Issue #42 “A Drop of the Hard Stuff”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Pencils: Will Simpson;
Inker: Mark Pennington;
Colors: Tom Zuiko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Cover: Tom Canty;
As stated before, a fictional character, comic or otherwise, is only as memorable as their supporting cast. Being that much of Garth Ennis’ run is so heavily focused on character interaction as opposed to a monster-of-the-week style that Jamie Delano’s book dipped into while exploring Constantine’s as a character, it is only natural that Ennis’ run would be filled with memorable characters that immediately come to mind when thinking about the run. Of course, as Ennis is also a native of Ireland, it can be readily expected that a number of them would also inhabit the Emerald Isle and that Constantine would tread upon it shores at least. As well as fulfilling such expectations “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” also shows the first inklings of a long planned narrative that would wind its way from in Hellblazer from here to Ennis’ final issue.
The issue primarily focuses on Constantine paying a business/social visit to his old friend Brendan Flynn, an Irish magician of sorts who tends to do things “the old fashioned way.” What’s immediately noticeable about the portly Irishman is his how he refers to it as “sorcery.” While not an utterly uncommon term, the term brings up a much more formal and ritualistic view of magic than more common terms that exist within the public lexicon like “magic” or “witchcraft.” All of this is at odds with Constantine’s often lackadaisical stance towards magical formality as can be seen in “Going for It” in regards to Constantine summoning a demon. Immediately engaging in shots of whiskey, Brendan brushes off Constantine’s mention of “business” and the two take to catching up as friends who haven’t seen each other in nearly ten years tend to do, all the while Constantine’s narration remarking on Brendan’s somewhat shoddy state. The two talk of lost loves, Emma for Constantine, who was killed in Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing run, and Kit for Brendan, who left due to Brendan’s excessive drinking. At the mention of Kit, Constantine reminisces for a number of panels about “…raven black hair that shone in the moonlight/Green eyes you could drown in/Skin like snow/Miss Ireland.” and about how Brendan and Kit’s home was where he could come to visit to escape from the darkness of the world, magical or mundane one could assume, and unwind. One could surmise it’s one of the closest things Constantine could take to an actual vacation. Despite the reportedly clean break and assurance that he threw away everything of her’s she didn’t take, Brendan still has a framed photo of Kit on a shelf, suggesting that she isn’t really gone from the story of John Constantine just yet.
Eventually making their way to the wine cellar, Brendan (with bottle of wine in hand) leads Constantine into a passage beneath said cellar to a grotto underground, joking that he has in fact “found religion”. Reportedly the water in the grotto was blessed by Saint Patrick, the 5th century Romano-British Catholic missionary, eventual Bishop of Ireland, and the patron saint of Ireland itself. Commonly known for the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day, the supposed day of his death, Patrick aided in the spread of Christianity through Ireland by using a three leaved shamrock clover to explain the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as legend has it, banishing all snakes from the Isle of Ireland. While this legend is famous enough to warrant it’s own The Simpsons parody episode “Whacking Day” in which snakes are chased out of town and beaten with clubs, there exists little to no evidence that snakes ever existed in Ireland at all, despite extensive searches by archaeologists.1 Being the magician that he is, Brendan uses this blessed water and a “fairly simple changing spell” to change the holy water into Guinness for as long as the candles in his pentagram stay lit. While Ennis never states that the stout is in fact Guinness, to think of it as anything else seems rather foolish. Flynn mentions “why would you ever want to go to church?” when remarking on how good life seems when you’re with good friends and with good drink in hand. Religion to many is used as a comfort for the trials and tribulations of life, but to others comradery fulfills the same role. While Ennis is known for his staunch stance on organized religion, as we will see2, this is a more relaxed mischievous instance of criticism, due to the fact of how prominent a figure St. Patrick is, even if to most it’s just a day of drunken debauchery and Irish heritage.
As anyone who has embarked in a night of heavy drinking with good company, magic stout or otherwise, there comes a time in which a moment of clarity comes in which it is time to call it quits for the night; to return home and our everyday lives and hoping that our heads feel alright in the morning. However, other times the moment of clarity goes “this is too much fun why should we stop” and the night continues, and ultimately heads are hurting come the dawn. This is one of the later instances, as Constantine reveals that he has terminal lung cancer hoping that Brendan could help him with magic, and Brendan revealing that his liver is failing and hoping John could do the same. This revelation sends the two over the edge and the pair proceed to get “rat arsed” before John shares a final pint with his friend and he peacefully passes away. Death is an all too common occurrence in Hellblazer but Brendan dying from liver failure is one of the more peaceful deaths, and he died on his own terms so to speak, with his friend by his side and a beer in hand. Going back to Constantine’s visit to the cancer ward last issue with the multitude of suffering that the ward contains, John remarks how this seemed a much better way to go, as Brendan died happy.
As he stumbles out of Brendan’s cellar Constantine is greeted by The Devil at the door, more commonly referred to within the series as The First of the Fallen. This is not the David Bowie inspired Lucifer from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, as the series takes place in the same universe as Hellblazer, but a different character altogether that serves as the primary antagonist during Ennis’ run on the series. The First of the Fallen is here is to claim Brendan’s soul, who exchanged it for the expertise and power to amass the finest collection of drink ever tasted. He remarks that the exchange was an “old-fashioned arrangement” fitting with Brendan’s way, with an added caveat that Brendan’s soul had to be claimed by midnight or else the arrangement would be null and void. During their conversation The First of the Fallen also baits Constantine, informing him that he is well familiar with him, from his friends he has damned and from his own father, who resides in Hell for the hatred he bore towards his own son. This sets Constantine off, vowing that The Devil will not get this one, which while done with noble intentions, begins the conflict that will continue through all of Ennis’ run. Nearing midnight, Constantine slyly offers the The First of the Fallen a drink over his dead friend’s body, a means to one up a “pathetic drunkard” who “thought he was king of the drinkers.” Seeing how this act puts Brendan’s entire life’s work to shame in an instant, The First of the Fallen accepts and drinks a pint of the magic stout Brendan was making. Constantine reveals that this is in fact transmuted holy water, and knocks over the table holding the lit candles that kept the spell going, changing the beer in The First of the Fallen’s stomach back into holy water. With sadistic glee Constantine watches The First of the Fallen’s body start to hemorrhage before smashing him with the undrunk wine bottle in the face. Knocked into the pool of the holy water the devil flees the material plane, without taking Brendan’s soul, freeing him from the bargain. Constantine realizes that he has won but also that he has made the enemy of the ruler of Hell, his reaction to this best described by the narration of “Before I didn’t want to die/Now I don’t dare.”
While only two issues into his 46 issue run “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” is perhaps one of Ennis’ strongest single issues, and one of my personal favorite issues of Hellblazer. The issue touches upon many themes that become hallmark when discussing his contributions to the series. While the drunken comradery and the passing of friends were also part of Jamie Delano’s work, the tone is more upbeat and less tragic in this instance, and it is here that we first see Ennis’ criticism of organized religion, although not in a blatant way that will be seen in future issues. Additionally the inclusion of The First of the Fallen only adds to the legend of John Constantine, as the man who tricked The Devil with magic stout to save his friend’s soul and in turn made an enemy for life, all while dying of lung cancer. As John would say “funny old world, ennit?”
- Oh how we will see