There’s a moment in Hellblazer that comes much, much later. 2007? 2008? (Wikipedia will tell you that the moment plays out in Hellblazer #231 and is collected in Hellblazer: Joyride). It’s John Constantine at his lowest, but really Constantine’s been at his lowest throughout this storyarc, incoming regular writer Andy Diggle’s first, “In at the Deep End”. In truth, the arc began with Constantine in mortal danger—tied to a pier-post with the tide coming in. All the while his assassin seated nearby, pistol in hand, to ensure that the river do his dirty work for him and wash Constantine away. But, in a classic Hellblazer turn around, it’s the assassin who’s facing his moment of peril, and it’s Constantine who’s engineered things so as to wind up tied to a post in a river as the tide’s coming in. Constantine’s needed a powerful natural phenomenon to summon up the spirits of the unburied who lost their lives to the sea.
And once that reveal is made, it’s nothing but classic Hellblazer. The thug didn’t even realize the trap he was caught in, Constantine turns the tables, and then walks free. Classic Hellblazer. Except of course, the Diggle’s story doesn’t quite end there. There’s another twist. Constantine had sought out that thug as an errand for a gangster friend in lockup. That thug was behind the murder of said gangster friend’s daughter. Part of the deal was retribution on the thug. But another part? Send the spirit of the gangster’s daughter on to her final reward. And in return, Constantine gets anything he wants.
Predictably, it’s anything but cherubim and seraphim welcoming the daughter’s forlorn spirit. But Constantine’s ruthless enough to not let that bother him. That character arc is even more Hellblazer than turning the tables on someone who believes they in fact have the upper hand. And more Hellblazer even than summoning the spirits of the unburied to do your bidding. Constantine’s always been a survivor, and that survival, from day one, has almost always come at the expense of someone else. But it’s the second twist that really makes Diggle’s writing stand out, and makes of Diggle one of the all-time top three Hellblazer scribes.
“What do you really want,” Constantine says when he urges the spirits of the unburied to step onto the sigil that will usher them off to their final reward. It’s the exact words that Constantine’s incarcerated gangster friend used when he promised Constantine payment for eliminating his daughter’s murderer, and for consigning he soul off to what he believed was a better place. And in repeating those words to the restless souls trapped here on earth, Constantine catches a glimpse of his own reflection in a storefront window. It’s ugly. Here he is now, hagged, ragged and threadbare. A twisted caricature of the elegant and powerful presence he once was. And of course, what Constantine sees reflected in that window, is the past, a moment in his own history when he was greater than what he’s now become.
Diggle’s run as series regular writer was magical because of exactly that insight—that Constantine as a character had become disheveled, and just a little bit used up. That the way to write Constantine much later on, the way to write Hellblazer some 20 years down the line, was to usher in the character’s renaissance. What was needed, was to reassert the underpinnings of the character that once, long ago, made the character so seductive. But the final regular writer on Hellblazer, Vertigo veteran Peter Milligan who had already penned Enigma, the Extremists, Shade, the Changing Man and a pre-Vertigo Animal Man, took Hellblazer in the entirely opposite direction by posing one simple, audacious question. How is it, that Constantine had gotten so used up in the first place?
How had Constantine turned himself into a caricature of what he once was? The question haunts Milligan’s run on Hellblazer almost from the very beginning. From that Xmas short story written for the 250th issue, just prior to Milligan officially taking the reins, and even throughout that special edition Annual, Hellblazer: Suicide Bridge released in 2011. But it’s in these final arcs, those collected in Hellblazer: Death & Cigarettes, that Milligan’s thoughts on the matter really reach a kind of summation. Through “the House of Wolves” where Constantine and his young wife, unbeknownst to each other, are turned into lycanthrope, and “Curse of the Constantines” wherein Constantine confronts a hitherto unknown scion of the family line who wields Irish wild magic (by reading Keats) and may or may not be a serial killer, and finally through “Death & Cigarettes” itself, where Constantine not so much cheats fate but gets it to conspire against itself, Milligan wrestles with the “how” behind Constantine’s self-perpetuating cycle of fall-from-grace and climb-to-glory.
