Giant Hellblazer Re-read Part II: Issues 4-12: Newcastle: A Taste of Things To Come

Author’s Note: This is the third of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

This entry covers issues 4-12, the rest of the first year of Hellblazer. This is the first long arc, though the arc never received its own title, and includes one of the most important pieces of information about John Constantine’s history: the Newcastle Incident. The hardest thing about analyzing this arc is remembering to focus on issues other than issue 11, “Newcastle,” which deserves, and will receive here, its own focus. That issue is aptly subtitled “A Taste of Things To Come,” a title which would have worked just as well for the arc as a whole.

I am posting this entry before the episodes of NBC’s Constantine which introduce some of the major elements of this plot, primarily because I expect that there will be very little in common between the two. I have several reasons for this prediction: 1) there is no way that NBC will be able to represent the events of Newcastle without significantly watering them down, as this is still network television; 2) the upcoming episodes are based as much on the issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing featuring these characters as they are on the issues of Hellblazer, and I expect that the Invunche/evil goddess plotline will take precedence over the Resurrection Crusade and Zed (see below); 3) viewers of the TV series already know information John learns for the first time in this arc of the comic, so by necessity the series is going to have to take a different line. This is therefore one of the arcs I am really getting a chance to post for the initial reason I am doing these entries in the first place: to make the summaries and comparisons available to people who may not have the time, resources, or inclination to go pick up 300+ issues (there are side stories, after all) of Hellblazer based on a television that might still be canceled (please, NBC, show some sense and let it live).

That summary here is going to be a bit long, because it’s an unusually long arc, nine full issues. There aren’t many stories in the history of the series that go this long. Issue four begins with Gemma, Constantine’s niece, bemoaning the fact that her family has been caught up in the Resurrection Crusade, an evangelical pyramid prayer scheme, and their directives have uprooted the life she knows and restricted the freedoms to which she has previously been accustomed. Desire to rebel against her family causes her to wander into danger, in the company of some young women who claim that they are allowed to do whatever they like now that they are married to a mysterious man. Meanwhile, John falls in with a young artist named Zed, who accompanies him to Liverpool when he rushes there upon hearing that Gemma has disappeared. John and Zed barely save Gemma from strangulation by the mysterious Man, whose house is burned by the militant wing of the Resurrection Crusade. John, more than a little suspicious of the Crusade, begins investigating them, and promptly discovers horrors including soldiers from Vietnam brought back from the dead by the power of pyramid prayer, whereupon they return to their hometown and commit atrocities identical to what they did in Vietnam, as the dead are unable to tell the difference between past and present. Constantine decides to put a stop to the Resurrection Crusade’s activities. Zed is harassed and eventually kidnapped by them as well, as her mysterious past appears bound up with their activities; they begin to work at brainwashing her to become “the Mary,” giving her a central role in their upcoming plans. John, meanwhile, is consumed by guilt as his attempts to uncover the Crusade’s headquarters result in multiple deaths, causing him to nearly commit suicide by throwing himself from a moving train. The demon Nergal makes himself known to Constantine, and John accepts the demon reluctantly as a temporary ally when Nergal offers to heal Constantine’s wounds with a demonic transfusion in exchange for some assistance. Constantine sleeps with Zed, preventing the Resurrection Crusade from using her as a vessel for conception with an angelic partner, and then offers his body for use by the Swamp Thing, who possesses him in order to conceive a child with his wife. He thus prevents both Heaven and Hell from achieving their aims. Nergal is displeased that John has double-crossed him, and swears revenge, but inadvertently reveals that he was the demon involved with the Newcastle incident which has so haunted John. The actual nature of that incident is finally revealed, as well as the trauma of John’s time in Ravenscar afterward, and John is finally able to pursue revenge on Nergal. With the help of the last surviving member of the Newcastle crew, Ritchie Simpson, John does so, destroying the demon completely, but causing Ritchie’s destruction and damnation as well.

For the first time, in this arc we see Constantine caught between the forces of Heaven, as represented by the Resurrection Crusade, and the forces of Hell, as represented by the Damnation Army, while he struggles a) to keep his loved ones from becoming collateral damage, b) to keep himself alive while being targeted by forces far more powerful than himself, and c) to keep the forces of Heaven and Hell reasonably balanced so neither can proceed to treat humanity as a doormat. These motivations will remain a part of Hellblazer from this point onward, and many of Constantine’s methods, views, and choices as established here become the basis for his story later in the series, as do the consequences of his actions.

