John Constantine has many faults but he does try to look after the few friends he has. So when the producer on his first (and only) album turns up dead of an apparent suicide, John would probably feel the need to look into matters even if the location of the suicide weren't on his map of supernatural brush-fires. And since it is, John definitely feels the need to check things out.
With Zed in tow, John makes his way to Chicago. Before too long, they are tangled up in a web of mysteries involving Faustian pacts, a legendary blues man and a cursed record that captured the voice of The Devil. And behind the curtain, an old enemy of John's lies waiting to strike...
Hellblazer: Original Sins (the introduction of Papa Midnite, all the information we have on John's band Mucus Membrane, and the expansion of Zed's background), Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits (mention of The First of the Fallen), Hellblazer: Damnation's Flame (mention of The Ace of Winchesters), The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (the plot is a supernatural detective mystery set in Chicago and Chas mentions getting help from a local P.I. buddy), the comic House of Mystery (the interior of John's hideout seems to match elements of the titular house) Doctor Who (John's hideout is bigger on the inside and John's enchanted playing card is reminiscent of psychic paper), The Sex Pistols' Anarchy In The UK and the American urban legend of a bluesman who sold his soul to The Devil for fame and fortune.
The scene of The Devil coming for Willie Cole is truly terrifying.
The sequence in which John storms the radio station, armed only with a recording of Anarky in the UK is a perfect combination of thematic form and visual irony. There's something darkly funny about John using punk rock to fight a literally evil album and trying to restore order to the world using a song about destruction. All mixed with images of people fighting and Chas trying to destroy a radio transmitter.
The hideaway John and Chas have been using being bigger on the inside may be a reference to the House of Mystery. A location in the DC Comics universe, the New 52 version of The House is owned by the comics version of John Constantine and used as a base of operations by Justice League Dark. The House is well known for having ever-shifting architecture.
The hideaway being bigger on the inside may also be a reference to Doctor Who, where The Doctor's time machine - The TARDIS - is also bigger on the inside than it seems to be from outside.
Another possible Doctor Who reference lies in John's playing card that looks like whatever the holder needs it to look like. This is remarkably similar to the psychic paper that The Doctor uses whenever he needs a fake ID.
There are a number of American tall tales and urban legends about various blues singers selling their souls to The Devil for amazing skill as a musician. One of the most frequent targets of this legend is Robert Johnson,who was ranked 5th on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest guitar players of all time. Johnson died under mysterious circumstances at the young age of 27 and his legend seems to have inspired the tale of Willie Cole that lies at the heart of this episode.
John makes mention of having been lead singer for a punk band called Mucous Membrane. This is indeed the name of John's former band in the Hellblazer comics. He identifies Bernie as the producer on their first (and only) album - a single called Venus of the Hardsell.
The name of Bernie may be a tribute to Bernie Wrightson - the artist who co-created Swamp Thing and did the artwork on a number of classic DC Comics horror titles. Interestingly,Wrightson's first professional work was on the House of Mystery comic.
John can fake a Southern USA accent.
We learn a few more details about Zed's life in this episode. Chiefly that Zed was a name she gave herself and that she has a cross necklace that she wears in private. This fits with the background of Zed in the comics, where Zed adopted her alias after fleeing a Christian cult that was headed by her father.
Papa Midnite was a powerful magician, nightclub owner and New York City mob boss, who first appeared in Hellblazer #1. A reluctant ally and occasional enemy to John Constantine, Papa Midnite would work with John only to avert magical disasters that would endanger the world at large. He was originally depicted as a tall, heavy-set, bald, clean-shaven man, who wore a grass skirt, white tail-coat and white top-hat when working his magic. He would later be killed indirectly by John's actions in the Damnation's Flame story-line.
In 2005, at around the same time the Constantine movie was released, Vertigo Comics released a Papa Midnite mini-series which resurrected the character and rewrote virtually all of his established background. The new Papa Midnite also had an appearance closer to his depiction in the movie, as played by actor Djimon Hounsou. His previous appearances were explained as his using magic to cause John to see what he expected to see when confronted with a voodoo priest. Most Hellblazer fans consider this story non-canon and it is telling that no Hellblazer writer felt compelled to use the new Papa Midnite in any story afterward.
Papa Midnite has returned in the New 52 Constantine comic book. His background is still largely undefined past him being a practitioner of voodoo and his having a reluctant alliance with Constantine to deal with larger magical threats to the world at large. The show's version of Papa Midnite seems closest to this incarnation, though John confirms that he is a drug dealer and a voodoo priest like the original.
John identifies The Devil by the title First of the Fallen. This was the name used by Garth Ennis during his run on Hellblazer to separate his version of The Devil from the other beings who were said to rule Hell in other Vertigo series and other books by DC Comics.
Papa Midnite being a fan of Christian religious programming is not as contradictory as it might seem. In the real world, Voodoo or Voudon is an adaptive religion that has incorporated and absorbed many deities into its pantheon over time. New Orleans Voodoo includes The Virgin Mary and various Catholic saints among the beneficial spirits who may be called upon to aid a practitioner.
The Ace of Winchesters is a magical gun from the DC Comics universe. It was first referenced by Garth Ennis in Hellblazer #72. John attempted to buy the guy from an agent of Papa Midnite but wound up stealing the gun after the agent doubled the sales price in an effort to bleed John for more money. The gun later showed up in Garth Ennis' comic Hitman, where the full history of the gun was explained.
