Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hellblazer by Garth Ennis issue #71

It's inarguable that over the course of the Hellblazer series, we witnessed for ourselves how titular hero John Constantine has had it tough. You know what, strike that: he had it shitty as fuck. No other character in comics (save, perhaps, the Punisher) plays tortured anti-hero in the most compelling manner possible.

A boy who absorbed his twin brother in the womb, whose mother died birthing him, and whose father alternated between being emotionally absent and abusive, John was naturally drawn to the darker, more macabre side of things. He became a consummate occultist, specializing in the art of spells, exorcism and varied cons. Exuding charisma, he seduced unwitting friends into his circle, most of them he had negligently put in harm's way several times. His ultimate sin came in the form of a possessed little girl he was unable to save and whose soul he condemned to hell all because he was too prideful and thought he could handle summoning a demon. 

Over the course of this series, we saw John scheme, lie, and bargain his way out of numerous near-death experiences. He sacrificed one of his friends to become a vessel for a hunger demon from the first two issues of writer Jamie Delano's run; he duked it out with the demon Nergal at the cost of another friend's life; he abandoned Zed Martin, a woman who trusted him; he met a mother and daughter and got them to care about him, only to ditch them when things got too inconvenient for him; he tried to do the right thing by capturing a serial killer of families; he lost himself in the revelation that he was supposed to have a twin brother if only he didn't outlive him in the womb, therefore indirectly killing said sibling; he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and then, in the nick of time, trick three devil-kings into a shared contract over his soul which left them no choice but to keep him alive. To top it all, readers have to contend with the fact that John's overpowering character arc always revolved around guilt, and the stories and situations that stem from that are remarkably depressing and pitiful. Still, we never stopped believing he could be the hero we always hoped it would be.  We continue to see a hopeful spark in the darkness that surrounds him.

When Garth Ennis took over the writing responsibilities for the series, we see some of this guilt getting absolved little by little through the loving care of Kit Ryan, a woman whom John allowed himself to fall in love for and who loved him back just as fiercely. For a time, things became less suffocating and healthier for John. He went on investigating his paranormal cases but doesn't self-destruct anymore because he has a good woman he can come home to at the end of the day. His relationship with Kit was his salvation--and eventually became his bitter undoing. Kit never wanted to get involved with John's dark vocation and inclinations and once she got a taste of the dangers he faced, she was forced to make a decision and end things with him. This left John in yet another bad place where he is absolutely vulnerable and ripe for the picking. He had just called it a temporary truce with the First of the Fallen who still has an inferno axe to grind with him. He also just turned forty which made John all the more aware of his mortality and the sordid sins of his past that will always have a long reach. Without a woman who loves him, John spirals and hits rock bottom in the severest way possible. He only found comfort and brief consolation in watching an arrogant narcissist who fancied himself as the King of Vampires, get burned to death after choking from the demon blood that was coursing through John's veins.

After that, John continues to drunk himself into a stupor, occasionally wandering around and the collapsing in odd places where slumber at least gives him some peace. In this issue, The Finest Hour, we see John in an awful state of unkempt personal appearance and worsening alcohol dependence lose consciousness near a skeletal remains of a man whose final moments were shared through a dream sequence. The man turned out to be a flight pilot during the second World War whose youth and optimism did not prevent him from his untimely and unfair death when he unceremoniously crashed-landed in some plain. John woke up from seeing his memories and felt absolutely ashamed and humbled. There he was, miserable and beyond redemption, or so he thinks, while there are countless others like that late pilot who hasn't even lived a full life as he had. Sure, John's life is a stormy shitfest of regrets, blood and broken vows but at least he lives. And that's what John should do now, no matter the rock bottoms that he will collapse into again and again.

John cleans himself up, shaves at last and puts on his familiar trench coat. He buries the remains of the man and thanks him for reminding him of the constant cycle of victory and defeat that defines humanity, and that John Constantine's road, though a lonely path, is only something he has the strength and determination to walk through. It's poignant that the dead had gave the living a purpose. This issue was such a comforting story about self-reliance and acceptance of the past. It left me smiling sadly as I stared into the last two pages of the said pilot's alternate ending to his life. After John buries the remains, we see the pilot successfully flying his little plane back into the sunny horizon. It was a symbolic confirmation that John was able to help the poor guy carry over onto the next step after death, and into his brand of paradise where even the sky has no limits. And, maybe, John can do the same.


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