Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 1

When the term “magic” is observed by a member of the Western world, certain images undoubtedly come to mind. Long bearded men with staffs and pointy hats, a young boy with a lightning bolt scar, spells of immense power vanquishing foes, and cackling crones stirring a cauldron to name but a few. Merriam-Webster defines magic as “a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions.” Throughout human history magic has always existed as a way to either explain the unexplainable, or a way in which man can influence it and has had an important role in many cultures worldwide. Magic has been portrayed in some form or fashion in comics, albeit not as prevalent as traditional super-heroics. However from Doctor Strange to Zatanna, one character stands out from the rest: John Constantine.

Co-created by Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bisette, and John Totleben, and based off of Police fron tman Sting, John Constantine (rhymes with clementine, not tangerine) debuted in Saga of the Swamp Thing Vol.2 #37 during Moore’s “American Gothic” storyline and would act as a reoccurring character during the rest of Moore’s run. Playing the part of a manager/supernatural advisor, Constantine would constantly place Swamp Thing into situations that he did not necessarily wish to partake in, all the while teaching him to achieve his full potential (albeit frustratingly) while dealing heavy doses of trademark cynical wit. Alan Moore describes Constantine as “almost blue-collar […] Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics.” [1] Constantine was a far departure from most other mystical characters of the time, smartly dressed in a suit and tie with a brown trench coat as opposed to traditional wizards robes. Whereas the magic of characters like Zatanna, and Doctor Fate employ bright displays of power, Constantine’s magic is more subtle and underwhelming. Instead of blasts of lightning and balls of fire, Constantine opts for wards and divinations, a style of magic some perceive as boring as it lacks the flash, bang, and immediate discernible effect.[2]

In 1988 John Constantine would go on to star in his own solo title Hellblazer, debuting under the creative team of writer, Jamie Delano with art by John Ridgway. The series lead the way for the formation of DC’s Vertigo imprint and lasted for 300 issues until its cancellation in 2013. The book became a stepping stone for many emerging British writers during the “British Invasion” of the American comics market in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These writers would later use the success of their Hellblazer runs to create subsequent spinoff titles, by which they gained notoriety. Throughout the run of the series, Hellblazer was known as the premier horror comic of DC/Vertigo, but buried beneath the demons, exorcisms, and chain-smoking lay political satire and commentary on the current state of Western society. The satire was not limited to just what was happening in the United Kingdom at the time, but also commented on what was happening in the United States. Despite the changing creative team over the 15 year run, common themes of addiction, love, loss, survival, and family would remain from issue #1 to issue #300. What is remarkable about the title is the overall quality of the series over its full run, with few other titles holding such a reputation. Suggestions on reading the quintessential Hellblazer storylines[3] are common for newly initiated readers, but the most prevalent response among fans is “start with issue #1.” Therefore Issue #1 of Hellblazer is where the analysis of this work shall begin, looking at the prevalent themes and political satire of the run, 26 years after the title’s debut.

Issue #1 “Hunger”
Writer: Jamie Delano;
Art: John Ridgeway;
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski;
Letters: Annie Halfacree;
Cover: Dave McKean

Hellblazer’s opening issue begins with the narration of a New York City post office worker opening a package returned to the office, and it’s horrific consequences. We see him attempt to quench an insatiable hunger as his body wastes away until he remains as nothing more than a pile of skin and bones on the floor of an upscale restaurant.[4] Throughout the opening pages flies are seen both in the scenes and crawling in between the panels. John Ridgeway’s panels begin in a familiar 2×4 grid pattern but quickly descend into a surreal, chaotic layout that helps emphasize that something is terribly wrong. During his tenure as artist, Ridgeway would continue to use such framing devices during scenes of terror, horror, and general unpleasantness to great effect. The narration describes the hunger as painful and that the more he consumes, the more he needs, and that it is consuming him, establishing to the theme of addiction and desire, the main focal point of the two-part opening storyline

