Although the series is still very early on, the characterization of Constantine has become defined to the point in which the reader can assign him to playing the role of a puppeteer. John manipulates others making them perform and dance as he manipulates the strings with a sly remark and a never ending supply of Silk Cut cigarettes. It is a role Constantine knows he plays well, and one he thoroughly enjoys. Whenever Constantine finds himself on the end of someone else’s string, dancing to someone else’s tune, as “Intensive Care” plainly shows, is when he actually starts to fear and act out of desperation. Just as this issue deals with Constantine becoming someone else’s pawn, the issue also shows Zed’s transformation from the strong independent vibrant woman from the previous issues to a subdued shell of a woman in the clutches of the Resurrection Crusaders. Gone is her Bride of Frankensteinesque hair and defiant confidant pose, replaced with close cropped hair and a posture indicating submission. The only constant between Zed and “Mary” is her face, and while lacking Zed’s heavy eyeshadow and red lips, John Ridgeway’s pencils help convey that this is the same character that we have read about over previous issues. Were it not for this and Jamie Delano’s narration, it would be easy to mistake the two as different characters.
Experiencing a series of flashbacks about his time under electroshock therapy as a result of Newcastle, Constantine awakens to find himself with two broken legs, a broken arm and a fractured skull, the results of him jumping from a moving train. Constantine is confronted by the demon Nergal, explaining that Heaven is seeking to tip the metaphysical balance in it’s favor because of events from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run. Nergal demands aid from Constantine to stop Zed/Mary from giving birth to the next iteration of God born of man. Given that the child would be raised by radical hate-driven fundamentalists, Constantine reluctantly agrees, demanding time to “take care of business” and to be healed by the demon. Making a literal “deal with the devil,” the infusion of Nergal’s blood would have long lasting ramifications on Constantine’s life throughout the run of Hellblazer, and is directly responsible for some of Constantine’s supernatural abilities. Immediately following the transfusion we see Constantine leaping from a third story window, covered in shadows. The panel is not unlike something you would see in the pages of a gritty late ‘80s revisionist super hero title, but here it seems out of place other than to show the immediate effects of Nergal’s blood. Throughout the series Nergal is revealed to have been an influence on Constantine’s life since childhood, but here serves mainly to provide exposition and to progress the narrative of the opening story arc.
The demon blood infusion, alongside the events of Newcastle, both of which directly involve Nergal, are two defining events of John Constantine’s life, and from which many future storylines would build off either directly or indirectly. They are his origin events, his Crime Alley and his radioactive spider bite, every comic character has something like them, and to an extant most fictional characters have some sort of event driving them on some sort of quest, Captain Ahab lost his leg hunting Moby Dick, King Arthur is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake and so forth. Although these events are far from the first of Constantine’s magical career, and are not the forefront of all of Constantine’s future adventures, from a narrative standpoint this is what the reader learns about Constantine early on and therefore would be acknowledged by future writers when working with the character. Hellblazer would build and build over its 300 issues, filling in portions of Constantine’s past while progressing his story in the present while maintaining his character over the 25 year run. Constantine’s narration remarks that “nothing will ever be the same,” a phrase used within the comics medium to the point where it evokes an eyeroll from some, but for this instance his words hang true.
“Shot to Hell”
Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: John Ridgeway
Inks: Alfredo Alcala
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: John Costanza
Cover: Dave McKean
While known for being a Vertigo title, Hellblazer began within the roots in the main DC universe until Issue #63. Despite this, the title did it’s best to distance itself from most of the other characters of the universe, for although the title bore a “Suggested for Mature Readers” label, it would have been a nightmare for DC if Constantine made an appearance in Superman which resulted in a younger reader bringing a copy of Hellblazer home and was discovered. Its existence within the DC Universe allowed other occult characters to make appearances from time to time, while still trying to set the title in the real world. One of the greatest uses of DC material within Hellblazer is setting “Shot to Hell” in what is arguably the most famous comic book location, Gotham City.
Gotham City is perhaps the most fleshed out location in comics, the name instantly evokes everything abysmal about urban life, a soul crushing city overridden with crime and corruption that is home to the downtrodden, and of course the abode of Batman and his rogue’s gallery. The demonic high of Nergal’s blood long gone, a disheveled and unkempt Constantine has found himself amongst the squalor of Gotham to wallow in his self-pity for how out of control his life has become. Wandering into a bar he discovers it is his birthday, May 10th, and that he is 35 years old(1). The specific age of comic characters within companies such as Marvel or DC is often intentionally left vague or indeterminate, as it allows the characters to remain in their perpetual youth as the decades pass and writers change. Time does progress slowly for the aging of teenage sidekicks or birth of children, but most superheroes appear to be stuck in their perpetual 30s. While birthdays in superhero comics are not unheard of, Constantine ages in real time, so by the series conclusion he is 60.
In a sort of supernatural intervention, Constantine is confronted by the ghosts of his dead friends once again, now facing the mirror of argument he threw at them in issue #2. Before he chided the ghosts for not accepting their fate and that sacrifices have to be made, now the ghosts try to help John cope with his current situation and rise above the despair that has overcome him. As opposed to the hostility that John displays to cope with the loss of his friends whenever he is confronted by them, the ghosts confront John with kindness and love to try to help their friend. Spurning their efforts, Constantine wanders the streets of Gotham until he can no longer escape the literal ghost of what he was at the beginning of the series. Ghost-John reacts to his corporeal form’s current state with disgust and is able to get convince John to get back on to living. The exchange is an apt metaphor for how no matter how much your friends and loved ones will be there for you when you are down, out and at your lowest, it is your own will and by your own actions that positive change can be made. As Constantine leaves Gotham, the wrecking ball that has followed him throughout Gotham that has been endlessly smashing up against a ruined building to no avail, symbolizing the feeling of futility Constantine is experiencing, finally smashes through the wall and obliterates the panel itself, marking the end of his anguish. Whereas Constantine overcomes his troubles, Zed has surrendered to her perceived destiny, and begs John not to try and make her go against it when he seeks her out. Making love one last time, Constantine taints her due to his demonic blood, but quickly puts the idea of a jilted lover behind him, taking up the responsibility that he now has to stop the Damnation Army from tipping the scales in their favor.
This marks the first but certainly not the last time in which we see Constantine overcome by the forces out of his control(2). His breaking point and subsequent spurts of depression flesh out his character and reinforce that in spite of all the terrible things he has to do, and the demonic blood flowing through his veins, he’s only human.
(1) This makes John Constantine’s DOB May 10th, 1953
(2) Women are usually involved