Issue #17 “Fellow Travellers”
Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: Mike Hoffman
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover: Dave McKean
Over the course of Jamie Delano’s 40 issue run on the series, and his return in issue #84, The Fear Machine would be the longest cohesive storyline. While it could be argued that Original Sins is technically just as long as the second story arc, ranging from issues #4-12 vs issues #14-22, a number the issues from the opening arc act as more stand-alone stories with an overarching narrative that is all tied together at the end of the arc. The issues also acted as an introduction to the world of Hellblazer. Although it is set in the main DC universe at this time, the world feels much more grounded (despite the mystical elements of the story), with only a few offhand mentions to other DC characters, and the Swamp Thing showing up infrequently. The Machine Fear instead is a much more closely knit story that feels entirely removed from the DC universe. The storyline follows a three act structure, with issues #14-16 comprising the first act, #17-19 the second, and #20-22 the third. Whereas living off the grid with environmentalists is the main focus of Act One, Act Two begins with Constantine’s return to civilization and the horrors that it brings.
“Fellow Travellers” is a pretty straightforward story; John Constantine is travelling back to London via railway in search of Mercury and all hell breaks loose upon the train. Of the nine issues comprising the story arc, it is the most standalone issue, and reads much like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” following the structure of a localized supernatural event that Constantine just happens to be present for. Like issue #5, Constantine has ties to the source of the event, Geotroniks R&D in this instance, but he is in no way responsible for the events that unfold in the issue. Also, as the issue features many fewer characters than the previous issues of the arc, it allows a stronger focus on the events at hand. With half of the issue following Constantine’s actions on the train, the other half focuses on what is transpiring at Geotroniks and provides brief glimpses of the organization’s plan.
The issue opens with a portly fellow by the name of Mr. Webster answering a phone about a security issue. Webster, who is in fact the primary antagonist of the story, is displayed as a powerful and confident man more so than the unnamed Director, that imposes fear in his underlings by his desire for control by any means necessary. Although his face is never seen in the issue, Webster’s was briefly revealed in one of Mercury’s dreams in the prior issue but the difference in artistic style between Mike Hoffman, Richard Piers Rayner, and Mark Buckingham makes the connection that these are the same character vague at best. Piers and Buckingham’s art portrays Webster as more heavyset man than he is seen here. The security incident is the discovery that the Russian scientist who bashed his head against a standing stone in issue #15 was a Russian spy, Sergei Antonov, investigating Geotroniks’ operations and that an accomplice has been seen in the area. Using a former soldier with psychic abilities, Webster is able to discover that the Russian agent is on the same train that Constantine is travelling on. With a ring of megalithic stones placed on a series of ley lines, known as The Fear Machine, which can reportedly scare people to death, Webster has the soldier channel his mental abilities through the ley lines to apprehend the Russian spy.
Constantine’s actions prior to the ley line energy hitting the train are nothing remarkable, surrounded by various travelers that are never fleshed out enough to support the scene. Although the surroundings are ordinary, aside from a few odd looking people doing odd things, the mundane quality of Constantine’s journey primarily serves to contrast the environment of the train when the “terror” comes upon it. Like John Ridgeway’s panels from the earlier issues, the pages go from structured concise arrangement to a more chaotic layout, effectively showing the state of madness that the inhabitants have adopted in reaction to the fear. Much of the grisly scenes are only hinted or shown in shadows, leaving the readers’ imagination to run wild, thereby evoking fear from the audience not by what is shown, but by what isn’t shown. This narrative restraint would change based on the story and the style of the writer, with Garth Ennis’ issues featuring many “shock panels” that his writing style is known for. As each person mutters on what they are experiencing, Constantine’s narration turns to fearing his mortality, on how he still has things he needs to do. His fear is one that many in life face, of having their time cut short before their lives can be fulfilled to their own personal standards, and resonates more to the reader than a random train passenger mumbling about “brass men with razor tongues.”
Following a confrontation between Constantine and Sergei, where Constantine goes from believing he is the cause of the fear to realizing it’s after him, the issue concludes with the crashing of the train. Dave McKean’s cover, an eyeball superimposed on the side of a speeding train, accurately depicts the content of the issue, as the issue is very much about experiencing fear and terror head on and how people choose to face them when it is barreling down upon like a speeding train (also when on a speeding train). There’s a brief moment of foreshadowing presented in a scene where Constantine considers shooting one of the Geotroniks Security guards he recognizes from Act One, but considers it “wrong.” Constantine’s relationship towards directly killing someone and the use of guns will become a key part of The Family Man story arc, but, for now, “Fellow Travellers” establishes that Hellblazer is back to form and back in London, John Constantine’s natural habitat.