Issues #68-69 “Down All the Days” and “Rough Trade”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
Depression is defined as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection” and as anyone who has suffered from it, is a beast that can run rampant on one’s life. Like with most afflictions those who don’t understand it tend to brush it off or downplay the effect it can have on those who very much feel the burden of it. Crushing feelings of hopelessness and despair that are seemingly inescapable. While not everyone suffers from clinical depression, everyone has surely had hard times in which they are unable to escape such feelings, even John Constantine.
“Down All the Days” picks up five months after the conclusion of “Dear John” and opens with an array of homeless people living on the streets before focusing in on John Constantine himself, looking dingy, dirty, and living on the streets. Though far from the cool suave individual that was first introduced in The Saga of the Swamp Thing he still is very much John Constantine. He is no less John Constantine because he is bearded and a homeless alcoholic. This familiar (if bearded) face is a reminder that the other homeless are no less themselves, although dehumanized as they may be by much of society. What is different about Constantine is that we know his story of how he got from point A to point B, it’s been clearly written on the page. But how often do we stop and wonder about how others ended up in the same situation, presumably not often, if ever. Everyone has their own story, although we may not often think of it often, as we tend to worry about our own problems first. The sad broken looks on the face of the homeless across the three pages of the opening add to the themes Neil Gaiman touched upon in “Hold Me” but here there is no cold lonely ghost in which the story revolves around, just real people. Either way there is always something that drives people out of their homes and onto the streets and as the issue accounts Constantine’s breakup with Kit was more earth shattering than anyone would have expected.
Running opposite to John Constantine is the return of The King of the Vampires, who still very much looks like James Dean, even more so with Steve Dillon pencilling the series now. Ageless and vain even The King of Vampires has noticed the apparent disappearance of John Constantine, and as his friend and lover Darius comments on, is always enraged when thinking about Constantine. The King of the Vampires hedonistic lifestyle perfectly contrasts the squalor that John Constantine has to endure living on the streets, with the King and his vampiric lovers half undressed and licking the blood of a fresh kill off each other on a London rooftop on one page, while the opposite shows Constantine going to sleep on a cot in an alley. It makes both lifestyles seem more extreme and repugnant than they would normally appear were the issue just focused on one character over the other. Not only are the opulence and squalor contrasted across the issue but also camaraderie of the two characters. Darius and Mary are adoring sycophants grateful for the life the King has bestowed upon them; Constantine’s one companion through the issue is another homeless man named Davy who he is initially hostile too, but agrees to share his cot with after Davy reveals he has a blanket they can use to keep warm with. Whereas The King has companions for pleasure and amusement, Constantine has companions out of necessity for survival. Constantine really only lightens up to Davy after he reveals that he’s been selling his body for money and that despite his life he’s still optimistic. As Davy see’s it “when you’re the lowest form of friggin’ life…/Least it means you can’t go any lower.” While this may be Constantine at his lowest ever, the only place he has to go from here is up.
The conflict of the issue primarily is within Constantine’s own drunken mind. In his lucid moments he remembers his story of how he got to living on the streets, of how he took something good in his life and dragged it through the mud. His girlfriend and best friend both abandoning him in the same day months prior, he momentarily puts the blame on Kit and Chas before confessing that it was his fault for what had happened and that he is only lying to himself. Constantine drinks to forget, as the downward spiral that it cast him into, one where even his other friends that would have aided him didn’t seem worth the effort to John. Constantine has lost all hope and his will, and he drinks to forget why he lost them in the first place. It is why at the climax of the issue it is nice to see John make a connection with someone else, even if it is only to stay warm and survive another night. This feeling of hope is expertly offset by a maliciously grinning King of the Vampires who has come across the sleeping pair.
“Rough Trade” begins with the King of the Vampire’s recollection of World War I and The Battle of the Somme in July of 1916. This scene was briefly touched upon during his introduction in “Remarkable Lives” in issue #50 but here it is greatly expanded and also includes John Constantine’s grandfather, Lance Corporal William Constantine, who had an ill fated encounter with the vampire. William Constantine seemingly avoided “The Constantine Curse” living a seemingly normal life before losing his life amongst 20,000 others on that day. The archetypical hunter The King of Vampires now has another opportunity to treat Constantine as the prey that he views all of humanity as and instead of killing him swiftly like his grandfather, he intends to play with his food.
Waking from drunken sleep John and Davy take a walk to ease their minds of nightmares, but after complaining about his neck, the pair discover Davy’s shirt and neckline is covered in coagulated blood. In a darkly humourous scene, the King snaps his fingers and blood starts to jolt out of his neck in what comedian Bill Hicks1 would call “a plasma fountain”. Thus begins another back and forth between John Constantine and The King of Vampires, with The King mocking Constantine with words from their previous meeting that Constantine used to match wits with him. The exchange takes on a Lovecraftian cosmic horror tone as it goes on, as while the works of H.P. Lovecraft are known for tentacle laden indescribable monsters, there is a larger theme of the futility of man in the grander scheme of things, and the revelation of such futility to the protagonists of his stories. Yes right now Hellblazer is focused on the personal trials and tribulations of John Constantine, but John still lives in a world in which man in destroying the earth through environmental negligence, which make one man’s breakup seem meaningless in comparison. Furthermore the discussions implies that the King of Vampires has some kind of extradimensional powers, as he mentions his plan of going to other worlds over billions of years and consuming the inhabitants there until there is nothing left in existence but Heaven and Hell. Although the King of Vampires may appear as the traditional suave figure popularized by Dracula2, this is very much beyond the scope of most traditional vampiric villains just seeking an increase in their domain. Cosmic horror is not unknown to Hellblazer, but instead of the coming of a literal fear god/entity in The Fear Machine here it is a much more human appearing antagonist, which is at odds with many cosmic horror tales. Offering once again to turn Constantine into a vampire, of which Constantine replies “No./I’m not that low.” The King starts to drain John blood before the demonic blood mixed with Constantine’s 61 issues prior causes the vampire to start to gag and choke as it dissolves his lower face. Resplendent as only someone who has beaten death once again can be, Constantine joyfully drinks and urinate on the vampire as the sun starts to rise. Viciously, Constantine drags the vampire into the sun, where he bursts into flame, possibly saving all life everywhere by doing so.
Although John Constantine may have vanquished The King of the Vampires and save the blood and necks of intelligent life everywhere, he has not yet conquered his latest demons. The issue concludes with Constantine assaulting a couple of policemen who discover the corpse of Davy and verbally degrade him, who in turn kick the snot out of Constantine before going on their way.The scene and the issues as a whole symbolize healing as a process, life doesn’t immediately turn around from bad to good again, there’s a series of ups and downs. Although we know him to be John Constantine, when recognized by a shopkeeper he denies his identity, and only when John Constantine feels like John Constantine will he be out of this ordeal.
1. Bill Hicks would appear in Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher in issue #31 “Underworld” Those familiar with his material would agree that his appearance is fitting to the series.
2. The King of Vampires openly acknowledges that he looks like James Dean in this issue. And that he always has, even on other worlds. Which I find ridiculous and is one of my favorite things about Ennis’ run.