Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Original (Australian) Ghost Rider

The following entry was partly inspired by my mate Daniel Best's recent review of the movie Ghost Rider, which, apart from being shot on location in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, is based on the 1970s-era Marvel Comics character of the same name.

Devotees of Golden Age-era comic books will, however, be aware that the Marvel Comics' charatcer was preceded by a Western cowboy hero known as The Ghost Rider, which first appeared in such series as A-1 Comics (#27, published 1950), before appearing in its own solo title, which lasted for 14 issues and was published by Magazine Enterprises during 1950-54.

In 1967, after the trademark for the original Ghost Rider series lapsed, Marvel Comics used the name to relaunch a new series, which was virtually identical to the Magazine Enterprises' version, even to the point where it featured new artwork by one of the strip's original artists, Dick Ayers. However, the character was renamed The Phantom Rider, after the original name was used to christen Marvel's new motorbike-riding, supernatural superhero - which is the subject of the abovementioned movie.

Just to complicate matters further, the independent American comic publisher, AC Comics, recently acquired the publication rights to the Magazine Enterprises' library of characters, including The Ghost Rider. However, AC Comics had to to reprint the original series as The Haunted Horseman, as Marvel Comics still retains ownership of the Ghost Rider trademark.

However, I'm willing to bet that few comic book fans outside Australia (hell, even within Australia, let's be honest!) are aware that there was an Australian comic book character, also known as The Ghost Rider, which may have even predated his 1950s American counterpart - and was on the scene decades before anyone had even heard of Johnny Blaze (the alter-ego of Marvel Comics' Ghost Rider character.)

Back in 1948, a Melbourne company known as Atlas Publications, scored a big hit in the postwar Australian comic market with a new character called Captain Atom. Initially published in full-colour (a rarity for Australian comic books, both then and now), Captain Atom was written and illustrated by Arthur Mather and sold over 1 million copies during its first year of publication.

Bouyed by this unexpected success, Atlas Publications quickly expanded its comic book range, which featured a mix of reprint compilations of British and American newspaper comic strips (such as Garth and Brenda Starr, to name a few), along with all-new titles written and drawn by Australian comic artists.

One of these locally-produced comic book series was a Western titled - yes, you guessed it! - The Ghost Rider. Although undated, the first two issues of Atlas's new comic was priced at 6d (sixpence/6 cents), which certainly places its debut sometime prior to June 1951 - after which most Australian comics' cover prices leapt by 25% to 8d (8 pence/8 cents).

However, there was nothing remotely 'ghostly' about this series. Steve Jarrett was described as "the wanderer of the West", drifting from one job to the next. Only his trusted horse, Moonshine, ever saw Jarrett slip out of his range clothes and don a simple face mask to become The Ghost Rider, whenever trouble threatened - which it did, quite often!

The comic was drawn (and most likley written) by J. Morath, an artist whose name (at least as far as I know) seldom graced the pages of Australian comics since working on The Ghost Rider. Despite the near-universal popularity of cowboy comics and pulp novels amongst Australian readers back then, it's unlikely that The Ghost Rider series would have enjoyed the success it did had it remained in Morath's crude and unimaginative hands.

Thankfully, the comic was handed over to Terry Trowell, a West Australian artist who would eventually relocate to Melbourne, where he worked as a comic book illustrator for Atlas Publications throughout the 1950s.

With Trowell at the drawing board, The Ghost Rider qucikly became one of the best Western comics on the Australian market. While he retained the character's 'civilian identity' of Steve Jarrett, Trowell gave The Ghost Rider and his fictional world a much-needed makeover.

Set after the American Civil War of 1861-65, The Ghost Rider had now become an ex-Confederate cavalryman , who occasionally joined forces with a Mexican gunslinger known as the Mariposa Kid to fight crime throughout the ‘Wild West’. Dashingly dressed in remnants of his Civil War uniform (in a manner which anticipated the Charlton Comics character, Captain Doom), The Ghost Rider cut a dramatic figure, and outwitted his opponents with his lightning-fast 'quick-change' gun-draw.

The Ghost Rider was drawn with great verve and style by Trowell, who managed to convey lots of action and bustling activity with a remarkable economy of line. While it never shared the mythic quality of Keith Chatto's El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere, or enjoyed the same level of commercial success as Len Lawson's The Lone Avenger, Terry Trowell's version of The Ghost Rider was, and remains, an immensely entertaining comic book series.

Yet The Ghost Rider was just a small part of Terry Trowell's artistic career, both within comic publishing and beyond, which I hope to explore in future installments of Comics Down Under.
(Cover image courtesy of BSP Gallery Bookshop. )


Mark Muller said...

Another well researched article!
I knew nothing about Terry Trowell, so found this all rather interesting. Thanks again Kevin.

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