That Friend-ly Controversy

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When I received word that my proposal for the recent Ghost Rider article in Back Issue had been accepted, I was tremendously pleased and rather excited to get to writing. There was just one thing I was hoping to avoid—the controversial “Friend” storyline that left bad blood between Tony Isabella and Jim Shooter to this day, more than forty years later. My first instinct was to avoid the subject entirely. Upon the editor’s request to cover everything, I tried to get by with recycling some older quotes and stay above the fray. Then it was requested that I contact Isabella for some fresh quotes. This is when things got interesting.

For the uninitiated, the “Friend” was a character that bore a great resemblance to Jesus Christ (at least as depicted in most of the Western traditions) and he first appeared in the Ghost Rider strip in issue #9 (Dec. 1974). The storyline centering on the character was set to be resolved in Ghost Rider #19 (Aug. 1976), but Isabella’s story was altered by Shooter, who was proofreading the book as a part of Marvel’s editorial staff at the time.

In a 2001 interview with Comic Book Artist, Isabella revealed that in his original script for Ghost Rider #19, “Johnny found salvation by accepting Jesus Christ and reclaimed the soul he had given to Satan.” Now I, personally, had previously interpreted this statement to mean that the Friend would finally be revealed as Jesus Christ himself. But in an email exchange with Mr. Isabella, he corrected this notion, saying that there was no such overt confirmation in his script.

Contacting Shooter for his side of this was not an option because I was told he refused to speak to Back Issue any longer and would not contribute to any of their articles. But on his blog, Shooter has contended that “Jesus revealed himself definitively” in Isabella’s original story for GR #19, and that “Jesus Christ [would be] established as a character and Satan clearly characterized as the Christian Satan” in the Marvel Universe as a result. In Shooter’s view, this amounted to proselytizing.

I want to take a longer look at the controversy now, particularly in the wake of Isabella’s correction regarding the Friend. It should help that here on the blog, I feel a bit more free to indulge in speculation and opinion than I would in a more general article on the Bronze Age Ghost Rider. Still, I’ll try not to take sides and be as impartial as I can.

Appearances

For a character that would cause such rancor, it’s rather amazing that the Friend only made two proper comic appearances: His introduction in Ghost Rider #9 (Dec. 1974) and again in Ghost Rider #15 (Dec. 1975).

The Friend’s first appearance in Ghost Rider #9.
The Friend’s second full appearance from Ghost Rider #15.

That’s it. His other appearances were either in flashbacks or as illusions.

Reading it all again now, Isabella is indeed correct when he points out that he never comes out and says the Friend is Jesus Christ. But he also never definitively says he is not Jesus. And the portrayal is just so on the nose, I can’t fault anyone for seeing the character as the literal Jesus. In addition to the character’s outward appearance, there’s also dialogue from Johnny Blaze like this, from Ghost Rider #11 (Apr. 1975): “If I ever told anybody who I thought that guy [the Friend] was, I think I’d be locked up.” In all fairness, going by this, I’m not sure who else we are to infer the Friend to be.

In fact, the portrayal of the Friend (albeit in illusory form) in Ghost Rider #18 makes it nearly impossible to see him as anyone else. First, the Friend—“whose identity Johnny Blaze has always known, but never dared admit”—is shown crucified. Then, after GR takes him down off the cross, he remarks that the Friend “can’t die like this again!”

“Again?” The character had not previously died in the strip before, so what else could this be referring to? Once more, Isabella is not coming out and saying it, definitively, but he’s also not leaving any wiggle room for any other interpretation. At least not as far as I can see.

Shooter’s Changes

We’ll never know what, exactly, was in Isabella’s original script for Ghost Rider #19, but we can piece together some things.

Going by Isabella’s own words, the Friend was supposed to free Johnny from Satan’s power in his original story, but the character does not even appear in the published issue. So the art was likely redone to take him out of the story completely. The devil that Johnny fights is also changed from Satan to an “archdemon sent by Satan himself to escort you through the gates of Hell!” He’s still drawn as the stereotypical Satan (redesigning the character altogether would have been too much work at this late stage, I’m guessing), though his color has been changed from the traditional red to a pale yellow in an attempt, I assume, to further de-Satanize him. The cover still shows GR battling “Satan,” however, providing further evidence that writing Satan out of the interior tale was a late change from Shooter.

Early in the story (page 3 to be exact), before the “archdemon” sheds his guise as the Challenger, his dialogue writes the Friend out of continuity forever.

The rest of the issue is a rather awkward punch-up between GR and the archdemon, with GR winning after a well-placed left hook. Whatever religious commentary Isabella intended (right or wrong, good or bad) has been erased, leaving us with a rather simplistic superhero fight story (right or wrong, good or bad).

So What’s the Big Deal?

