Issue #52 “Royal Blood Part One: The Players”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Will Simpson
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
While Hellblazer very much takes place in the western world, the fact that the series is primarily set in London lends itself to a slightly different world than what most American readers were used to. While the series was published internationally and distributed by Diamond UK, and this helped the series’ overall success, the fact remains that a predominant number of readers in the early 1990s were American. The setting of London and it’s slightly different British world did lend itself to a number of different stories that could not be told in an American setting, such as in Ennis’ four-part political murder-mystery Royal Blood.
The aptly titled “The Players” opens on New Year’s Day with some of the most visceral artwork William Simpson would do for the series, with a full page depiction of a murder victim who’s skin has been flayed, eyes removed’ and intestines hanging out from his stomach. The pool of blood beneath the body that looks has been thrown through an already half collapsed wall form the issue title, while the bloody hand of the victim has spelled out the name of the story arc. Captions recalling the victim meeting the man, whom he recognized from seeing on television, immediately build tension on whom the murderer is. This is only enhanced by the following page showing the murderer hunched in the trash, his features directly obscured as they will be for the entire arc, unable to remember whom he is but knowing that a demon resides in his mind and that he used to be someone famous and important. Garth Ennis and Will Simpson are directly in sync over the course of this arc, Simpson’s grisly artwork matching perfectly to Ennis’ prose, and being that Simpson is lettering as well as penciling and inking for three of the four issues, the positioning of the captions and speech bubbles are placed with the utmost precision, leaving nothing obscured on the page.
Aside from the initially unknown demon-possessed murderer the the two other major players of the story are the ever present John Constantine, and Sir Peter Marston, who is well aware of the murder that has just been done and who the murderer is. Marston’s appearance and demeanor reeks of British olde blood and nobility that you just don’t find amongst Americans. His silver bushy mustache, bowler cap, sharply tailored suit, and no nonsense manner ultimately put him in mind as a villain, as there has yet to be an honest member of the upper crust in Hellblazer, so readers are understandably suspicious when Marston sets out to find Constantine chauffeured in his Rolls Royce, another status symbol. Constantine is apt to have a little fun with Marston, initially using an illusion to make Marston believe a drug dealer is actually him, just to ruffle his feathers and set him on edge. Constantine eventually confronts Marston and the two have a spat that ultimately leads to the murder of the opening page. Proclaiming that Constantine should help him less he want to see more dead “poofters” Marston stomps away thinking he has put Constantine in his place, only to discover that upon returning to his Rolls Royce, that despite his driver never removing them that the keys have mysteriously disappeared from the ignition.
The seriousness of the story is broken up with a lunch meeting between John and Kit, whom along with joking about throwing the Rolls keys down the drain, also discuss how John knows Marston, namely that he and the late Brendan O’Flynn got a hold of a set of polaroids showing Marston being tied to a bed and whipped by someone dressed as a nurse. People of power who have a taste for BDSM, is a common fetish amongst fiction with characters such as Marston. To people whose professional role involves them exerting great control/power BDSM allows them to give up their power to someone else with little to no repercussions other than maybe some bruises. As well as continuing to make appearances in Hellblazer the trope can also be seen in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. The ultimate outcome of their sexual tastes being used against them by the protagonist, i.e. the threat of public exposure, is just as common as the existence of the fetish itself. Upon ransoming the keys back to Marston, Kit mentions offhand how John has been staying over at her place for a while. Kit jokingly asks if he is planning on moving in, of which she has no qualms to, but firmly states that she doesn’t want any of Constantine’s “baggage” of which she refers to the weirdness. When Constantine starts to get mopey about “ghoulies, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night,” Kit turns to mocking John which turns the conversation back to the lighter side, and the two decide to give it a try. While the three page scene is all too brief as the back and forth dialog of John and Kit is a pleasure to read, the exchange nicely breaks up overall grimness of the issue, further establishes Kit as a point of light in John’s life, and further advances the pair’s relationship.
As bright and happy as the lunch was, the scene shifts back to the murderer who claims his next victim. The demon in his head remembers when it was summoned to Earth, and while the demon had no shortage of souls to torture in Hell, on Earth he can pick and choose at will and gets to go after the innocent “the choicest of delicacies.” This time the man the demon captures knows whom he is, but is killed mid proclaim of his killer’s identity. Again Simpson’s art shows another flayed body, this time less disemboweling but more removal of skin and musculature,which precise placement of shadows obscuring just what was and was not cut off by the demon, allowing the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks. Constantine goes back to meet with Marston and is taken to the Caligula Club, a secretive club named after Caligula, the nickname for Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who was infamously known for his cruelty, sadism, extravagance and sexual perversity. Constantine declares the place as a “club for rich sickos” but Marston declares that the club is a place for release. Remarking upon a story of when a photo journalist found the club and was caught, the journalist burns his film after Marston says to him “better our perverse energies should be applied here than in affairs of state” Marston’s argument is that the club is a necessary place lest, who knows what the rich and powerful would do in public. The entire journey through the club is meant to unnerve Constantine so that Marston may better manipulate him in their ongoing game of one upmanship but Constantine again leads Marston into a trap, proclaiming he tell Constantine what he wants lest he send Marston’s soul to hell. Marston takes John into a room where a famous gentleman and his two friends partook in a demon summoning. Inside the summoning circle are two skeletons, and Marston believes the demon has possessed the famous gentleman. Constantine demands to know who this gentleman was and after hemming and hawing, reveals that he is a member of the British Royal Family, ending the issue on a cliffhanger that comics excel at.
“The Players” starts Royal Blood off strong with firmly establishing all that an opening issue needs to. The plot is straightforward and to the point: a demon has possessed a member of the Royal Family and is killing innocent people, and Constantine has to stop it. It’s a story that could not take place in America due to the nature of our political system, but involves something widely known for it to be not totally unknown to non-British readers. Ennis invokes cliffhangers endings throughout the story arc, something he has generally shied away from through most of his run until now. The individual issues of Dangerous Habits stand on their own despite being one tightly knit story (aside from parts 4 and 5), but here the narrative is constructed in such a way that you want to immediately read the next issue to see what happens next.