Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 32

A change of the writer or the entire creative team on any title is always a challenge, especially after four years under the helm of Jamie Delano and his stark horror drenched political commentary that came out of Hellblazer (with a little help from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Dick Foreman). This challenge is both on the reader and on the new talent creating the work. For the creators it mainly boils down to delivering a final piece of work that meets (or at times surpasses) the expectations of the readers that have made the comic the success that it is. For the reader it is more along the lines of being able to adapt to the changes to the title that undoubtedly arise, as no creator wants or should follow the same path of those that came before them. At the same time though neither can they merely toss away all that came before leaving the cumulative work as a mere shadow of what it once was. Instead, as Hellblazer continues on for the following 21 years, the title builds and builds upon what came before it ultimately becoming a 300 issue series that has been graced by some of the best talent in the comics industry. And who better to lay the first layer of masonry on Delano’s foundation1 than Garth Ennis.

Another member of the “British Invasion,” Garth Ennis hails from Northern Ireland, making him the first and only Irish writer on Hellblazer. Gaining prominence in the United Kingdom for taking over 2000 A.D.’s Judge Dredd directly after series creator John Wagner, Hellblazer was Ennis’ first American comic. Ennis’ cultural background plays a vital part in several of the stories he would pen over his four year run on the title. Continuing to play with the themes of loss, family, and sacrifice that Jamie Delano made great use of Ennis’ run differs from Delano’s in an immediately visible way. whereas Delano’s run is drenched in the politics of Britain in the mid-to-late 1980s, Ennis’ run on the title is much more focused on the personal relations of John Constantine, with heavy commentary on religious and racial issues that are more relatable to American readers with a heavy dash of Irish culture thrown in. It ultimately makes the series come off a little like a horror filled soap opera, with the relationships being more in the foreground with the inescapable “weirdness” of John Constantine’s life creeping in. This does not make some of the things that happen any less serious or drastic. Ennis now known for what is best described as “shock panels” in which a particularly violent or disturbing act is drawn with great scale and detail, would continue to push and push the series forward in what the could get away with on the page graphically, and the content he could and would write about. Ultimatelly this would result in the formation of DC’s Vertigo imprint in 1993. The success of Ennis’ Hellblazer run would result in Ennis writing his award winning Preacher title, regarded as one of the best books put out under the Vertigo imprint. He would also go on to write critically acclaimed Punisher runs at Marvel, and his super-hero satire series The Boys at Dynamite Entertainment, but it all started with Hellblazer.

Issue #41 “The Beginning of the End”

Writer: Garth Ennis;

Pencils: Will Simpson;

Inker: Mark Pennington;

Colors: Tom Zuiko;

Letters: Gaspar Saladino;

Cover: Tom Canty;

Aptly titled, the first part of “Dangerous Habits” starts off with a bombshell, in that Constantine is dying. As he ponders how he has come to this predicament, Ennis has Constantine quickly go through some of the major events that happened under the helm of Jamie Delano. Namely his demon infused blood from “Original Sins” and his encounter with his dead twin brother “The Golden Boy” already planting the seed that maybe the shining embodiment of all that could have been Constantine wasn’t all that he seemed to be2.  Cutting back to John waking up we see him cough up a bit of his lungs into the sink, already showing the more violent take the series would head. Delano’s run was by no means non violent, but alot of his horror and gore was hidden by the shadows or not directly in the panel, leaving the reader’s mind to fill in what was really there. It’s a visual style that fit with the stories Delano was telling, the hidden horrors of real life just out of plain sight. Ennis’ somewhat visceral style of storytelling calls for a much more upfront confrontation with horror and terror.

Going to the doctors and having blood work done it is revealed that Constantine has advanced stage terminal lung cancer. The entire revelation is a beautiful piece of irony. John Constantine who has laughed at demons, confronted Lovecraftian gods, and had a spiritual awakening with the soul of his deceased twin is going to undone by his smoking habit.  Something that is so commonplace to the character to think of him not smoking his Silk Cut cigarettes makes one wonder if it is even the same character. Added to the fact that lung cancer and cancer in general is a very real very serious ailment that kills over 500,000 people a year in the US alone3, it is something the reader can relate with. Seen throwing away all the cigarettes he has Constantine goes on a walk only to stop at a shop to pick up more, figuring “why stop now?” in a display of cynicism that the reader has come to expect. Confronted in his dreams by the ghosts of his dead friends and relatives, Ennis acknowledges another staple of Delano’s run. While the ghosts themselves do not play a huge role in comparison to Delano’s run, they continue to make appearances from time to time, no matter who is writing the series.

Visiting a terminal cancer ward, Ennis touches on the theme of death and how society chooses to deal with those that are dying. While death is all too common in Hellblazer it is usually the death of others rather than of Constantine himself that is the focus. Here we see Constantine decide that dying alone in a hospital bed is not the choice he wants to make, as it would be surrendering to his fate, something out of character for John. Before leaving John meets an elderly patient named Matt, a WWII veteran who drank and smoked himself into the hospital bed, of which he becomes fast friends with upon revealing he also has lung cancer. Friendship and shared burdens is a very common aspect of Ennis’ 46 issues of the series, although very few of them end on a positive note.  Emotionally Constantine is all over the spectrum in this issue, dreary and down from his diagnosis, enraged that his doctor wants to run more tests on his blood as “it is unlike anything we’ve seen” and fearing what would happen if pints of his demonized blood were loose on the world. Through all of this Constantine maintains his wit and sense of humor.berated by a diner owner about overstaying his welcome and not even touching his tea, Constantine remarks it  has gone cold, despite sitting in front of it moping for two hours. Vowing that through any means necessary he will get out of this like any other predicament he has found himself in, Constantine sets out only to cynical comment to himself that he knows he will fail and he will die.

Garth Ennis could begin his run in no more shocking of a way, with the threat of the imminent death of John Constantine, and in a way ultimately relatable to the reader. “The Beginning of the End” serves as great bridge from “The Magus” honoring Delano’s work that came before it while also setting Ennis’ work separate from the previous storylines. Hellblazer could have ended with issue #40, “The Magus” was a conclusion of a complete character arc for John Constantine with a clear cut beginning, middle, and end. In the same light, issue #41 could easily have been issue #1 of a second volume of Hellblazer, everything the reader needs to know about John Constantine’s character is within the 22 pages, and is a great jumping on point for new readers. However, the continuation of the numbering makes the story all the more grand. Hellblazer is one of the few comics to proceed in real time, and like life goes through different stages, and we the reader are just along for the ride.

Notes

  1. Alan Moore dug up the land first though.
  2. This seed wouldn’t be tilled for over 200 issues
  3. http://www.cancer.org/research/cancerfactsstatistics/cancerfactsfigures2015/index#
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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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