Following the horrific opening, the issue switches over to modern London. John Constantine returns to his apartment to be informed that his friend Gary Lester (Gaz) has been living in his apartment in his absence. During the exploration of his flat the panels adopt a style similar to that of the opening. The reveal of Gaz sitting in the tub covered in bugs and Constantine slamming the door, underscores the repugnance Constantine feels, who is inclined to walking away and never coming back. This scene establishes Constantine’s iconic self-centeredness, characteristically putting his own wants and needs before others. It also establishes that he doesn’t always act at the first sign of danger, instead preferring to face it when he feels good and ready and not a moment sooner. The theme of addiction is further communicated through Gaz stating that he is “..Sick. Withdrawls. Feels like there’s bugs all over me.” Gaz’s experience is like a drug addict going through withdrawal, only the issue makes light of Gaz’s suffering by the fact that he is literally covered head to toe in crawling insects.

Constantine returns with his friend Chas Chandler who is constantly reminded throughout the series that “he owes him” to assist in taking care of Gaz. Constantine hypnotizes Gaz to find out what exactly he has been up to, remarking that he doesn’t really want to know. “We’re all junkies at heart,” he says. Throughout the run Constantine’s magical aptitude is showcased but it is never really revealed just how extensive his powers are. (Hypnotism is vaguely magical at best.) While vacationing in Morroco, Gaz encounters a mute Sudanese work-slave who has undergone ritual scarification that Gaz can sense contains a powerful spirit. Exorcising the demon in the form of millions of flies, Gaz traps the demon, Mnemoth, in a bottle.[5] After ingesting, possibly injecting, the demon into his system, Gaz returned to London seeking help from John. Upon discovering that he wasn’t there he sends a parcel to John in America, containing the bottle and a large amount of demonic flies. Travelling to Sudan, Constantine encounters the shaman who originally bound the demon, and through the uses of hallucinogenic roots the shaman shows him what he needs to do. The layout of the vision scene establishes how harsh an experience the vision is for Constantine while also communicating the abysmal living conditions of the Shaman’s tribe. Ridgeway’s art has little to no boundary between “panels” other than the background of different images and a flowing stream of blood, leaving it to the reader to discern on how to navigate through the page and where things end and begin. Constantine’s vision blends the line of addiction and desire, involving common drug abuse, power, wealth, and hunger; things people either suffer from or are suffering for.

Arriving in New York, Constantine and Gaz meet with Papa Midnight, a practitioner of Haitian Vodou, to assist in the binding of Mnemoth. Constantine knows that Gaz will have to be sacrificed to contain Mnemoth, although he does not have the heart to tell him yet. Through his narration and outbursts, it’s shown that Constantine is not pleased with what has to be done.  However, thinking of his own wants before thwarting a mass demonic possession, Constantine goes to the apartment of his former lover Emma. The visit mentally taxes Constantine more so than he already is with the encountering of Emma’s ghost. The ghosts haunting Constantine are a constant reminder of the consequences and repercussions of his actions whose ranks would grow throughout Jamie Delano’s run. Chasing a swarm of flies into a church, Mnemoth is revealed as giant demonic fly. Constantine flees to fight another day, but not before seeing the priest of the church succumb to possession by Mnemoth.  Constantine comments on how pathetic the priest looks ineffectually waving his crucifix. Christianity eventually becomes a major part in Hellblazer with Garth Ennis’ run, but the agents of Heaven and Hell are nearly always present in the series. “Hunger” is a sprawling opening issue, world spanning, and showing the vastness of magic with the different cultural depictions while never venturing to the pop-cultural norms of what “magic” is. The threat of Mnemoth is quickly escalated from a small and personal issue to a legitimate threat that has massive implications should it be left unchecked. Threats of such magnitude are common throughout Delano’s run on the series, but by no means are the only conflicts Constantine finds himself involved with.

