I was a killer as soon as I bought the gun
Rereading Hellblazer #23-#24 and #28-#30 by Jamie Delano, Ron Tiner, Kev Walker and Mark Buckingham.
We talk, us comics readers, about creative teams. The writer and artist are usually the focus, but in truly transcendent works the colourist, the letterer and the editor all contribute as much. A good team is more than the sum of its parts.
That’s when it goes right, when the Fordism of American comics which breaks up one process into five different jobs finds a rhythm and a space that works. But what about when it doesn’t? When a good writer is saddled with a bad artist, with unsympathetic colouring, with misfit lettering? What happens to a writer who’s working with an artist who draws at least a page of panels in every 24-page issue that make the reader wince with pain? Is the writing dragged down with them or can it win through?
Ron Tiner, who drew the Family Man storyline in Hellblazer, is such an artist. This is a disputable view; Google him and you’ll see that he was the secretary of the Society of Strip Illustrators (who pop up in Eddie Campbell’s How To Be An Artist) and that he wrote a respected reference work called Figure Drawing Without A Model. On his website, which I won’t link to because I’d rather he didn’t follow any clicks back here, he admits that Hellblazer wasn’t a pleasant experience for him.
Well Ron, that goes for both of us. And, I’m confident, for most everyone else who’s read these issues. The art is flat-out bad. Faces look like badly sculpted rubber masks with popout ping-pong Muppet eyes. Characters change height from panel to panel. There’s no weight to any of the lines, no sense of what’s foreground and what’s background or where we should be looking. (The inkers change but for at least one issue it’s Mark Buckingham, known for his sleek line.) And it’s ugly, horribly ugly in the modelling, in the pacing, in the blank backgrounds which stalk the piece, in the awkward and confusing action sequences. Even Gaspar’s lettering is contorted around the art.
Does it fail on every level? It can’t, otherwise this story wouldn’t have the power is has. Tiner’s storytelling shares simple virtues with Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen: the nine-panel grid, the use of multiple panels on a page depicting a character moving across a continuous background, the panel borders slicing it into time. Characters are distinctive, even the ones who appear for a few pages. The figure drawing’s usually okay; a scene with a woman in underwear is one of the few times when the art actually sits right. The urban locations are recognisably depicted, and the grid’s solidity means we usually know where we are. It’s grounded art, better at dealing with humans than demons. Perhaps it’s better, in that sense, for this storyline than someone like Steve Bissette would be. But it’s bad, bad on every page, and you’ve been warned.
(The editorial policy of Hellblazer was clearly to use British artists so we wouldn’t see the “thatched cottages in Trafalgar Square” Neil Gaiman once joked about. With local knowledge, you won’t get an artist who thinks Liverpool FC’s famous Kop is spelled COP… never mind. At least he got our towering, impossible, Escheresque motorway service stations bang on.)
Hellblazer’s most grounded story yet begins in the fantastical. Constantine goes to see an old friend, a flamboyant, colourful character he’s tried to emulate: Jerry the Dealer. Jerry lives up to his description. He’s a literary character from the old school, leaping into life from scores of Victorian tales of the fantastic that involved a middleman. Creating this guy out of whole cloth, an archetype who surely could have been in Conan Doyle or Dickens – didn’t those books have need of a dealer? – is a significant achievement in a few pages. (Have I read books with Jerry in? The Finn in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy appears to be the same guy…) We’re not given chance to settle down with him, though, to examine all the references in his semi-scrawled, muddily-coloured home. Blind Pugh arrives at the same time at John, Sherlock Holmes has already been there and the Big Bad Wolf sends the pair running from the house. What follows is a romp, full of literary references and forebodings to be sure, but a romp nonetheless. Kevin O’Neill would have drawn the shit out of this script with a different character in every corner. Jerry’s the man in charge and John’s following in his wake, watching a hero become unreal and previewing his own eventual fate. It seemed, when it first appeared, a nice change of pace from the crushing doom and realism of the preceding Fear Machine story. A one-issue blowout reminding us that Constantine does magic as well as that serious stuff, magick.
