Issue #12 “The Devil You Know”
Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover: Dave McKean
It is fairly obvious that suffering abounds within Hellblazer: demonic possessions, the repercussions of raising the dead, murder, and hate crimes to name but a few. Such suffering often leads to desperation and recklessness causing either further suffering and/or the demise of said characters. Concluding the opening story arc, “The Devil You Know,” touches on many of the themes of the previous 11 issues, primarily sacrifice and survival, and sets the stage for Constantine’s future adventures.
Knowing that Nergal is searching for him due to his latest betrayal, Constantine hides out while he tries to divulge a way to destroy the demon. This marks a rare instance in which we see Constantine directly researching into something as opposed to getting the information secondhand from a friend or associate. However due to the fact that all of Constantine’s friends that have any occult dealing were either dead at the beginning of the series or have since then died, it helps to convey just how alone Constantine is at this time, which is causing him to have to directly face his problems, something that appears out of character. However all of this is co-opted with the reveal that the soul of Ritchie Simpson is still inhabiting the 1980s equivalent of the Internet. Originally reaching out to John to transfer his soul to a new body, Constantine instead turns the plan to his own benefit as seeing it as a way to deal with Nergal.
Unable to rouse Constantine out of hiding, and due to Constantine perpetually besting him and the other denizens of Hell, Nergal is forced to take his place as punishment. The forces of Hell have until now been described as chaotic and anarchic, seeking to destroy at a whim and corrupting others to serve it’s own machinations. With the introduction of the demons Agony and Ecstasy, who come to claim Nergal, the intricacies and hierarchy of Hell are touched upon, as they were in “Going For It”, but in that instance the soul-brokers of Hell were used as a metaphor for high risk investments, insider trading, and Britain’s economic focus during the 1980s . The political subterfuge of Hell would be greatly explored by writers throughout the series, but here it serves to set up the desperation of Nergal to worm his way out of trouble much like Constantine often does. Like in “Extreme Prejudice,” parallels can be seen between Nergal and Constantine’s characterization, in that both will go to great lengths to survive for another day. When each is faced with difficulties their responses differ however. Constantine often becomes downtrodden when things are looking bleak, while Nergal’s actions become brash and reckless, which will ultimately cause his downfall by the issues conclusion. Constantine’s cynical outlook is a result of his mortality, whereas Nergal, being a demon, can act reckless without too much worry of any lingering threat to its person.
In a moment of pleasant dramatic irony, just as Nergal is to be taken away, Constantine calls out to face him in Newcastle. Constantine’s challenge plays with Nergal’s ego of how he bested Constantine in Newcastle previously and is allowed to face “The Jester” as he is referred to. Nergal instead discovers Ritchie Simpson’s soul in Constantine’s body forcing him to astral project into the computer network. Relying on the fact that when compared to the lifespan of demons, computer’s were invented yesterday, Constantine flees through the network to the boundaries of Heaven that exist within the network which caused his body to spontaneously combust. Constantine compares the merry chase to playing a videogame, complemented by images of Ritchie watching a figure in a coat run away from a vague demon shaped group of pixels on the computer screen. At the time of publication, the computerized versions of John and Nergal would have seemed entirely appropriate due to the technological limitations of computers, but now they appear whimsical and lighten the mood of the scene.
Reaching the boundaries of Heaven, angels descend upon Nergal, and silently eviscerate his soul, ignoring the demon’s pleas that his intrusion is not malevolent in nature. The merciless wrath of the angels matches their actions that destroyed the Resurrection Crusade and Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham’s art depicts the angels as if they are enjoying the brutality of their actions. This, and future angelic incursions, cast the forces of Heaven in a much different light than most media, making them very alien and unsettling. Comparatively the demons, Agony and Ecstasy gave Nergal a chance to face Constantine before condemning him, even if it may have just been for Hell’s amusement. Savoring the long awaited revenge, Constantine discovers that Ritchie wants to stay in his body and plans to leave John trapped in the network. After discovering that John’s body is wracked with sickness thanks to his demonic blood (also from some cajoling) Ritchie ends up in Nergal’s vacant body. This results in Ritchie nearly going mad with power that would “let him rule the world” in a very supervillain like monologue. Constantine remarks that he’ll need a new name as “Ritchie” doesn’t really fit his new position in life, again this makes sense as technically this is still set within the main DC universe, where such names are common. Before he can start ruling, Ritchie is captured by the same demons that were after Nergal, proclaiming that he is not worthy of his station as of yet as must learn his place within Hell, damning Ritchie yet again at the hands of Constantine.
Finally freeing himself from his own personal, literal demon, that he had faced the burden of for 10 years, Constantine remarks on how for the race to survive people need not worry about the metaphysical war of Heaven vs. Hell, but instead need to face their own personal problems, their own personal demons. Constantine calls this “The Siege Perilous” a term from Arthurian legend referring to a vacant seat at the Round Table in Camelot, reserved for the one who finds the Holy Grail, and being fatal to anyone else who sits in it. Personal problems are just that, they are personal, and often can only be overcome by the individual who bears them. While people can get assistance from friends and loved ones such as Constantine often does, it is up to the individual to take the actions to overcome them. In the end they are the problems which have to be faced for survival as an individual, and although they never will be completely erased from human existence, for now Constantine is in the clear.