In part six of our ongoing Marvel 2099 retrospective: Marvel 2099 goes full on cyberpunk with writer Len Kaminski in Ghost Rider 2099. Features the art of Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Kyle Hotz, and Ashley Wood.
Author’s Note: Click on the links below to read the Marvel 2099 retrospective columns:
- Leaving Proof 279 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 1: The Past Through Tomorrow
- Leaving Proof 280 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 2: On Spider-Man 2099 and Ravage 2099
- Leaving Proof 282 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 3: On Doom 2099 and Punisher 2099
- Leaving Proof 288 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 4: On X-Men 2099
- Leaving Proof 299 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 5: On 2099 Unlimited and Hulk 2099
- Leaving Proof 302 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 6: On Ghost Rider 2099
As with all the art I post on this site, the images below are being shared in the spirit of fair use.
The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.
- William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
For all its futuristic trappings, the primary theme that served to undergird the Marvel 2099 comics imprint was very much of its era. The imprint’s common throughline of the individual fighting against a corrupt corporate monolith was rooted in the American public’s backlash against 1980s/early 1990s corporate culture that was associated with junk bond-financed corporate takeovers, insider trading, a massive stock market crash, a savings and loan crisis that spanned two decades, and a worldwide recession.
This being the case, Marvel 2099’s allegorical interrogation of the future was largely of a socio-economic and political nature, although this isn’t to say that the Marvel 2099 creators were wholly disinterested in science fiction-styled speculation about future technology. Still, whatever “science” there was to be found in Marvel 2099’s science fiction was mostly indistinguishable from the hand-waving seen in Marvel’s regular present-day-set superhero comics. It wasn’t until the debut of the Ghost Rider 2099 series in early 1994 that Marvel 2099 had a title that was particularly invested in exploring the societal and philosophical implications of future technology.
The pioneering cyberpunk fiction author William Gibson is perhaps the single biggest influence on Ghost Rider 2099, even more so than any comics creators who had worked on the previously and concurrently-published Ghost Rider titles. As Ghost Rider 2099 writer Len Kaminski relayed to Charles Kim in Marvel Age #135 (April 1994), the concept for the book would have none of the supernatural elements associated with the original Ghost Rider character and “it would be completely technologically-based.”
Ghost Rider 2099 was clearly inspired by Gibson’s work, particularly the 1981 short story Johnny Mnemonic and the 1984 novel Neuromancer. In the series’ first issue, a hacker gang led by one Kenshiro “Zero” Cochrane steals encrypted data from the D/MONIX Corporation for a mysterious client. One by one, his comrades fall to their pursuers, a mercenary gang hired by D/MONIX to reacquire their precious data. Cornered, slowly dying from a poisoned dart, and unwilling to give up the stolen data (which he has stored in a cerebral implant), Zero comes up with a final, bold gambit: he decides to upload his entire consciousness into cyberspace using a direct feed into a public net terminal, banking on the process rendering the data in the implant and the memories in his brain unrecoverable by D/MONIX’s technicians.
Instead of death, however, Zero finds himself (or rather, his digitized consciousness) in the Ghostworks, a hidden corner of cyberspace occupied by a collective AI consciousness. The collective AI present Zero with an offer he cannot possibly refuse: his consciousness will be transferred to an advanced robotic body equipped with all manner of capabilities and weaponry with which he can mete out his vengeance on those responsible for his death and the death of his hacker comrades. In exchange, he will act as the collective AI’s “antiviral agent” in the physical world, serving as a symbol and enforcer whose mission is to combat the societal and economic dysfunctions perpetrated by corrupt authority figures, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the preservation of the network infrastructure the collective AI are dependent upon for their continued existence.
Zero would do just that over the course of the next eleven issues, while also delving into the mystery of who hired him and his team for the hack and the content of the data that they stole. Along the way, Kaminski explores the themes of crypto-anarchism and anti-authoritarianism, the latter of which is mirrored in a (somewhat on-the-nose) confrontation between Zero and his father, who is revealed to be a D/MONIX executive.
While Ghost Rider 2099 examines at length the idea of robotics, computer networks, and artificial intelligence disrupting society and being appropriated and used by the marginalized for purposes its creators never intended or predicted, the overwhelming impression one takes away from a reading of the first twelve Ghost Rider 2099 issues, is one of rage. Zero is a very angry young man—angry with himself, angry with his family, angry at his failed relationships, angry with a civilization that, despite all its technological advances, still sees widespread inequality and injustice. Zero is also frustrated by the fact that, despite all the power at his command, he isn’t able to effect any real change as far as the power structures that make life in the year 2099 as miserable as it is for the lower-class majority.
It is worth noting at this point the excellent job original series artists Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham did with the main character’s design, as well as their design of the setting of Transverse City. Their futuristic take on the original Ghost Rider design by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog maintains its iconic elements while at the same time infusing it with a chaotic verve that visually reflects the tone of Kaminski’s writing. The character’s Terminator-esque skull and holographic flames also provide a neat callback to the title of another Gibson short story, Burning Chrome (the short story’s title is actually spray-painted onto the fender of Zero’s jet bike, as seen in the splash page below).
Even with Bachalo and Buckingham’s eventual departure from the title, Ghost Rider 2099 still managed to remain one of the Marvel 2099 line’s most interesting-looking titles with Kyle Hotz ably contributing illustrations for several issues.
A young Ashley Wood took over the title’s illustration duties by issue #15. Wood’s brash approach to rendering looked nothing like anything being published by Marvel at the time, appearing for all the world like a fusion of the styles of Bill Sienkiewicz, early-period Jae Lee, and Marshal Law-era Kevin O’Neill. Wood would stay on the title until the series’ 25th and final issue.
If there is one hiccup to the Ghost Rider 2099 series, it was its clumsy integration into the otherwise competently executed One Nation Under Doom crossover that ran through the Marvel 2099 titles for the better part of 1995. In a complete reversal of how the character had been portrayed thus far, the crossover called for Zero to join Doom 2099’s fascist paramilitary as a law enforcement officer. It was an interesting development for sure, but also quite baffling to long-time series readers.
Kaminski would explain away the inconsistency in Zero’s characterization towards the close of the series using a brilliant narrative contrivance that ties into the series’ first issue, but whether this was his intention from the outset or a result of on-the-fly narrative recalibration is open to question. (I will refrain from detailing the explanation for Zero’s inconsistent behavior to avoid spoilers for those looking to read the comic.)
All in all, however, Ghost Rider 2099 is arguably the most satisfying read among the Marvel 2099 titles owing to the level of its craft, its unifying cyberpunk theme, its relatively self-contained nature, and the fact that Kaminski was more or less able to close out the story without it being dragged through the disjointed and contradictory crossover-happy mess that was the Marvel 2099 imprint’s final months.