Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ghost Rider 2099 and the mysterious phenomena of pre-TOR, pre-2chan undernets.

Way back in 1994, before I even knew there was such a thing as the internet, I got sucked in by the metallic cover of issue one of Spiderman 2099. A country boy in a country town, I had never seen such an exciting use of colour. The bold, exaggerated and irresponsible style of Rick Leonardi forced my hand: I simply had to have it.

Over the next few months, I spotted a number of titles in Marvel’s 2099 series. None of them resonated with me in the same way as Spider-man. I preferred (and still do, Peter David’s “Mr Fixit” run was superb) the then trash talking, mafia affiliated, moon-phase grey Hulk to his sci-fi re-boot. The Punisher felt so much cooler and grittier in a noir version of the present. Fantastic Four were never particularly interesting to me and I simply could not muster the enough interest to wave in the general direction of another “X” related title.

One title, however, advertised within the comics but not available locally was Len Kaminski’s Ghost Rider 2099. I have always had a bit of a thing for horror, skulls and the occult (Just writing that sentence makes me realize just how custom built I am as the audience for Electric Wizard). First, a derive.

Before the 2099 series was launched I frequented a used book store across from the salon where I had my ear pierced as a child and where my mother cut her hair in an arcade in a small rural town. Like many of its kind at the time it traded books for in store currency. Thanks to that store I was introduced to a world of monochrome pulp horror at twenty cents a pop. The stories were so deviant and spooky to me that I eventually traded them back for other more mainstream comics. Nevertheless, they had a profound impact on me. Ghost Rider 2099 checked all the right boxes, it rode the rising tide of Gibson-esque cyberpunk, virtual reality and the infant state internet, it had flaming skulls and motorcycles and more importantly it was dark.

The problem is that I never got to read it. Until I started earlier this month. The 2099 series, like many of my favorite things never really got the recognition it deserved and suffered an abrupt, unsatisfying end. Unlikely to ever experience a reboot the one thing it has in its favour is an incomplete mythology. A mass of loose ends.

What sparked this article was a very minor part in the story around issues nine and ten where the Ghost Rider is mulling over otaku and the mischief they make on a seamy underweb. As I read this I thought, “wow, this sounds like 2chan, Kaminski was really had a finger on the pulse.” A few minutes later, it occurred to me to check the timeline and ask a few questions: just when was 2chan born and where does Ghost Rider 2099 fit into this? So you need not do the leg work, I will tell you: Ghost Rider 2099 was first published in 1994. 2chan was born in 1999. An underground internet is not a particularly exclusive idea, nor is the borrowing of the word otaku to describe. Yet the coalescence of both and the future they point toward was perfectly realized. What piques my curiosity is the extent to which Kaminski was or was not familiar with Japan at the time. After all, more than ten years had passed since William Gibson’s genre making Neuromancer was published, time enough for its images of Japan to be absorbed by the Japanese, internalized and reconstituted, recreated and redeployed. During this postmodern paradise many of the standard tropes of cyberpunk from dense urbanization to fully wired societies were set. Just as Japanese writers and artists had re-imagined cyberpunk so too had artists in the west re-imagined cyberpunk Japan. Was it the case that Kaminski had first hand experience or was he simply using what was current at the time?

The final curiosity relating to Kaminski and his book is that this is a man who has written high tech, cyberpunk comics (including a long run on Iron Man) but remains virtually anonymous on the internet. He has no wikipedia page and his Marvel wiki page is bare to say the least.

As for the comic itself? Ghost Rider 2099 is positively archaic in its ability to imagine the future yet paradoxically not far off the mark. Caught up in the cyberpunk zeitgeist of the times its language sounds by today’s standards rather dated and reeks of trying-too-hard. However, when regarded from a distance, the substitution of certain profanities with tech based words (shock, glitch) and the ability of Kaminski to turn zeitgeist jargon into meaningful strings of communication is nothing short of great. This language works well with subdued colours and Leonardi’s confusing, flowing drawing style. And I have a major soft spot for the character name “Warewolf”. Why has this not been put to use yet outside of 2099? Like Mindfunk, Only Living Witness and Tumbleweed an abrupt end ensures enough open ends and a sense of irresolvable pain for the reader making this truly a lost gem.
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