Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hellblazer by Jamie Delano issue #11

I can't be sure if Jamie Delano intentionally writes John Constantine as a character you don't instantly like and rarely sympathize with, but I'm rather enjoying that approach because such a flawed mechanism of a character has been advantageous to the stories Hellblazer has told us so far. It's worth noting that Delano did not just decide to write our titular protagonist this way without some backstory to affirm the characterization so far. So, finally, we get the issue that explains it all--yet it's also a story that manages to leave us some disconcerting realizations of our own regarding John Constantine as the central character of the series.

During the first nine issues, there have been mentions of 'Newcastle' here and there and from what we can understand, it seems to hint some sort of mysterious and tragic event that happened in John's past which ultimately claimed the lives of his friends who were a part of it. It certainly has a I Know What You Did Last Summer vibe to it (that is if you grew up in the nineties like me and that's your go-to pop culture reference pertaining to this kind of horror trope). I have stated previously that this issue is the very first Hellblazer story I ever encountered and it's also coincidentally one of the significant issues in the series because it revealed an arc that will play out for the upcoming issues.

This won't be a spoiler-free review. After all, it would be impossible to review this issue without discussing several points that I want to inspect closely, all in direct considerations of John's role in this bloody mess and how his characterization in the current timeline was actually validated through it, and in consequence of what happened in Newcastle. So here we are in issue #11, otherwise known as "Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come".

First of all, what the hell is 'Newcastle'? It's a place in north of England. Nothing ominous to it, really, except of what happened in its location, specifically in The Casanova Club, a nightclub where John Constantine and his band Mucous Membrane (have I not mentioned he's a punk musician too?) has performed in once. The owner failed to pay the band so the MM returned the next day to collect the money. However, based on John's monologues, he also secretly decided to come back to the dreary place because of his suspicions concerning the owner Alex Logue and his daughter Astra. And he wasn't wrong.

He was joined by characters we have seen in the previous issues like Gary Lester (issues #1-2), Ritchie Simpson (issue #7) and the ghosts who have been haunting John like Benjamin Cox (a teenage occult expert) and Anne-Marie (who later became a nun). The only two characters that newly appeared for this issue alone were Frank North, a biker, and Judith, a tantric magician/ocassional fuck-buddy of John. Together they broke in to the place and uncovered a foul massacre in the basement. John quickly finds the little girl Astra and hypnotizes her to understand what happened. As it turns out, Astra was indeed being sexually abused by her father and he would often force her to participate in orgies with his other elder friends and the hookers who frequent the club. Unknowingly, due to the extreme pain and suffering, Astra had somehow conjured a demon named Norfulthing who manifested itself in earthly plane and butchered her father and the rest of consorts. 

Things got even more horrific when they realized that Norfulthing was still lurking around and ends up raping Ben before Frank rescues the poor boy and shoots the demon in the face. John asked Judith (with help from Gary Lester) to summon a demon to fight Norfulthing. Unfortunately, due to reckless arrogance or plain ignorance, John was unable to name the demon properly and bind it. THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS IS A SCREW-UP THAT YOU CAN'T JUST GET AWAY WITH IT. 

So after this unnamed demon seduces Anne-Marie by disguising himself as John (it is mentioned that Anne-Marie is infatuated with John), he pours acid into her face and made her jump out of a window, rendering Astra vulnerable so this new demon possesses her body and kills Norfulthing. When John tries to exorcise it, the unnamed demon claims that because he didn't name him properly, he has no power whatsoever to command him. To further spite Constantine, this demon decided to take Astra's body and soul with him to Hell. John immediately volunteers himself as replacement but the unnamed demon taunts him and shows him a glimpse of what he will have to endure next to Astra.

Meanwhile, his friends try to desperately close the portal where the unnamed demon had come from. John drags Astra with him as he runs to get out of the strip of Hell he was transported to along with the child. He manages to jump out just in time as the portal closes. For a brief moment he thought he succeeded in saving the little girl but then Judith hysterically pointed out that all that John was holding onto by then was a piece of her arm and that the rest of her had been locked in, delivered to the clutches of the unnamed demon. John was devastated but they all agreed never to speak of the incident again.

Still, each of these occultists were punished by their own guilt one way or the other. John committed himself into a mental facility for two years. Ben never recovered from the rape and became a pronounced stutterer. Badly scarred, Anne-Marie became a nun and never spoke to John ever again. Judith joined a cult which consumed her eventually. Gary Lester became a heroin addict and was killed off when John sacrificed his body as a vessel for a hunger demon to live in (as seen in issue #2). Ritchie Simpson became an underground hacker until he finally met his end from issue #7. Only Frank was relatively unharmed until he joined Ben, Anne-Marie and Judith in a Swamp Thing issue to fight an oncoming apocalypse but none of them survived. It's often funny how karma settles the score.

So that's basically what happened in Newcastle. It's the backstory we needed to get a better understanding of why John Constantine's overall countenance since we met him is sour, dismissive and often depressed. Do I think that such a formative event justifies how he acted in the succeeding events, starting from the second issue with Gary Lester until the ninth issue where he became indirectly responsible for Zed's death (after having sexual intercourse with her, soiling her vessel that she was unable to receive divine copulation from an angel who viciously kills her in the end)? NO. ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY NOT. I don't excuse his heinous and selfish decisions to sacrifice these people he supposedly cared about. I also consider it mercy-killing when he unplugged the computers where Ritchie Simpson's consciousness was entrapped in, all because he couldn't tell his friend that he had burned his body. I may sound vehement at this point but it's only because I am torn with my love for Constantine in the later issues and my feelings for him now after I read the earlier issues.

Cowardly, blinded by grief and overpowered by fear, John is at his worst when we met him for the first time in Hellblazer, and we have yet to see him at his best. It's really not a mystery that we don't approve of John's actions in the context of his spiritual brokenness, most especially when it cost so many lives, particularly of the people he is intimately associated with. But at least the event in Newcastle has clarified some of the darkness, and allowed us to understand better what ticked him off and undid the seams in the first place. I enjoyed the highs and lows that Delano has constructed in just eleven issues of this series. I'm simultaneously intrigued, repulsed and saddened by how John Constantine is characterized so far.

Strangely enough, I think Hellblazer truly becomes groundbreaking when we are offered with morally ambiguous and grim stories such as this one. It becomes quite uncomfortable yet ultimately satisfying when we read a protagonist that keeps challenging our compassion and open-mindedness the way John has. I think we are definitely on the right track--especially now that John knows who the fucking unnamed demon was and it's no other than NERGAL, LEADER OF DAMNATION ARMY who appeared officially in issue #4. Let the mind games begin!


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