Comic Book Review: Ghost Rider 2099

This series was part of Marvel 2099, a short-lived line of comics started in the mid-90’s which featured familiar-looking heroes in a gritty, futuristic, extremely cyberpunk setting. They all take place in—yep, you guessed it—the year 2099, and the world is a very different place. The Age of Heroes is long over, and costumed crime fighters only a distant memory. But now a new Age of Heroes is dawning; new legends are being born, in a world sadly lacking in legends.

This series was part of Marvel 2099, a short-lived line of comics started in the mid-90’s which featured familiar-looking heroes in a gritty, futuristic, extremely cyberpunk setting. They all take place in—yep, you guessed it—the year 2099, and the world is a very different place. The Age of Heroes is long over, and costumed crime fighters only a distant memory. But now a new Age of Heroes is dawning; new legends are being born, in a world sadly lacking in legends.

I also looked at Spiderman 2099, Punisher 2099, Doom 2099 and X-Men 2099, but Ghost Rider 2099 is the only one I followed for more than three or four issues. These series—at least initially—were actually very good. The protagonists could easily have been cheap rehashes of 20th century heroes, or something corny like their great-great-grandchildren. Instead they were highly original, three-dimensional people living in a complex and interesting world.

Ghost Rider 2099 took place in Transverse City, a huge urban sprawl stretching between Chicago and Detroit. Originally designed as the starting point of a transcontinental superhighway, most of Transverse City is a construct ten storeys high and twenty lanes wide. Due to massive unforeseen costs and corporate corruption, the project was never finished. The only section actually completed was the Detroit–Chicago axis, which was nonetheless pressed into service. Since there was no way to even approach the construct’s enormous capacity, various levels and sections were parceled out to secondary developers. Now Transverse City is a nightmare urban jungle with no official central government. The most powerful corporation is D/MONIX (Data Manipulation and Organization Networks), which has sunk its hooks into almost every other company.

Kenshiro “Zero” Cochrane was a cyberhacker—able to connect his nervous system directly to the Net—living on the streets of Transverse City, who got murdered while plugged into cyberspace. Mysterious artificial intelligences living in an area of the Net they called “the Ghostworks” preserved his consciousness and implanted it into a powerful robot. Their plan (as explained to Zero) was to use him as a living symbol to counteract the greed, stupidity and corruption infecting human civilization. “They’d kinked an automated factory complex, made those assemblers dance… They clothed me in silicon and carbon steel, fiber optics and superdense metatasking nanoprocessors, and enough integrated hardware to make payback by the ton. Then they turned me loose.”

When I heard that the Ghost Rider of 2099 would be a technological instead of a supernatural creature, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Even though I realized the Ghost Rider wouldn’t fit in very well in such a cyberpunkish setting, there was no reason why he shouldn’t last until the 21st century. After all, what’s a hundred years for a being that’s existed for millenia? But upon reading Ghost Rider 2099 #1, all my doubts vanished. This was an amazing issue! Len Kaminski’s dialog was sharp and vibrant, while the exquisite art of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham truly made readers feel like we were walking the grimy streets of Transverse City.

The central character himself (as befits this setting) is definitely not your average hero. In fact, he’s not even a very nice guy. He’s self-centered, violent, callous towards his girlfriend, and hateful of authority. (Mind you, all the authority figures he’s had to deal with deserve to be hated.) Now that he has the power to express his “rage against the machine,” Transverse City will never be the same again.

Some of the other players in this little drama are: Kylie Gagarin, Zero’s girlfriend (actually, ex-girlfriend); Jimmy Alhazred, “a.k.a. The Dreaded Doctor Neon,” a young cyberhacker low in experience but high in enthusiasm; the cool and professional Anesthesia Jones, an acquaintance of Zero’s with connections to the city’s underworld; Dyson Kellerman, D/MONIX’s holographic CEO; and last but not least, Harrison Cochrane: Zero’s father and a D/MONIX bureaucrat, he was the one who arranged his son’s death.

