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.

Reasons (Other Than Constantine) To Watch Constantine

Author’s Note: This entry was a challenge from a friend, to write a review of NBC’s Constantine now that it’s truly hit its stride, explaining why the show is worth watching without resorting to a description of why its protagonist is awesome – that’s for another entry, possibly as I start my epic Hellblazer re-read. (No fear, it won’t take up the whole blog, I promise.)

It took some time for NBC’s latest comic-based show to get itself up to full speed, but by episode five, it has certainly done so – sadly, it seems, just in time for the network to decide against ordering an additional nine episodes, halting production at thirteen. In addition to being kind of a stupid move considering the show’s ratings (becoming one of the top shows on all the streaming networks, retaining over 80% of viewers from Grimm, which airs in the previous time slot, and showing ratings improvements of over 30% week-by-week, are all very impressive accomplishments for a show relegated to the 10pm Friday night graveyard slot, premiering opposite the World Series with its second episode airing on Halloween), the show has become truly impressive in its own right, even without considering the adaptation from Hellblazer, in numerous ways.

First, the acting is stupendous for the most part, much higher than usual for network TV. It’s not perfect, that’s certain, but in particular the dynamics between the characters are delightful to observe. There are small moments thrown in by the actors, moments of expression, exchanges of physicality that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in TV or film. The actors have been very clearly growing into their characters, and just as the characters themselves develop closer dynamics and become a team, so too have the actors. A modicum of research into the culture of the cast and crew on-set confirms that this is a show with a great set of people working on it, who have become friends as well as colleagues, and who have come to really love their work. Even rarer, they actually make effort to reach out to the fans to share that, something particularly to be treasured when dealing with any beloved and iconic property. The cast and crew have made deliberate forays into the fandom on Twitter; they sometimes turn up in the comments sections on other social networks. They are clearly listening to what fans have to say, but in the best of ways: the executive producers have confirmed that their goal is not to simply conform to everything the fans want, as that never works out well; they simply take it into account before doing their best to give the fans something we’ve yet to think of.

Which brings me to my second point: the scripting. The dialogue has been showing a significant quality curve upward, especially starting in episode three, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Of course, acting and writing are inextricably intertwined, but we’ve all seen shows and movies where actors manage to screw up great lines, or manage to somehow deliver poor lines well. This show has neither problem – the excellent cast has been given increasingly phenomenal writing to work with, and the wit positively sparkles. One important result of this is that every episode of Constantine has some serious re-watch value. This is true starting even with the (relatively) weak pilot episode. The pacing is consistently rapid, there are constantly at least two things to follow in the story at any given time, and this show never condescends to its audience – a refreshing change from standard comic book fare.

The creators of this show are giant nerds, and they are fascinated with every aspect of their subject matter. They have made the assumption (quite correctly, as it appears from fan response) that at least a portion of their audience is the same way. This fascination goes far beyond the DC Comics universe, though that of course is its beginning – hence the appearance of dozens of “Easter eggs” hidden in the episodes to date – and extends to carefully researched folklore from around the world, linguistics, religion, culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. I have personally spotted over a half-dozen languages and writing systems used correctly in the show, and friends have confirmed more.

More impressive even than the research, though, is the respect accorded these cultures and belief systems. When possible, the producers have consulted actual practitioners of the faiths referenced in the show, and in several cases (most notably the dance ritual in episode five, “Danse Vaudou”) have actually incorporated those practitioners and their work into the relevant scenes as filmed. This is more important for Constantine than for some other shows: there are certain aspects to the story of John Constantine which are seriously problematic – after all, this show features a white male who takes direct advantage of the privilege that affords him, to walk safely into and out of places, and to casually appropriate bits and pieces of others’ cultures, to take on roles for information-gathering that accord him respect and authority, while others must make do with less due to their gender or race. This show acknowledges that at every turn, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, such as Papa Midnite’s furious – and entirely correct – accusation, “You are a magpie of magic, a thief of tradition; you steal from other people’s cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” It is both glorious and rare for a show to call out its own protagonist on his white male privilege.

Even more subtle is the show’s handling of the protagonist’s lack of privilege in certain regards. Serious mental health issues, physiological addiction, and oh, let’s not forget the bisexuality issue. Initially, I was upset when I heard the official line regarding this: it’s not going to be central to the show, and isn’t going to really be clarified one way or the other beyond subtle information. I, like many other viewers, took this to mean that it was going to be removed entirely. I now have to admit I was wrong in this. While I would prefer that the show deal more openly with this issue, they have actually done exactly as they claimed: sexuality is not central to the show or to the characters’ dynamics, and Constantine’s sexuality has remained ambiguous from the pilot episode onward, with a line-drop in episode five confirming his bisexuality in a very subtle way that can be ignored by anyone who wants to ignore it, but definitely points in that direction for anyone watching closely for signs. This is now being handled the same way as Constantine’s smoking: a gradual introduction, testing the waters to see how the viewer base reacts.

That attitude – experimentation, testing the waters of the viewer market – is typical of the way this show is being run. There is an amazing opportunity here for audience members to cast a vote with our wallets in favor of shows that display social consciousness, smart writing, progressive thinking, and complex moral analysis. If you like all of these things, you should be watching this show; if you have friends who like these things, you should be recommending this show.

