Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 29

Issues #34-36 The Dead Boy’s Heart

Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: Sean Phillips
Colors: Tom Zuiko
Letters: Gaspar Saladino
Cover: Kent Williams

Demons are everywhere within Hellblazer. It’s commonplace that we see John Constantine staring down the forces of Hell (and sometimes Heaven) with a smirk and a Silk Cut cigarette, eventually overcoming his adversary through guile and misdirection as opposed to brute magical force. The word demon evokes certain mental images, and while Hellblazer often delivers such images within the pages of the series, it also deals with the kind of demons that are not necessarily the easiest to draw out on a page, personal demons. As we’ve seen since the beginning of the series, Constantine is rife with his own personal demons, and while we’ve seen him deal with some of his personal demons in Original Sins, it is in The Dead Boy’s Heart that we see where the personal demons that Constantine’s carried since childhood originated.

Beginning with “The Bogeyman” the series reintroduces Marj and Mercury who both have been absent since the finale of The Fear Machine. In Delano’s final seven issues of Hellblazer (until his return nearly four years later in issue #84) there is an overarching theme on family predominantly focusing on mothers and children, so in this case it makes perfect sense for Marj and Mercury to reappear fulfilling the roles of the kind caring mother, and the young upstart child.  The pair are found one evening by a drunken disheveled Constantine, who found out where they were from Errol (another character from The Fear Machine) at the Poll Tax Riot at Trafalgar Square. This riot is an actual event which occurred on March 31st 1990 in response to the newly enacted Community Charge which taxed each individual living in a household as opposed to a flat rate per household. Extremely unpopular what was originally planned as a peaceful protest march and turned violent after what was perceived as police provocation by the over 200,000 attendees in a space only meant to hold 60,000. The Community charge and subsequent riot would play a large part in Margaret Thatcher’s resignation 8 months later.

The reintroduction of Constantine into the lives of Mercury and Marj is not met with the same open arms as it was before. Mercury has become much more cautious and hardened by the events of The Fear Machine and advises Marj not to let Constantine back into their lives because of the ugliness that he carries inside of him. Marj is much more compassionate to the state John is in and puts her foot down that it is her home and she shall do what she wishes. This is the first time we have seen Mercury and Marj fight and Marj actually act as an adult figure towards Mercury. Insisting that Constantine is just looking for a quick screw and to bring others down with him, Mercury voice her displeasure of Marj’s decision to help John by referring to her as “Mother” as she storms off to leave Marj to comfort John. Sitting sullenly by a campfire Mercury describes how people like John, Marj and the majority of others in the world were not ready for the new future that began at the conclusion of The Fear Machine until they learn to let go and move beyond their personal demons and past which stifle their growth and development. She understands how people like them try to overcome their troubles but the impatience of her youth demands instant results. However, Mercury’s wisdom has not diminished as her youthful anger has risen acknowledging that she will never be able to fully understand the love that Marj has for John, a motherly love of kindness and compassion. A love that she thinks in the end will hurt Marj but one she is powerless to stop.

Back in the trailer Constantine laments on the many injustices of the world from babies dying of AIDs to the African Slave Trade to the Strangeways Prison Riot of 1990, a 25-day riot in a Manchester prison in response to the inhumane conditions the inmates were subject to[1]. While Marj tries to counsel John by telling him he can’t fix all the worlds problems and that they aren’t his fault. Cynically Constantine proclaims that it is his and other “bogeymen’s” fault, who have let the ugliness of the world into their heart and stand idly by as it spreads and grows and consumes the world until it is as ugly as they are. Blaming it on “the Dead Boy’s Heart” John doesn’t seek help from Marj, just comfort not having the strength of will to confront his issues, just suppressing them by using others. Mercury being psychically aware can feel Constantine’s vampiric nature drinking in the comfort that Marj offers, and realizes that he has grabbed hold of Mercury as well, and that she does care about him.

Issue #35 “The Dead Boy’s Heart” is entirely comprised of a flashback to Constantine’s childhood, in which we get a glimpse of what kind of life young John lived that helped make him into the man he is in the present. At a tender age of eight, the narration has a certain level of innocence to it, oblivious to the darkness that pervades John’s life already. However this could be said of any child’s life: the world isn’t any less ugly when you are younger, you just overlook it until someone points it out to you or you come across it head first. The issue follows John’s adventures at his Aunt and Uncle’s one summer, being a pest to his older sister Cheryl pretending he’s Uncas from James Fenimoor Cooper’s book The Last of the Mohicans while exploring, all in all pretty standard childhood acts.

When his exploration brings him to an abandoned quarry and to the attention of a group of older boys Constantine’s life starts down a darker path. We learn from the boys that John’s father is currently jailed for stealing women’s underwear and the boys task him with sneaking up to the shed of “The Bogeyman” a disheveled homeless man, who lives in the quarry to steal some of his pornography. Constantine gets a taste of betrayal as they boys assault the shed with rocks alerting The Bogeyman, who in reality just wants to be left alone. Hiding in some nearby bushes John finds a red stone inside the ribcage of a half buried  child-sized skeleton that he takes to calling The Dead Boy’s Heart. As well as healing some scratches when rubbed on them, The Heart causes a violent streak in John, causing him to attack the bullies and crush his bug collection, all the while growing. Realizing the stone “absorbs the hurt” and it’s inherent evil nature is bringing out the violence in him, John throws the stone back into the quarry, only for it to breach the tin roof of The Bogeyman’s shed. The Bogeyman never comes out of the shed and John fears that he has killed him, John never actually checks to see if the man was even in the shed but lives his life believing that he has killed him. Realizing he can never tell a soul that he may have killed a man (albeit accidentally), Constantine buries this secret inside of himself, setting a firm foundation for all the darkness to come.

