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The Rake's Progress

  Hellblazer: Rake at the Gates of Hell

 

Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon

Vertigo/DC, 2003

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: October 28, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

John Constantine -- the British occultist/con man with a thing for trench coats and a bad habit of saving the world on the backs of his friends -- has changed considerably since he was first introduced in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing in the 1980s. In that comic and in his own spin-off title, Hellblazer (or John Constantine: Hellblazer, if you want to be picky about it), he's been shaped by a number of impressive writers -- Moore, Rick Veitch, Jamie Delano, Paul Jenkins and Brian Azzarello (Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman have also contributed issues here and there) And under each writer's care, the smirking shaman has undergone numerous trials and epiphanies and fulfilled a number of roles, from manipulative plot device to not-so-innocent bystander to tragic (anti-)hero.

The worthy contributions of all of those writers notwithstanding, however, Constantine -- soon to receive the dubious honor of being interpreted on the silver screen by, of all people, Keanu Reeves -- became a fully developed, vividly realized character thanks to the simpatico writer-artist team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. During their definitive run on Hellblazer, the duo presented John Constantine in all his messy, contradictory glory: A ruthless manipulator with a long list of dead friends and a fiercely loyal group of live ones; a seat-of-the-pants amateur playing with forces far beyond his control; a working-class bloke (and former punk rock singer) on a last-name basis with angels, demons and plant elementals; and a sharp-tongued cynic grounded, at the root of it all, by his love for, and the love of, a good woman. In Rake at the Gates of Hell, the six-part storyline that ended the Ennis/Dillon team's tenure on the book, all of those facets of Constantine's character coexist at once -- save for the "good woman" part, that is, since the woman in question, the beguiling Irish lass Kit, has long since left him.

[We do see quite a bit of Kit, however: very briefly in the main story (a wrapping up of loose ends), and moreso in the backup tale "Heartland," a 1997 Ennis/Dillon one-shot, collected here, in which life in "troubles"-strewn Belfast is (rather subtly, all things considered) posed as a metaphor for the ways we make peace with the unavoidable, unpleasant parts of our own lives. It's a nice, if indulgent, one-act-play of a coda to the single-issue story "Heartland" that originally ran in Hellblazer #70 (collected in the Tainted Love paperback), in which Kit retreats back home after leaving Constantine. The one-shot is included here, presumably, in the spirit of completion, tangentially related as it is to the duo's Hellblazer run. But we digress.]

As Constantine works to once again outwit Satan (a.k.a. "The First of the Fallen"), whose enmity he's rightfully earned in the past, he becomes mired in a series of connected events that bear all the trademarks of the title's longstanding story elements -- including, especially, the pointed social commentary, intricate other-dimensional politics and Everyman tenor of the Ennis/Dillon era. Having found a way around the bit of trickery by which Constantine had pledged his soul to three separate-but-equal entities, The First undoes the stalemate and begins to stalk his prey. Lives are lost (especially those of Constantine's friends); rivers of blood are shed; deals are cut; and, as always, well-intentioned mistakes are made, and seem to pile up like sandbags impotently stacked against a hurricane.

Rake at the Gates of Hell unfolds in a jagged, Tarantino-esque manner: It begins with the gory death of Constantine's roughneck pal Header, the details of which happen off-panel before the reader arrives, and the reasons for which aren't made clear until the end. Events unfurl according to a seemingly inscrutable internal logic. And the consequences of violent acts are graphically depicted, not (as is so often the case with Tarantino) merely for shock value, but rather to underline the ugly world Constantine inhabits, and the ugly stakes for which all involved play. (This is also markedly different from much of the more sensationalistic, played-for-laughs violence the Ennis/Dillon team goes on to embrace in Preacher and Punisher -- and which is indeed a hallmark of Ennis's work to this day.

Where Ennis scores here is in his revelation that all of the players, the "good" and the evil alike, act out of the most brutal, primal impulses. Sure, Constantine's saved the world a few times, but out of the primitive instinct for self-preservation. Even the First (brilliantly rendered by Dillon as a leonine figure of ruddy, Mediterranean appearance) acts out of recognizably human motivations: anger, indignation and revenge for having been bested. As the archangel Gabriel, a broken shell whom Constantine taunts and debases with a small child's malicious glee, plainly and wearily tells his tormentor: "You may dress it up whatever way you choose...it is still nothing but petty mortal spite."

All of which is well and good, but Ennis leavens the constant tone of guttural baseness with Constantine's coming to terms with his self-serving do-gooder instinct. His attempt to rescue a junkie ex-girlfriend from a murderous pimp carries risks he ignores, which explode in dangerous consequences; likewise, his attempts to counsel a friend, whose inadvertent killing of a policeman (who was attempting to frame him) sparks a cataclysmic race riot, are ultimately revealed as an ineffectual stab at imposing his will to matter on circumstances that render him irrelevant. Appropriately, Rake ends without Constantine finding easy answers. The best he can do is to urge George never to forget the harm he's caused: "You let that little twinge of guilt stay with you, and slide up close to you on long winter nights, and maybe you'll get some good out've it." Resolving to no longer wallow in his mistakes, Constantine learns, however belatedly, to learn from them, and to be unafraid to make new ones.

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 3.0-3.9: Solid
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