Issue #71 “Finest Hour”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
Last we left John Constantine he was in a very rough place, living on the streets for 6 months and stuck in a bout of depression caused by Kit Ryan leaving him after the events of Fear and Loathing. What positive moments of sadistic glee that was brought upon by unwittingly causing the death of The King of the Vampires thanks to his demonic blood was quickly dashed by the service-issued shoes of the London police who found the corpse of John’s exsanguinated friend Davy. This blow by the hands of regular people and the utter mistreatment of his friend sent John into deeper spiral, with Davy’s words of “you can’t go any lower when you’re the lowest form of life” on his mind as he wandered the streets of London as another nameless vagabond. “Finest Hour” picks up shortly afterwards with Constantine at his utmost lowest, the place one has to be before they can make the climb back upwards.
“Finest Hour” begins with John Constantine at the complete opposite point, wandering the banks of the Thames shortly after New Year’s, more depressed and downtrodden than we last saw him in issue #69. He has taken to drinking methylene spirits more commonly known as denatured alcohol, nearly pure ethyl alcohol commonly mixed with small amount of methanol or other additives making the mixture poisonous. As the methanol can cause blindness and the liquid also commonly contains syrup of ipecac, a regurgitant, there is no clearer way to show how far Constantine has fallen in so short of a time, as he was drinking Jameson in issue #68 and “cheap whiskey” at New Years. Adding to his sorry state, Constantine drunkenly sings “The Mountains of Morne” an Irish folk song that Kit had taught him, although supposedly he can’t remember her name, just glimpses of the words used to describe her since her introduction in issue #43 “raven hair and skin like snow at sunset.” The Mountains of Morne written by Perry French concerns the Irish diaspora, or the mass emigration of Irish since the 1700s. The fact that the tune is sang as to one’s true love back home in Ireland, for the obvious reasons of John and Kit’s relationship, or lack thereof. Vomiting his methylene spirits and wiping away the blood from his mouth, Constantine lies down in a knoll thinking about Davy’s words about not being able to go anyplace lower, deciding he is wrong and that death is the lower place you can go. This mindset being accompanied by the revelation that Constantine has unknowingly passed out next to a half buried skeleton.
The majority of this issue deals with the final moments of the skeleton that Constantine has passed out next to, British World War II pilot Sergeant Jamie Kilmartin, as he flies his heavily damaged Hurricane across the British landscape. Initially Kilmartin is critical of his supposed stupidity during a dogfight with the German Luftwaffe and accepts his imminent death with a heavy amount of fatalism. However, after remembering a conversation he had with his Squadron Leader, in which he is chided for humanizing death and his acceptance of it when the time comes, Kilmartin strives to do all that he can to return safely to his airfield. Remembering his superior’s words of “Fight it to your last bloody drop!/Otherwise why did you even bother in the first place?” Kilmartin flies on, and even when he knows he won’t make it back he still flies on, refusing to surrender and submit to death. The entire sequence is appropriately cinematic as one would expect it to be, as the doomed aircraft is the central focus in a number of different movies in a wide array of genres, from Airplane! to Pearl Harbor to Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). This is because man was not meant to fly, our bones are not hollow and we don’t have any feathers, and by striving to remain so while the laws of physics and nature say “No” is a testament of the human spirit, one of defiance and rejection of “fate” as what goes up must come down if gravity has anything to say about it.
As the plane crashes in his “dream” Constantine awakens to find the skull of Kilmartin staring him straight in the face, revealing that even after the crash Kilmartin still refused to give up, crawling away to keep living although he died alone on the shores of the Thames, his body never found. Obviously Kilmartin’s failure to survive is not the point of the dream that is passed on to Constantine and to the reader, it’s that he never stopped trying or gave in no matter how grim and bleak things got for him. This shakes Constantine back to reality, and after relieving an elderly British statesmen of his money through nothing but a glance and a sly look to the reader, John Constantine returns; a clean suit, tie, and trench coat symbolizing his return to normalcy as much as his freshly cleaned face does. How Steve Dillon draws Constantine at this reveal makes John look much older than he was 6 months ago, as one would expect based off the events of the past 6 months. As the series frequently changes artists over the course of 300 issues this display of age isn’t always consistent, but their is a notable difference between the John Constantine here and the John Constantine of “Forty” from issue #63. Glenn Fabry’s cover for the issue deserves special recognition as the skeletal pilot looks straight out of something from Heavy Metal and fits the issue perfectly. Feeling that he owes the skeleton something, John goes back to properly bury the remains, pondering over who this person was and what he lived and died for. John discerns that it doesn’t matter only that he never gave up, and if you did give up why did you bother at all?
“Finest Hour” wraps up Constantine’s homeless stint, working through his grief before returning him back to his normal life. The length of the arc is utterly appropriate, not a single issue feeling ill spent, but any longer would have made the entire affair drag on needlessly. Only so much narration from Constantine about his loneliness and worthlessness can be stomached, and the arc has the right amount that we cheer when we see John’s return rather than a groan of “Ugh. Finally.” Like in real life, Constantine’s wounds haven’t automatically healed completely, but you have to start somewhere.