It is “Death & Cigarettes” specifically that proves to be the most haunting framing of the question. The arc begins with Constantine having augured his own death, and ends with when conspiring with the Fates (the actual ancient Greek Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos but iconically visualized as 21st century Brits) both against his own and their own best interests. Lose-lose is a classic Hellblazer narrative tactic, but even here it feels like we’ve begun to hit a wall. But Milligan isn’t necessarily offering a defense of the genres that have accumulated around and sustained Hellblazer for a quarter-century. Instead, what he offers is a meditation on how Hellblazer has become a cage of fame for Constantine, and how Constantine’s finest instincts are ground into the dirt by lingering a life that he himself has outlived, so to speak.
The cage of fame, as a concept, was first introduced into the popular imagination by the great Lester Bangs, in his obit for John Lennon. The idea is as simple and as elegant as it is devastating—sometimes those we love won’t let us change. Or to put it the way Stevie Nicks did in 1982 in “Silver Spring,” “…you’ll never get away from the sound of the woman who loves you.” “Silver Spring” wouldn’t see release until 15 years on in 1997 when the band released it’s Greatest Hits. It is exactly those mechanics that would see a vibrant and relevant band stalled, neutralized and eventually undone that Milligan is contending with in the last issues of Hellblazer. And it’s exactly why it’s a masterstroke that Milligan offers a portrait of a Constantine, who with so much bad karma and strange juju piled up over the last 25 years of incessant publication, finds himself needing to escape Hellblazer.
The shutting down of Hellblazer brings to mind two TV show finales of recent days, one season finale, and one series finale. Strangely, both TV shows are Sherlock Holmes analogs. In the series finale of House, which coincides with the season eight finale, we see House face exactly the same quandary—either return to jail and miss the passing of his sole friend due to cancer, or make a break for it and go out on the lam. Choosing the latter, House realizes he must also fake his own death, and give up the practice of medicine. And more than anything, this solution seems like a seven-percent solution. It seems like House has backslid on the progress he’s made since the season five finale where opiate-induced hallucinations necessitated his being committed and his license to practice medicine temporarily suspended. Even the Great American Escape ending of House and Wilson on Harleys seems fraught and hollow.
But unexpectedly, it’s the season one finale of Elementary that puts a different spin on House’s great escape. After a season of seeing Holmes as in turns fragile and brilliant and at risk, Watson comes to an accommodation with him and begins to normalize his genius. Played with unbelievable poise by Lucy Liu, Watson agrees to simply watch the hatching of a new species of bee, surrendering popular perception of Holmes that simultaneously lionizes and marginalizes him because of his genius.
What Elementary’s season one finale says about House’s series finale is that sooner or later, we all reach a point where we need to drop out of the things we’ve built for ourselves, the things we’ve made of ourselves. And that the only freedom really, is the freedom to change everything, unconditionally. The freedom to be that phoenix without ashes. Lester Bangs guessed at that idea and harangued Lennon’s fans for it. But so did Janis Joplin when she crooned, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” And so did Hunter S. Thompson when he suggested in “Freak Power in the Rockies,” differing with social psychologist Stanley Millgrim on whether or not evil could ever manifest in America as it had in Nazi Germany, that readiness of the American people to dropout to resist expanding government power lay at the heart of the American spirit.
In the end, there’s only that scene from Easy Rider that’s reenacted in the series finale of House—two guys on bikes take to the open road. The ‘70s got that scenario completely backward. The questions were never, what will they do next, where will they head, who will they help? The question was always, how did they come to be on those bikes, escaping their own lives. And when framed in that way, Milligan’s creative decision to give us those last few pages of Hellblazer with a Constantine already vanished, becomes all the more poignant.
Enjoy our exclusive preview of the very last concept art from Hellblazer. And pick up a copy of Hellblazer: Death & Cigarettes when it releases next week.