish. But after surrendering to the police, Johnny passes out and wakes up in a hospital bed… in Las Vegas.

Wait… what?

This may be the most maddening mess of the Friedrich tenure on GR. We were in Arizona last issue, right? How the hell did we end up in Nevada this issue? No explanation is ever offered.

Then there’s a scene where Rocky is talking to “the Attorney General” and he’s trying to make a deal with her on Johnny’s behalf regarding his legal troubles. Now if he’s the U.S. Attorney General this could make sense, as it might become a federal matter if Johnny’s broken laws and crossed state lines (as he apparently has). But since they’re in Carson City, the state capital of Nevada, I can only assume he’s the state A.G., in which case, how would he have any influence over charges Johnny might face back in Arizona?

It’s also never quite clear what crimes Johnny might be charged with. Killing Big Daddy Dawson? Resisting arrest all those times he fled from the police? Stealing that truck back in Ghost Rider #1? Who knows?

Believe it or not, it gets worse. After Police Sergeant Decker reads Johnny the riot act in the hospital (and pops him one in the mush), he declares, “I’ve got his Injun galfriend down at the station and I’m gonna have a talk with her!” He’s referring to Linda Littletrees, of course, but why would she be in a Las Vegas police station? She lives in Arizona, and last we saw of her she was stranded in the desert there, somewhere.

And it just keeps deteriorating. Linda later shows up at the hospital, angry at the sight of Johnny and Rocky together. So she’s hot for Johnny now. Doesn’t she have a fiancée? Named Sam Silvercloud? Back in Arizona? Where she lives? With her father?

Gah!

One page (and two months) later, the tables are turned when Rocky walks in on Linda and Johnny having a cozy moment. After Rocky then storms off, Linda basically throws herself at Johnny but is rebuffed.

Say goodbye to Linda Littletrees.

And this is the last the Marvel Universe has seen of Ms. Littletrees to this day.

The rest of the issue is all about Johnny/GR dealing with the corrupt stock car & demolition derby promoter, Dude Jensen. It’s Friedrich’s last issue, as Marv Wolfman & Doug Moench pick up the plot in Ghost Rider #5, turning Jensen from the conventional crook and killer Friedrich gave us into a supernatural pawn of Satan that calls himself Roulette, “the man who gambles with death!” It’s a fairly extreme break from what Friedrich had intended, clearly, but there are no gaping plot holes, at least.

Tony Isabella then takes over the strip with the sixth issue and steers things in a much more superhero-ish direction. Whether you like this approach or not, one thing is certain: Isabella doesn’t give you any of the wild plotholes or general madness that immediately preceded his tenure.

Control vs. Chaos

None of this is intended to disparage Gary Friedrich. He wrote the Ghost Rider strip at the end of an extended tenure at Marvel and I think it’s safe to say he was burned out by this time. Friedrich may have been tired; maybe he simply lost track of things; but any editor who was remotely competent would have caught all these errors and fixed them. Hell, a simple proofread could have prevented most of this.

Though Friedrich was never credited as the editor for any of these stories, all the evidence I’ve read would seem to indicate that basically all the Marvel writers functioned as such during this period. Now I’m generally a fan of the writer-editor era at Marvel. Roy Thomas did a fine job editing his own writing. Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber did the best work of their careers (and some of the best comics work of all time by anyone) as writer-editors. But the writer-editor position was not a success in every case. In those cases where it failed, there needed to be some oversight; some mechanism for quality control. There was none.

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