Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 22

Issue 25 “Early Warning”

Writer: Grant Morrison
Art, Colors, & Cover: David Lloyd
Letters: Tom Frame

As stated before, over the 300 issue run Hellblazer would be written by many of the comic industry’s biggest names. While the first 40 issues is most commonly known for Jamie Delano’s stark commentary on the state of the United Kingdom during the 1980s, a three month break was taken from issues #25-27 in which two very notable British writers would take over for Delano and his team: Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. With a change in writer for the series, it is interesting to look at where the writer was in their career and what they would go on to after departing from Hellblazer. A quick look at Morrison’s bibliography reveals that before January 1990 (the cover date of the issue), he had already written many titles at various publishers; but at this point in his career Morrison’s popularity was starting to explode thanks to commercially and critically successful books like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Another member of the British Invasion who has since become a comic book superstar in his own right, Morrison would bring his own politics to Hellblazer with a 2-part tale about nuclear weapons.

Departing from Delano’s The Family Man storyline Constantine has found himself in the town of Thursdyke with a former girlfriend, Una, to attend a pagan festival. The festival is meant to revitalize the town and build community spirit despite the hard times the area is facing. The festival mainly focuses around the townsfolk wearing large cartoonish masks and a midnight parade, giving the festival a Halloween or Mardi Gras atmosphere, from an implied Joie de vivre. Suffering economically from the government closing a local mine, (most likely a reference to the UK miner’s strike of 1984-85), an American military base holding nuclear weapons has been set up in the area which has aided the town but has attracted the attention of protesters from the more urban areas of the country. To a small town strapped for work, the base is seen as a blessing but to the protestors and the local priest (a former pilot turned pacifist) the prospect of jobs is not worth the risk of a nuclear arsenal on their door step. As seen before, cultural and class differences within Hellblazer fuel many conflicts of the series and combined with ominous signs that plague both Constantine and Una (often seen through lenses of a camera like in the film The Omen) Morrison sets the stage for a night that can only go wrong.

Before night falls, a short scene in the nuclear base shows a Professor Horrobin and Doctor Poole, sharing a short debate on how science has become the new religion with “cathedrals” built under the ground (towards Hell) as opposed to towards the heavens, touching on the supposed darker nature of scientific progress, with Horrobin commenting that the “work” he has been performing is “almost occult.” As night falls and the parade begins it quickly descends to utter horror and madness. Shrouded in their various costumes of animals, demons, and comical representations of familial roles, the townsfolk start brutally mutilating each other with whatever they can get ahold of. Much of the horror is shown either off panel or in shadows, but scenes such but a father approaching his infant son with a pair of scissors while singing “This Little Piggy” is a terrifying enough image that the readers mind can fill in what comes next. Observing the scenes from the safety of the base Horrobin claims responsibility for the towns actions by bombarding the town with microwaves releasing all of the unconscious desires, fears and repressed longings. Constantine is unable to avoid the influence of the town and putting on a comical yet terrifying mask of what looks like Margaret Thatcher, joins into the parade as the issue closes.

Although written by Grant Morrison “Early Warning” reads much like an issue penned by Jamie Delano. The issue meshes well with the tone and themes already established within Delano’s run, namely class struggle, baser instincts, and fear. Morrison continues to let the readers own imagination fill in the most horrific scenes rather than showing them out right. While the omission of the more violent scenes come from the fact that Hellblazer still had the DC imprint on the cover at the time despite the “For Mature Audiences” tag, stylistically it fits the story better and can appeal to a greater number of readers that may find horror appealing but are not particularly fond of gore. However, as with any story of terror not yet come to completion, the worst is yet to come.

Issue 26 “How I Learned to Love the Bomb”

Writer: Grant Morrison
Art, Colors, & Cover: David Lloyd
Letters: Tom Frame

Picking up immediately after the conclusion of the previous issue, “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” continues the madness and horror in Thursdyke before bringing the festival to a tragic close with the  ultimate 20th century fear coming to fruition, nuclear annihilation. In 2015 the idea of nuclear destruction is nearly nonexistent in comparison to how the public felt during the 1950s-1980s. The stories of how children would practice bombing drills in school, hiding under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack, has become a memory of yesteryear known only to  the younger generations from sepia tone newscasts. Our culture has lost the fear of the bomb (except for the brief period of 2003-2008 when it was used to justify a war) but has developed different fears in its place. However, none have measured up to the awe inspiring power and terror of nuclear devices that Morrison gives them in this issue.

The chaos of Thursdyke continues to spread throughout the area, drawing in more to the dance macabre. The anti-nuclear protesters have christened the local priest Archbishop Bomb with a bullseye target painted on his face, a bomb headdress meant to resemble a bishop’s mitre and a bomber-plane crucifix. The Archbishop then leads the crazed protesters on a charge towards the airbase. Back in town John is freed from from his trance by Una by the power of noise rock (Sonic Youth specifically), which apparently blocks out the frequency that is making everyone mad.[1]

Throughout the two issues the reader is led to believe that it is government experimentation that is causing the death and destruction of the town, however Morrison turns the story on its head when it is revealed that Professor Horrobin’s machine is just an empty box and that these are the death throes of a city that is  trying “to commit suicide” as Una puts it. Psychically aware, Una surmises that after years of failure and neglect the town is ending its existence and is acting through the townsfolk. Considering that the townsfolk would all be in a similar mindset due to the excitement of the festival, the town was probably waiting for such a moment, with horrifying results. Some crazed citizens cry out “The Devil has come to Thursdyke!” The involvement of Satanic forces are hinted at in a number of Morrison’s stories but is often left ambiguous to how much The Devil is involved, if at all, leaving it for the reader to decide.[2] Realizing that the protestors have descended upon the airbase to gain hold of the missiles stored there, Constantine races off to stop them in a van blasting noise rock. Constantine remarks on how the townsfolk view the bomb as a god, an object that they worship as it gives their lives meaning. Reflecting on how the base brought business and employment to the area, and how elsewhere in the world many business relied on the notion of the bomb being a legitimate threat to human existence, the idea is not as ludicrous as it may seem.

Arriving at the base, Constantine is able to free the protesters from the trance but is unable to stop Archbishop Bomb from taking off in a jet that drops a bomb on the city, ending the madness with annihilation. Walking through the ruins, Constantine cynically comments on how the city died long ago and this was just its spirit lashing out.

“Early Warning” and “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” touch on themes present in “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “On the Beach”, namely the destruction of a “long dead” town and the looming threat of nuclear devices. In all of these stories, Constantine is mostly powerless to save anyone other than himself and lives through tragedies that are plausible, but stretched to hyperbole. Anyone who is familiar with Morrison’s background (as can be seen in Sequart’s Talking With Gods documentary) can see remnants of Morrison growing up in impoverished area and his anti-nuclear father’s ideals within the tale. Much of what is in these two issues can also be seen in the Morrison’s future works, predominantly in the second volume of The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo. Although his work on Hellblazer is just for these two issues, Constantine encountering / living through a nuclear explosion is memorable among the threats he faces in the series.

Notes:

1. Morrison’s fondness of post-punk bands is well known as is love of music which works its way into nearly all of his works in some form.

2. See Batman: Gothic, The Invisibles, and the 2006-2013 Batsaga for stories that may feature the Devil

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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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