Issue #50 “Remarkable Lives”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Will Simpson
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Cover: Tom Canty;
The monthly numbering system is perhaps one of comics most notable features. Being that issues are published monthly (delays aside) it allows for easy organization of issues and with series being often longrunning it is much easier to recall that storylines such as Dangerous Habits occurs from issues #41-46 than it is to remember it was from May-October 1991. However the numbering system is also equally as daunting, readers seeking a place to jump into a series can feel intimidated if the series is in the double or triple digits. It is important to remember that the popularity of trade paperbacks is still a relatively recent event in the lifespan of comics, with digital issues an even more recent way of collecting comics. As the number of issues increases as series continue monumental issues are made, signaling the accomplishment of the series being able to maintain commercial (and sometimes critical) success for such a time. The issues also often serve as a jumping on point for newer readers, touching on significant events of the characters previous adventures while also continuing the narrative for fans who have been around since the first issue. Issue #50 of a series often marks the first instance of these issues, with “Remarkable Lives” delivering an issue almost twice the length and price (in 1992 dollars) as regular issues.
Hellblazer has touched upon many common horror tropes and figures in the first 49 issues, as well as some of the more uncommon ones as well. Constantine has encountered demons, angels, Satanic murderers, ghosts, zombies, serial killers, Freemasons to name but a few. However, one notable horror figure has been missing up until this point: vampires. Quite possibly the most famous and popular of the “traditional” horror creatures, vampires have existed in the folklore several cultures of the world in some form or fashion. Given that out of all the classic horror monsters vampires are often depicted as the most “human” in both physical traits as well as mentally, it easy to see why they hold such public appeal. Being that vampires are often depicted as members of the upper echelon of society who have used their longevity to gain wealth and power, they naturally fall into being natural adversaries for the working class John Constantine.
Last we saw John Constantine, he and Kit Ryan we’re disrobing for what can be thought of as a whole new meaning for the phrase “long winter’s nap.” “Remarkable Lives” picks up three days later, as that’s how long the pair has spent in bed as the issue opens. A trip to the restroom reveals an eviscerated bird lying in the sink, with “Hampstead Heath” written upon the mirror. Hampstead Heath is a 790 acre park in London, and resides upon one of the highest points of the city, with the view of central London from Parliament Hill being protected by law. Arriving at the park late in the evening, John is spied upon by “freaks and phantoms” that he actually admits to being scared of as he walks through the park. Coming to a large gnarly tree Constantine encounters a figure known as The King of the Vampires, who happens to be a spitting image of the actor James Dean. The King bearing a resemblance to the short lived actor coincides with Constantine’s resemblance to Sting and the many other characters created by writers from the British Invasion bearing a resemblance to real life stars. While the resemblance between the The King and James Dean is only for the reader to discern in this issue, the King does in fact comment on this later in the series.
After the revelation that the individual who has requested Constantine’s presence is The King of the Vampires, the issue breaks narratively for the first of two single panel pages documenting the “remarkable lives” John Constantine and The King. Placed in natural breaks between the conversation between Constantine and The King throughout the issue, the ten pages (five for John and five for The King) document some of Constantine’s most important life events: the Newcastle incident in which he failed to rescue Astra, his time spent in Ravenscar, and his besting of The First of the Fallen to name a few. These pages serve to both refresh the memory of the older readers of events from Jamie Delano’s run as well as inform newer readers of the important parts of Constantine’s prior history. Again as this was 1992, the various Hellblazer and Constantine Wikipedia pages were still in the far future. The pages focusing on The King in Vampires past document his past exploits as an immortal slaughterer of men. The pages depict the vampire coming down from the trees of the African Savannah to kill the first man on Earth, which suggests that although he appears human, The King is another creature entirely. As well as featuring some of the finest art Will Simpson would contribute to the series acting as both penciller and inker in this issue, the pages also features some of the most lyrical prose Ennis has ever written. Each scene of The King (and some of the Constantine pages) features several paragraphs describing the opulence of Rome, or the carnage at the Battle of the Somme during World War I. As well as being a pleasure to read (and view) the scenes expertly convoke why Constantine should be as worried as he is.
