I'm going to address the elephant in the room before I begin to talk about the high points of this fourth Hellblazer collection written by Garth Ennis: the reason why the rating is only a solid 8 out of 10 stars--which is only a notch higher than the previous volume, Tainted Love. And that's all because of that regrettable story arc called Damnation's Flame that compelled me to remove two points from the collection as a whole. That left the worst aftertaste in my mouth. I don't want to waste anyone's time talking about its stupidity anymore; just know that it's the most singular flaw in an otherwise perfect wrap-up at the end with the amazing Rake at the Gates of Hell which is the titular story to watch out for in this volume.
The volume is comprised of issues #72-#84 but I only managed to individually review until #83 which is the last installment of Rake at the Gates of Hell. Between the mediocre hubbub that was Damnation's Flame and the masterpiece that was Rake, two standalone stories are squeezed in concerning the late Brendan, John's friend who is equally just as messed up as him, and Chas Chandler, John's unarguably most loyal mate whose friendship he almost completely lost since John broke up with Kit on bad terms.
I think Ennis really shines with his standalone issues and I much preferred them to his major arcs. In fact, he had about seven of them now since he started his run and I only enjoyed two of them (Dangerous Habits and Rake). I think I would consider this as my third favorite volume because of Rake and I really wish that they didn't include that forgettable shite that was D.F. Fuck that shit.
So let's talk about Rake at the Gates of Hell. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
This introductory installment is written concisely but brutally in a manner so engrossing that I know Ennis is more than capable of delivering. There are some fucked-up scenes that chilled me to the bone. That opening one with Header talking about a wartime experience; that cringe-worthy racial assault against an African-American woman who was pushed down the stairs by an asshole police detective. The woman's son, who was being apprehended for planted drugs in his room, shoots the motherfucker in the arm and he falls down the window, bleeding profusely which he only deserved. On the more personal side of the narrative, John is currently shagging a black woman named Sarah who knows she's only there to warm his bed and is not happy about it, especially when John tried to help a woman named Helen, a former, uh, "bed-warmer" who is now a junkie prostitute obsessed with her pimp, Phil because he's been dosing her up senseless. John took pity on her but ended up slightly rejecting Sarah and she doesn't look like she would take kindly to that. I'm interested to see the kind of conflict this relationship will lead to. Sarah seemed nice enough. I hope to get to know her.
Meanwhile, Astra approached the First of the Fallen with a promise of retribution against John Constantine to which they will both reap many benefits from. She claimed to have found a way to undo the tangled-up contract that Constantine got him and the rest of his devil-brothers to participate in. This said contract disabled any of them from getting John's soul because that would result to a civil war among them so it was best for the three of them to keep John alive and to make sure his soul is untouched. But Astra, who had nothing more to do in Hell but plot and scheme for ways to destroy the man who damned her there, reassured the First of the Fallen that she had found a loophole. The issue ends with the Devil looking celebratory as fuck as he prepared to move his first piece in the chess game.
There is an ancient law that states that when a demon is bested three times by a mortal then this demon would receive eternal torment instead. John Constantine has tricked the First of the Fallen (Satan himself) about three actual times now. FotF, however, refuses to acknowledge the last con as an official one and begins to plot his next move to take down John. Although these two first met in Ireland when John was visiting his friend Brendan to ask for help, John and FotF go way back. They had an indirect contact when John was infected by Nergal with demon blood under orders of FotF himself so when John has sexual congress with the second Mary (Zed), he will taint her and she will become an unsuitable vessel to birth out a new Messiah for Heaven.
Their first real face-to-face encounter was not very pleasant. First Fallen was supposed to snag Brendan's soul which the poor sod sold in exchange for the world's finest collection of wines. John helps a brotha out by duping First into drinking holy water which rendered hin weak enough for John to beat him up and help Brendan pass over to Heaven when First's claim of his soul expired. Anger and hilariously shamed, First Fallen vowed to take John's soul the moment he dies of lung cancer. John tricked him the second time when he brokers his soul to not one but two other devils, Beelzebub and Azazel. The three now have legitimate claim but cannot risk going to war to fight one another in exchange of claiming one mortal's soul. So they had to cure John of cancer and let him live. This all went down in the Dangerous Habits arc, and man it was hilarious.
Interestingly enough, this story isn't just about John's duel with the Devil. There is a nuanced and troubling story involving the secondary characters of African-British decent and their violent conflicts with the police. It's a subplot that is riveting and chilling on its own, focusing on a character named George who is running away from law enforcement that doesn't give a shit about his civil rights and therefore would gladly be rid of him. And he fights back and his struggle may have some sort of parallel to John's but his own cavalry is unique on its own and I don't want to compare it to John's experience at hand because they are fundamentally very, very different. The situation for this arc reminds me of The Master and Margarita novel which makes use of the Devil and the concept of Hell to highlight important socio-political strifes in Russia. The devil character in that book is both literal and symbolic and equally functions at both. I don't think Ennis himself is attempting for the same effect but it has come off to me that way nevertheless and that's really awesome. Ennis can write satire if he doesn't force it down our throats like that regrettable Damnation's Flame (I swear to Loki this is the last time I'm mentioning that story arc again).
Personally, the two most notable contributions that Ennis bequeathed the Hellblazer series is the iconic Dangerous Habits and the character of Kit Ryan whom John began a meaningful monogamous relationship with. She was a great breath of fresh hair that stands out from the previous women John only shacked up with and then nearly destroyed once the affair burned cold. Kit was sincere, beautiful, assertive and devoted to John in a way that does not diminish her person, and that's why I thought she was a great companion to John when it lasted. But it didn't, mostly because Kit does not want to have anything to do with the crazy, dark side of being with a man as haunted as John; and the moment she got a taste of that, she was left with no choice but to discontinue the relationship. I find it brave and wise of her to make such a decision. Most women would stick around for their man, believing they can fix or save him if they loved him hard enough. Not someone as sensible like Kit though.
She really, really loved John for who he is and not what he could become and that was something I will always adore her for. In this issue, they finally had one night together to talk about how both of them fucked up their break-up conversation since Kit has got quite a temper and John purposefully got her angry at him just to avoid a more mature conversation. And now they are having said talk and I can tell it was cathartic for both parties especially to me as a reader who has been a supporter of this couple from the very beginning. They were old friends; Kit was the ex of the late Brendan, one of John's mates and possibly the only one aside from Chas who had always understood what John is all about perfectly. Kit loved John not because of his charisma or infamy as a occultist but rather because she could see through that costume and acknowledge the insecure man underneath who does long for a stable, home life and she was eager enough to provide him that.
The last installment was almost as satisfying as the ending for Dangerous Habits. It had been a fast and unpredictable roller coaster that paid off with a satisfying and humane conclusion. John moves on from his heartbreak over losing Kit, he finally learns to forgive himself over his friends' often unhealthy attachment to him which gets them in trouble, and he saved a woman he cared about from utterly destroying her life into shambles. Those are the small victories that matter in life, and sure, having his ally Ellie kill the Devil was an amazing feat but John could hardly take credit for that so he focuses on the one thing he can feel triumphant about; and that is to live another day, wiser, more evolved and less afraid.
Bravo, Mr. Ennis. This has been a very spectacular story arc! I expect more great things from now on. But this is the last issue for my second wave of comics diet for Hellblazer. I'm coming back next year, probably earlier. I'm not sure yet, but maybe around May which is John's birthday month. In the meantime, as John said in the last installment of Rake:
"Goodnight and God Bless. Now go fuck off to bed!"