Would it have been a big deal if Isabella’s original story ran unaltered? Even if you go with Shooter’s view that the Friend was to have been revealed as Jesus Christ himself, would it really have been all that controversial or a PR headache for Marvel? At that time, I doubt it. First of all, this was taking place in a comic book. Aside from the Comics Code Authority, no other grown-ups were paying any real attention to the content of the comics then, and even if they were, I don’t believe anyone would have been bothered by this. I think most readers were operating under the assumption that the Friend was truly Jesus anyway, and there were no complaints, no letters of protest, no noise at all.

Today, on the other hand, I think it would be a huge problem—but not for the reasons one might expect. I think many assume that Christians would be offended by the idea of Jesus Christ being reduced to a comic book character; that this would be blasphemous. But the portrayal of the Friend is absolutely reverent and pious. I don’t see how any Christian reader would be anything less than pleased by it, as Jesus would be effectively endorsed as the one true divine power by the story. And this is precisely why I think the problem, today, would be the reaction of non-Christians, as they would almost certainly view the story as proselytizing (at least) or endorsing one religious tradition over all others (at worst).

So… controversial? For its time, no. Problematic? Yes. But again, not because of any religious issues, but because Isabella’s storyline would fundamentally alter the premise of the strip. In my opinion, such changes would have left the title dramatically castrated.

Isabella’s original plan was for GR’s powers to thereafter be fueled by divine sources rather than infernal. But how would this have worked? Would he still have all the same powers and appearance? If so, I don’t see how this would make sense—why would any heavenly power want an agent on Earth that looked like a hell-spawned demon? If his appearance and powers were going to change (like giving Johnny a halo and angel wings or something), you’d be killing one of the great commercial appeals of the title. As mentioned in my BI article, the guy with the flaming-skull head riding on a fiery chopper is the image that really grabs people’s attention.

But let’s say the appearance and powers don’t change. Even then you’re abandoning the metaphor at the heart of the strip that offers basically all of its artistic and dramatic potential: One man’s struggle with his inner demon. As I said, my feeling is that this would have wrecked the character and the strip overall. So if I were in Shooter’s position, I might have taken similar action, though it would have been for a different reason and I think I would have gone about it in a different way.

The What vs. The How

So I may not disagree with the “what” of Shooter’s actions, but I do disagree with the “how.”

The bottom line is that Shooter could have defused/resolved things in a more graceful manner. If I was in his shoes at the time and saw things as he did, I would have simply taken the Friend out of the story (much as he did) and left it at that. This way you accomplish your goals while avoiding any extreme alterations to the larger storyline or undermining anything that went before.

But Shooter inserted dialogue designed to radically alter who and/or what the Friend was clearly written and intended to be, previously. Since you already changed the art and had the character removed from the story, what was the point of doing this? It would appear that the point is to say that the Friend character was never what Isabella wanted him to be; he’s what I want him to be, regardless of how much this contradicts what went before or if it even makes any sense at all. And without a doubt, this change makes absolutely no sense. So the Friend was a “ploy” of Satan’s? How does saving Johnny’s soul and supporting him and reassuring him and giving him hope for two years play into Satan’s plans, exactly? As I said, it makes no sense. Moreover, it does not truly undo anything that went before. Those stories were printed, they were published, they were read, they exist.

Without those couple of lines of dialogue, I’m guessing there would be a lot less animosity on Isabella’s end; perhaps a lot less on both ends.

Who Knew?

Circling back now to the theme of my previous blogpost—the chaotic atmosphere at Marvel at this time—how much oversight was there, as far as the editor-in-chief was concerned? Shooter says that the EIC, Marv Wolfman, was in the loop, while Isabella believes Shooter acted on his own in changing his story.

As we know, the power structure at Marvel back then made life difficult for whoever sat in the EIC’s chair. It was too much work for any one person and a lot of errors slipped through the cracks as a result. Now I have zero firsthand knowledge and don’t know anything for certain—either Isabella’s view or Shooter’s could be 100% true. But my guess is the actual truth is somewhere in the middle. And that guess is this:

Shooter tells Wolfman there’s a problem with GR #19. Maybe Shooter goes into detail about what the problem is; maybe not. Maybe he tries to go into greater detail and Wolfman doesn’t have time to hear it. Or maybe Wolfman hears it, but he’s not really listening because he’s too swamped with other work. In any case, Wolfman tells Shooter that if there’s any problem, get Isabella to fix it; if Isabella can’t (or won’t, or there’s simply not enough time for this because it’s due to go to the printer), then Shooter will have to fix it himself. So Shooter makes the changes himself.

Let me reiterate that this is all supposition and guesswork on my part. But if there were some way to get absolute verification, I’d be willing to bet good money that the above scenario is pretty close to the truth.

Once again, some slightly tighter editorial oversight could have prevented all of this. Or at least much of it.

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