In Hitman (and in Hellblazer, presumably) The Ace of Winchesters was a magical rifle forged by a Texas Ranger who sold his soul to gain the skill needed to create magical guns. It was forged using the bones of saints, gems from Hell and the steel of an angel's halo. Instead of having the ability to never miss its target, The Ace of Winchesters in the comics had the power to permanently kill demons.
Supernatural creator Eric Kripke said The Ace of Winchesters was the direct inspiration for The Colt - a revolver capable of killing demons - as well as the inspiration for the last name of series protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester. This was one of many Hellblazer references worked into Supernatural, including the appearance of the angel Castiel being based on John Constantine.
When we first see John in this episode, he is learning a spell. The process for this requires John to be naked, covered in blood and chanting while standing in a chalk circle.
John's basic travel kit contains holy water, a police scanner, cemetery dirt and duct tape.
John also possesses several nails from the coffin of Saint Anthony of Padua - the patron saint of lost souls. The nails exhibit a magnetic attraction to one another and can be used as a magical tracking device, assuming someone can plant the nail on whoever or whatever they need to track.
John makes use of a Hand Of Glory to speak to Bernie. A Hand Of Glory is the severed left-hand of a man who died by hanging, picked in amniotic fluid for seven years. Once prepared thusly, the hand may have its fingers lit like candles and any dead bodies in the immediate area will come back to life for so long as the hand continues to burn. The price for casting the spell, according to John, is a few days of his mortality.
John has a playing card that is enchanted to look like whatever the holder wishes it to look like. He uses it as both a fake ID to get into a hospital after visiting hours and as a credit card in an attempt to bribe a homeless man.
Those who are near death can sense the presence of angels and "see the shadows" on bad people's souls.
The reason for why demons (and The Devil in particular) try to steal humans' souls is explained thus - a soul is basically a spark of creation and a bit of God's love given form. Since demons are denied that connection, they treasure being able to possess it and The Devil himself hordes souls as revenge for having been cast out of Heaven. Given what we know in The Pilot of how angels react to the suffering of souls, we can only imagine that demons getting a hold of a soul is akin to giving a junkie in drug withdrawal a fix.
Soul Brokers are mortals who act as middle-men between demons and any party desperate enough to sell their soul. This is in keeping with the rule that demons cannot usually manifest on Earth unless specifically summoned. Soul Brokers presumably receive some sort of benefit from this relationship, though the exact specifics are never explained. John describes Soul Brokers as the ambulance-chasing lawyers of the supernatural world and many of them do hang around hospitals, looking for people who will do anything to save a loved one's life.
A person who has sold their soul through a Soul Broker receives a scroll, written in blood, as a receipt of the transaction. When the writing on the scroll fades, their soul is claimed. The only way one can break the deal is by making their Soul Broker literally eat the contract. This act also causes the Soul Broker to lose their ability to contact Hell.
The Ace of Winchesters is a magical rifle that never misses its target.
John: The Devil used to be an angel. That's why he's called the First Of The Fallen. You ask a holy type and they'll tell you the soul is the purest expression of God's love. The spark of creation. Every time The First takes a soul he's exacting revenge. Paying back The Almighty for casting him out.
(After waking up in bondage after being knocked out by Papa Midnite)
John: You're gonna have to respect my boundaries. I don't do zip ties without a safe word.
(As Midnite lays out his death trap for John)
John: I always took you for a voodoo priest with a flair for the dramatic - not a cold-blooded killer.
Papa Midnite: I do what's needed. But I don't need to darken my soul tonight. Not with the situation firmly in hand. (holding up a small drug bottle) A pharmaceutical dose of Vitamin K. This will stop the bleeding... if you can get to it. Consider it a show of professional respect. If you live, you'll have worked very hard indeed. If you die, it will be alone with your many, many sins.
Manny: (laughing) What happened? What happened to the John Constantine with the cajones to tell an angel to go to Hell?
John: Cut me loose and I'll show you, you celestial wank!
John: Thanks for joining us. You bring what I ask for?
Chas: (handing John each item as he lists them off) Headphones. MP3 player. Clean shirt. Orange juice.
Chas: You've got to get your blood sugar back up.
John: (rolling eyes) Alright, daddy.
(Regarding Zed's plan based on her latest vision)
Chas: I think we should do what she says.
John: Alright, but we don't have to just jump when she says it!
(John just stands there a moment)
John: OK. That's long enough. Let's go.
Chas's cab is still broken, apparently not having recovered from The Pilot.
As in last week's episode, Zed pickpockets someone.
Chas notes that Zed's fingerprints aren't in any law-enforcement database.
John Screws Up
John's use of a Hand Of Glory winds up rising up an entire morgue full of dead bodies.
John gets captured by Midnite and left for dead. His attempts to influence a homeless man into freeing him would have gotten him killed if not for Zed.
John fails to guess the most obvious reason why a busboy wouldn't be affected by the album and gets into a good frenzied yelling fit before Zed points out he is shouting at a deaf man.
John gets his headphones ripped off and would have fallen to the effects of the album were it not for Papa Midnite's intervention.
The Bottom Line
One hell of an entrance for Papa Midnite. One hell of an episode all around. Easily the best episode of the series so far, as we see all of the cast coming together and things beginning to gel.