Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 31

Issues #39-40  “The Hanged Man”

Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: Steve Pugh, Dave McKean
Colors: Tom Zuiko, Dave McKean
Letters: Gaspar Saladino
Cover: Kent Williams

Over the past 34 issues and one annual[1] Jamie Delano has pitted John Constantine against various threats supernatural and mundane. The variety of threats and adversaries in both style and in tone kept the series from being just another horror comic with a different demon or monster each month and helped establish a solid ground for the 260 issues that would follow and build upon his initial run. However, lying under the surface of the demons, serial killers, and Tories lay an ever present threat to Constantine: his own personal demons that have been present since the beginning of the series. The final two issues of Delano’s contribution to the series, “The Hanged Man” and “The Magus,” tie together the themes of his run and pave the way for the future of the series.

Over the course of the series thus far, Constantine has often been filled with self-loathing and “The Hanged Man” features revelations of why Constantine views his life this way. Relaxing at the seaside with Marj after reuniting with Zed and the rest of the Freedom Mob, Constantine laments on his inner struggles which to him seem to repeat over and over with him never going anywhere. While this is very much true from what we have seen over in prior issues, as he has mostly just shrugged off his problems rather than actually dealing with them, Constantine’s lamentation on his life never really changing or going anywhere can be seen a slight jab at the nature of western comics, particularly that of super heroes. Although still part of the DC Universe, Hellblazer progresses in real time (more or less), references real world events (other than generation defining acts of terror), and stars a character with an actual birthdate as opposed to where the typical comic protagonist is in their perpetual mid-30s. Marj tries to deflect all of John’s negative cynical comments about himself with the positive aspects of him that he chooses to ignore. Like any person who is caught up in their own head, surpassing anguish is something an individual has to achieve no matter how many positive words are directed at them.

While on the beach, Constantine catches glimpses of a blazing golden youth that he calls “The Golden Boy” but John can’t catch up with him as he fades into the rocks, leaving a weeping Constantine behind. The Golden Boy was a figure that Constantine saw in his youth at the grave of his mother, a shining beautiful figure that Constantine wished he  could “soak up a little of his strength, his clean-ness, it would make my father love me.” Despite this admiration and envy for someone that was everything he was not, Constantine also hated him for being everything that he was not. To John he was too pure, too clean, and when the Golden Boy realized that John harbored this hatred, he cast John aside and disappeared. This dismissal from someone that John thought might be Jesus caused John to despise him and everyone that had a little bit of The Golden Boy in them as he grew up, as they were “the things they wouldn’t let me be,” and from what we’ve seen from Constantine’s childhood he didn’t have anyone in his life to really tell him he could be those things. Blaming the location for his morose mood, John wanders off alone to deal with things the best way he knows how, with magic.

Entering Zed’s hut for guidance to conquer his demons, John randomly draws The Fool Tarot card,  before being presented with a three card spread of The Hanged Man, The Tower, and The Magus. First created in the 15th century, 78 card tarot decks have been used for various divinatory, esoteric, and occult practices throughout the centuries as an instrument for spiritual guidance or for a way to tap into one’s subconscious. There have been various decks produced throughout the years, with slightly different names for the Major Arcana, the 22 cards in the deck that depict a person or scene with heavy symbolic elements, but based off the present of both The Hanged Man and The Magus card, the deck Zed is using is most likely the Thoth Deck designed by Aleister Crowley[2].  Based off some of his decisions he has made thus far, it would seem appropriate to the label Constantine a fool, but The Fool card often is interpreted as the protagonist of a story, with the Major Arcana being a journey The Fool undertakes. The Fool also represents wildness, taking risks, and following your own path, all of which fit the character of Constantine.

A three card spread/layout can represent a variety of things. In this instance, an obstacle or task that must be undertaken or faced before the reader can then progress to the third symbol representing the future is used. These are by no means the only representations of what a spread can be used to represent, and as with most symbols what the cards mean are entirely up to those that are reading them. The Hanged Man depicts a man suspended upside down by one leg that often is attributed to non-action, passivity, contemplation, and suspension. When looking at Constantine, these attributes symbolized by the Hanged Man can easily be seen in Constantine’s current mental state. Up until he stepped into Zed’s tent he has been in a state of inaction in dealing with the personal feelings and has spent a lot of time caught up with the thoughts inside his head, mostly figuratively, but literally in regards to “The Undiscover’d Country.” Focusing internally on the card, Constantine witnesses his own birth, where the sickly underweight child is held in the pose of the The Hanged Man as the attending medical staff realizes that his mother and perfectly grown twin brother have both died. Upon being informed that his wife has passed and only the sickly twin survived, John’s father Thomas Constantine lashes out that the baby is evil and a killer, his resentment present for John from the minute he laid eyes on him. Reawakening, John realizes that The Golden Boy is the spirit of his twin brother that he is sure he killed in the womb, something he is “condemned and hanged for it” that he continues to pay for over and over. John only feels like half a man because he murdered his good half before each of them were born

