FAIR WARNING: This article will contain spoilers for the first issue of Cosmic Ghost Rider.
At the conclusion of his seminal treatise on sequential art Understanding Comics, artist and author Scott McCloud wrote that “Comics… offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word.” There is nothing quite like reading a superb comic, be it a medieval science fiction dramedy that turns on a deep, fraught friendship or a bleak, explosion-punctuated mystery set in the early, surreal days of the long war in Iraq. A great comic burns its way into the head and the heart. And the sheer range of the medium means that there’s a great comic out there for everyone. By extension, a great comic can be anything — from a good-hearted, self-examining autobiography to the thrilling cape comic which is the subject of this essay, Dylan Burnett and Donny Cates’ Cosmic Ghost Rider. A miniseries spun off of the recent Thanos series’ last storyline, Cosmic Ghost Rider is absolutely on fire (sorry) on every level. With its second issue out today, now is a prime opportunity to shine a light on why and how it succeeds.
Cosmic Ghost Rider opens with an extended homage to the iconic first page of Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman:
The three-page sequence serves multiple purposes. It allows Burnett and Cates to tip their hats to one of the most important and influential superhero comics of the 21st century thus far. By extension, it’s a bit of a dark joke. Using Superman’s elegant, grand storytelling for a character – Frank Castle, the Punisher – generally regarded as a good deal bleaker and grimier than the Man of Tomorrow both works and generates dissonance. That dissonance is heightened by the Rider, this alternate incarnation of Frank, living a life considerably more zonked than either his own mainline Marvel counterpart or Clark Kent. Lastly, on a purely structural level, streamlining the Rider’s history down to iconic moments enables Burnett and Cates to tell his extremely Marvel-continuity-heavy backstory quickly and cleanly. The Event/Panel set-up lets Cates jump right from the day of Frank/Rider’s demise to his present. For Burnett, it presents an opportunity to introduce the Rider, his world and the way he interacts with it before the (quite literal) smash cut to Frank in human form in Valhalla. It establishes what has come before and whets the appetite for what’s coming in the next pages.
Cosmic Ghost Rider is both epic and intimate in an unusual but immensely satisfying way. It’s the story of a self-loathing, self-aware killer trying to do right told with the far-out tools of Marvel’s cosmic superhero comics. With the long and winding road that changed Frank Castle from a vigilante to a demonic vengeance spirit empowered by a dead space god with a time-traveling space motorcycle, Cosmic Ghost Rider isn’t just a cosmic Marvel comic a la Guardians of the Galaxy or Thanos, the book where he originated. It’s also a Punisher comic and a Ghost Rider comic. Those are three very different tones to juggle, and Burnett and Cates pull it off with aplomb. They do this by building the issue on Frank’s character first and foremost, letting the action flow from how he reacts to and moves through his wild world.
Consider the bar fight in Valhalla that introduces readers to Frank after catching them up on his past, and the conversation that follows:
It’s been a long, long time since Frank was the Punisher. He’s leaner and more raggedy. He talks a great deal more than he used to, and he’s openly emotional in a way he never was back in his vigilante days. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially not blowhards who prove themselves to be cowards after bragging about how tough they are.
Frank’s newfound emotional openness brings with it self-recrimination and an open reckoning with his regrets and failures. His actions as the Punisher damned him, but his only consequences turned out to be awesome superpowers. He served Thanos, the single worst person in existence, for multiple centuries, and the consequence of that service was admittance to paradise. He weighs himself down with guilt, deserved and undeserved, a weight that carries into his posture. It’s beautiful work by Burnett and Cates, especially when their introspective Frank transforms into to the more physically confident and far, far less brooding Rider:
The Rider is a magnificent creation, thrilling, funny and just the right amount of unsettling (prior to being identified as Frank, Deadpool was a popular guess for his identity). But as gloriously wild as he is – it bears repeating that he rides a time-traveling space motorcycle – Burnett and Cates are deliberate in their work with him. The Rider has a goal. He’s going to try to earn redemption by doing right, even though he doubts that he can. All his actions, hilarious, ruthless, compassionate, and otherwise, originate from that drive and that conflict. It creates a character arc strong enough to build a book on. And what a book it is. I cannot wait to see where Cosmic Ghost Rider goes next. The Rider kidnapping Baby Thanos to try and raise him right is one hell of a cliffhanger.