Page 45 Review by Stephen
"What was dying like?"
"Could've done it in me sleep."
Completing the outstanding Garth Ennis run which was as much about friendships as anything else, not only does this reprint HELLBLAZER #72-83 but also the HEARTLAND one-shot set in Belfast which catches up with John's ex-girlfriend Kit, reveals her family's harsh history which has had a lingering effect, and takes a look at a city whose streets were habitually patrolled by armed British soldiers from the point of view of a complete outsider as well as a long-standing residents like Kit herself. As always with Ennis the troubles are given careful and level consideration and the dialogue comes with a light Irish lilt which is beautiful.
Almost all of this book is illustrated by Garth's collaborator on PREACHER, Steve Dillon, and there are few artists who can make a casual conversation - or even a loaded one - as attractive to read as Steve Dillon. His characters are vulnerable and their expressions are not simple but subtle - so many eyes averted or looking down - so when anger or violence explodes his art by contrast is truly shocking.
There are a lot of talking heads in HELLBLAZER: the power of the word can be the most endearing magic or devastating. But there is also a lot of violence.
HELLBLAZER at its best always combines the occult with very real horrors like domestic abuse, bigotry, political and police power misused at the expense of those whom they're supposed to serve, illness, homelessness and helplessness. The finale partly takes place in the thick of London's Tower Hamlets during the rise of the right including the B.N.P. and a police force not just systemically racist but overtly so. Crucially John is distracted by that throughout and by an ex-girlfriend he discovers so hooked up on drugs that she is barely coherent and in thrall to a very vicious pimp. He is distracted because he actually cares in spite of his culpable history when it comes to close friends.
Girlfriends are driven away by the shit he cannot resist either embroiling himself in or igniting, and we are reminded well in advance of both romantic and mortal casualties. The moment you even shake hands with John Constantine you are living on borrowed time. Of the friends Garth Ennis introduced us to only Kit, left-leaning urban psychic Nige, ex-army Header and Rick the vicar remain alive as this climax kicks off.
It all harks back to Ennis's opening salvo, HELLBLAZER VOL 5 :DANGEROUS HABITS, in which he gave John Constantine terminal lung cancer with but a few weeks to live. Get out of that one, John! He did, not through hocus pocus but by manipulation. He manoeuvred Satan, the First of the Fallen, and the Second and Third of the Fallen into a stalemate which kept him alive. Ever since then he has screwed over other entities like Archangel Gabriel in such a manner that they might be of use during the retribution he knows is inevitable while continuing to goad Satan himself. Among his many fatal failings, John Constantine simply cannot let it lie. Nor can the King of Hell.
John has always got by on his quick wits and knowledge but now he is neither as sharp as he used to be and - as I say - he is distracted. He has failed to keep track of his pawns.
At which point young Astra, condemned to Hell these sixteen years thanks to John the Con's arrogance, comes before Satan's presence with a song. It's a song Satan's never heard before: the true history of the Fallen. Let the casualties begin
Every familiar face you can imagine making a reappearance does so, and a fair few you will never see coming. It is an impeccable climax on every level I'll refrain from signposting here.
But just in case you think it's all plot, it is not. Just as Ennis gives voice to life on the streets of Belfast, there is a key conversation between Constantine and the First of the Fallen which reveals what may originally have been Satan's real role in the God's Grand Scheme Of Things which is both startling and makes so much sense.