Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Ghost Rider/Wolverine/Punisher: Hearts of Darkness

Hey, I remember this one! It was an extra-long prestige format comic published in 1991. My grandfather and my siblings were shopping downtown, back when my hometown's downtown still had stores in it, including a comics shop, and my little brother, then considering maybe getting into comics, asked my grandfather to buy it for him. My grandfather, for whom comic books used to cost a dime, was taken aback by the $4.95 price tag (which was actually steep even for 1991), but ultimately relented.

I wonder what he would make of this new trade paperback edition, which costs $15.99; hell, having read the 1991 one-shot, I couldn't imagine how Marvel could get away with that price tag. Turns out they did so by including a sequel I didn't know existed until I started reading this new edition, the 1994 Dark Design (plus a five-page Marvel Age interview with Hearts pencil artist John Romita Jr).

The premise of Hearts of Darkness was that the three characters whose names came before the sub-title--Ghost Rider, Wolverine and Punisher--represented a new* breed of hero with levels of darkness in their hearts that pushed them so close to evil that the demon prince Blackheart thought he could tempt the three of them to assist him in assassinating his father, Mephisto who was, of course, one of Marvel's various Satan analogues.

It was probably just a happy coincidence that, in the early 1990s, these were also three of Marvel's most popular characters. Writer Howard Mackie certainly knew what he was doing in terms of proposing a comic book.
It's an extremely simple, straightforward story. Blackheart invites Danny Ketch, Frank Castle and Logan to the town of Christ's Crown--apparently named because of a hill surrounded with thick thickets of thorn bushes nearby--via letters promising them information they might want, signing the missives B.H.

All three show up on the same day at the same boarding house, run by a woman whose little girl Lucy is extremely trusting and takes to each of the dark, scowling men immediately. Her mother portentously notes her daughter strange trusting nature, and how it's almost like there isn't a bad bone in her body.

That night, Blackheart reveals himself to the three anti-heroes simultaneously, and, when they all tell him to get bent--they may occasionally kill their foes, or, in Frank's case, constantly kill their foes, but that doesn't mean they are going to sign up to work with the a devil (There's a lot of hair-splitting and semi-silly speechifying about how they all walk the razor's edge without falling over the cliff, and other such metaphor mixing).

To try to convince them, Blackheart snatches up Lucy, the only pure soul in Christ's Crown, and takes over the minds of the rest of the city, all of whom have enough sin in them that they can control them. He also steals Danny's bike.

Together, the three popular badasses are able to claw, shoot and hot-chain their way through hordes of little frog-like demons, journey to hell, turn Blackheart into gory chewing gum and save Lucy.

The chief pleasure of the book, then as now, was John Romita Jr.'s artwork, inked by a perfectly compatible Klaus Janson. I really loved his Blackheart design. He looks a bit like a giant, humanoid porcupine, with a head, shoulders and back covered in a mane of bristling spines. He has a tail, bit red eyes and no mouth; additionally, Romita and Janson give him what look like thorns all over his skin. It's a sharp, uncomfortable, jittery, anxious design. It's a hell of a devil, really (I wish that's what the version in the first Ghost Rider movie looked like; it might have gone a ways towards improving that film).

The version of Mephisto who appears here was pretty unfamiliar to me, looking like a gigantic, bloated humanoid with large breasts (and long, string-like nipples), and a vaguely avian head that looks like a primitive ceremonial mask of a bird. There's something of a primitive fertility goddess statue about him. He never gets up off his haunches, but is shown big enough to grab the mooshed-up Blackheart in his hand and throw him into his mouth.

JRJR draws the three title characters exceptionally well, of course. I particularly liked seeing how small and stocky his Wolverine looked; perhaps it was the influence of the films, or simply the slackening of Big Two style guides over the decades, but Wolverine tends to be as tall whoever is drawing him these days wants him to be, so it was kinda refreshing to see a little Wolverine standing next to a giant Frank Castle.
Dark Design is...not very good. Mackie writes it, but Ron Garney pencils and Al Milgrom inks. I like both artists, and Garney in particular has evolved in style into something I quite like now, but back in 1994 he was very much working in a 1990s Jime Lee-like style. Unlike Hearts, this sequel doesn't age well at all, and seems to be, visually at least, inextricably linked to the time in which it was published.

Blackheart has returned to Christ's Crown, and is now sort of insane. He has somehow transformed and twisted the town into a goth sci-fi big city, and enslaved portions of the population, who are called The Corrupt. They wear dumb spandex costumes, have visible black veins, and wield weird laser guns.

Lucy, now a tween or teen, is protected by a small and dwindling band of rebels. I'm not sure why Blackheart didn't just take over their minds too, but it may have something to do with her burgeoning psychic powers, with which she summons Ghost Rider, Wolvie and Punisher back to town. After killing their way through The Corrupt, they take on Blackheart again, this time interrupting his wedding to Lucy (Ew).

He gets what he needs from her, though: Her innocent blood on the tip of his knife, with which he seemingly kills his father.

As I said, Garney's style here is pretty much just default early '90s superhero art. His Blackheart lacks all the pointy parts of JRJR's, looks smaller and wears a coat; he reminded me of an extremely off-model Nightcrawler throughout. He draws the weird bird version of Mephisto, but with a few alterations, like some sort of make-up or mask on his face, and huger, blacker nipples.

Wolverine has traded his brown and yellow costume in for his blue and gold one at this point, but Ghost Rider and Punisher have barely changed (the latter traded in his white boots for black ones, but that's the most drastic wardrobe change he made during the years between these comics). The coloring, by Paul Mounts, is much more garish and nauseous in the second story, but that likely has a lot to do with the changing technology of comic book coloring of the day. There were many more new options suddenly available, and colorists went for them.

I'm not sure what the originals cost these days, should you find them in back-issue bins, but I'd be shocked if they had increased in value so much that you couldn't find them there for cheaper than the cost of this collection. On the other hand, new collections are easier to buy. If you really want to. Like I said, this is a nice showcase of JRJR's art from a previous stage in his career, and serves as a nice time capsule of a certain time in Marvel comics history, but it's not exactly literature.

*Created between 1972 and 1974, these characters weren't exactly brand-new in 1991, although they were definitely among the second generation of Marvel characters. This Ghost Rider was introduced just around the time this comic was originally published though.

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