Issue #74 “Damnation’s Flame: Trail of Tears”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
Picking up immediately where the previous issue left off, “Trail of Tears” moves from the cultural and local issues of New York City and the notable national events of the 20th century in America. Primarily the events that Ennis focuses on in this issue are post World War II when America effectively became a superpower alongside the then Soviet Union. Being that certain events of the Cold War are amongst the most memorable (for good or ill) moments of the 20th century, some of which are still discussed today, it only makes sense that Ennis chooses to focus on this particular period of time in American history.
First and foremost is to discuss Constantine’s new companion, former United States President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The inclusion of America’s 35th President goes hand in hand with the events that the issue covers, particularly as the JFK drawn by Steve Dillon is after he is fatally shot in Dallas, Texas. Arguably one of America’s most charismatic and notable Presidents, Kennedy is remembered for his speeches that inspired the nation to try and achieve great things, most memorable being the “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort”, more commonly known as “We chose to go to the moon” from which the famous line “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard;” originates. As Constantine and JFK discuss briefly within the pages of the issue Kennedy was seen by many as “the last hope for fairness and decency in America” and is regarded as being struck down in his prime when he was assassinated during his 3rd year as President. However like the Camelot that his Presidency is often compared to all was not idyllic, with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba occurring during his term, as well as extensive rumors about the President partaking in extramarital affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe supposedly. In fact it is this Arthurian mindset that the ex-President assigns to why his spirit is stuck in the state of Purgatory/Limbo that it is. Here Kennedy serves as Constantine’s guide and promises to help him escape if Constantine can help him reclaim the White House which Kennedy hopes will allow his spirit to move on.
Throughout the next two issues JFK has his right hand behind his head holding in the remnants of his brain and in how his arm is positioned looks as if he is saluting. As the “America” shown within the issue is a mockery/farce of the actual nation it only serves that the “JFK salute” is itself a mockery of an actual military salute. Amusingly, the cadence of the ex-President’s dialog matches that of his recorded speeches, and like one would expect feels as if it is prewritten speech carefully crafted not to make any false claims or promises that would incite outrage as if it were nationally broadcast. It comes off as stiff and rehearsed but works wonderfully against Constantine’s sarcastic casual and somewhat insulting tone. After questioning JFK on bizarre rumors concerning his assassination, Constantine and JFK come to Washington DC where they come across two particular scenes. The first is of a human of indeterminate gender wrapped in a rose bush, invisible except for their mouth and a hand holding a rose.The figure recounts the tale of how it gave a soldier a flower at a peace march when tensions were high. This is most likely a reference to a photograph known as “Flower Power” in which an anti-war protestor sticks carnations in the barrels of National Guardsmen near the Pentagon. While the flowers here are roses, it’s obvious from the look of anguish on the figure’s face that they are in pain but the scene is oddly beautiful. In this sense the image effectively blends the beauty and the carnage of the time and the moment that the image from 1967 captures. Next is a Marine sitting on top of a hill by a giant white flagpole adorned with America’s flag. The Vietnam-era Marine tells JFK “we took it, sir. We took Heaven. And we held it Ain’t it beautiful?” As JFK is about to tell the Marine that this is not heaven it is revealed that the Marine has no eyes. The phallic symbolism of the flagpole is painfully obvious and is meant to evoke America’s quest to crush communism during the Cold War, while the eyeless marine represents the horrors of war America saw through it’s televisions at home and the sacrifices the nation made in the “fight for Democracy.”
Eventually the pair come to the White House and decide to sneak in through a secret tunnel that any Hollywood adaptation says are beneath the White House. As they walk through what appears to be a colon, the tunnel starts to shake and the spirit of Papa Midnite’s sister Cedella appears before John and the ex-President. Throughout his appearance’s Midnite refers to his ever present skull as his sister, and there have been subtle hints throughout the story arc thus far that she is the source of Midnite’s power. The aged Cedella tells Constantine she is the reason that he is witchwalking and that she has brought him here to help her free herself from Midnite’s control, whom is revealed to have killed Cedella many years ago for power and “a little slice of hell” in which this vision takes place. Using “magic” and his lit cigarette Constantine burns something into Cedella effectively blinding Midnite from observing what is happening to Constantine, much how Constantine made Ellie undetectable from the First of the Fallen. The entire scene is restrained and subtle, no complex display of “arcane” energy or swirling lights, just a lit cigarette a black panel with a scream, and a bright light off panel that has Constantine averting his eyes. Thanks to the “magic” of Constantine all three of the party are now free to leave once they reach the Oval Office where JFK can also become president again. Climbing out of the tunnel onto the White House lawn the trio find themselves surrounded by skeletal Native Americans, who have been tracking Constantine also seeking his aide.
All of the events portrayed within Damnation’s Flame are things that sit heavy on America’s mind, for better or for worse, they are things that are too important not to forget or not know about, as nearly all of these historical events are standard curriculum in public school. While the title of the issue “Trail of Tears” refers to the plight of Native Americans, of whom only appear in shadows midway through and resplendent at the final page, the story of JFK, the student, the Marine, and Cedella are all sad in their own way and incur reflection from the reader about the price of power, freedom, safety.