Saturday, December 01, 2007

Evel Knievel: Ghost Rider

Evel Knievel, 1938-2007

Evel Knievel, the daredevil motorcycle stuntman and marketing genius, died yesterday. Born Robert Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana, Knievel became a prominent cultural figure in the 1970s as a result of skilled showmanship and several spectacular stunts, several of which brought him grievous bodily harm along with millions of dollars.

Like many men my age, as a young boy I was a fan of Knievel and eagerly awaited his many tv appearances. Contributing to this interest was the line of Knievel toys I coveted and which were relentlessly marketed to me through a variety of media. It may seem strange that a Canadian youngster would be interested in this red-white-and-blue costumed, all-American motorcycle-man, but as a young comic book fan in the 1970s, Knievel's presence and influence were unavoidable.

To start with, Ideal Toys advertised Knievel toys on the back covers of Marvel comics for a period of what seemed like years. Knievel was a natural fit for the Marvel audience and for the Marvel decade that spawned a horde of long-haired monster, barbarian, kung-fu, and rock star comics. The "bad boy"-sounding name and often-gory results of his stunts, combined with the fearlessness and costume of a superhero, made him appear a comic book character come to life, and I could imagine him traveling across America, like Howard the Duck or Bill Bixby on the Incredible Hulk tv show, helping people with their problems and jumping over tanks of sharks.

As Scott Shaw! explains here, Knievel was also the star of his own comic book, a giveaway produced for Ideal Toys and included with the purchase of the toys. The comic tells the story of how Knievel uses several of his trade-marked vehicles to foil a mysterious villain's plot against a racetrack, Scooby-Doo style. The Canadian connection here is that the book was likely illustrated by Hamilton-born Superman artist Win Mortimer.

Coincidentally, yesterday I purchased a partial Mystery Hoard of 1970s comic books, several of which feature Evel Knievel ads. The one at the top of this article was found on the back cover of Son of Satan #8, a Marvel comic from 1976 that also features full-page ads for Hostess Cupcakes, The Six Million Dollar Man's "Mission Control Center", and Ricochet Racers. The ad prominently features Evel's son, Robbie Knievel, who grew up to be a major daredevil as well.

Here's another ad, from the back cover of Tomb of Dracula #41 (1975), pitching Knievel as an adventure hero in the mold of the G.I.Joe and Big Jim dolls:

(I can't help but wonder if my discovery of this Hoard, mostly made up of the sort of more outre and blasphemous titles that alternately shocked, frightened, fascinated, and imperiled my mortal soul during my Catholic boyhood, was in some manner a portent or harbinger of Knievel's death! All of these comics, from Jack Kirby's New Gods to Steve Gerber's Omega the Unknown, are obsessed with themes of death, the afterlife, capes, and pointy collars. And I discovered them only hours before I heard of Knievel's death on the radio in my car.)

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Evel Knievel, besides an industry of daredevils, racers, and monster truck rallies, can be found in the comics that he was featured in and inspired. He was the obvious inspiration for the Johnny Blaze character, a circus motorcycle rider who is transformed into the flaming-skulled, demonic Ghost Rider, later described as "Evel Knievel meets Faust". As well, he seems to have been the inspiration for the earlier Hell-Rider, featured in a series published by Skywald in 1971.

While Knievel never "landed" a full comic book series, his rival and thunder-stealer The Human Fly did successfully make the jump to four colours in 1977 and drove on for 19 issues until the Marvel decade came to an end in 1979. Based on real-life stuntman Rick Rojatt's escapades, the comic actuallly co-starred Ghost Rider in one issue. Just like Win Mortimer, the mysterious Rojatt is rumoured to be Canadian as well, and is the subject of an upcoming documentary by Tony Babinski. (By contrast, the very un-Canadian Team America was a lacklustre 1980s version of the 70s stuntman comics mini-genre.) Just like his toys and the man himself, these comics were gaudy, gory classics that promised more than they delivered.

R.I.P. Evel Kneivel, stuntriding superhero. The legend rides on in the lost comics of the 1970s.

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