Frank Frazetta is perhaps the most famous and acclaimed fantasy artists of the past century, and while it might be hard to imagine that much of his work is little-seen and underappreciated, his Ghost Rider covers for publisher Magazine Enterprises might just fit that bill. The character combined elements of horror with a classic horse-riding action hero in a way that suited Frazetta extremely well, and his cover for Tim Holt #17 from 1950 is one of the best of the bunch. There's a Tim Holt #17 (Magazine Enterprises, 1950) CGC NM- 9.2 Off-white to white pages available in this week's 2021 June 13-14 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation & Art Select Auction at Heritage Auctions.
If you're unaware that there was a Ghost Rider character before Marvel's versions, the typical explanation goes something like this: This comic book version was created by Dick Ayers under the direction of Magazine Enterprises editor Vincent Sullivan. "Vin would come in and sit down and describe what he wanted in The Ghost Rider," Ayers later recalled. "He told me to go see Disney's Sleepy Hollow — Ichabod Crane, the Headless Horseman — and then he told me to play the Vaughn Monroe record, "Ghost Riders in the Sky." And then he started talking about what he wanted the guy wearing."
But that's only part of the story. There are several examples of highly similar characters from the pulp and dime novel eras. They were sometimes even called Ghost Rider. The nod to a Headless Horseman gives us another clue as to where the Ghost Rider legends come from, but it's not exactly about Sleepy Hollow. The true roots of the Spirit of Vengeance can be firmly traced to the American West.
One part of the inspiration for this tale can be attributed to a legend surrounding Texas Ranger Creed Taylor. The story goes that he and others had a skirmish with horse thieves, and after killing one of their band, beheaded him and sent his corpse off into the night tied to his horse, as a warning to other bandits. Another telling of the incident has the rider keeping his head, and becoming a sort of cloaked, spectral figure with glowing eyes, and still others where the horseman becomes a protector rather than a warning.
But the Spirit of Vengeance aspect of the historic Ghost Rider characters is also likely inspired by the terrible exploits of Felipe Espinosa, who brutally killed 32 people in Colorado in 1863 on a mission of what he characterized as divinely-inspired vengeance, and was ultimately killed and by legendary tracker Tom Tobin. Espinosa's legend also grew to include a night-riding spectral horseman over time.
Thinking back on Espinosa, which clearly troubled him his entire life, Tobin said: "It occurs to me that the question is not whether a choice exists between bad and good, but whether certain men are even aware of the difference. At what point, I wonder, does it stop being revenge?"
That would be an extremely accurate commentary on how Ghost Rider is portrayed in comics and film to this day. The true history behind Ghost Rider makes the character an important part of the American pop culture landscape, and Tim Holt #17 is a spectacular example of the early comic book version. There's a Tim Holt #17 (Magazine Enterprises, 1950) CGC NM- 9.2 Off-white to white pages available in this week's 2021 June 13-14 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation & Art Select Auction at Heritage Auctions.
Tim Holt #17 (Magazine Enterprises, 1950) CGC NM- 9.2 Off-white to white pages. Frank Frazetta Ghost Rider/branding iron torture cover. Dick Ayers art. Overstreet 2020 NM- 9.2 value = $1,000. CGC census 6/21: 2 in 9.2, 1 higher.