It was 1972, and Marvel Comics editors, writers, and artists were feeling decidedly uncreative. "We'd run out of ideas at The House of Ideas," Stan Lee recalled at the recent San Diego Comics Convention. "However, Marvel's always been good at ripping off competitors, and, at the time, the trend was to balance out superhero comics with horror themes. We put the two together, and viola! Ghost Rider was born.
Jack Kirby's wife Rochelle remembers it differently. "Jack, who drew pretty much all the company's comics, including their Westerns, was tired of drawing horses for The Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw, and The Rawhide Kid, and when Marvel decided to make The Rawhide Kid gay, it was all just too much for Jack. He asked to draw Ghost Rider, because the character is straight and he mounts a motorcycle instead of a horse---or another dude."
In addition, Stan had described the character as "a real hothead," Rochelle, added, "and Jack thought he could save time and trouble by using the Human Torch's head for that of Ghost Rider, but Stan nixed that, insisting that Ghost Rider be given his own look, so Jack just drew a flaming skull instead. He was in his minimalist period as an artist then."
According to Lee, the character gained his powers entering a satanic pact with a demon, but Rochelle remembers the character's origin differently. "He had sex with a guy named Mephisto. Before that, he was an ordinary, straight-laced guy named Johnny Blaze, who earned money imitating Evel Knievel."
As Ghost Rider, Johnny tossed fireballs, which, Rochelle says, "Jack cut out from Fantastic Four art he had done previously, which featured the Human Torch as one of the group, and pasted the fireballs into the Ghost Rider strip, to save time and labor."
Whenever Johnny---Johnny Blaze, not Johnny Storm; Johnny Storm was the Human Torch---remembered his "first time" with Mephisto, Rochelle said, "he would go into an uncontrollable rage, tossing off fireballs as if they were candy."
Ghost Rider was a modestly successful comic, and, as such, it spawned a series of imitators. As Lee suggests, " Marvel's always been good at ripping off competitor," including its own competing products, it seems. Hot on the heels of Ghost Rider, such other characters as Man Thing, The Werewolf, Morbius the Living Vampire, and a host of other hackneyed superhero-monsters made their debut in various Marvel comics, most of which survived only one or two issues.
But Ghost Rider is still being published, having outlived Kirby.
"He's my own personal favorite," Lee admits, "next to The Rawhide Kid."