Your infectious life

Rereading Hellblazer Annual #1 and Hellblazer #39-#40 by Jamie Delano, Bryan Talbot, Dean Motter, Steve Pugh and Dave McKean.

All the dodging around that Alan Moore had to do on Swamp Thing, working with crossovers, working with fill-in artists and the scheduling of Annuals, working with the artists to write stories they’d like to draw, working with established continuity without violating it, working with an established character and his past while creating something new… Jamie Delano didn’t do any of that. Apart from the last, and John Constantine was barely established compared to Swampy. He was a member of the supporting cast for a couple of years, not a character who’d had his own title and a movie.

Hellblazer under Delano was entirely writer-led. I could be wrong, I’ve not exactly done the research, but apart from the couple of issues I’ll discuss here none of it seems written with specific artists in mind. He didn’t have to fit in with any of DC’s line, he took time off for fill-ins by others, he wrote an annual when he felt like it. Alan Moore created something new within the constraints of the mainstream using rules that were becoming outdated even as he punctiliously observed them. Jamie Delano was instrumental in creating a new mainstream just by bludgeoning on through.

He doesn’t lack sophistication as a writer. His character work’s superb, his plots are nonchalantly if puzzlingly constructed, and his ever-present poetic prose only rarely falls into cliché or narration. But he’s single-minded. There’s none of that thematic grace Alan Moore brought to the table, Swamp Thing’s journey through space teaching him all about himself and so on. In the final two issues we gather the cast from the first storyline and the Fear Machine and return to some of the world-shaking magic of that era, but there’s no real return to the themes. The focus has narrowed to Constantine, only Constantine.

But first the Annual. It came out as The Fear Machine was ending and seeks to provide, in a sense, a slice of backstory to deepen the end of the epic in the comics. The Shadow, in its revived 80s version, did the same thing in its Annual which detailed where The Light had come from. This tells us where the big magic dragon which erupted from the earth at the end of The Fear Machine came from; which explanation was needed because it wasn’t exactly foreshadowed in a tale which was mainly government/occult conspiracy and veers off into male/female magic only in the last issue.

It explains nothing, though. It’s of a piece with the second half of Delano’s run; it’s all about character. Not Constantine’s character. Kon-sten-tyn’s character. Establishing a lineage millennia before Johanna Constantine pops up in Sandman, Kon-sten-tyn is a magician and a king. He’s sired children on fairies and nymphs of the ocean. He has Merlin’s head in his cellar, bodiless but still conscious and animated. He has a silver arm, a product of fairy engineering. And he’s evil: flat-out cackling and explaining his villainy evil. This is John Constantine’s distant ancestor. This is where the magic starts.

With that you’d expect him to be similar to Constantine. Johanna is, after all; blonde, knowledgeable about things hidden to most eyes, prone to getting in over her head and able to beat powerful opponents by swiftly, almost unconsciously, exploiting their weaknesses. Kon-sten-tyn is entirely different. He’s a man of power rather than a broker of it, an unrepentant slayer of men and practitioner of magic. His life story, narrated on the night he chooses to die, is a trail of blood and vicious bargains. Two sons are traded to the goddess for an extra lease on life. The true magic of dragons is hidden and a pretence of Christianity adopted. The goddess, through centuries of magic, is chained and made small, her power not stolen but traduced by man.

Why are we seeing this? What are the resonances? Because plot-wise there’s nothing at all. Kon-sten-tyn doesn’t have any influence on the modern Constantine. It doesn’t make sense of his role, or the diamond he forms with Marj, Zed, and Mercury, for the dragon to have been chained to the earth by his great-to-the-power-of-30 grandfather. John isn’t reprising his monstrous ancestor’s life, nor is he undoing his deeds. He’s not defined by male vs female magic; the border he stands on is between heaven and hell, not man and woman. He likes women, he treats women well, apart from the angry male pre-adolescent of Dead-Boy’s Heart. The question is: what’s this story for?

It’s a great story. Bryan Talbot, a great writer as well as a great artist, has the lucky knack of lending his brush to writers who use it well. The texture he brings to the ancient Kon-sten-tyn, the palpable feeling of withered evil, brings the story alive. The drive that possesses the modern Constantine, the irresistible urge to meddle with magic and to break rules, the itch that forces them into alliance or enmity with great powers, is there in both. For all Kon-sten-tyn’s power he ends up alone, bitter, exhausted. He fails because what he attempts is not humanly possible, is not even humanly possible to understand. Death is what they seek to fight, these Constantines, but they don’t expect to win.