One of the best protagonists in decades is just a bonus.

#SaveConstantine

Review of Interstellar

My general rating of the quality of this film is that it manages to be an excellent movie despite several very serious flaws. I am absolutely glad I saw it, and I am particularly glad I saw it in a theater with a large screen, to take full advantage of the stunning visuals.

Author’s Note: Hereafter be minor spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid anything too specific, but general things about the plot are discussed here, so if you’d rather go into the theater knowing nothing of what you’re about to see, don’t read!

I envy anyone who was able to have the IMAX experience. For purposes of this review, readers should be aware that I did not see the film in 3D, so I cannot speak to the difference that might make to the experience. My eyesight prevents me being able to watch 3D films at all, so I don’t know what they’re even like, and can’t theorize. Even in 2D, though, this movie is amazing to just soak in the vistas.

It’s an awfully long soak, though. This movie is nearly three hours long, and one gets the impression that Christopher Nolan had a laundry list of plot points and science points and philosophical discussions he wanted to fit into the movie, and he decided to just make Interstellar as long as it had to be, to get it all in there. For the most part, it doesn’t drag, but the movie would have been better served by cutting out one or two plot arcs, some of the expository dialogue, and making the whole thing 40 minutes shorter.

Except for the very end, the pacing is excellent. There’s a lot of variance in the types of storytelling involved in Interstellar: the dystopia, the dustbowl/Depression-era farming survival story, the family drama, the father-child relationship, the explorer hungering for new horizons, a romance subplot, some action and a neat fight scene later on, lots of great science, space travel, time travel¸ betrayal, nifty robots and their dynamic with people, etc. The movie does contain what has become the obligatory weird revelatory scene involving the space explorer discovering things beyond current human consciousness, where current science knowledge stops and the writers and director get to play with their pet theories. As often happens with such scenes, the writer and director got way too caught up in their pet theories, and the scene is way, way too long. Attentive viewers can figure out what’s going on long before the characters do, and we have to wait for the characters to piece it all together and reveal it again with more expository dialogue.

I got the impression from this movie that the screenwriter thinks most of his audience has never watched a science fiction film before. The theory of relativity is explained far too many times, and cutting some of those repeated explanations could have made the storytelling much more efficient. The movie generally has a problem with telling rather than showing, or rather with showing and then assuming half the audience missed it and telling us anyway.

The script is the weakest part of the film. The acting is absolutely superb, without exception. Matthew McConaughey throws himself into this role to a degree I’m not sure I’ve seen from him before, and it’s incredible to watch. Matt Damon blew me away. Anne Hathaway is equally skilled, though she’s given much less to work with.

Okay, time to talk about women in this film. Christopher Nolan has taken a lot of criticism in the past for his portrayal of women in his movies, and rightly so, and I don’t see that changing here. He’s showing improvement, but it’s in baby steps. There are three women in the movie, grand total. One is almost entirely insignificant; she’s a background fixture on a farmhouse, there to have a grinding cough and impress upon the viewer just how bad health conditions on Earth really are, and to suffer with quiet dignity (and, oddly, to provide the movie with its Bechdel Test Pass, when she invites the protagonist’s daughter to stay the night and they have an extremely brief discussion of houses and associated memories). The second, played by Hathaway, is very significant, an expert in her field, a scientist, the daughter of the man whose research is leading mankind to the stars… and whose emotional outbursts cause almost every misjudgment in the movie. She is treated with less respect as an expert by the men on her crew than those men are treated by each other and by her, and unfortunately, there’s a reason for it. More than once she laments that maybe she really wasn’t cut out for this exploration, and the viewer has to think that perhaps she’s right. The decision to make this character the only woman on the crew is problematic at best. This is allayed significantly by the third female character, though, the protagonist’s daughter Murphy, who is easily one of the most compelling characters in the film, if not the most compelling. Whip-smart, determined, and able to think outside whatever box people try to put her in, Murphy is handed some of the worst obstacles of any character in the movie, and she handles them with dignity, resolve, and, eventually, success. She is delightful in every way. The film could have been improved with a larger role for her and a smaller role for Hathaway’s character.

One effect this would have had is a shift in focus. As it is, the film focuses on the conflicts among a very incompatible and inexperienced crew who have barely had a chance to work and train together. There is very little focus on the actual exploration of the stars, and why frontiers are exciting and inspiring. A focus on the urge to survive by pushing outward, and on the mission at hand, rather than on interpersonal issues among some fairly cookie-cutter characters and one really interesting protagonist, would have made a much better – and shorter – movie. I’m not sure it would have sold as well, though, because it would have been much more of a genre flick.

Despite these flaws, the expansive world-building, the fascinating hints and open ends, the sheer depth of everything included in the movie because of its nature as something of a behemoth, make Interstellar a pleasure to see and then go chew on afterwards for quite some time. It’s not an easy watch for a relaxing evening, but if you, like me, are the type of viewer who likes a movie that you have to watch and then let percolate for a few days and analyze to bits, you’ll love this.