I swear, apart from the conspicuous absence of four-letter words, I could almost forget I was reading a Marvel comic. This series was just so fierce and iconoclastic, nothing like I’d ever read from that company. Three scenes, in particular, stand out:

In the very first issue, a terrified Zero Cochrane is running from his killers. Delirious from a poison they had shot him with, he happens upon an electronics store window filled with TV’s. All the commercials seem to merge together crazily:

“Two out of three clinical studies agree! Nothing stops the searing pain and itch of existential angst and unfulfilled ambition faster than MEGAVIL! It’s proven two hundred times more effective than the leading brand! Now with activated polydimorphine!”
“—denies charges of widespread corruption and—”
“—embarrassing foot odor? New garden-fresh scented—”
“—officials dismissed as negligible the possible carcinogenic effects of—”
“—hot chewy brownies, anytime!”

Zero goes crazy. Shouting “It’s all lies! All of it! Shut up! SHUT UP!” he picks up a stick and starts smashing the store window. Then the fit stops, and he mumbles, “Oh, man. This… civilization… sucks.” The very last image on the page is a closeup of the sign that used to be in the store window. It says: “EVERYTHING MUST GO.”

(No description can do this scene justice. Even ten years later, I still think it was damn powerful.)

In issue #5, Zero (in his brand-new robotic body) finally confronts his father, who says: “You were nothing but a common gutter criminal… I did what any law-abiding corporate employee would’ve done. I had a duty to society!” Ghost Rider replies: “Screw your society! It’s nothing but a con game rigged so you and the rest of the suits can keep making a profit! The only duty anyone with even a shred of humanity left has is to tear is down!”

And finally, one hilarious little scene. In issue #7, Ghost Rider is forced to visit New York City incognito. While wandering the streets, he is accosted by a religious fanatic who starts his spiel: “Excuse me, citizen. Do you know what causes all the wars and misery in the world?” Replies our hero: “Yeah. Bit-heads like you.” Heh. Who says you don’t learn anything from comic books?

Ghost Rider 2099 was a breathtaking series from the word go, and kept up the pace for nine red-hot issues. But then, in issues #10–11, the writer forced Ghost Rider into a completely pointless slugfest with half a dozen ugly bad guys. I admit it was kind of fun while it lasted, but come on! Zero had better things to do and more interesting enemies to kill. In issue #12, Zero went up against his toughest adversary yet: a vigilante called Coda, “the last word in law enforcement.” The fight ended with Ghost Rider being vaporized by the vigilante.

And that’s when things really went downhill. The next issue was the start of Ghost Rider’s involvement in a huge crossover—spanning all 2099 titles and lasting for several months—entitled “2099 A.D.” In it, Doctor Doom (a villain in the 20th century who has his own series in the 21st) took over the USA. Which wasn’t too hard, since there was no longer any central government or defence force. He then enlisted the aid of Ghost Rider (who, in the meantime, had regenerated himself) to control Transverse City. Zero, of course, refused, but Doom had previously made a bargain with the Ghostwork AI’s. By using access codes they had given him, he rewrote portions of Ghost Rider’s operating system, and so forced him to change his mind. Just like that, Zero Cochrane became a law enforcement officer.

I was sickened and shocked. How dare they do this? What the hell were they thinking? Ghost Rider isn’t a cop. He kills cops! He was the ultimate anti-authoritarian nightmare, and they did the worst thing they could: they took away his rage against the machine, and made him a part of that machine. Once again, Marvel management has shown us they’re not afraid to screw around with a story’s basic themes and characters, destroying its heart and soul. (Yeah, I blame the management. I’ve got a hard time imagining Len Kaminski wanted this to happen. After all, he’s been writing the series since the first issue. Zero Cochrane must be like his very own kill-the-pigs, burn-the-establishment-to-the-ground-and-dance-on-the-ashes baby. Then again, maybe I’m projecting too much of the character on the writer).

Just to add insult to injury, the artwork in issues #13–14 sucked big time, making me pine for Bachalo and Buckingham. Or, really, any half-decent artist.

Issue #14 (April ’95) was the last one I bought, but Ghost Rider 2099 went on for at least a year before being canceled. Before I completely lost interest I could see signs that it might be picking up steam (a new artist, with a very weird but oddly catchy style, and a gradual shift of Zero’s attitudes back to his old ways), but by then it was too little too late. I decided I could never trust the Marvel powers that be not to interfere with good stories and characters, and so swore off picking up any new Marvel titles. Ten years later I’m having a very easy time keeping that resolution.