Except it continued. #24, after the brutal murder of a family of mundane suburbanites, sees John still hanging out in Jerry’s ruined house. There’s little in the way of action: he breaks into a safe, entertains a visitor, reads a diary, takes a phone call and goes crazy and burns the house down. The sense of dawning horror through the issue, the layering of ordinary actions and omens, is key to Delano’s Constantine. He does monstrous things willingly if he can justify them but won’t be unwittingly responsible. Apart from the anodyne happy family we begin with, the pitch is perfect; Constantine doesn’t really think, he just acts, and is the victim of his own curiosity. He has to delve into Jerry’s secrets, not just his safe but his diary, and in doing so finds out the corruption that his friend fell to. Supplying a serial killer obsessive with mementos from ongoing murders and a serial killer with victims.
What scares Constantine about this, what sets the house aflame and him running, isn’t just that he’s become involved in murder. He’s accustomed to innocents dying. It hurts that he was a dupe, that he didn’t make the decision, but that’s just a pride thing. The fear is in how Jerry followed the vectors of his created personality to their grim conclusion. The ultimate dealer is a dealer in human life, of course, and death. Will John Constantine, another self-willed larger-than-life personality, the gambler with hell, fall prey to the same vanities? Is he Jerry waiting to happen?
It wasn’t clear, back in 1990, that this was an ongoing storyline. The Fear Machine, which ended early and I’m not covering in this blog, had left Constantine looking for another new start. Three excellent fill-in issues teaming Grant Morrison & David Lloyd and Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean followed. We could have picked up with John anywhere. Instead we returned to London where he was living in fear above the bookie Chas is managing. Did Delano, not really a natural at plotting an ongoing series, take a break? Run out of ideas? Then return to that Family Man idea and realise there was something in it?
#28 establishes that the game is on, that the killer is stalking John and that John’s hunting him in return. It ends with real fear; Constantine is going to have to do physical battle with a killer. He’s going to have to draw blood. The demons and magic that the book had been constructed around were off-limits. No good reason’s given for that but the writing dismisses them so effectively that I never even thought of the supernatural as an option, two issues on from a Winnie the Pooh guest appearance. There’s a closing feeling on those final pages, a collapsing of options. John begins it chasing redemption and ends it with only revenge, only kill-or-be-killed, as a possibility. He’s never faced this before.
That’s slightly ridiculous from my rereading because the title character faces loads of physical threats in his first 12 issues, from four-armed skinheads to a time-lost platoon to a giant child-murderer. The comic gets away with it, though; it feels new. The single-minded focus on the chase, on how the mechanics of murder will be done, on schemes clever and stupid from a man out of his depth, drives the story forward. The Family Man kills Thomas Constantine up in Liverpool to send a signal, taking pleasure in it and understanding that he must sometimes prepare himself in ways that leave him exposed. John, usually armed only with his wits, buys a gun; not easy in England, and the man who sells it to him may only appear for a page but is unforgettably patronising. The sense of pursuit, of a world narrowed to only these two characters, both geniuses of their own misunderstood crafts, circling each other and waiting for the first move, is satisfyingly claustrophobic. Chas, the hapless Watson of the story, beats one and is beaten by the other.
What’s happening in these issues is the clichéd serial killer story that begets a thousand 90s movies – the killer and his pursuer recognising that they’re the same – refusing to happen. The Family Man is, through blood, trying to draw John into his orbit. John, though musing on murder, is fighting it every step of the way. He doesn’t want to join the fraternity of killers. He hires a woman, a chubby prostitute, ostensibly to steel himself for his murder moment but actually to provide a refuge, to remind himself that he draws his strength from a different source. At the opening of #30, the storyline’s final issue, he has the drop on his killer and can’t use his advantage. He needs to face him, not to savour the feeling of taking a life but to explain himself, to say This isn’t me.
The final issue flees the couple of blocks of London we’ve spent two issues haunting and hits the road; the M1 north, it looks like. It all ends underneath the motorway, in a passage created for cattle to be herded from one field to another. The gun proves mightier than the knife, a serial killer is killed and our hero, our protagonist, walks away with a cigarette and a sense of completion. He’s fought becoming Jerry and he’s fought becoming Homo Familiaris. Like the superhero comics of the 90s, where Batman and Superman got replaced and taught us to value the originals, Constantine shows us who he is by what he’s not.
Hellblazer #23-#24 and #28-#30 are collected in the trade paperback Hellblazer: Family Man.