The arbitrary rule of sex and death
Rereading Hellblazer #1-#12 by Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, Richard Piers Rayner, Alfredo Alcala and Brett Ewins.
I might have seemed a little disingenuous when pondering the question, in relation to Moore’s and Veitch’s Swamp Thing, of exactly where the Mature Readers comics were heading. Anyone who knows the careers of Morrison, Gaiman or Milligan knows where they were heading: Vertigo, DC’s Mature Readers imprint, which Swamp Thing became a part of and which absorbed and commodified the British Invasion. Animal Man, Shade, Doom Patrol, Sandman, all became Vertigo comics.
But Vertigo didn’t really start with The Anatomy Lesson, much as history and the publishers have claimed it did. Swamp Thing under Alan Moore and Rick Veitch was embedded in the DC universe. Vertigo was the beginning of something quite different, of a line of comics separate to the superheroes to avoid dark thoughts and adult feelings corrupting those colourful paragons of virtue. After a few years the barrier became impassable; Vertigo characters like Swamp Thing weren’t allowed out and superheroes weren’t allowed in.
To my mind Vertigo really began in Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. It established the model that the imprint would follow: writer-led, with rotating and frequently indifferent artists, following a charismatic male protagonist through unpleasant and unlikely horrors, painted covers of frequently abstract beauty, first-person narrators. And that “five-and-a-half ounces of nastiness” Eddie Campbell claimed the scripts are weighed for when explaining why he quit Hellblazer seven years later. Eddie, one of the funniest and most truthful men in comics, wasn’t perhaps entirely serious but was entirely accurate. Hellblazer then, and Vertigo later, relies on that nastiness: on foetus-eating demons, on serial killers with unlikely trademarks, on monsters sleeping with your girlfriend. Swamp Thing had to justify his existence in a wider universe by becoming the home of horror; Hellblazer, though Constantine still in theory breathed the same air as Wonder Woman, lived in a different moral universe from the start.
An old mate of Alan Moore’s from the Northampton Arts Labs, Jamie Delano had already followed him on Captain Britain for Marvel UK and produced a short run of stories mainly forgettable if not for terrific Alan Davies art. I like his work and will be bigging up much of his 40-issue Hellblazer run, but I offer an obvious criticism first: he’s not a natural comics writer. He doesn’t have that skill of blending form and content that writer-artists have, nor does he have Moore’s determination to explore the medium. What Delano brings to comics is the sensibility of an outsider, a perspective from outside the mainstream and its neat little superhero boxes and the rut it doesn’t know it’s stuck in. He brings a poet’s voice, narration floating from first-person to third-person without ceremony but always richly descriptive, cutting away from the surface to the symbolism beneath. And he brings a sense of Constantine’s character that’s never been matched, understanding exactly what it costs to con demons and betray friends. There’s no experimentation with the medium here, there are no superheroes, and there’s no distance. When you’re reading these comics you are John Constantine, his wins and losses are yours, and you’re as guilty and damned as him.
It didn’t have to be that way. I’ve no idea if editor Karen Berger wanted the Phantom Stranger and the Demon and the rest kept out of a new title or if it was Delano’s decision. Either way, it was the right one. John was supposed to be in a Firestorm crossover around the time his title was launched and was replaced at the last minute by a doppelganger called Rasputin. Was he being forcibly ejected from the DC universe, or did he decide to leave? He’s summoning Superman baddies and chatting with Kirby creations in Swamp Thing at the same time as going it alone here, and the events in this opening 12-issue story are closely and imperfectly yoked to Veitch’s first storyline. Reading both, it feels like Veitch’s plans were made with Constantine playing a key role before Hellblazer came along, the solo title forced to follow the one where he’s a guest star. That perhaps partly accounts for the erratic long-term plotting of the arc, though that’s never been one of Delano’s strengths.
The shorter stories are where he shines. The opening two-parter showing us John’s methodology, his difficulty facing up to the mistakes of his past, his occult connections and his strength, the hardness at the heart of him that drives him on, is as good as anything anyone’s done with the character. It’s astonishingly accomplished for a series opening. One of mainstream comics’ recurring problems is that it’s a first-draft medium – by the time you’ve got a handle on your story and characters, it’s too late to go and revise their first appearances – but Constantine exists in full here. And it’s no excuse that he was another’s creation; fleshing out Moore’s man of mystery and disappearances was, I’d argue, a tougher task than creating someone new. Delano does it frictionlessly, giving us a man as hated and feared in his own London manor as in New York. He brings in the supporting cast from Swamp Thing as ghosts, giving us a sense of the past without relying on readers knowing it which in those collection-less days was vital, and does work Moore never did building up the character of Emma the murdered girlfriend. (Is Moore cited by the collators of Woman in Refrigerators for Emma, a girlfriend introduced and murdered in one issue? He should be.)
