By Oliver Gerlach

Britain is a nation ruled by its own past. Obsessed with tradition, empire, and social class, we continually elect self-serving aristocrats out of some sense that their wealth and class means they know what they are doing. The death of Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year lead to the entire country grinding to a halt in order to go and look at the coffin of a woman whose only claim to importance was “the divine right of kings”. Our cities are filled with statues to slavers and abusers of the poor, and any attempt to change that is screamed down as “talking Britain down” and “rewriting history”. It is an infuriating place to live, and one with a slowly rising tide of anger underneath the oppressive blanket of history. That anger is villainised, as the right wing invent terms like “the woke mob” to mock the angry and oppressed. The anger of the living is seen as risible, less important than the glorification of the dead and the past.

John Constantine, too, is constantly haunted by his own past. I mean that in both a diegetic sense and an extradiegetic sense: within the narratives of his stories, he is often haunted by the ghosts, literal and figurative, of his past mistakes and misdeeds. Beyond that, as a long-running comics character, the past of his publication history and the creators who have driven his actions is constantly present, constantly being reevaluated by the next creative team to come along.

From the beginning of the run, Spurrier, Campbell, Bellaire and Bidikar have been engaging with this dual haunting. The overarching plot of the series here largely concerns the malevolent figure of a flat-capped older John, a version of him from his own future, manipulating the actions of this newer Constantine, often against his will. But that’s not just a version of John from his own future. It’s also, perhaps, the flat-capped older John from the final panel of the original run, 2011’s Hellblazer #300, by Milligan, Camuncoli, and Landini. Even when he’s haunted by his own future, the past hangs inescapably over John Constantine.

 Hellblazer #3 is the point at which the creative team’s ambitions become clear. It’s the point where it becomes apparent to the reader exactly what this run is about, and what it’s doing. For a few issues now, Constantine has been dealing with Derek, a Blake-quoting, tulpa-haunted husk of a man, a desperate, broken bigot clinging to William Blake as an anchor. Derek has been summoning “angels” to the park where he lives, and using them to flay people he sees as “godless” (i.e. primarily people of colour). It’s at this point, though, that this starts to mean something.

As this is the third essay talking about this arc, I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with Blake. And, perhaps, with the fact that Blake is important to Alan Moore, co-creator of John Constantine: Blake appears as a character in From Hell, while both Watchmen and V For Vendetta use Blake excerpts as epigraphs and chapter titles – and the bizarre performance piece Angel Passage is explicitly about Blake. Once again, that extradiegetic haunting arises, as John negotiates past misdeeds filtered through one of the obsessions of his real-world co-creator. 

But it’s not just Blake that’s important here. The issue opens with Derek, the antagonist of the arc, rising from the ground, encircled in flames, a force of destruction singing Blake’s Jerusalem. You know – the Jerusalem that is occasionally pushed as a better national anthem for England than God Save the King. The one about “England’s green and pleasant land.”

I say “Blake’s Jerusalem”, but it isn’t, is it?

Of course, Blake wrote Jerusalem, but the version everyone knows, the version Derek sings here, is the 1916 version set to music by Parry, which takes a section of Blake’s 1808 epic Milton and turns it into a hymn. Specifically, a hymn written for the Fight For Right campaign, a pro-WWI movement so ultra-patriotic that Parry ultimately abandoned them in discomfort. The mythic of Blake’s epic is here reframed into a nationalist tool, repurposing the past into a tool of the present.  

This reflects our present relatively well. Jerusalem is probably the Blake poem best known by most people (apart from perhaps Tyger), and its use in the modern world as a nationalist hymn sanitises Blake’s legacy. His words are repurposed and decontextualised into a pro-England statement, ignoring his experience of facing trial for sedition (allegedly for shouting “Damn the King! The soldiers are all slaves!”) and his general revolutionary tendencies. But William Blake is long dead, and was long dead by the time Parry stripped his words of their context, so he can’t really lodge a complaint.

Within the story, Derek also repurposes Blake, quoting passages out of context to justify a “holy” crusade primarily driven by racism and instability. For example: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” An easy quote to justify acting on his racist impulses, but a problematic one in its original context. This is a line from Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, a collection of provocative and paradoxical products presented as the wisdom of Hell. Hardly a source of reliable wisdom to live by! In earlier issues of the arc, Spurrier provides enough basic context on Blake for readers to grasp roughly what’s going on here: within the text it is clear that Derek is taking points out of context, cherry-picking from a body of wildly unstable work that can be used in isolation to justify anything. With a fuller understanding of Blake, however, an additional layer of meaning can be seen in Derek’s use of Blake’s past work to support his atrocities.

Even Constantine’s solution to the problem is one entirely focused on manipulating the past, as he lies to Derek about the forgiveness of his dead wife, using the dead for his own ends. Everything in this story is about negotiating with the past, pulling elements out of context and twisting the truth of the past to affect the present.

It is the mythic past that is most easily appropriated. As Parry twists Blake’s mythic epic Milton into the nationalist hymn Jerusalem, so too have dictators warped imagined past utopias into justifications for their own abuse. From 20th century fascists appropriating the imagery of Imperial Rome to any number of blood-and-soil campaigns focused on a past when only the people “from here” lived here, imagined connections to a distant past are used to justify so many things. The critical thing about this past, though, is that just like the imagined utopian version of the 1950s used by contemporary British politicians to argue against the EU/people of colour/having enough food to eat/the existence of heating/[insert good thing of your choice here], it isn’t real.

Figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson make nonsensical (and frequently inaccurate) allusions to Classical and Biblical materials in speeches, connecting their points to some imagined historical continuity and using the imagined past to implicitly support their far-right agendas. Only a few years ago, a campaign built on “tradition” and “patriotism” prevented the BBC from modernising and removing performance of Rule Britannia, an outdated and blatantly imperialist song, from the end of the Last Night of the Proms. The past is used to deny attempts to move forwards.

This is a series written by a tired, angry British man, writing in a Britain broken by cynical misuse of the past used to drive the country into fascism. We live in a country fundamentally unable to negotiate a functional relationship with its own past, where any concern about it is treated as a threat to the status quo, and a government of self-serving far-right monsters use appeals to “how things used to be” and an idealised “green and pleasant land” to justify their crimes, driving further and further into human rights abuses, racism, and fascism with every passing year. 

“He who spouts shit like that can use it to justify anything,” says Constantine, towards the start of the issue. “That doesn’t make it right to kill people just ‘cause they don’t fit your wanky idea of what’s perfect.” We live in a country where the misappropriated past is used to justify atrocities in the present. Constantine is angry about that, Spurrier is angry about it, and I’m angry about it. We should all be angry about it.


John Constantine: Hellblazer #3 “A Green and Pleasant Land Part Three”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Aaron Campbell
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar


Oliver Gerlach is a comics writer based in Scotland, who has written for publishers including IDW and Dynamite. For more of his work, check out his site here or head to twitter here!


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