Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 6

Issue #7 “Ghosts in the Machine”
Writter: Jamie Delano
Artist: John Ridgeway, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy
Colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
Letterer:Todd Klein

At this point in Hellblazer, the series has featured many things associated with the 1980s. From demonic yuppies to Satanism scares, Hellblazer touched on many things that made the 1980s the 1980s, and would reflect back to the reader what was happening in the world as the series progressed.  The 7th issue of the series, “Ghosts in the Machine” was published in 1988,  the movie Tron had been released in 1982, a landmark in computer animation in film, Apple had launched the Macintosh in 1984 years prior debuting with one of the most iconic TV commercials from the decade, and William Gibson had published Neuromancer and it’s two sequels over the decade, helping give birth to a new subgenre of science-fiction, cyberpunk, that continues to make ripples in society today.  With these and many other cultural events, it was obvious that computers would be touched upon by Hellblazer at some point, which, although had been around for a number of decades, started to display much more prominence in the world during the decade.

Throughout the series Constantine, for better or for worse, is always sticking his nose where it does not belong, sometimes out of curiosity, other times for a burning desire to obtain information for his own ends. This curiosity of his is wonderfully displayed in the opening scene of the issue in which a dreaming Constantine cavorts with Zed in an empty movie theater, first exploring her body as lovers do before peeling back her skin and muscles in a desperate attempt to find her soul laid bare. Reduced to nothing but a bloody skeleton wearing a gold cross that gazes down at him, Constantine feels ashamed of what he has done, of what he has uncovered, but embraces the skeleton nevertheless.  Like a lot of horror themed media, the scenes evokes repulsion from the grisliness of Constantines action’s combined with erotic undertones and sadness resulting in a rather poignant opening. The scene is one of most gruesome ones the series has done yet, but seems alien and slightly cartoonish with the guest artists of Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy.

Heading to the Weetiebrix Factory, a ploy on the actual UK cereal Weetabix, Constantine meets with his old friend Ritchie, who he has tasked with looking up information on the Resurrection Crusade. Through a combination of magic, technological knowhow, and drug use, Ritchie has learned how to astral project into the computer network and travel into Digital Limbo allowing him to go virtually anywhere and access information as he sees fit.  Astral projection is an out of body experience in which ones consciousness/spirit/soul is removed from it’s physical shell and sent to an astral plane. The concept has shown up in many different cultures throughout human history, and shares some similarities with the concepts of virtual reality and cyberspace seen in science-fiction stories. The scene is a sharp comparison on the similarities of magic and technology and brings to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[1] From a narrative perspective, astral projection serves as a handy method of relaying information to characters with a more “magical” feel than either hypnotism or divination, and would be commonly used within Hellblazer and other magical themed series both within and outside the medium.

Returning to Zed who was left with Constantine’s friend Ray for safety, we learn a little more on the relationship between the two. Ray hints that he and Constantine were lovers at one point when he first came to London, but does not reveal much more than that as “[his] heart belongs to another,” a soldier who died in the Falklands War referred to as Sergeant Bill. This scene marks the first time Constantine’s sexuality is directly brought up. We have seen him and Zed make love, but based off what we know about Constantine’s curiosity, it is not that surprising of a discovery that he may have experimented in his younger days. Zed mentions on how she heard that Ray is “ill,”  in which Ray responds to how she should not be afraid to refer to AIDS by name, as it implies you are afraid of it and don’t want to face the truth of what it is and would rather it be forgotten about, like people often do with homosexuals and drug addicts, or their own fears in general.[2] Ray mentions how the public won’t show as much interest in handling the disease until a predominant amount of heterosexual people start dying, but by then it shall be too late. It’s a stark statement on selfishness and how the public has a tendency to avoid facing a problem until it’s their problem as well. Before being able to change the subject to something more positive, the Resurrection Crusade bursts in to retrieve Zed to fulfill her destiny, trying to tell them they have the wrong girl, it is revealed that Elder Martin from “Waiting for the Man” is in fact Zed/Mary’s father. The Crusaders take Zed and then proceed to beat Ray to death on the account of his sexuality. In instances of the eternal struggle of Heaven vs. Hell outside of Hellblazer, the agents of Heaven are more often than not portrayed as “good” while the agents of Hell are “evil” but as seen here the actions of the Resurrection Crusaders are anything but good, and the merciless killing of Ray clearly showing the tyrannical viewpoints of the Crusaders, solidifying them as antagonists within the opening story arc and not just uptight fundamentalists.

Returning to Constantine kicking a unresponsive coffee machine until it assuredly will never operate again in a haunting mirror of the previous scene, Constantine returns to check on Ritchie. Communicating through a computer speaker on his journey, Ritchie uncovers the location of the Tongues of Fire, a shadowy splinter group of the Resurrection Crusade that possess highly advanced technology. During his trip through the digital landscapes that he describes as akin to “discovering a new universe” Ritchie wonders why Constantine is so interested in the Crusaders and surmises that it must be because of a woman, which the reader is well aware of it clearly is. John Ridgeway’s splash pages combined with Jamie Delano’s prose are at their highest in these scenes, crafting a setting that seamlessly merges technology and magic in its descriptions and images.  Before he can “start the long return to doll corporeality and reclaim [his] body’s tawdry clay” Ritchie stumbles upon a “logic bomb”  while exploring the Tongues of Fire system, causing his body to spontaneously combust before a helpless Constantine, who is unable to put out the flames before his body becomes a burnt husk. The scene is akin to the writing of many sci-fi writers of the 80s and 90s, where hackers often have to avoid security systems that send fatal biofeedback to their users. Usually such events result in strokes, cardiac arrest, or convulsions, but as it would later be revealed that Ritchie actually came across a connection to Heaven within the Internet, so the spontaneous combustion gives the scene a more appropriate magical feel, as well as doing a modern retelling of Icarus. With no body to return to, Constantine pulls the plug on Ritchie leaving his consciousness to roam the digital landscapes as he mourns the loss of another friend. Sitting in a daze on a train, and thinking about all of the friends he has gotten killed, Constantine is visited by The Ghosts who attempt to have a sort of intervention. Obviously cracking by the maddening grin on his face and after listening to what the ghosts have to say, Constantine descends into full breakdown and jumps from the moving train in an effort to escape.

“Ghosts in the Machine” adds another two friends to the list of those who have died as a result of their association with Constantine. Up until now we have seen Constantine suffer and bear with the deaths of those around him, but we see that even he has his limits suffering a full break and forgetting that he was travelling on a speeding train. This may have been the fact that Ritchie was the last of “The Newcastle Crew” an event that resulted in Constantine’s incarceration for a time and would continue to haunt him for a decade after it happened. Constantine’s lapse in memory on his current method of transportation directly leads to an event whose that would have just a large an effect on his life just as Newcastle had.

Notes:

[1] “‘Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination’” Arthur C. Clark

[2] Voldemort from Harry Potter being referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is a clear cut example in pop culture of people succumbing to their fears, while The Litany Against Fear from The Dune Saga is the reverse of this notion.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Nestorowich is a Michigan Technological University graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering. To keep his sanity in the perpetual winter of Houghton, in his free time he dove head first into exploring all that comics had to offer, which worked to a certain extent. He eventually started writing about them at every opportunity, settling on a blog at some point. When not reading, watching, or writing something, Max can be found in the Analytical Chemistry Lab in which he finds employment, doing science.

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