Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears (2007) # 6

Cover Artist: Clayton Crain
Published: July 2007
Original Price: $2.99

Title: "Trail of Tears", Part 6
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colorist: Clayton Crain
Editors: Warren Simons & Axel Alonso
Editor In Chief: Joe Quesada

The Ghost Rider begins to destroy the members of Regan's band of outlaws, their threat of killing all of the townspeople seeming to not matter to the Spirit of Vengeance.  They start their slaughter of the people, but the Ghost Rider continues killing the demonically-powered villains until only Reagan and Nightshade remain.  Nightshade kills Jenny and threatens the now armless Travis Parham, which finally gives the Ghost Rider pause.  The Rider transforms back into his human form of Caleb, the former slave that had been murdered five years past by Reagan's gang.  As they shackle Caleb to take him to hell, he tells Parham to run; when Parham challenges Caleb's humanity, Caleb answers "I's the last scrap here IS human, else you'd be dead right now".  He again tells Parham to run as he transforms back into the Ghost Rider and engulfs the whole town in an explosion of hellfire. 

Parham, Reagan, and Nightshade find themselves transported to the dark dimension that Travis visited once years before, when he touched the skull of Caleb's ancestor, and the creatures in the realm tear Nightshade apart.  Reagan is confronted by the Ghost Rider, who kills him as revenge for Caleb's murder.  Travis is approached by the now-human Caleb, who tells him that while Parham isn't dead, he is damned and has now seen things no man should see.  Caleb tells Travis that both of them have been on the vengeance trail for years, starting for Caleb when he went to his ancestor's burial site and made a deal with the god of vengeance.  The god isn't from Africa like he first believed and isn't much for protecting people, offering only to right wrongs through vengeance.  Caleb gives Travis a glimpse of all the Ghost Riders, from the beginning of time through to the future, telling him that there will be more Riders bringing vengeance even though it means damnation.

Later, in a bar in another town, the locals talk about how the town of Snyder was now completely gone and all that was found still alive was a single man.  Travis Parham sits at the bar, aged like an old man, and while he drinks he asks the Lord why he gives them "so many ways to damn ourselves".
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. 
Despite Reagan's statement that the Spirit of Vengeance "is no agent of Heaven above", the power of the Ghost Rider does in fact come from Heaven, as revealed in Ghost Rider (2006) # 18 and Ghost Rider (2006) # 33.  The Spirit's angelic origin was kept hidden by the angel Zadkiel, who fed misinformation about the Ghost Riders throughout history, which explains how not even the denizens of Hell (excluding Lucifer) knew the truth.

During the glimpse of Ghost Riders throughout time, both Johnny Blaze and a Rider who looks visually like 2099's Zero Cochrane are shown.  The original plan was for Ennis and Crain to produce a new Ghost Rider mini-series every year, focusing on Riders at different points in history, but for whatever reason this was the last series they produced.
"Trail of Tears" comes to an extremely satisfying ending that reunites Travis Parham with his murdered friend Caleb, who has become the Ghost Rider.

As much as I enjoyed "Road to Damnation", this mini-series by the same team of Ennis and Crain is superior in just about every respect.  While the former was more concerned with action and black comedy, "Trail of Tears" is all about drama and philosophy, particularly about the nature of vengeance as a force of evil.  Ennis has clearly been weaving along the parallels between Travis and Caleb as the story progressed (and we get the reveal here that Caleb is the Ghost Rider, but I think we all figured that one out in issue # 2), and it all comes to the fore during the fantastic final meeting between the two characters.  The climax of the action seems perfunctory, with Caleb easily destroying Reagan and his gang, even in their new demonic forms, and we don't even get to see what Reagan's final fate looks like due to a cut-away to a black panel at that moment.

No, the real dramatic conclusion lies in that final talk between Travis and Caleb about the meaning of vengeance and how it can drag a man down into darkness that he might never climb back out.  Ennis wisely allows both men to make their points equal, with both the self-righteousness of Travis and the justified anger of Caleb.  Both men are coming from the same place, both have been seeking vengeance for the wrongs committed to Caleb, and regardless of their points of view both men wind up damned as a consequence.  The final page, which shows the broken and aged Parham drinking and musing about God and vengeance is a sad, bitter end for the story's protagonist.

While I loved his artwork on the previous mini-series, this was where Clayton Crain jumped up to be one of my all-time favorite Ghost Rider artists.  He drowns this issue with darkness and shadow, which makes the few panels of bright light stand out even more, as with the Ghost Rider's destruction of the town of Snyder.  The most fantastic image, though, is the two-page spread of the Ghost Riders throughout time, which features some really interesting concepts (and even sneaks in Johnny Blaze).

That same spread was, I assume, Ennis and Crain's way to tease the subsequent mini-series that were suppose to come on the heels of "Trail of Tears".  Joe Quesada spoke about it at length on the special features of the first Ghost Rider DVD, that each year would see a new historical Ghost Rider series by Ennis and Crain that would detail the background of the Spirit of Vengeance.  I'm not sure why or how those plans changed, but it's a damn shame that we didn't get to see more of this team working together on Ghost Rider.  Perhaps it was decided the series wouldn't work with Jason Aaron's work on the regular Ghost Rider series, which was also dealing with the origin of the Spirits of Vengeance?  If I ever get to interview either Ennis or Crain, bet this will be one of the first questions I ask.

So, while "Trail of Tears" remains kind of an oddity in the Ghost Rider mythos, it's still a fantastic series told by a superb creative team.  I absolutely recommend reading it.
Grade: A+