This arc also introduces some of John’s family: his older sister, Cheryl, who loves him but doesn’t understand him, who sees him as a source of strength and feels guilt about it, and for whom John cares deeply; her husband, Thomas, a weak man who is easily led by promises and flashy religious stunts; their daughter and John’s niece, Gemma, a justifiably resentful girl whose curiosity is clearly going to get her into trouble on numerous occasions, and whom John loves dearly. Constantine’s family is clearly going to be an Achilles heel: he is willing to drop everything and run to their aid as the story begins.

Also found here for the first time is Zed, the first ongoing romantic figure found in Hellblazer. She’s a great character, with powers of her own, who isn’t willing to be a damsel in distress and is more than willing to call John on his bullshit. She was a clear choice for female lead for NBC’s Constantine, and it looks like the show is going to be tackling this storyline soon, at least in part.

By far the most important part of this arc, more important than any other character introduction or plot point, and arguably the single most important part of Jamie Delano’s entire run on Hellblazer other than the establishment of John Constantine as protagonist, is issue 11. This is one of the few issues to be collected in more than one trade paperback; in addition to being in The Devil You Know, this issue is also found in Rare Cuts.

A more specific look at the events and characters of Newcastle is in order here.

It is established clearly before the issue even begins that something happened at Newcastle which scarred John very deeply. John goes searching for the memories, to remind himself, and we get our first hint at just how bad it’s going to be when the flashback opens with a look at all six of the crew: John Constantine, Judith, Frank, Benjamin, Ritchie Simpson, Anne-Marie (whose ghost we’ve seen as a nun haunting Constantine, but she’s not a nun here – first bad sign, whatever happens here is going to change her in a very fundamental way), and… uh-oh, that’s Gary Lester, already doing drugs but seeming mostly functional. The shock of seeing how different Gary and Anne-Marie are from their first appearances in issue 1 is a brilliant, concise signpost.

This is immediately followed by another: the sight of a young, confident, already angry but still hopeful John Constantine who believes that he can make everything okay.

This is quite possibly one of the most terrifying concepts in the entire series. We are given a moment of quiet interaction among the characters, to realize that in the next 30 or so pages, we are going to see the single event that will cause Anne-Marie to become a nun, Gary Lester to become a non-functional junkie, and John Constantine to become the bitter, self-destructive, nightmare-ridden wreck we know and love.

The crew break into the Casanova Club (“Casanova,” translating roughly to “Newcastle,” very clever, Mr. Delano) where Mucous Membrane made its debut, and things start to go wrong immediately. Anne-Marie, a psychic, senses that horrors are occurring. They discover, in the cellar, an awful conglomeration of slaughtered people, and upon returning upstairs, they find the club owner’s daughter Astra, dancing, possessed. She tells a harrowing tale of sexual abuse brought to an end by the terror elemental she has summoned, but which she can no longer control. John confidently plans a summoning of a demon to drag the terror elemental away, and takes control of the situation. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned, because he does not know the correct name of the demon he is summoning. It toys with all of them, drags Astra to hell, taunting John with the possibility of her rescue. John makes a spectacular attempt, returning only with her severed arm when he fails. As the perspective returns to the present, we find out how all the members of the Newcastle crew fell into destruction, and John plots his revenge on Nergal, whose name he finally knows.

This event is the foundation for the entirety of John Constantine’s later career and story. It represents the first time John sets out not to simply con but to actually destroy a being much more powerful than himself, and for a motivation as personal as revenge. It represents John’s greatest failure, the guilt from which he will never recover. This event is the source of his insanity, the reason he spends two years in Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged. Again and again, stories about Constantine will return to this event and this location. The death of Astra is not the most horrible thing that John Constantine ever witnesses or is party to, but it is the first of the major catastrophes of this type in his life, and as such it holds tremendous significance.

Many comic book heroes have an event in their histories that defines their motivations. The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is probably the most famous example. The events at Newcastle fill this role for John Constantine.

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