Issue #78 “Rake at the Gates of Hell: Parts One”
Writer: Garth Ennis;
Artist: Steve Dillon;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Clem Robins;
Editor: Stuart Moore;
Assistant Editor: Julie Rottenberg;
Cover: Glenn Fabry;
Despite the cyclical nature of most comics, all good things have to come to an end eventually, and Hellblazer is no exception. For the past 37 issues Garth Ennis has taken Hellblazer in a much more personal and human direction in comparison to the stark political commentary that filled Jamie Delano’s run. That’s not to say Ennis’ run on the title hasn’t also featured observations about the United States, the abusive nature of power, and the dehumanization of the common man, as nothing could be further from the case with stories arcs like Royal Blood, Fear and Loathing, and Damnation’s Flame. It’s just that a majority of Constantine’s adventures, or more appropriately “misadventures,” throughout this run have more of a focus on John Constantine’s personal life and how the political themes and elements interfere with it. Here we do not see nearly as much literal world saving in comparison to Delano’s stories, or stretching even further back to the schemes Constantine was involved with in Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Instead, the overarching conflict of Ennis’ entire run has been Constantine literally squaring off against The First of the Fallen, the literal biblical Devil.1 It’s a plot that isn’t always in the foreground, but often lurks just outside the panel and many of Constantine’s actions over the past three years of stories are directly related to John trying to ultimately come out on top, and with The Rake at the Gates of Hell we get to see Constantine’s efforts come to their conclusion.
Ennis’ run by far has some of the best supporting cast members in Hellblazer, and although many only make a handful of appearances,2 are sufficiently fleshed out enough that you can tell these are people that mean a lot to John Constantine. However with Ennis leaving the series at the conclusion of the arc, he gives future writer Paul Jenkins a relatively clean slate to fill with his own characters by having most of John’s supporting cast meet their untimely demise or have reason to be absent in the immediate future. Rake at the Gates of Hell, a reference to the Pogues song that The Lord of the Dance said could be about John Constantine in “Forty,” begins with one such demise, that of the sunglassed Scotsman, Header. The pair sit on a bus stop bench after pulling a heist that will not fully be explained until one of the final scenes of the story arc, smoking cigarettes while Header recounts a tale from when he was in the Falklands War, in which the United Kingdom went to war briefly with Argentina over control of two British territories that Argentina claimed sovereignty over. Header’s tale is of how his squad captured four American mercenaries fighting alongside the Argentinians. Upon being given orders to execute them and make it look like they were never there, Header recounts how one of them looked up to him with a look of sad disappointment that for him it was over. All the while a slow trickle of blood from his mouth and gradually slouching posture shows that Header is grievously wounded and Dillon’s pencils show a solemn vacant face on Constantine that ends with a trickle of tears. Upon the conclusion of the tale Header dies as it is revealed he has taken a shotgun wound to his chest. His story not only mirroring his own predicament, Header’s tale also mirrors both Ennis’ and the reader’s position as well. This is the end of Ennis’ Hellblazer, the opening blank black page save the title credits and the caption “If anyone wants to pray for him, now is the time” should be evidence enough, and no begging or tears will change that, just solemn acceptance that it is over, and while there are those who would argue that the series should have ended with issue #83 (they are wrong) this part of Constantine’s life has come to it’s inevitable conclusion.
Seeking the quiet isolation of Limbo where he comes to think, The First of the Fallen struggles to come up with an idea of how he will defeat Constantine without jeopardizing himself and Hell. His salvation comes in the form of the soul of Astra, the young girl who Constantine damned to Hell in Newcastle in 1977 that resulted in Constantine’s trip to the insane asylum and the mental and physical scarring of many of Constantine’s friends at the time. The spirit claims that it has developed an intense hatred Constantine over the 16 years it has had to suffer in Hell, where it was kept as a lover to Nergal. Astra had gained power from this and is now “free” after Nergal was turned back into a human soul by The First of the Fallen, and seeks to aid The First in breaking the deadlock he has with his brothers so The First can enact his revenge upon Constantine as punishment for her current predicament. The events of Newcastle being brought up at the 11th hour in Ennis run harkens back to the theme in Damnation’s Flame of carrying your past with you, and while the previous three stories focused on the positive aspects and times of Constantine’s life, here we see that the bad times come along with the good ones.
Back on Earth, while Chas ferries around Constantine whom is trying to reach an area of London known as Tower Hamlets that is currently experiencing social and political unrest due to the presence of the British National Party, the UK’s other far-right political group, John sees a woman he used to know by the name of Helen who is prostituting herself on a street corner. Approaching her Helen recognizes him and begins to break down in front of John revealing that she is addicted to heroin, which is sold to her cheaply by her pimp Phil. On queue, Phil makes an appearance and questions what John is up to, taking a swing at the pimp Constantine is quick to discover that the pimp has martial arts training, taking a chop to the neck and a side kick to the stomach. The fight is bizarre, as one would expect a cockney pimp knowing karate would be, but brief as Chas soon intervenes with a crowbar beating down “Bruce Lee” and the trio run off, with Phil swearing sweet revenge as is the fashion for those who encounter Constantine. John later brings Helen to his apartment for detox and protection from Phil with the aid of the woman he’s currently seeing, Sarah and her sister Lucy who is a nurse. The pair are eventually reluctant to treat Lucy outside of the hospital but after some pleading from John, and the belief that he really is just trying to help, they reluctantly agree.
Across town in Tower Hamlets, George Ridley, last seen shotgunning Charlie Peterson at the end of Fear and Loathing receives a visit at his mother’s house from two policeman who come to arrest him for supposed drug dealing. Searching his room the cops find a small bag of “cannabis resin” but George proclaims that the amount he has “there’s not a friggin eighth there” is far too small for such a charge. Generally “possession with intent to sell” is only applicable if someone in possession of an illegal substance possesses an amount greater than what would be reasonable for personal consumption. As he is cuffed and begins to be carried away, George proclaims to his mother he is being set up for marching in a political rally against the British National Party. Questioning the police’s after her son reveals this she is pushed down the stairs with the phrase “stupid black bitch” which kills her, their addition of the phrase “people trip all the time. It’s our word against sambo’s innit?” all but confirms George’s suspicions that this is a racially based abuse of the law. Dashing for his room, George grabs the shotgun he killed Charlie Peterson with and shoots the cop who pushed his mother down the stairs, sparing the other as he flees the house. The event’s of George’s story that runs alongside John’s shares thematic elements with John’s that become clear as they each progress, but Ennis does a solid job of establishing the chaos that’s to come here.
The Rake at the Gates of Hell starts off with several different storylines that will weave in and out of each other as the arc progresses. Up until this point the only arc with more plots and subplots to it was The Fear Machine but given how that arc concluded nearly 60 issues ago, it makes sense if the reader feels a little overwhelmed by how much is happening in this issue alone, especially since all of the intricacies of The Fear Machine were built up over the course of the arc and not delivered all at once like they are here. However this feeling of overwhelment and exhaustion is done purposefully, as it mirrors what the John and George will experience over the next 5 issues.
1. It is worthy to note that The First of the Fallen is not Lucifer, he’s off running the night club Lux in L.A. around this time.
2. Not nearly enough IMO, I would love to read more about the misadventures of Header, Rick the Vic, and Brendan Flynn. Luckily all three make appearances when Ennis returns to the series.