Issue #72 “Damnation’s Flame Part One: Brave New World”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Clem Robins;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
When Hellblazer started 71 issues prior, the comic was more than just John Constantine going up against the things that go bump in the night with a smirk on his face and a pack of Silk Cuts in the pocket of his trenchcoat. For most of the first 40 issues Jamie Delano also provided stark cultural commentary on the state of the United Kingdom and America in the mid to late 1980s seamlessly weaved into the narrative of each issue. As we’ve seen after Garth Ennis took over the title, his Hellblazer stories have focused more on the interpersonal relationships of John Constantine and those around him, leaving much of the commentary that was prominent to Delano’s run on the wayside. While Ennis did poke at the Royal Family and the upper-crust in Royal Blood and deal with racism in Fear and Loathing these are more general topics that can still be easily digested by readers 20+ years later, the British Monarchy still exists and people are still racist. The social commentary that Ennis writes of can be set in any time period, while Delano’s subject matter is very firmly set in the United Kingdom of the 1980s. This is not to say that one style is more better than the other, as the variety is what makes both so enjoyable to read. In Damnation’s Flame however, Ennis employs a manner of social critique that firmly sets the stage as in America in the 1980s, in a style not unlike Jamie Delano’s.
Like the beginning issues of Hellblazer, “Brave New World” has John Constantine returning to New York City. In this case it is not to track down a Hunger demon, but as a change of venue to refresh himself before he attempts to confront The First of the Fallen. This is also the first time since issue #9 ‘Shot to Hell” that Constantine has left the British Isles within the confines of the series,1 so a change in venue seems utterly appropriate given the numerous events of the past 5 years. After terrifying the loud mouth passenger next to him with tales of someone’s colon getting sucked out an airplane toilet, Constantine arrives in the Big Apple to take in the scene. John comments on how New York is too big too seem like an actual real place, to which anyone who has visited the city can attest to. New York is amongst the oldest cities in the United States and a city so rich in history and culture that every writer on Sequart could not adequately cover everything the city has to offer if we all started writing now. To many New York is America, with people from around the world visiting the city every year, just as how millions from around the world came through Ellis Island to immigrate to the country. While the events of September 11th 2001 are still 8 years away in Hellblazer, there is no other fitting spot for social commentary on America to take place. One could argue that Washington DC would be a more fitting place, but the city is so drenched in politics that it overshadows everything else, whereas DC is much more of a cosmopolitan city in comparison.
As this is still an issue written by Garth Ennis, it is only natural that Constantine ends up in a bar shortly after arriving in New York, and an Irish one at that. Much to his surprise the bartender Peter remembers him by name despite it being 10 years since he was last at the bar, and upon the pair getting reacquainted it’s hard not to have the Cheers theme song ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name” play in your head (despite that series taking place in Boston). A short back and forth between John and Peter has the barkeep complaining of the “Irish” that show up every St. Patrick’s Day and get pissed drunk off a pint and a half of Guinness. It’s a comment on the appropriation of Irish culture by Americans and one that Ennis devotes almost an entire issue of his “superhero” series The Boys to. Although is John Constantine in a place “where everybody knows [his] name” this extends beyond the friendly demeanor of the bartender and fellow bar patrons, as Zeerke a lackey of the Vodoun witch doctor Papa Midnite has also noticed Constantine’s presence and scurries off to inform him. Papa Midnite was last seen in issue #2 “Feast of Friends” and although the pair left on relatively good terms after defeating the hunger demon Mnemoth, narration and dialogue from various characters hints at Constantine inflicting a slight upon Midnite which resulted in the witch doctor developing a burning feeling of hatred towards Constantine. Assured that Constantine has gone soft by Zeerke, as he was not recognized by John despite the fact that he killed one of his friends in front of him, Midnite decides that now would be a good time to get back at Constantine.
The following evening when Constantine returns to the Irish pub his drink is spiked by Midnite. It’s not a matter of Midnite slipping a poison into the beer, but more so a subtle magic trick that initially only gives Constantine the creeps. Slowly Constantine starts to hallucinate, not fully realizing what is happening to him. The hallucinations aren’t crazy psychedelia that comes to mind when thinks of drug or magic induced visions, just slight but all means disturbing alterations to people and animals which sends Constantine running out into the street. Stumbling in pitch darkness, Constantine comes to a man at a desk asking his name, ethnicity, and what his destination to is in his (the desk worker’s) country. Staring at him dumbfounded, after answering all but the last question the scene immediately changes into this nightmarish cityscape with the caption of “Welcome to the United States of America.” Throughout the issue Steve Dillon’s buildings representing the New York skyline have been fairly plain and unremarkable, instead focusing more on the characters. From this the otherwise bland buildings being warped into looming misshapen buildings under a red sky is utterly effective and unsettling to both John and the reader. Effectively communicating that Constantine is about to go on a wild ride.
“Brave New World” effectively sets up the forthcoming storyline in all the ways it should. The issue builds up a state of normalcy with hints of dread slowly creeping in on Constantine’s otherwise good time. Being that this is the first issue in which we see Constantine back to form on pulling the wool over several people’s eyes and being his general self, it’s more nerve wracking to the reader to see have John have to face something so dreadful again so soon. However after 71 issues it should really be expected by now.
1. The Swamp Thing did take John’s body for a joyride down to Louisiana immediately after “Shot to Hell” but John wasn’t in control then.