Issue #2 “A Feast of Friends”
Writer: Jamie Delano
Art: John Ridgeway
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Annie Halfacree
Cover: Dave McKean

Picking up immediately where the first issue left off, “Feast of Friends” opens with Papa Midnite’s club where beyond the façade of an upscale 1980s dance club lies an underground arena, in which a massive crowd cheers on two men beating each other to death with baseball bats. To his patrons, experiencing bloodshed firsthand trumps viewing it through the lens of a camera, and Midnite seeks only to fulfill the desire, as the release of the crowd’s energy helps fuel his magic, as opposed to enjoying the violence itself. To Midnite the crowd itself is just a tool for his own ends. This bears similarity to how Constantine uses others like Midnite and Gaz.

Constantine encounters an imprisoned Gaz, who he assures that all is well, they are just using his addiction to draw the demon close before capturing it. Thinking about how “the more he pleads the easier to lie,” the panels in which Constantine’s face does not meet Gaz’s are filled with anguish, who has known since arriving in New York  containing the demon will require the unwilling sacrifice of one of his oldest friends. Later he is plagued by the ghosts of his former friends that have died due to their association with Constantine. Currently comprised of his former friends killed during Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, the ghosts stand pale and silent, leaving Constantine to wonder why he is being haunted. Never one to immediately face problems head on, personal or otherwise, Constantine turns to anger to strengthen his resolve, wondering if he is justifying what has to be done with Gaz.  After turning them away, Constantine hears “G’Night, John” from Emma’s ghost which pushes him past his breaking point. For all of Constantine’s cool confidence, quick wits, and sly demeanor, he is only human, and has his limits, and this is only the first of many times we see them crossed.

While Constantine sleeps, Mnemoth thrives, making those he inhabits consume to their utmost desires, fueling the demon. The victims include a man consuming a copy of Action Comics #1 and Watchmen #1, a nice tongue-in-cheek. Throughout the scene the panels of Mnemoth’s victims are depicted as an aromatic molecule, linked together making a vast organic structure of death and desire, closely resembling the chemical chains in drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.  As dawn breaks, Mnemoth is drawn towards Gaz, speaking “I come,” signaling the doom of Gaz with chilling simplicity.

As Constantine and Midnite prepare for the binding of Mnemoth to Gaz, Midnite’s unsettling smile has been replaced with a hard face to match his pragmatic nature. He is all business while, instead, Constantine copes with a joke. Still assuring him that he’ll be alright, Gaz only fully realizes his part in the plan as the dark cloud of demonic flies rushes towards him, damning Constantine in the last moment. Gaz is taken back to the cell while he and Mnemoth consume each other. Coping with cigarettes and whiskey Constantine sits by his screaming friend, a moment that further defines the kind of man he is to the reader. Constantine will damn a close friend to an unending hell but will still stand by until the very end. And as he watches him/her die, he will grieve understanding his own role in their untimely demise. Still, he accepts it at some point or another. To Constantine that is how life proceeds. Sometimes people have to be sacrificed for others to survive, and up until that agony begins Constantine will say, “Everything will be alright,” with a smile and a wink.

To be continued.

Notes:

[1] ‘“The Sting Connection” http://www.qusoor.com/hellblazer/Sting.htm

[2] Think of the complaint some have of Gandalf not actually doing much magic in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

[3] Garth Ennis’ “Dangerous Habits” (Hellblazer #41-46) is a common contender for this slot.

[4] The scene brings to mind a dark twist on a scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning Life in which a large man eats until he bursts in a restaurant after consuming a wafer thin mint.

[5] The famous Iron Man storyline about Tony Stark’s alcoholism “Demon in a Bottle” (Iron Man Vol.1 #120-128) immediately comes to mind.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Nestorowich is a Michigan Technological University graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering. To keep his sanity in the perpetual winter of Houghton, in his free time he dove head first into exploring all that comics had to offer, which worked to a certain extent. He eventually started writing about them at every opportunity, settling on a blog at some point. When not reading, watching, or writing something, Max can be found in the Analytical Chemistry Lab in which he finds employment, doing science.

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1 Comment

  1. I would say the first story arc definitely establishes a motif with Constantine. Those that know him, those that befriend him, those that come to spend even a middling about of time with him are almost cursed in a way and meet an eventual doom. Constantine is one of the few characters (in superheroics) that feels as though they have more than one friend. A storied history, you might call it.

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