Issue #70 “Heartland”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Stuart Chaifetz;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
After nearly 6 years of being published as a monthly title, issues of Hellblazer contain a certain expectation of the content with the front and back covers. Namely John Constantine’s ongoing misadventures as he dabbles in magic and occasionally threatens or saves humanity because of this. Whether as a monster of the month story like “New Tricks” or the sprawling nine issue cosmic horror story The Fear Machine, Hellblazer has proven that a variety of equally enjoyable tales can be told by its numerous writers. However all of these stories have shared one constant, the presence of John Constantine himself. After all his name is technically in the series full and official title, John Constantine: Hellblazer, so it is a given that he should very well expected that he even make a small appearance even in issues where he is not the primary focus. So when Constantine is truly absent for the first time in the series in “Heartland” the question can be asked is this still an issue of Hellblazer?
Of course it is. As although Constantine is not physically present within the issue, “Heartland” focuses on Kit Ryan directly after the couple’s breakup so he is still heavy on her mind as one would expect. It is worthy to note that this is Kit’s story, not just a way to communicate to the reader how she took the breakup, the subject of Constantine comes up, but it is not the focus of the issue. Instead this issue deals with Kit’s return to Belfast her Irish hometown that she has been absent from for a number of years. The issue’s primary focus is Kit and her siblings going out for a night at the bar and everyone getting reunited, swapping stories at a bar, and the events that unfold as the night go on. “Heartland” is without a doubt the most realistic issue of Hellblazer and it is because nothing extraordinary happens. There’s no magic, no threats, just people sitting around drinking in a bar, like you or I would do with our own friends. That doesn’t make it a boring or bad issue, it’s completely the opposite and what makes it so enjoyable, it’s focused on the people of the sotry and their lives and (mis)adventures. The issue feels real, as somewhere, some group of friends are having the evening that’s shown here.
An important thing to note from a narrative perspective is that other than a caption box marking the time and place “Belfast Station, July 1993” and Kit remembering something she said to John’s niece Gemma in “End of the Line” (“Don’t take shit from anyone”) there is no internal narration in the entire issue. This stands out as Hellblazer is an otherwise narration heavy series that uses the technique to communicate just what is going through the head of John Constantine as he walks the streets of London puffing on his Silk Cut, his emotional state, his hopes, his fears, and his ponderings on how he’s going to get out of his latest jam. Here however the narration isn’t needed as everything within the issue is clearly communicated through the dialog between the characters and the artwork. In the issue everyone’s faces are frozen in time so the reader can detect the curiosity in lovestruck Neil’s face when someone asks Kit about her man back in London. The dialog of the issue flows naturally like it’s actually people talking in an actual conversation linking from one topic to another, interjections coming abruptly, but not feeling artificial. There’s no greater narrative or story arc to be established to the reader, so needless exposition is absent and the stories just glide from Ennis’ pen as if they were being told by actual people. Some of them probably were.
That does not mean the issue is without substance, a lot of character development for Kit is buried within the bar talk, expertly placed within the conversations so it doesn’t feel forced when it comes up that Kit never went to her father’s funeral. To the reader there may be a quizzical moment where they question why that is, but it isn’t needlessly explained in the public setting of the Crown Bar, an actual pub in Belfast, as if it were John Constantine sharing one of his grisly stories. As well as revealing that everyone in Belfast calls Kit Kathy, the issue introduces three of Kit’s younger siblings, Claire, Peter, and Ann, as well as Ann’s husband Sean, and their friend Neil. Although most of these characters only appear in this issue, their own personalities are firmly established in the few pages they have. Claire is very much a younger version of Kit, and clearly the sibling she is closest with. Peter is very much a practical joker, but not in the obnoxious sense, more in the way that he’s someone who enjoys a good laugh, even if it isn’t always the most appropriate time or way to get one. If you think hard enough you probably know someone like Peter and know a story that he could have been the star of. Ann is the most reserved of the Ryan children, always accosting people for telling lewd stories, most often her husband Sean, who is best described as quick tempered, sexist, Irish yuppie. He’s recently become financially successful, but his white suit, long hair, and fast car seem out of place here. Neil is very much the quiet reserved fellow who secretly pines away for a woman but has never had the courage to actually tell her, and when he eventually does it is always at the worst of times. Everyone of these characters has their own distinct look and personality so it’s never confusing on who is whom as the stories are rapid fired over pints of Guinness.
There are many parallels or callbacks to the events of Hellblazer within the issue. Some of them are due to Kit having just having broken up with John, such as her ordering an extra Gin and Tonic at the bar, or snapping at her brother when he uses the phrase “Funny old world, innit?” very much Constantine-isms but others are much more subtle. Claire shares a story of how she was seeing this man who secretly was trying to join the Provisional Irish Republican Army or “the provos”, a paramilitary group that seeks to reclaim Northern Ireland from the UK to reestablish a unified Ireland. The only way she found out about was after he tried assaulting a British Army landrover and his gun misfired putting him in the hospital and then prison. Claire remarks that “how can you be so close an’ not know stuff like that?” which can be seen as a mirror to Constantine’s involvement with his “dangerous stuff.” Kit knew about John’s dealings, although not the specifics, but she knew he did some shady things from the beginning of their relationship, but she stayed with him anyways despite the danger, in Claire’s case she never knew about the dangerous stuff before she got involved with the man, so it begs the question of who was more surprised when the danger reared its head? Subtle in the artistic sense is when Sean makes a sexist joke that causes kit to bump the table spilling a bloody mary onto his crotch, what’s significant about it is the stain on the suit is identical to the blood spurt from when Kit stabbed the skinhead with her knife back in London, as well as a reminiscence later about how Kit once pulled a bread knife on her father when he was beating her mother, it’s a nice nod to how Kit can handle herself and stand up for those she feels are being threatened. Lastly when Claire and Kit return to their now vacant childhood home before the new owners move in, a drunken lovestruck Neil knocks on their door, professing his undying attraction and devotion to Kit to which she just tells him to go home, to which he wanders off to puke on someone’s car. It’s very much what you could see Constantine trying to do had Kit stayed in London, but here it is comical where it would be the very opposite if John had tried such an act.
When looking at the issue as a whole, “Heartland” is about memories, memories of childhood, love lost, inappropriate jokes, soccer games, and many other memories. Kit’s wounds are still fresh but by the end of the issue when she cries to herself and wonders if she did the right thing with John, but then ends up smiling listening to her sister singing the closing lines of an Irish children’s song that their mother used to sing, “I’ll Tell My Ma,” you get the feeling that Kit will be alright. Ennis poetically wraps the issue up with a quote from the play Da by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard. The play is about the main character Charlie encountering his adoptive father’s ghost Charlie shortly after his death and touching upon themes of family, death, and memory. The main take away from the play being that you can’t bury away memories and that they will follow you through life for better or worse. The same can be said of both John Constantine and Kit Ryan.