Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 23

Issue 27 “Hold Me”

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Art & Cover: Dave McKean
Colors: Dave McKean & Danny Vizzo
Letters: Todd Klein

Following Grant Morrison’s two part tale of nuclear terror, is arguably one of the most well respected writers to come out of the British Invasion: Neil Gaiman. Like others, Gaiman had written for various UK comic publishers before DC, and had a handful of non-fiction titles published at this time, most notably Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. Reintroduced to comics through Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing, Gaiman and Moore would become fast friends[1], with Gaiman sending Moore his first comic script, titled The Day My Pad Went Mad, which was about John Constantine. According to Gaiman, Moore would use a few lines in The Saga of the Swamp Thing issue #51 “Home Free.”[2] After revitalizing Black Orchid, Gaiman would of course go on to write The Sandman, which would feature John Constantine in issue #3 “Dream a Little Dream of Me” the events of which are referenced by Jamie Delano in Hellblazer issue #19 “The Broken Man.” Paired with his long time friend and collaborator Dave McKean, “Hold Me” focuses on a very real yet easily overlooked problem, homelessness.

Gaiman’s narrative style often consists of stories about/containing other stories, something the narrative structure of comics excels at because of the panels and grid layouts. While easy to view them as constraining and forcing focus on the subject of each panel, they also allow for overlapping narratives and as seen before in issues, such as “Going For It”, the artist can help convey emotion and tension to the scenes through unorthodox framing techniques (of which Dave McKean is certainly known for). Opening with a trio of homeless people, the three seek refuge from the cold in a vacant room of an apartment complex. In countries with a varying climate, often homeless people will migrate during the colder months, but the United Kingdom doesn’t fit this instance. The narration emphasizes the bitter cold of the spring evening, and the three die from the cold during the night, with the body of one of them, Jacko, fading away like a ghost. According to a 2005 study, there are an estimated 100 million homeless individuals worldwide. The exact definition as to what constitutes someone as being homeless varies from country to country, but in general refers to someone without a regular dwelling. Unfortunately there is a common cultural misconception that the homeless are primarily substance abusers or people who can’t hold a steady job. There are many causes for why a person becomes forced to live such a lifestyle, such as a lack of affordable housing, the unavailability of employment opportunities, social exclusion, domestic violence, or mental disorders, to name but a few. This misconception often causes further social exclusion by society, in some instances dehumanizing individuals as some forget that these are actual human beings.

Shifting from spring to autumn, we find John Constantine on a way to a remembrance party for his friend Ray, who was killed 20 issues prior in “Ghost in the Machine” by The Resurrection Crusaders. On the way, Constantine notices the rise in both the homeless of the area as well as the amount of National Front graffiti, a far-right political party within The UK and France whose policies have been described as fascist, of which the party denies. At the party Constantine is introduced to a woman named Anthea, whom he later accompanies back to her apartment, the same building that Jacko and the other homeless people froze to death in. Constantine’s inherent cynicism rears its head as he thinks there’s something more to this woman, but dismisses it as paranoia from his “old age” of 36. Small talk between the two reveals Anthea as a manager of a homeless shelter and the difficulties of the lives the homeless face. A common supposed cure for homelessness is obtaining employment, but in the 21st century it is at times difficult for people who aren’t homeless to find a job that will keep them sheltered, so it is easy to imagine how it is difficult for people who are unable to put down an address or a phone number on a job resume.

In Anthea’s apartment it is revealed that Constantine is being used for sex, with the intention of conceiving a child. Anthea and her partners are lesbian and wish to have a baby, but the AIDs scare  (small talk between John and Anthea revealed that John had taken the test) has made them cautious on the male donor. Feeling hurt betrayed and like a “walking sperm-bank” Constantine storms out only to discover a young girl crying outside. The girl’s mother had encountered “a smelly man” and now lies cold on the floor of their apartment. Constantine’s interaction with children tends to bring out his kind and gentle side that is often hidden behind a smirk, sarcasm, and a Silk-Cut cigarette as scenes like this clearly show. Breaking into the padlocked room that Anthea mentioned that two dead bodies were found rotting in, John encounters the ghost of Jacko who just wants someone to hold and care about him.  The scene is one of the most tender moments in the series and here Gaiman drives his message home. Holding someone is a universal message of showing someone you care about them and often homeless people are in their situation because they don’t have people that care about them or the government doesn’t have the funding to provide care for those who need it. But these people remain human, with human wants and needs. We don’t know why Jacko is in the position that he is, but frankly that doesn’t matter as it does not make him any less of a human. Constantine obliges the ghost and does so, and the ghost fades from the room. Shaken by the experience he returns to Anthea’s doorstep asking to be held like Jacko, reminding the reader that even though he just exorcised a ghost with the simple hug, he’s still human that needs to be held every now and again as well.

Compared with the two issues by Grant Morrison before this, and many of the issues by Jamie Delano, “Hold Me” stands out amongst them. Neil Gaiman crafts a heartfelt ghost story that makes the reader shake off the common cultural perceptions of those living in a state of homelessness. The issue is not free from death, but the deaths are done in a much more solemn manner than many of the deaths found within Hellblazer. Tonally the issue is vastly different from the past three which helps emphasize just how many different kinds of story can be told through John Constantine, which frankly is one of the most appealing aspects of the series, authors bringing their own style to Hellblazer while the book still remaining Hellblazer.

Notes:

1. Upon meeting Neil Gaiman in 2009, and asking him who his favorite comic writer was (as “Neil Gaiman – the person” as opposed to “Neil Gaiman – the writer”), he answered with “Alan Moore, he has remembered more than all of us have forgotten.” Monday, June 8th 2009, around 11:00PM, a bit rainy

2. Bender, Hy., and Neil Gaiman. The Sandman Companion. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999. 15-19.

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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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