The flashback to a young John is both amusing and insightful, while the issue also explores the nature of childhood and how events from our past influence our future in a manner fitting to the series. Traumatic events of childhood can often have some sort of psychological effect on a child upon reaching adulthood and the theme of a dark haunted past is fairly common across the horror genre in both antagonists and protagonists. The Dead Boy’s Heart ties together the past, the present, and the future over the course of the three issues and while the arc could have easily have started with John’s past and moved onwards from there, narratively the story flows better and to first give context to John’s current state before looking at his past and then concluding with his possible future.

Finishing the story arc with “The Undiscover’d Country,” Constantine confronts Mercury to come to terms with why she had been acting so horrible towards him in “The Bogeyman.” Constantine argues that Mercury is too young to put life in perspective and there are some things about life that she hasn’t experienced. Mercury’s rebuts this common adult response that because of her psychic abilities she knows all about the things Constantine is referring to, that she can see through all the guile and charm of people like Constantine to reveal the hidden horrors of life. In comparison to John’s childhood from last issue it is easy for the reader to side with Mercury in this case, who has seen much in her small number of years. However Mercury’s psychic abilities have almost solely focused on the darker parts of life when we have seen her in the series, having not experienced love and kindness in nearly the same amount. When she has experienced it, as can be seen in her narration in the early parts of The Fear Machine, it is something she has trouble understanding, as would be expected of a child. Quickly delving into Constantine’s mind Mercury provides a quick summary of Constantine’s character and the events of the series to this point, and that he had a brother, before moving on to her observation of his character. Mercury claims that he is afraid of what is coming for him if he stays the course his life is on and afraid to make the steps to change his life for the future. John admits to all of these observations, and admits that he is afraid of dying, and tries to walk out of the lives of Mercury and Marj again. Not letting him do so, Mercury offers to go into John’s mind to help him confront his personal demons and view his possible deaths like she did with the paranoics of The Fear Machine.

Journeying through the surreal M.C. Esher landscapes of John’s mind, the pair eventually come to a doorway marked by the Death card from the Aleister Crowley[2] designed Thoth tarot deck. Passing through the doorway, Constantine awakens as a 80 year old man at the end of the world. Global warming has raised the sea level considerably, and events referred to as “devolution” and “depopulation” are have said to occurred. Suffering from stomach and lung cancer, brought upon by his digestion of meat at an early age and his frequent smoking, Constantine is offered to sacrifice himself as fertilizer to the earth to relieve the community he lives in of the burden he is. The way the offer is broached is very similar to the scene in the 1973  Richard Fleischer film Soylent Green when Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) discovers that Soylent Green is made of dead humans and goes to a euthanasia clinic, albeit a more environmentally conscious option as opposed to straight cadaver reprocessing in this instance. Constantine rebukes this offer sardonically and decides to head to the coast instead. Reaching the coast which in actuality is the ruins of a city (presumably London) Constantine see lights from boats out on the water that will rescue him, muttering how Mercury is out on the water somewhere. Before the boats arrive Constantine becomes trapped between a pack of wild dogs and the water, mirroring Mercury’s prior statement of him being caught between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” Rather than facing the rabid dogs symbolizing the Devil/Constantine’s past, John leaps into the water symbolizing the future, but remembers that he never learnt how to swim and begins to drown. Back in the real world John starts to choke himself as Mercury calls to Marj, admitting that she needs her help and isn’t as high and mighty as she has presented herself throughout the story arc. Revived by Marj, Mercury apologizes to John for almost killing him before being hushed by Constantine and shrugged off with a joke, as per usual.

The Dead Boy’s Heart delves deep into Constantine’s history and psyche and shows how the character grows (or would possibly grow) as time progresses. While only three issues long the storyline touches on many of the overarching themes within the final issues of Jamie Delano’s run. The issue also introduces plot points that while would be touched upon by Delano, would be expounded upon by future writers of the series. While Dangerous Habits, Garth Ennis’ iconic storyline is the in the near future of the series, the notion that Constantine could die from something as simple as cancer was first teased at here. Although it is a small detail that is easily overlooked and forgotten, when looking at the series at a whole little details such as these help create a narrative that takes from what was written prior while also moving the series forward, just like Constantine has to.

Notes:

  1. Plumbing was considered too expensive to install in older prisons so inmates in cells without toilets were instead given a bucket to use. Inmates at Strangeways were locked in their cell with said bucket for 22 hrs each day.
  2. A notable real world occultist (amongst other things), Aleister Crowley would make an appearance in Hellblazer during Paul Jenkins 4 year run on the title.
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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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Also by Max Nestorowich:

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