Issue #73 “Damnation’s Flame: Broadway the Hard Way”
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 had stumbled out of a bar hallucinating, sent “witch walking” by Papa Midnite as payback from a slight a decade past. Throughout the remainder of Damnation’s Flame, Constantine’s mind will experience the horrors of America through Midnite’s hex while back in the real world his body suffers in it’s own all too real way. Over the next three issues Ennis’ stark look at the disparity of America begins at the local level in the present day before spiralling out to the national level tying in American history of the 20th century before climaxing with observations of America’s position globally while hinting at things that may yet to come.
As Constantine’s last lucid location was is in New York City in 1993, it is only natural that Ennis cultural observation begins in The Big Apple. Constantine begins on foot wandering the warped concrete jungle before coming across an African-American man who speaks with the mannerisms of John Wayne, constantly referring to Constantine as “pilgrim.” Due to this mannerism I shall refer to him as Wayne. As Ennis is a lover of Westerns, as can be seen by his series Preacher, and that pilgrim is defined as “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons” of which Constantine is tangentially doing even if he does not realize it, the moniker lends itself on multiple levels. On the way to Central Park where supposedly other people are living, the pair take refuge under an awning as it begins to snow. The “snow” is in fact crack-cocaine falling from the sky covering the streets of New York. An inexpensive free base form of cocaine, crack saw rampant use in the impoverished inner city neighborhoods, such as New York, from the middle 1980s to the early 1990s to the point in which the term “crack epidemic” was coined by the anti-drug rhetoric of the time to document the drug’s use. Some cite this as an example of moral panic as use of the and trafficking of the drug skyrocketed following the extensive media coverage.
Walking the “snowy” streets Constantine inquires of the safety of Central Park based on news he has heard. Constantine refers to “The Central Park Jogger Case” of 1989 when a 28 year old woman, Trisha Meili was assaulted, raped, and sodomized while jogging through the park. One of the most publicly discussed crimes at the time, Ennis would only need an offhand line about the dangers of the park and a jogger who was raped for the reader to understand what Constantine was alluding to. Wayne remarks how there is a woman named “Liberty” in the park who is a “ho” that everyone takes advantage of. This causes Constantine to questions whether this is an actual woman, or “liberty” in the abstract sense and is quite upset when the guide refuses to give him a straight answer. Wayne remarks that it is Lady Liberty, as liberty is “a ho word” and those with the power are making her, her being the word “liberty,” to do what they want her to, not in terms of sexual actions but how those in power will use words to justify actions and agendas. The most obvious use of this in the post-9/11 America is the use of the phrase “national security” a phrase one can not go a day without hearing (especially in an election year) that is thrown around carelessly to justify seemingly anything the utterer wants. It’s a twisted portrayal of “freedom of speech” in which language is able to be changed by those who wish it to change.
Back in the real world a dazed Constantine is crawling around the sidewalk before a pair of police officers empty his pockets and throw him into the back of their cruiser. To them he is a nuisance, a drugged out junkie who needs to be removed from the public eye as opposed to being helped, as instead of taking him someplace safe to come down from his high (as to the nescient onlooker that’s what it looks like John’s experiencing) they drag him off to a seedy transient shelter. Unresponsive and huddling in a corner, Constantine fares no better in here as he is immediately pegged as a foreigner due to the few British pounds left in his pockets that the cops didn’t take from him. A large brutish man, upset that Constantine is obviously foreign and didn’t have anything worth taking from him decides to welcome him to America by urinating on his face. Constantine’s treatment mirrors that of actual homeless people who suffer from a variety of physical or mental ailments which causes them to be looked down upon or mistreated by many, something Hellblazer has touched upon before in prior issues.
Back in the Hell-New York Constantine and Wayne come across a bullet-ridden project, high density low income housing owned by the state notorious for violence, drug use, prostitution. Here the building is weeping blood onto the street is Wayne remarks how he saw a shoot-out between police, soldiers, and cowboys, all of which looked like Clint Eastwood, symbolizes America’s obsession with guns, violence, action stars, and the cost such an obsession has on society. Reaching Central Park Constantine comes upon a group of people huddled around a fire eating some kind of meat, of which he is offered and begins eating until he realizes one of the people is wearing a blanket made from stitched together pieces of human skin. Sensing this realization the others turn and him and John’s throat is cut by Wayne. New York is regarded as a city that will eat someone alive if they are not careful, but the question of who is doing the eating is seldom brought up. Here it is shown that it is other people who are the ones who will feast upon you should you fail, you will be used as a stepping stone or sustenance to their own success in the “dog-eat-dog” or in this case “human-eat-human” world. Constantine is only saved from being bled out by a rain of dollar bills that seemingly appear as a swarm of carrion birds that frighten off the cannibals while words of atrocities on the wind accompany them. The subtext is all to plain to see to the point where it is more so actual text. Later realizing he has had his jugular cut but is still somehow alive, Constantine wanders across the Brooklyn Bridge out of Manhattan only to discover the bullet riddled ex-president John F. Kennedy waiting for him.
“Broadway the Hard Way” is a bleak look at the urban life of the 1980s and 1990s of New York. For those who do not reside in it, when New York comes to mind we probably only think of Times Square, the Guggenheim Art museum, and romantic scenes from movies in Central Park. The truth of the matter is that New York, like any large metropolitan city, is more than just its attractions and spectacle. There are real people with real issues living in the concrete jungles and they’re trials and tribulations are no less real just because you’re using a selfie stick at Rockefeller Plaza.