Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears (2007) # 1

Cover Artist: Clayton Crain
Published: Feb. 2007
Original Price: $2.99

Title: "Trail of Tears", Part 1
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Clayton Crain
Editors: Warren Simons & Axel Alonso
Editor In Chief: Joe Quesada

SYNOPSIS During the American Civil War, Lieutenant Travis Parham of the Confederate Army leads his battalion in a charge, rallying them around him with his impassioned cries of victory. Unfortunately, the Confederates are quickly beaten back by the guns and canons of the Union Army. As his fellows fall around him, Parham's confidence is shaken, his words of rally now unsure. He sees a friend, John Appleby, laying wounded on the battlefield and, as even more of his soldiers die, attempts to pull him to safety. Appleby comes to and realizes that his wounds are too severe - he then asks Parham to pull his revolver and end his life. Parham pulls out his pistol and aims it, but finds himself unable to pull the trigger. While the Northern Army continue to blast the battlefield with cannon-fire, Appleby curses Parham right before an explosion hits near them - killing Appleby and sending Parham into unconsciousness.
 
That night, Parham - still on the deserted battlefield - wakes up to find a cloaked man with a lantern standing over him. The stranger introduces himself as Caleb, a black man that is raiding the battlefield for salvage. He picks Travis up and puts him on his horse, taking him to safety. Parham wakes up in Caleb's home four days later, still wounded from the battle. Travis asks Caleb why he's helping his enemy, a soldier in the Confederate Army; Caleb answers that he's a free man, bought out of service with his wife ten years past. He saved Parham because he was a human being that needed help - and he tells Travis to hurry with the healing so he can start working off his debt.
 
Months later, Travis and Caleb are clearing a field of tree stumps. Caleb asks why Travis is still there even though his debt is long paid, why he hasn't gone back to his war yet. Parham tells Caleb that his father and brothers died in battle, with his mother dying upon hearing the news. "War is a trap for men like me," Travis says, "we enter it willingly and the jaws slam shut, and the result is a thing to shame Almighty God." When asked why he didn't just walk away when his debt was paid, Travis tells Caleb that he has absolutely nothing to go home to. Later, while tilling the field, Travis sees a light in the neighboring woods. He investigates and finds a glowing skull sitting on a table. He places a finger tip on the skull and is transported to a hellish place filled with demons. One demon, larger than the others and with a flaming skull for a head, towers over him with a whip - and then Parham wakes up, discovered screaming by Caleb. Caleb tells him that the skulls were of his father and his fathers, brought with them along with their "old ways". The dead watch over the living, staying with their families - and they also brought their own Gods, and the one Travis encountered doesn't have a name. He speaks to the living through the dead, avenging evil deeds. Caleb asks Travis what he saw, other than "a big ol' skinny fella with his noggin on fire, that is."
 
Two years after being rescued, Travis is given word from Caleb that the war is officially over. Parham tells his friend that he plans on moving west to make his fortune and claim his land. Caleb warns him that another war is on the horizon with the Indians and how the people that run the country will be the ones profiting from it. Caleb then offers Travis back his pistol, saved from the battlefield and kept over the years. That night, Travis packs up his horse to leave and says his goodbyes to Caleb, who he plans to return and retrieve once he's established a home out west. Travis says goodbye to his friend and rides away, unaware that three men wearing white hoods are watching them from a nearby hill.
 
ANNOTATIONS 
This series is a prequel to the Ghost Rider: Road to Damnation series by Garth Ennis and Clayton Crain.
 
Past incarnations of the Ghost Rider throughout history, including Caleb, were shown in detail in Ghost Rider (2006) # 33.
 
This issue was reprinted in the Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears trade paperback.
 
REVIEW
Garth Ennis and Clayton Crain are back for round 2 with the Spirit of Vengeance, but this time things are very different. It's a historical piece with a brand-new character as the Ghost Rider's host, and the creative team are using their storytelling freedom to their advantage.
 
It's perhaps wise that Ennis seems to be staying away from the established - and oft-times confusing and cluttered - origins for the Ghost Rider that have been told over the years. While some fans may balk at a story that, at least so far, pays no heed to the canon legacy of the character, I think it's a smart move. Ennis has made it clear in various interviews that he's not a fan of the characters but of the concept, and while you could almost feel his contempt for Johnny Blaze during the "Road to Damnation" story this one is a very different animal. Ennis is getting to build his own Ghost Rider from the ground up, and this is merely the first stepping stone for the story of Travis Parham.
 
What's unfortunate is the sheer obviousness of this series being written for its eventual trade paperback collection...in other words, it's slow as molasses and a lot of time is spent on the characters' philosophical musings on war and manifest destiny, among other subjects. While this does allow the readers to really get to know Travis and Caleb, it also brings up a problem that was also displayed in the first issue of "Road to Damnation": there's no Ghost Rider to be found, other than a vague one-panel appearance. But whereas "Road" was disappointing in that it was the first Ghost Rider issue to be published in five years, "Trail of Tears" gets the benefit of the doubt due to the sheer volume of Ghost Rider material currently being produced. There's already an ongoing Ghost Rider series, so Ennis is allowed more patience and leeway for setting up his story. It also must be said that Ennis isn't just picking up with established characters - he's creating a whole new status quo for new characters, and though I feel he veers the wheel a little off the road with some of the philosophy mentioned above I still appreciate the time given to fleshing out Travis before he becomes a Spirit of Vengeance.
 
As for Travis Parham himself, I find myself liking him quite a bit. He's a broken soldier who's seen that war is not what he thought it was, something shown in visual brutality during the opening battle sequence. Parham's crisis of confidence on the battle field and later rejection of the war mentality throughout the issue goes far in showing that the character is growing and changing even in the span of one issue. He's a likeable antagonist who starts out as honorable but misguided before coming round to a more worldly sense of self.
 
Clayton Crain's return to the art chores is a mixed bag as well. I enjoy his work immensely, and I like that he's gone for a brighter choice of colors than what was used in "Road to Damnation". But there's still a problem with some of his sequences being frankly hard to decipher without long minutes of careful study. This is most evident during the opening battle sequence, colored only in black, white, and brown tones, where things are difficult to discern in some panels. What I did really like, on the design front, is the choice to make the background panel borders look aged, like an old photograph or parchment. It really lends a lot to the atmosphere that the creative team is trying to convey, and it's just a small touch that enhances the whole package.
 
So far, "Trail of Tears" is hovering on a "wait and see" pattern. There's no sign of the Ghost Rider yet, but we can see that bad things are coming in the next issue that will most likely call for a Spirit of Vengeance to rise up in Travis Parham. This issue, though, spends just a little too much time preaching at the expense of possibly boring readers. It's not bad by any means, but the next issue is really going to need to kick things up a notch to hold my interest.
 
Grade: B