Issue #63 “Forty”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
As discussed in prior installments of this column, Hellblazer was one of the few comics to progress in real time as the series went on. While each individual issue did not cover one month to the next, 12 issues of the series was roughly a year in real time. Along with staying culturally relevant with the changing world in which the series takes place, the real time progression also allows characters to age and grow (as characters in a narrative) as time goes by. The last time we saw “celebrate” his birthday he turned 35, so now 5 years later the issue title of “Forty” is utterly appropriate.
While joyously celebrated in one’s youth, as people grow older fewer and fewer birthdays are celebrated notably. What was once presents and cake and party favors, evolves into slumber parties, then to the first legal night of drinking, and then perhaps a quiet dinner amongst friends. At a certain point birthdays tend to lose their luster, as it marks another year in which we have lived our lives and have yet to have kicked the bucket. However the drunken 20s through the quiet 30s is traditionally reinvigorated by one’s 40th birthday, when someone is considered “middle age” or “old” in mocking tones by friends and well wishers. Constantine’s 40th birthday is no exception to this, as although mainstay supporting cast members Kit and Chas are unable to attend the festivities, Constantine is no short of friends on this day. From a narrative standpoint, the issue is fairly straightforward and self contained, you could hand someone “Forty” and they would know everything they need to know about Hellblazer. As “Forty” takes place almost entirely in Kit and John’s apartment, it shows Ennis skill in writing dialog and Dillon’s skill in being able to make a bunch of people sitting around and getting drunk very enjoyable.
Ennis takes this issue to inject a number of supporting cast members into Hellblazer as well as having old friends make an appearance. The party itself being a surprise planned by The Lord of the Dance, who bears a slight resemblance to Alan Moore in this instance (Constantine’s co-creator alongside Steve Bissette and John Totleben), the Gaelic deity has taken to inviting John’s other friends to the occasion.1 Nigel Engels from Royal Blood is also in attendance, taking a break from fighting capitalism, as is the succubus Ellie. Ennis’ new additions to the cast are perpetual sunglass-wearing Scotsman, Header, religious artifact dealer and collared priest, Rick the Vic, and Mange, a man whose mind has been trapped in the body of a white rabbit with a penchant for cursing. The three are all incredibly fleshed out in the the short appearances they have hear, and are criminally underused throughout the series sadly. So much so that when Ennis returns to the series to write the 5 part Son of Man in issues #129-133 their inclusion in the story is just as exciting as seeing Ennis back on the book. Famous fishnetted magician Zatanna is in attendance, but as she is not doing heroics, she is not in her usual stage magician attire and sports a Siouxsie Sioux style haircut. Alongside Zatanna two other major players in DC’s occult realms make an appearance, The Swamp Thing and The Phantom Stranger, both of whom Constantine had dealings with during Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. The exchanges with the enigmatic figures are brief but amusing, with John accidentally peeing on The Stranger’s shoes and The Swamp Thing growing a large amount of marijuana for John and his friends to smoke. With goodbyes foreshadowing future events within Ennis’ run the end of the evening is down to John and The Lord of the Dance, who sit and drink whiskey while discussing John’s life. Ennis inserts another Pogues mention with The Lord commenting on how the song “Rake at the Gates of Hell”2 could have been written about him. The Lord being a god has some prescient abilities and tells John to enjoy the time he has now as he “is in for a rough couple of years”
As well as celebrating Constantine surviving to middle age, “Forty” is also the first issue of the series published under the Vertigo imprint. Set aside from the continuity of main publisher DC, Vertigo would allow great creative freedom from creators and would allow more mature content to be published. The imprint is regarded as the home of some the medium’s best work in the 1990s and 2000s with numerous critically acclaimed series like Preacher, Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles, and several others coming from the imprint.3 Hellblazer and Constantine being set aside means that characters such as The Swamp Thing Zatanna and The Phantom Stranger would show up less and less, as do mention to some of the “And nothing will ever be the same again” events. While the interaction of Constantine with these characters is surely missed, as him scoffing at the other uptight magicians is always a good laugh, it makes the series feel more “real” and grounded knowing that Gotham City isn’t a place Constantine can go to dwell with the crumbling and downtrodden city reflecting his mental state. The real world has enough locations such as these that can be used.
“Forty” is the turning point in the Ennis’ overall Hellblazer story arc, as like The Lord of the Dance had said the next few years of Constantine’s life are very unpleasant in many different ways. It’s a glimmer of light before the series takes a plunge into the darkness. The issue displays the talent of the creative team spectacularly. Personally it is amongst the best in Ennis’ run and one of my favorite issues.
- How The Lord of the Dance knew about all these other friends of John is never explained, as John has not seen the god since his introduction in issue #49, for purpose of this analysis let’s assume they also were in the bar.
- Rake in this instance meaning “a fashionable or wealthy man of dissolute or promiscuous habits.”
- Sequart has several books about them, go read one.