Comics are not unlike any other medium, with genres and sub-genres ranging from the tried-and-true to the abundantly absurd. Cosmic Ghost Rider falls under the latter category. Every so often, a title comes out that covers a spectrum of themes and styles, making it an amalgam of the work that came before it — a collage of styles if you will. Action, adventure, drama, awkward buddy comedy, science fiction, and fantasy all come together with a complete and utter disregard for settling into one niche. The problem lies in being unable to commit to one identity, but the sacrifice is made for the sake of unadulterated fun. Cosmic Ghost Rider is what happens when a writer throws caution to the wind, and his accompanying artist follows suit, for better or worse.
In an alternate timeline from our own, Frank Castle — better known as The Punisher — finally finds death’s sweet embrace. A life of murder and chaos damns Frank to an eternity in hell. However, it appears the universe is playing a practical joke with Frank’s fate, destined to be under the thrall of one omnipotent despot after another. Frank’s fortunes (or misfortunes) change when The Punisher makes a deal with the devil, Mephisto. The caveat? Frank is now the new Spirit of Vengeance. If only things had ended there. During his ventures as Mephisto’s rancorous acolyte, the new Ghost Rider falls under the shadow of Galactus. Galactus amplifies Frank’s powers by making him his new herald. The passage of time does not let up on Frank as the Mad Titan Thanos takes control of the Cosmic Ghost Rider’s mind, forcing Frank to answer his every whim. Fans of Thanos’ series may well know that present-day Thanos destroyed the future Thanos and Cosmic Ghost Rider’s timeline along with him. But his story continues…
Cosmic Ghost Rider picks after Frank Castle has earned his way into the gates of Valhalla. Much to the chagrin of Odin, Frank sullies his new-found status. Despite being a human living in the lavish comforts of splendor, Frank is wanting; for lifetimes of bloodshed, Frank yearns for his deserved punishment. Sometimes, you get what you ask for. Odin manipulates space and time, restoring Frank to his Cosmic Ghost Rider form, with his mind intact. Odin grants one last allowance; Frank can go anywhere in the universe, to any time as well. Cosmic Ghost quickly forms a plan, kill Thanos as a baby, before he grows into the Mad Titan.
Once Frank reaches baby Thanos, he succumbs to his morality, unable to pull the trigger. A backup plan quickly forms: Frank will raise Thanos as his own, preventing his eventual descent into amorality. What can go wrong? Everything. Frank quickly finds out raising baby Thanos is harder than he presumed it to be. Galactus devours a planet Ghost Rider inhabits, a future team of Guardians of the Galaxy challenge Frank’s motives at every turn, and an adult Thanos returns to embrace his “father” Frank for fostering his childhood.
Cosmic Ghost Rider is a double-edged sword of utter ridiculousness. The overall tone of the series screams “parody.” On the one hand, writer Donny Cates lets loose on the Marvel Universe, never having to succumb to the rigors of continuity (it is an alternative timeline, after all); it’s a fun ride from start to finish. But when Cates try to step back into thoughtful topics, like nurture vs. nature, the comedic overtones linger. For fans who desire poignant escapism with serious themes, this isn’t the book for you. Some titles are not looking to steep itself in importance, but rather allow you to sit back and enjoy the ride. This is that series.
Another drawback of the batty tone is that Cates fails to capture Frank Castle’s voice. In trying to make the title funny, he seems to have missed who Frank Castle is: a stoic, mission-focused, man of destruction in a constant struggle with his past and his present. Cosmic Ghost Rider’s dialogue and actions feel more at home with Deadpool than the Frank Castle fans have come to know. Unfortunately, characterization takes a backseat to the set-piece moments.
While Cates may not always hit the mark as intended, he does manage to slip in some interesting themes. Namely, nature vs. nurture and man’s constant struggle with trying to best time itself. As a would-be father, Frank fails miserably at changing who Thanos becomes. Thanos (from an alternate time stream) returns to Frank as a wayward son. Frank’s influence is evident, as Thanos brandishes Frank’s ubiquitous skull on his chest. The two travel to the future — one where Thanos has brought “harmony” to earth. Regrettably, Frank’s message of punishing the evil to save the good isn’t as fruitful as expected. The question remains: Is Thanos inherently malevolent, or is Frank just unable to take him down the proper path?
A constant theme in comic books is the notion of alternate futures and timelines. We all wish we could change the past or ensure a fruitful future. Why should the heroes of Marvel be any different? The problem lies in the fact that time always wins. Frank’s manipulation of the time stream doesn’t go unnoticed. As various iterations of the Guardians of the Galaxy throw everything they have at Cosmic Ghost Rider to stop his misguided plan, Frank remains unwavering in his task, leaving more death in his path. Cates should be commended for the attempt, but once again, the tone established early on may have the notion flying over readers’ heads.
Cates’ script requires a particular artist that can match the humor, parody, and bombastic action of a Cosmic Ghost Rider series, and thankfully, Dylan Burnett handily takes up the task. If fans have ever witnessed Venture Bros. on Cartoon Network, then you have a solid grasp of his unique style. At times it services the battles on the page, but also helps set the mood for cheap puns and sight gags. Alex Ross he is not, but Alex Ross would not have complemented Cates story. It should be noted that Burnett’s style isn’t universally adaptable, but when you have a title with Cosmic Ghost Rider racing across the sky with baby Thanos strapped to his chest, Burnett is your man.
Cosmic Ghost Rider ranges from the comically surreal to fraternally dour, yet struggles to stake its claim in one place. It’s a classic case of style over substance, however, if you’re looking for simple pleasure and a story that doesn’t hold back, Cosmic Ghost Rider was written for you.