Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hellblazer Volume 4: The Family Man by Jamie Delano

[It completely slipped my mind to review this volume collection last year so here we go]

Comprised of eleven issues, The Family Man has to be my most favorite volume of all the Hellblazer collections so far. The reason is because Delano's story arc concerning the serial killer who targets happy families and his cat-and-mouse game with John Constantine definitely remains as one of the most chilling and memorable things I have read in Hellblazer. I'm currently in Ennis' run, but nothing in Ennis' stories so far can compare as far as unsettling and disturbing goes. This story Delano crafted asked some hard questions about the moral repercussions and emotional decay that entails taking a life, and the writer had something philosophical albeit bleak to offer.

This isn't a perfect collection, however. Grant Morrison contributes two issues (#25-26) for this volume which was...not that great, and this is coming from someone who would defend a lot of Morrison's more complex and ambitious comics like Batman Incorporated which I think tends to be deeply misunderstood by Bat-fans themselves. Neil Gaiman also has a standalone issue (#27) which was as Gaimanesque as one could expect and I really, really hope he'd write for Hellblazer again down the pipeline. Another standalone issue includes the opening issue #23 which was a nonsensical yet delightfully quirky story about a man who has grown to love the fictional worlds he reads and collects that he was becoming less of a real person in his life.

Aside from that, we get a very intimate look concerning John's relationship with his father in issue #31. The poignancy of this issue will unmistakably move readers, that I can guarantee. For his form of bereavement, John makes amends with his father whom he shared a very tumultuous relationship with growing up. He hasn't seen the old man in years and it's quite sad that it was only through his demise that they were reunited. Once again indirectly responsible of the death of a loved one, I thought John would maintain his cowardly ways and just walk away from this. After all, that's the John we met when the series started--and we loathed him for it. But the beauty of being a human being is that we evolve constantly, and John has grown and changed in the course of the many  frightening experiences he faced where the true measure of his character has been tested and eventually refined.

I think The Mourning of the Magician is the perfect follow-up to the grim story arc that was the Family Man. In that story, we see John kill a man for the first time and it has left him questioning everything that was sacred to him, and everything he wanted to stand for. I don't think John ever considered himself a hero but I know he wants to be a good man who chooses the right things. Killing a man, though it was a bastard who deserves it and John did it out of self-preservation, was still a very significant moment because Constantine acknowledges that taking a life is no small potatoes. It will change you in a way you can never come back from. So understandably, I thought we'll get a darker John out of this, suffering from the burden of such an action. But no, Delano decided to provide us something bittersweet and uplifting here in this issue.
 But I think I'm getting ahead of myself now. The true star of this volume, of course, is the transcendent main story arc that started with issue #24 and continued on from issues #28-30.

For The Family Man, it feels more personal than it should, most probably because serial killings are intimate in some level, especially when crimes against humanity like this can threaten what we know about the safety of social constructs versus the savage inclinations of the human nature. It would be just awesome for Hellblazer to tackle this and with a character like John Constantine who lives and makes decisions left and right with shades of gray. Basically, a serial killer is on the loose and he massacres happy families. That's how the issue begins, showing us a family having a normal day and then shit got real fast. After that, we shift the narrative focus on out titular hero. John's friend from the previous issue, the shop keeper/procurer of rare and priceless things/fictional-character-trying-to-be-a-real-person named Jerry O'Flynn gets taken and so John decides to squat in his mansion for a while. It's worth mentioning that John has great respect for O'Flynn because, judging from their interactions from the previous issue, there is a certain fondness they share for each other. So he feels the need to probe his friend's life just to amuse himself--and ends up discovering a repugnant secret. As it turns out, his friend has been supplying information to this customer who turns out to be a serial killer. I felt John's horror and sickening feelings as the truth creeps its way in. 

Of all the story arcs featured in Delano's run of Hellblazer so far, I think the Family Man had the most solid conclusion and most probably because it stayed true to its core; a grounded psychological drama that explored our main character's ongoing struggle towards forces beyond comprehension, let alone his control, and his conflict with a monster in human form: a serial killer who had committed heinous crimes that spanned for decades which could be interpreted as merely a tragic result of the most common (and often underestimated) suffering of all: a childhood under neglectful and emotionally absent parents.

The old argument of nature vs. nurture definitely plays a vital role in the narrative for this last issue of the Family Man arc entitledFatality. Here we get the climactic confrontation between Constantine and Morris and it was every bit as thrilling, dangerous and heart-pounding as I thought it would be. The collision was both meaningful and absurd, an ill-fated meeting between two men who have been consumed and tortured by their own inner demons for a long time--but only one of them survives the encounter. Understandably, it's John because he is the titular hero of this series, but the victory is not sweet or worth relishing at all. It was yet another rude awakening for Constantine as he eventually embraces the futility of it all. It's been hinting towards that end, actually, since the very first issue of this arc, that John is going to have to murder Samuel Morris (I mean, just look at the goddamn issue cover so me stating this is not a spoiler) because it was the only scenario that could possibly play out where John will get away with his life. But John, in spite of his often reckless and arrogant ways that cost some of his friends' lives, is inherently a good man who cannot imagine taking another human being's life with his own hands. This display of vulnerability makes him more relatable, to be honest.

The resolution of the entire arc was proverbially devastating. As a story and speaking about it objectively, it was predictable yet it did not make the finale act any less powerful and thought-provoking at all. Under the right conditions, anyone can kill another human being. There is a strength to it so brutal and brittle all at once--to be able to make that haste decision that it's either you or that person who must live. It made me think about how I will act in a similar situation and whether I will choose to kill or be killed. In context of all the events that have happened in John's life as I follow him diligently in this series, I think this could be considered a game-changer but one that is on a more intimate level where the pressure will solely rest on John's psyche, and it could determine his succeeding actions in the next cases he will take on. 

I'm glad that Delano approached this sort of story with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the weight it carries. He could have easily wrote a story where killing people is something badass and casual that heroes do, as most action-oriented comics would portray. He didn't completely discard the social and moral impact of such an act, thankfully, which only further elevated the Family Man story arc in my eyes. I think this would be the highest compliment I could give him for his run of Hellblazer because it is the first time that I've read something of his work in this series that does not always have to be a grand spectacle like his Fear Machine arc. He should write more stories like this, and put John in compromising situations that will force his character to grow and evolve.

In a nutshell, the four-issued The Family Man arc is extraordinary and definitely my most favorite of Delano's stories, and this volume is a guaranteed collectible.


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