The majority of the issue focuses on the conversation between Constantine and The King who has brought his “children” to London to enjoy the wonders of the city and has taken a keen interest in Constantine, suggesting that like his followers, Constantine “walks outside it’s stupid boundaries,” of which Constantine against from a purely physical perspective in that he does have “railroad spikes stuck through his head” or “a two-foot long forked tongue.” Meeting John’s jest The King inquires about some of Constantine’s contemporaries, in this instance the other magic based DC characters. While the formation of Vertigo is still over a year away, Hellblazer has pulled farther and farther from the main continuity of DC as the series has gone on. Early on Morpheus and The Swamp Thing made cameos during Delano’s run and while there was mention of the Swamp Thing as a possibility to cure John’s cancer during Dangerous Habits, DC characters are largely absent from Ennis’ run on the series other than the aptly titled “Forty” in which the 40th Birthday of Constantine is celebrated. Denouncing them as wankers who “use magic and dress up like twits” that always have things turn out for them Constantine casts himself as an outcast even amongst the outcasts of comics. Pleased with his thoughts on his “friends” The King of Vampires offers John a job to act as his spy in the magical community. Constantine tries to reject his offer exclaiming that he doesn’t very much know what others are up to, which is believable to an extent, but also that he just wants the weirdness in his life to crawl up and die, which is also mostly believable, as the weirdness is what brought John to Hampstead Heath in the first place.
Not buying Constantine’s “just an ordinary bloke with no time for this hocus-pocus nonsense” facade, The King will not take no for an answer, and brings up the possibilities of just making John into a vampire. The King casts aside the belief of most of the traditional vampire weaknesses, stakes to the heart, holy water, and garlic, but proclaims that sunlight is still the downfall of his kind. At one point he places his arm on Constantine’s shoulder seeking to curry favor with John, to convince him to join him in unlife, at which we experience one of the few instances in which Constantine’s mask falls and he looks visibly terrified. This is a creature unknowably ancient and utterly powerful, so Constantine’s reaction is completely appropriate. However Constantine does not falter, lighting a fresh Silk Cut and instead telling The King of Vampires “that’s got to be the worst job offer he’s ever heard.” and that if he were to be the King’s spy he’d be reduced to what he loathes, namely the other, more traditional, magic characters. Constantine jests that he’s happy with his life and is instead the reverse of what The King expects, Joe Average just pretending to be mysterious, as can be seen in John’s private life. Constantine’s name and how he is addressed is touched upon greatly in this issue, only people in John’s private life tend to call him John, while all others tend to call him Constantine, and when The King tries to refer to Constantine by his first name, he is told to “keep it at ‘Constantine.’” John’s life tends to be for the best when his private and professional life (his occult escapades) are kept separate, and when the two meet bad things tend to happen. Enraged that Constantine is happy with his “real life” The King demands what is so good about such a life, threatening to “cut your throat throat, drink my fill, and leave you half alive forever.” John responds with the simple ordinary things we often take for granted, walking in the park in the morning, kissing a girl he knows loves him, getting drunk with friends, and watching the sunrise. Enraged by the simple joys that he can never experience he allows Constantine to leave shouting about how he’ll get Constantine next time, like a proper villain. After several pages about his power seeing The King lose his temper in such a manner is utterly enjoyable.
The 37 pages of “Remarkable Lives” provides an excellent character study of Constantine that readers both old and new can appreciate and learn from. The distinguishing features of Constantine’s working class no nonsense approach to magic is the defining characteristic that sets him apart from the several other magical characters across various companies. Their capes and flashy costumes may be memorable but none of them have a 300 issue series that was worked on by some of the best the comics industry has to offer. Although his roots are firmly within DC, Constantine is a man of his own that will continue to carry on as long as there as those that wish to write about him (and for DC to continue to publish the bok of course).