After a pair of issues about a butcher and his sensitive son which seem to be a theme – male violence, pleasure in the work of blood – that hasn’t managed to find expression in a story, in #39 we’re back with our main guy. He’s still with Marj and Mercury but his rebirth, his return to the cocky beat-the-devil John of the series’ start, hasn’t taken. The blackness of murder, of patricide at one remove, has been flushed from his system but he’s been left wondering why he’s so prone to it. Why is he drawn to compulsive risk-taking, the curiosity that costs so much? What makes him this way? Can he be cured?

Without foreshadowing of any kind – and we were only at his mother’s grave eight issues ago, there was ample opportunity – we’re introduced to the Golden Boy, a spirit that appeared to John as a child and which has haunted him ever since. This is the key, we’re told, with a subtlety more common to comics of the Silver Age. This is how we find out what makes John tick, what that hunger is that draws him on. Nothing leading up to this had led us to expect that there was a solution, or at least not a simple one. Now there’s nothing more vital.

A bunch of mushrooms, some magic chatter and a cave later, John’s gone leaving only a tarot card behind. At the opening to #39 he’s upside down in the posture of the hanged man, sacrificing himself for knowledge. (Though if you were reading across the Mature Readers magical universe at the time you’d know he’d already been damningly but accurately identified as the Fool in Gaiman’s Books of Magic.) We know by now that John’s not the self-sacrificing type. Others pay the price for his knowledge. That’s his curse.

In the final issue, 33 pages by Dave McKean and some of his only pen-and-ink work for a mainstream company, we meet the other Constantine. His twin; the healthy one, the one who should have been saved, the one who did everything right. He lives in a tower surrounded by his friends: Ben, Gary Lester, Astra, all the people who his counterpart killed, this Constantine has saved. (Though ex-girlfriend Emma never gets mentioned…) Rather than a shabby chancer in a trenchcoat, he’s a great and powerful magician. He’s also, like his father and like his ancient ancestor, lost an arm.

This, in old comics speak, is the John Constantine of Earth-3. The opposite, good to his shadow’s bad. He should be fighting Ultraman and Owlman alongside Alexander Luthor. Thankfully we’ve long since left DC continuity behind and this good John is his own creation: proud, strong, and fatally flawed. He’s also a mirror of his ancestor. Kon-sten-tyn also built his power around Ravenscar, had also lost an arm, had also become a great magician made irrelevant by time. The three of them, two Constantines and one Kon-sten-tyn, make a strange triangle that crosses worlds and time. Each has the same flaws; only our guy is able, before he gets old, to understand and accept his. What marks our Constantine out, his stumbling life and his trail of dead, his failure to achieve his destiny as a man of power or to die, is his triumph. He knows that all lives end in failure. He’s embraced that failure. In Leonard Cohen’s words he’s embraced his “invincible defeat”, lost his grip and slipped into the masterpiece.

The magus knows he’s wrong, that he’s beaten, that it’s all over, that this was inevitable and beautiful. The wannabe magus, that otherworldly Constantine who saved all his friends and defeated all his demons, didn’t understand that. He saw weakness as one more bad guy to fight, and his sickly self as a manifestation to be summoned and banished. It’s what brings the sanctimonious bore down. He walks into the mystery, the miracle, the alpha and the omega, to meet his other self. They dance together, drowning their maleness in the sea of women’s magic. Really, they should have been joined by their third, Kon-sten-tyn, but he was irredeemable. It’s left to the brothers to end their family curse.

Hellblazer continues after this. The Garth Ennis run, which is as patchily collected as the Delano run, is regarded as definitive. The character’s proved his worth with a successful movie and will hit his 300th issue in less than a year. But for me he’s never again had the depth Delano brought to him, nor has any Delano project been as successful as this one. A character who his creator believes is alive and believes he’s met twice found his heart and his cluttered head in these yellowing comics. They established the worth of a writer’s vision in comics, and laid the foundations for the Vertigo line that gives writers a chance to unreel those visions. They’re important, but more than that they’re good.

Hellblazer Annual #1 is collected in the trade paperback Hellblazer: Devil You Know. Hellblazer #39-#40 remain uncollected. 


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