Today we take a look at how Ghost Rider’s famous Penance Gaze doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.
It’s about “How can I explain?”, which is a feature highlighting inexplicable comic book plots.
Last month, I did an article on five characters who stood up to Ghost Rider’s Penance Stare. However, as I was writing it, I found some of them a bit surprising, in terms of what I had understood from Ghost Rider’s penitent gaze. I was planning on doing this follow up but my friend Donald M. also commented on my Facebook post where I shared the article so I’ll credit that as well because he didn’t know I was planning on doing this this article anyway.
Now, before I even get started, let me point out that it really, REALLY, REALLY doesn’t matter if people decide to ignore stuff like this for shit that doesn’t make sense in the aim to have fun times. Does it make sense that a kick from Batman takes Hulk’s breath away like in Batman vs. Incredible Hulk (by Len Wein, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano)?
No of course not. But guess what? It’s awesome.
So hey, I’m all for the inexplicable moments for an awesome comic book moment. It’s also fun to talk about, that’s all.
HOW DOES THE GHOST RIDER PENANCE LOOK WORK?
The Penance Stare debuted at an odd time in the 1990 Ghost Rider revival series, as he only appeared in the series’ fourth issue. Here’s the interesting thing about the Penance Stare in the first issue. When first used in ghost rider #4 (by Howard Mackie, Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira), it’s done off-board!
And when we actually see him in action later in the issue on Mister Hyde, it’s unclear what he actually does to the villain, because it just turns him into his unpowered self…
However, in the next issue, we see more of it in action, as Ghost Rider uses it to make two rapists feel the pain of their rape victim…
The problem, however, is that the term “penitent gaze” clearly confused people a bit, because it made people think it was confronting the wicked with the damage they had done and forcing them to repent, but only if there was something to repent. And that’s the trick, because people started thinking that it only worked if the person who was killing actually REGRETD their actions.
Reader Shaun D. Padden actually wrote to ask this specific question in ghost rider #35, asking the central question, “The Ghost Rider’s look of penance, I don’t understand. Why would a villain care about the pain inflicted on others? And wouldn’t a villain know himself? I mean, Isn’t it all part of being one of the bad guys? So why does that penitent gaze have an effect on the Ghost Rider’s enemies?
The editor (or possibly Howard Mackie himself) replied, “That’s just it, Shaun. Why would a villain care about the pain inflicted on others? All he wants to do is is to inflict even more pain and suffering. To remedy this situation, Ghost Rider uses his gaze of penance. His gaze descends into the psyche of the bad guys and makes them feel what they did to these people, what it would be like to be the victims and to have to deal with the pain for the rest of their lives.”
And that’s the hook, then. You suffer the pain of the victims. It has nothing to do with whether or not you enjoyed what you did in your life, you will always suffer because you will feel the pain as your victims felt it. In other words, even if you are a demon, you will still be affected by the Penance Gaze because it will hurt you.
A key example of this was in Unlimited Midnight Sons #1 (by Mackie and Klaus Janson), where a crippled serial killer who killed homeless children for years until she became paralyzed made a deal with a demon so he could keep killing through a bond with a demon. She actively enjoyed killing children. She made a deal with a demon so she could do it again even though her body was crippled. She clearly didn’t regret ANYTHING and yet… the look of penance still ruined her…
WHY DID GHOST RIDER’S PENANCE LOOK NOT WORK?
However, over the years this has been shown differently in the comics. Let’s ignore everything about Venom and Carnage, because very early on in the comics, Mackie himself established that the Penance Stare doesn’t really work on symbiotes for some reason.
In 2012 Venom #14 (by Rick Remender, Tony Moore, and Val Staples, with plot assists from Jeff Parker and Rob Williams), Blackheart had managed to bring hell to Las Vegas and a disparate group of superheroes were trying to bring him down . As I pointed out in a recent post, the way the heroes tried to do this was for Red Hulk to merge with Venom’s symbiote and also gain the Spirit of Vengeance.
However, when Ghost Hulk Venom Rider (or whatever you want to call the combined hero) attacked Blackheart, the hero had Mephisto’s demonic son in the ropes until he used the Penance Stare and shows a demon all his misdeeds actually served to POWER UP Blackheart!
That’s not how Penance Stare works.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples occurred in Thanos #15 (by Donny Cates, Geoff Show, and Antonio Fabela), where the issue opens up by specifically reiterating the powers of the Penance Stare with damn precision…
And yet when Thanos uses it…
He LOVES the feeling…
It does not mean anything. It would be like the Penance Stare being used on, say, someone having fun abusing children and then they can relive their abuse, which they LOVE. So the Penance Stare can’t work that way, but it’s been growing in the comics in recent years. It just seems like it’s representative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Penance Stare’s purpose, otherwise it sure seems like it’d be useless against almost any villain who enjoys hurting people (which is a LOT of them).
Thanks to Donald for the suggestion! If anyone can think of a good unexplainable comic book plot, email me at [email protected]!
KEEP READING: The Avengers Played With A Member Marrying A Murderer – Here’s Why
DC’s Most Powerful Justice Leaguer Has Revealed A Heartbreaking Truth Behind His Abilities
About the Author