Published January 23, 2023

Ghost Rider: Highway to Hell

Creators Benjamin Percy and Cory Smith dish on all the details that go into making Johnny Blaze the premier horror hero in the Marvel Universe!

For nearly a year, writer Benjamin Percy and artist Cory Smith have been building a terrifying track of mayhem across the Marvel Universe, and dragging poor, put-upon Johnny Blaze, the nominal star of GHOST RIDER (2022), along for the experience. We spoke with this cadre of creative talent about putting the Spirit of Vengeance through his paces and what it takes to keep their readers on the edge.

Cover to GHOST RIDER (2022) #1 by Kael Ngu.
Cover to GHOST RIDER (2022) #1 by Kael Ngu.

Prior to working on this title, what were your experiences with Ghost Rider?

BENJAMIN PERCY: I moved all over as a kid, and I was often living in rural areas, so I rarely had a comic book shop I could visit with any regularity. But when I did get to a store, I’d be pulling back issues of GHOST RIDER from the dusty bins. And at garage sales and convenience stores, I was always drawn to the horror titles. That flaming skull is the coolest design in comics.

CORY SMITH: I grew up on the Marvel comics of the 90’s, so Danny Ketch was my intro to the Ghost Rider. He was guest-starring in like every third title back then, and I still have the cover to X-MEN (1991) #9—Ghost Rider versus Wolverine drawn by Jim Lee—seared into the back of my brain.

What are some of your favorite Ghost Rider stories from the past? And do any of them influence your current run?

CORY SMITH: I really liked the Jason Aaron/Roland Boschi/Tan Eng Huat series from 2006. That book had a real, brutal grindhouse aesthetic that fits Ghost Rider like a glove. Those stories were dark and unpredictable, with deeply religious themes, and the artists really created a unique world for it all to play out in. And Ed Brisson and Aaron Kuder’s series from a few years back is a standout too; they were doing some great and inventive things in that book.

BENJAMIN PERCY: [Garth] Ennis for sure. The work he did on “Road to Damnation” with [Clayton] Crain was so unapologetically raw and dark and elemental. I wanted to be that brave with the horror we’re undertaking. But if we’re talking old school stuff, I was really into SPIRITS OF VENGEANCE and “Rise of the Midnight Sons” when I was younger; it felt to me like a Metallica album.

And that’s what Cory has brought to the series: that heavy metal sensibility. I can almost imagine him throwing up the devil’s horns and head-banging every time he finishes a page.

Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #1 with art by Cory Smith and Bryan Valenza.
Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #1 with art by Cory Smith and Bryan Valenza.

Ghost Rider is one of those unique Marvel characters that combines Super Heroes with horror: How do you strike that balance?

BENJAMIN PERCY: My brain is hard-wired for horror. I probably rented as many horror VHS tapes as a kid as I ate grilled cheese sandwiches, so it’s just part of my creative DNA. No matter what I’m writing—take a look at WOLVERINE (2020) and X-FORCE (2019)—it bends toward the upsetting, the dreadful, the uncanny.

CORY SMITH: Personally, I treat our GHOST RIDER series like straight-up horror, forget the balance. [Laughs] Outside of a few guest stars, I think our book operates in its own little dark corner of the Marvel Universe. It’s been really fun to lean into the scary, gross, horror aspects of the art. Like discovering a muscle I didn’t know I had.

What was the process like behind this volume of GHOST RIDER?

BENJAMIN PERCY: Talks on GHOST RIDER began several years ago. It was a bucket list title for me, and I made it clear to Marvel that I wanted a shot at it when the time was right. When [editor] Darren Shan reached out, I had been thinking for a long time about what I might want to do with the character.

I know some folks thrive on mythology—they like to carry around an encyclopedic amount of comic book nerd knowledge—but I do think that can be off-putting to new readers, so you have to strike a balance: honor the past, but do your own thing. So I was looking for a way to give the story a fresh start. I didn’t want people worrying over Ghost Riders that might exist on different continents or how many different Spirits there might be. Back to basics seemed like the best approach, given that the title had been off the table for a few years.

We don’t discount or erase anything that’s been written previously: we just put Johnny in a ruinous situation in which he’s basically starting over. And we build from there.

I looked at the success of IMMORTAL HULK (2018) and I tried to model the design partially off it. When GHOST RIDER starts off, it’s kind of a monster-of-the-week book. Individual stories that are building toward a bigger story. This makes it easy for readers to jump on even if issue #1 or issue #2 or issue #3 is no longer in stock. The technique seemed to work. We’re still going strong.

When we started up, Johnny Blaze seemed to be living in paradise but quickly had that stripped away. What was the motivation behind this move?

BENJAMIN PERCY: I know Marvel time is hard to track, but it had been a while—arguably years—since Blaze made an appearance. So we had to address the question: where’s Johnny been? I liked the idea of him being off the road. Disabled. Imprisoned. Who would have knocked him out? And what would that mean for the country if he wasn’t roaming its dark highways? Trouble. A surge in supernatural activity. So we essentially put him in a fantastical snow globe—the world of Hayden’s Falls, a kind of Pleasantville where he lives with his wife and kids and runs an auto shop with Crash—that gives him what he longs for. The story starts off with a kind of Blue Velvet vibe: a perfect suburban world with darkness humming beneath the surface.

Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #3 with art by Cory Smith, Brent Peeples, Roberto Poggi, and Bryan Valenza.
Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #3 with art by Cory Smith, Brent Peeples, Roberto Poggi, and Bryan Valenza.

Cory, how have you put your own spin on Ghost Rider while also honoring his history?

CORY SMITH: We wanted this version of the Rider to be more imposing than he had been in a lot of past appearances, so he’s bulkier and wears a lot of (too many) chains around his waist. Since this is Johnny, the OG Ghost Rider, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel with his design, so what we did was more like remixing. It made sense for the Rider to look a little different here since we start the story with him and Johnny so divided. I kind of felt like this design is the Ghost Rider unleashed, untethered—pure vengeance.

Benjamin, what makes Johnny stand out as a protagonist contrasted to other leads you’ve worked with like Wolverine?

BENJAMIN PERCY: The Rider is a curse. That’s my take. Johnny doesn’t want this power. It’s a burden that physically and mentally sickens him. When I talked to Cory about the character, at the start of our run, I said I wanted Blaze to always look like he was hungover. Don’t make him look like a hero; make him look like a drifter who has a blinding headache and probably smells like sweat and stale beer.

Speaking of Wolverine, his guest appearance here was awesome! How did that come about and was it tough to execute?

BENJAMIN PERCY: I mean, I’m writing WOLVERINE. And I’m writing GHOST RIDER. It’s pretty easy math. Those two guys are awesome together. Speaking of which…there might be some news coming down the pipeline (but that’s top secret for now).

The Talia Warroad character is a pretty neat addition! Where did she come from?

BENJAMIN PERCY: There’s a Fugitive quality to the beginning of the series. Johnny is chasing down answers to the mystery of who put him in Hayden’s Falls, but he’s also being pursued himself, believed guilty of the crimes he’s fighting. Talia is part of a rogue unit in the FBI dedicated to supernatural phenomena. She has tracked the rise in activity, and she is now tying this flame-skulled monster to the site of several crime scenes. When their paths eventually intersect, they realize they are allies, not enemies, and a troubled, dark-hearted romance begins from there. If Johnny is a drifter, he needs somebody with him who feels like his home base.

On the flipside, tell us about the creation of Exhaust as a villain and what role “he” will ultimately play.

BENJAMIN PERCY: I really love this character and the design Cory came up with, the body horror masterpiece of flesh and chrome. The idea is that Exhaust is an externalization of the trauma Johnny has endured. He’s had this demonic parasite in his brain, soaking up his personality and memories, and now it’s essentially hatched into a sentient being that serves as a shadow to Blaze, trailing behind him like the exhaust of a tailpipe.

CORY SMITH: Designing new characters is always a challenge, but I’m really proud of the small supporting cast we’ve created for this series. Ben’s descriptions of Exhaust are flat out disgusting, and we brought him to life in a really collaborative way, bouncing things back and forth until he was as horrific as possible. We’re both old school horror nerds, so it didn’t take long.

Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #9 with art by Cory Smith, Oren Junior, and Bryan Valenza.
Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #9 with art by Cory Smith, Oren Junior, and Bryan Valenza.

The one familiar face is Blackheart—what does he contribute as the big bad?

BENJAMIN PERCY: Everything in GHOST RIDER is always Mephisto, Mephisto, Mephisto. Readers get numb to it. I felt the same way about Sabretooth in WOLVERINE: he’s the big bad and creators always rush the clash between the two. So in that title, we took Sabretooth off the table completely by tossing him in the pit of Krakoa. The idea was, to build up his off-stage mythology, so that when Wolverine and he finally duked it out, it would be especially meaningful. What have I done in the meantime? Built up other baddies who don’t see the spotlight as much, like Omega Red and Mikhail Rasputin.

We’re doing something similar in GHOST RIDER. Of course Johnny will eventually battle Mephisto, but let’s give some other nasties a turn! When I read Brisson’s run, I felt like Blackheart naturally would have been deeply covetous of Johnny’s time as the king of Hell, so he’d be aiming to take Blaze off his throne and toss him in the dungeon, so to speak.

Cory, what is the hardest part of drawing Ghost Rider and what’s the most fun element?

CORY SMITH: Oh, the chains are easily the hardest part. Our editor Darren tried to talk me out of the big chain belt in the designing process and I should’ve listened. But they look cool! And the most fun part has to be the transformations, just making it look as gross and awful as possible. I’m sure my Google searches for reference photos have landed me on a watch list or two. [Laughs]

As this arc has wrapped, what’s coming up?

BENJAMIN PERCY: We’re building the mythology back up bit by bit. If you’ve checked out the solicits, you already know that Danny Ketch is speeding toward Johnny Blaze in the side mirror. There’s a lot of mayhem waiting at the next exit ramp.

Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #10 with art by Cory Smith, David Cutler, Oren Junior, and Bryan Valenza.
Preview from GHOST RIDER (2022) #10 with art by Cory Smith, David Cutler, Oren Junior, and Bryan Valenza.

Pick up GHOST RIDER (2022) #11 in print or digital comic shops on February 8, and catch up on the run so far on Marvel Unlimited!

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