Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears #1, April 2007, Marvel Comics
writer: Garth Ennis
artist: Clayton Crain
letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
assistant editor: Daniel Ketchum
editors: Warren Simons & Axel Alonso
(Blogger's note: You can also check out this review at Geek in the City, complete with images!)
In my fifteen years of comic book collecting, I've never purchased an issue of Ghost Rider. My young peers may have bought the flaming skull shtick, but I dismissed the hype as a shallow (albeit cool) visual gimmick. What kind of depth can a comic book about a motorcycle-riding "spirit of vengeance" offer with so many other superhero books mining the deep complexities of superheroics? Ghost Rider . . . a cool idea for a tattoo turned into a comic book, that's what I thought. Still, as a fan of the medium as a whole, I'm grateful that ol' Skull-head is worthy of his own feature film, as the consequences could only entail greater exposure for the industry overall. So, in anticipation for next week's Ghost Rider release, I caved in and picked up this week's Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears #1.
Which is exactly what Marvel wanted me to do . . .
The Mighty Marvel Marketing Machine is not without method to its madness. Ever since Tim Burton's first Batman film in '89, the publishers have been coordinating the release of supplemental issues to profit from the characters' plunge into the mainstream, and in some cases, like the origin-clarifying Batman: The Killing Joke, obviously intended to secure the Joker's roots within the confines of the comic's continuity, the results are surprisingly worthwhile. (DC made similar efforts with the sequels' villains, as well, providing Scott McDaniel's first take on the Dark Knight and a Paul Dini Mr. Freeze origin akin to his beginnings in Batman: The Animated Series, but nothing beats Alan Moore/Brian Bolland's psychological thriller. Looking at the Joker's past offered bold moves for the future, including the crippling of Barbara Gordon . . . but I digress.) Trail of Tears definitely falls within this "worthwhile" category, at least based on its first issue. Garth Ennis, in his infinite wisdom, strives to discredit my adolescent assumptions that Ghost Rider is merely a glorified special effect, specifically by writing a first issue in which the flaming one doesn't appear, at least not in any traditional sense. I've avoided ol' Skull-head for over a decade, but after a mere twenty-two pages, I found myself asking, "Where the heck is Ghost Rider?!"
Trail of Tears begins at the height of the Civil War, on a bloody battlefield ruled by swords, muskets, and a desperate attempt to preserve the noble reputation of a young country suddenly divided by itself. When a soldier, Travis Parham, tries to save a wounded compatriot, he too is injured and, when the battle is long over, recovered by Caleb, a hard-working black man that bought his freedom years before the war began. Parham lives with Caleb and his family for two years, pontificating about the war, its origins, and the future of America -- with a foresight that can only be explained by a writer coining such a tale some one hundred and fifty years later. When Parham expresses a desire to travel west and pursue his "manifest destiny," Caleb warns, "You gonna go out west an' it gonna be just like the war. You gonna kill or be killed. Comes to the Injuns, you gonna do a mess o' killin' -- 'cause that how it been in this country since the beginnin'." I confess some ignorance to this critical period in our nation's history, but how would a former slave that probably hasn't seen too much of America's then-unexplored countryside know about the Native Americans' claim to the land? Either Ennis unwittingly stepped atop his soapbox here, or he's implying a bit of omniscience on Caleb's part . . . a result of the flaming skulls on the outskirts of his property, perhaps?
Oh, I didn't mention the flaming skulls? While Travis was tilling some land, he stumbled upon a makeshift shrine which incited a vision of everyone's favorite burning bones, sans motorcycle gear. Caleb explained away the specter as his father's watchful spirit, but hinted at something more -- something Ennis will undoubtedly explore next issue, especially with those white-hooded fellows spying on the farm from afar.
If Ennis' plot wasn't deep enough, Clayton Crain's stirring visuals add a texture of expressive storytelling unexpected from a title about "mere special effects." Since Alex Ross's impact on the medium, any comic book with painted interiors instantly boasts a tad more clout as a "legitimate" work of art -- Ross' pages have been sold at auction for various charities -- but Crain's work, and more specifically its historical context, carry a relevance that elevates Trial of Tears to near required reading, and not just because its star has his own film soon to sweep the box office. Crain manipulated each panel to appear like an old Civil War photograph, as if each scene weren't an image from a comic book but an old remembrance from a soldier's scrapbook, and although this effect is lost in the last act of the story, its impression remains long after the read is over. Could old Skull-head precede Cap as America's first wartime hero?
So, in short, Ennis and Crain use the Ghost Rider as a vehicle to tell a story about our country's humble beginnings, steeped in violence and racism, but also smoldering with the promise of nobility and heroism. Who knew? Of course, I'm not expecting such depth from the forthcoming Ghost Rider movie, as its previews promise a one-liner ridden action romp rife with, you guessed it, special effects. Still, I'm grateful that Marvel tricked me into experiencing another side of this often misunderstood hero. For a character in such a tireless pursuit for justice, he's been due some in his own right for awhile.