Issue #75 “Damnation’s Flame: Hail to the Chief”
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 from last issue, “Hail to the Chief” opens with John Constantine on the White House lawn beset by a group of skeletal Native Americans with JFK and Cedella in tow. This issue brings Damnation’s Flame to a close and moves the discussion from America in the present day and America in the 20th century to America’s newly found role as a global power. It is by far the most heavy handed issue of the storyline but features some of the most memorable scenes and panels that stick with the reader long after the issue.
The title “Hail to the Chief” is of course a reference to the President of the United States, but also serves in the beginning of the issue in which Constantine stares down a horse backed war party whose Chief wants to have his say before the skeletons allow Constantine to continue on his path. They too seek freedom from the Dark Reflection of America and desire Constantine’s help. Before Costantine can protest an arrow is shot into his chest “a gift from the Peyote God” and Constantine begins to hallucinate again,1 in a way that can be only described as Inception-like. Peyote, a small spineless cactus that contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline, has long been used in Native American religious ceremonies and as a medicinal substance. Peyote is itself one of the 4 principal deities of the Huichol religion and is seen as the visionary sacrament which allows access to the other deities for parishioners. Additionally The Native American Church is also known as Peyotism, characterized by mixing traditional beliefs with aspects of Protestant beliefs alongside the use of entheogen peyote. The following 6 page sequence is a documentation of the Manifest Destiny, the destined goal of America to reach from coast to coast in the ever pursuit west, and the despair that has come from America achieving that goal. Obvious in this discussion is the genocide committed against the Native population in the achievement of this goal, the most infamous being The Trail of Tears in which a forced relocation of the Cherokee people from east of the Mississippi to present day Oklahoma resulted in the deaths of several thousand tribe members. After America had “conquered” its own territory it turned it’s attention elsewhere to become a global power, and after World War II a superpower, and after the end of the Cold War THE Superpower, as Ennis displays Russian as a chained bear that has eaten out its own heart, while Britannia lies in the gutter with a heroin syringe, symbolizing the fallen empire that’s a mere shadow of where it was at the beginning of the century. However all is not well for America or as the vision refers to it as, The Pimp, as there are those that will fight against it. A fleeing Asian woman meant to be a prostitute is shot down by the Star Spangled Pimp as she tries to escape representing the defiance of the both the Koreans and Vietnamese, two wars that could be said America fought to a standstill at best. The vision hints that America’s days as top pimp are not forever, with a rising sun on the verge of looming over a city being hinted as a possible future threat to America’s dominance. Being that this issue was written just as the Japanese economic collapse of the early 1990s began, it is surmisable that not eventually the economy could come back just as America’s did following the Great Depression, but infact the economic downturn of the country lasted for nearly a decade. If this issue were written today some sort of motif representing China would be looming over the city with a frightened America looking onwards, but even now nothing is certain.
The Native Americans were the first to fall to America and they foresee others falling and wish release from their suffering, as the treatment of the indigenous people of North America is a deep dark stain on the United States. However as Constantine’s methods involve betrayal and tainted methods they determine he will be of no use to them as he is “just another white man” telling him that his past is always with him the Skeletons release him from his vision and leave him be. The entire sequence serves little from a narrative perspective other than the phrase that “your past is always with you” but Ennis is hardly subtle over the message he’s trying to convey in this story arc. Recovering to his feet Cidella declares she is leaving the Hellscape and tell’s Constantine all he needs to do is “Wake Up” but not before declaring she is going to pay her brother Papa Midnite a visit. Last seen seen cowering in fear in his conservatory next to the shattered remains of Cedella’s skull after Constantine seared the link it had to her soul, Midnite is instructed to jump from the top of the Empire State building of which he decides to do as an atonement for what he put his sister through.
Finally journeying into the White House Constantine and JFK arrive in the Oval Office where they are greeted by the President. In the last issue Constantine had joked that he thought it would be Richard Nixon, but this would have been a bit too obvious as would have been Andrew Jackson due to his role in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 the direct cause of The Trail of Tears. The President reigning over the White House is in fact Abraham Lincoln, one of the nation’s greatest Presidents whom like JFK was assassinated. This may strike the reader as odd and shocking, but this is entirely the point and I style Ennis would make great use of in Preacher and The Boys. As to why Lincoln would be sitting in the Oval Office, Lincoln like JFK is a figurehead that people will not let go because of his great deeds in office, most famously ending slavery in the United States, an act that he will be forever known for. However there are those who saw Lincoln as tyrannical for his actions, overstepping his presidential powers and causing a war which resulted in the deaths of over 700,000 Americans. However this entire appearance is a ruse as “Lincoln” is in fact The First of the Fallen who has been watching Constantine’s journey and having a laugh. JFK stands defiant to The First with Constantine’s claim of aid as something he can fall back on, but when the ex-presidents turn to acknowledge the foreigner, they find the room otherwise vacant with Constantine fleeing from a foe he is not yet ready to deal with. A foe Constantine is ready to deal with are the homeless vagrants who look to set Constantine ablaze for supposedly being “A pretty boy motherlovin’ faggot” who in return gets his eye poked out by John as he awakes screaming from his dream before John runs off yet again. Clothed and cleaned, John returns to the bar where he started his adventure, with the realization that “this is a world of idiots and bastards/so make your choice.”
While a searing look at United States and certainly featuring a number of memorable scenes and moments, Damnation’s Flame isn’t Ennis’ best work when it comes to his Hellblazer run. Effectively creepy where it needs to be, much of the dialog is heavy handed and the pacing gets jarred by the appearance of the the Native Americans in the final act after the revelation that of what is actually going on in the previous issue. Nevertheless the arc serves as a transition point for Constantine back to his regular bastardness (John abandoning JFK is one of my favorite Constantine moments) by the reintroduction of The First of the Fallen, whom has been otherwise absent from the series for a number of issues despite the feud the pair currently have. Ennis’ run on Hellblazer concludes in 8 issues and Damnation’s Flame does a solid job of reminding the reader of the burden that John Constantine, our countries and ourselves all carry with is as we march on to our unknown fates.
1. As stated all the way back in Hellblazer #1, John Constantine hates hallucinogens.