Heading out to the again beach where a ruined tower sits on a cliff, John takes a heavy dose of psilocybin mushrooms and heads into a cave beneath the tower. The Tower card depicts two people falling from a tower that has been struck by lightning and tends to symbolize revelation or an explosive transformation that liberates the reader from a repressive situation. Based off this ruined tower, and the feminine rock formation of Cerridwen (of which the cave is between the legs of), it is revealed that this is the same tower and cave that John’s distant ancestor King Kon-Sten-Tyn used to reside over in the Dark Ages. Based off his ancestor’s tale we know that the cave has inherently magical properties, given that a dragon materialized from the waters. Within the cave, John starts to hallucinate and strips off his clothes and dives with the pools within before finding himself as a baby in the womb again. Baby John is sickly and underdeveloped and shrouded in shadow looking rather alien, with the baby Golden Boy also present drawn immaculately and bathed in golden light, an utmost depiction of humanity. John is “burned” by the golden light, exposing his inadequacies, appearing uglier the closer he gets to the golden aura, but instead of killing him in the womb this time he allows the Golden Boy to flourish. This change in the womb is the transformation the Tower card represents, even though it ultimately means that John will die in the world where the Golden Boy lives.

Concluding Delano’s run on the series is “The Magus,” which looks at the world where The Golden Boy had lived instead of John Constantine. The Magus (whose name is also John) has lived a lifestyle similar to Constantine’s but where Constantine’s life has been filled with tragedy, the Magus has instead triumphed. This reality depicts The Magus sacrifice his arm to save Astra from Nergal in Newcastle, which along with making him bear more of a resemblance to both his father and ancestor, also prevented “The Newcastle Crew” from being traumatized by their failures. In this reality most of them still stand at the side of The Magus, as are Zed, Mercury, and Errol. The Magus Tarot card is often represents achieving one’s full potential as well as conviction, determination, and action. In short very much the opposite of of The Fool, John Constantine.

After “sacrificing” his friend Gaz to complete a ritual in an attempt to destroy the dark spirit that has been following him throughout his life (Constantine), the tower in which he resides is struck by lightning and the two fall to their deaths, making the scene literally match what is depicted on The Tower card.  Awakening The Magus tells of how in his youth, in which his father loved him dearly, he encountered “The Sickly Boy” at the grave of his mother like Constantine had with The Golden Boy. Seeking to comfort the sad figure, The Magus instead shunned him upon realization of the devouring emptiness the figure contained. Whereas Constantine used this event as fuel for his youthful rebellion, The Magus, who was well aware that The Sickly Boy was his deceased twin brother, has carried the guilt of his actions through his life, and believing this could be solved by force (as opposed to John’s guile) destroys his tower and almost kills himself and Gaz when he tries to put the spirit to rest, further tarnishing his world and legacy in his eyes. Realizing that he must heal the schism between him and his brother, John says goodbye and sets out to find the spirit once more.

Encountering Constantine on the beach the two walk and wax poetic on the Constantine name, how countless people with their name, family, or otherwise are obsessive over their own ideals which, while often leading to the suffering of others, really all boil down to survival, and what each Constantine will do to try to remain amongst the living. Coming again to the feminine statue on the side of the cliff, the brothers enter the cave/womb again to settle their dispute. The Magus attempts to apologize to John for shunning him, of which John does with a shrug, but swiftly chastises his brother for his manly righteousness that has The Magus convinced that he is the strong pure brother and John is the weak injured one. The twins exist as a split yin-yang, and are both flawed for lacking the characteristics the other the succeeds in. The Magus may be all powerful but he comes off as pompous and long winded with a one track mind, while John’s cleverness only can make up for so many of his flaws and shortcomings.  Deciding to try and merge their opposites to balance one another out, the pair spin around the cave before “merging” reuniting the yin-yang seen previously split in “Sundays are Different” before returning to the regular world.

Gaining the balance that he has long sought for, John mysteriously disappears from the lives of The Freedom Mob as abruptly as he came into their lives, leaving his trenchcoat on a rock bearing the utterly fitting phrase “In Memoriam: John Constantine from womb to tomb and back again the journey wobbles on” Constantine of course hasn’t died in the literal sense but this phase of adventures are over, but they won’t be forgotten. Jamie Delano’s rock solid foundation to the series mixing the horror genre with political, environmental, philosophical, religious, and social commentary as well continually developing John Constantine’s character over three and a half years set the stage for the 260 issues that would come after. Along with the fact that days after the script for issue #40 was turned in Margaret Thatcher was forced from office[4], would better conclusion to a monumental run could you ask for?

Notes:

  1. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Dick Foreman filled in for 4 issues during the run.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divinatory,_esoteric_and_occult_tarot
  3. Coincidentally, when Dave McKean and Rachel Pollock would create The Vertigo Tarot deck, John Constantine is the figure depicted on the Fool card.
  4. Hellblazer Issue #40 “The Magus” pg 38 April 1991
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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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