Issue #5 “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”
Writer: Jamie Delano;
Art: John Ridgeway;
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski;
Letters: Todd Klei;
Cover: Dave McKean
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” marks the first issue of the series that takes place entirely in America, although “Hunger” and “Feast of Friends” take place in New York, the story could have easily taken place anywhere else in the world. What sets this issue of Hellblazer apart from the other two is the effects of the Vietnam War in the United States. The issue flips back and forth between the present in Liberty, Iowa and the events of August 28th 1968 in the Quang Tri Province of Vietnam with the events mirroring one another, matching tragedy for tragedy. Visiting America to check up on the Swamp Thing, the ever curious Constantine has found himself in Liberty, Iowa. Fueled by belief and of the promises of the Resurrection Crusade to bring their boy’s back home, the elderly citizens of Liberty have worked their way up the “Pyramid of Prayer” to have their hopes broadcasted across the world. Greeted by Frank Ross, the one returning soldier obviously suffering from PTSD, and his handgun, Constantine firsthand sees the horrors of the private lives of the citizens of Liberty, and he realizes it is too late for him to escape whatever is coming, and that he won’t be able to stop it. Constantine in this situation sees himself as an observer along for the ride as like the addict that he is, he can’t step away from it as he has to see how this story will end, however it may be.
Dressing in his combat fatigues with his M-16 and accompanied by the ghosts of his former brothers in arms, Frank Ross barges in while the townsfolk watch a televangelist call out to support the people of Liberty. This marks the first time where we see a completely helpless Constantine unable to face or assist the horror at hand. Not because he does not want to, but because there is nothing he can do in this situation. There is no way he can rush in to save the day like a superhero that will not result in his own demise. Constantine laughs in the face of gods and devils but is powerless to the cold oppressive metal of a gun. His action’s mirroring his time in Vietnam, it is revealed that Frank Ross is the reason that no one else from Liberty ever came back home, because of a napalm strike that wiped out his squad. Constantine comments on how the Vietnam War wasn’t “his” war, but was everyone’s war with the amount of footage broadcast around the world each night that brought the war to everyone’s living room. Media broadcasts focusing heavily on military tactics as opposed to why the US was directly involved in Vietnam would fuel American opposition to the war, and is regarded as one of the main factors in why the US lost the war, with the conflict earning the of “The War Lost at Home.” By the conclusion of the war over 58,000 US soldiers were killed in action, 153,000 wounded, and according to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, it estimated that 830,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD.
The conclusion of the issue shows Constantine outside a video store advertising films that show how war really was. Constantine fully doubts this, remarking on how the events in Liberty have taken him from observer to witness when it comes to the Vietnam War. Hellblazer has a theme of experiencing horror firsthand, beyond the visceral, morbid sense (in the plight of the common man, usually oppressed or downtrodden). Seeing someone in a film gunned down or beaten to death in a movie is one thing, but to experience those things firsthand, to hear the screams, and to see a final breath is another thing entirely. The issue also remarks on how belief is a very powerful thing, for faith, magic, and otherwise. If enough people believe in something, and the conditions are right, the unexpected could very much happen, although not in the way one would want them to.
The most unsettling thing about “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is the fact that other than the presence of the returned Liberty soldiers, this very well could just be a horror story about a former soldier with PTSD who never was able to fully integrate back into society upon returning home, which sadly does, and continues to, happen to this day. At one point Constantine tricks Ross by acting like his former drill sergeant, which could be magic, or could be Constantine taking advantage of a vulnerable mind, it is probably a little of both. To some the horrors of war are not easily forgotten, and for some they never are and are a burden that is carried with the individual every day. British writers having a story about either the horrors of America, or American culture in general, started becoming more common at this time, with comics such as 2000AD already being in print for 10 years, with series like Preacher and Transmetropolitan to come later in the 1990s. While debate can be made on whether they are suited to write the stories they have, these writers certainly give an interesting perspective as an outside observer of American culture.
As much as British writers tend to comment on America, I always find myself looking for mistakes in speech patterns, cadence, and turns of phrase. Particularly when the author is writing characters in the south. For the most part, I remember Delano pulling off the mid-west quite well. This was a great issue. Definitely disturbing and could totally exist without ghosts.