The five-and-a-half ounces of nastiness are present and correct – a hypodermic full of crushed insects, possessed victims gorging on meat, jewels, their own flesh – and there’s enough magic to believe that’s what the title is going to be about. It isn’t, not really. Constantine isn’t suited to concrete power. If he’s able to pull a fireball from his sleeve then there’s no need for him to rely on his wit. The character, as defined here, is about bluff, knowledge, and an angle of attack. He’s an Archimedes dealing with the unearthly powers which sandwich mortal life; given a place to stand and a lever long enough and he can move the earth.
The third issue’s probably my favourite because it makes the background to Delano’s take on Constantine explicit: he’s a creature of Thatcherism, first as a punk rebelling against her market economy and later as a Liverpudlian living in London who sees his environment destroyed. Yet at the same time, like so many who hated Thatcher, her demolition of institutions gives him freedom, first as a punk entrepreneur and later as a private operator. Yuppie demons buying souls is exquisitely apposite, their colonisation of London’s ruined working-class strongholds exactly what was happening in the real world. And Constantine’s bluff in the heart of hell, a confidence broker destroying players much more powerful than he with a vicious little tug on the right strings, sums him up in a single issue. To have a reputation as someone you don’t want to fuck with you need to go out and prove it occasionally. John proves it every day.
The opening storyline takes us to Liverpool to meet a demon-inspired serial killer, to small-town America for a Vietnam story, into collision with British boot-boys, into cyberspace. The last is a lot less embarrassing, 25 years later, than I thought it would be; Delano appears to know nothing about computers so takes a psychedelic approach which has aged much better than the “riding the modem lines on an amazing 2 meg of RAMs” that I misremembered. We’re introduced to two sets of antagonists; the demon Nergal and his Damnation Army and the sexy Zed, who turns out to be the mother of the next messiah and a fugitive from the Resurrection Crusade. Evil evangelists were a real go-to villain in the late 80s. Everyone had one.
Every issue’s a single story, near enough, until #12. The overarching storyline isn’t stellar and makes some odd moves. John throws himself out of a train at one point to be rescued by Swampy over in that title and is brought back to full vigour by an infusion of Nergal’s blood. By the following issue John’s a wreck in New York, hiding from his responsibilities, contemplating oblivion, and chased by a Swamp Thing made of paper and oil. It’s a decent enough tale as long as you forget everything you know about the latter’s power and ignore the narrative leap that takes a newly-puissant John in London to a suicidal ghost in New York.
The demon blood, which has become one of the key elements of Constantine’s character, taints Zed enough after an unwise tumble in a tree with our boy to stop the new messiah being born. That victory for Nergal and his never-mentioned-again army is balanced by the conception of the flesh elemental in a move which must be baffling to readers not familiar with the concurrent storyline in Swamp Thing. It’s a disaster of a plot. But it’s all done in an issue on the astral plane which sees Constantine floundering around in flight from Nergal so you barely notice. The plot of these 12 issues is treated, until the final one, as a subplot.
In the penultimate issue we see what happened to John and his crew in Newcastle, something which had become legendary in that subset of fandom who’d followed Constantine since Swamp Thing and had theories about his initials and his betrayal by Judith. It was, it turns out, just a disaster; a crew of unstable incompetents led by a cocky chancer damn the soul of an abused child forever. It’s also the making of John. He realises that the powers he’s dealing with are real, that he has miles to go before he can forgive himself for his mistakes, and that he has the skill and the front to go further. Fucking up so badly is what shows him he can do better.
These 12 issues are less than the sum of their parts. Delano introduces no less than three old friends only to kill them, though that’s redeemed by the first appearances of John’s family and the matchless and ageless Chas. But they work individually and do a fantastic job of showing us who Constantine is, moving him through different milieus and facing him off against different evils to draw a fuller picture.
John Ridgway, a veteran of British comics, is the artist for the first nine issues. He’s great on the extended sequences, like Gary Lester’s exorcism of a child or the trip into cyberspace, but less convincing when John’s in modern Britain or America. Something about that craggy, chalky style that worked so well in a war comic fails in a corner shop. Richard Piers Rayner takes over in #10 with an astral journey and does a great job, as much as is possible – his art’s lovely but these aren’t art-led scripts. Drawing a grand battle that takes place in cyberspace, heaven and a darkened caravan is tough for anybody, let alone a newcomer trying to make an impression. The breathless rush of the prose and the wordy scripts by a writer who doesn’t seem much concerned with visual storytelling means that any style or attempt to unify the disparate elements is quickly lost.
However ungainly a writer Jamie Delano is, though, he hits on a formula that works. Constantine is a natural protagonist, someone who’s always out looking for the next thing with a murky enough past to have endless old friends to help out, and Delano’s pessimistic Thatcher-era grudge against the higher-ups pissing on the lower-downs gives him plenty of material. These comics are in a bad mood and determined to share it. The five-and-a-half ounces of nastiness that’s proven so popular was first weighed out and dealt to a hungry public here. It proved addictive.
Hellblazer #1-#12 are available in the trade paperbacks Hellblazer: Original Sins and Hellblazer: The Devil You Know.