Issue #51 “Counting to Ten”
Writer: John Smith;
Artist: Sean Phillips;
Colors: Tom Ziuko;
Letters: Gaspar Saladino;
Cover: Sean Phillips;
As discussed in prior installments of this column, there are many different kinds of horror. There is no real right or wrong way to write horror stories, as different people will find different things terrifying. Furthermore the genre has such a wide berth that one story can not contain all the possible tropes and ideas a writer wishes to convey without the work becoming an unfocused mish-mash of themes and ideas. While such a massive genre can seem daunting in all that it can and could contain to both writers and readers, the wide array of styles allows stories to remain fresh and able to deliver something new entirely occasionally. We’ve seen John Constantine face all sorts of threats, demonic, spiritual, and otherwise over the course of the first 50 issues of the series, presented in different ways by a handful of writers to keep the series from becoming a predictably structured affair. What’s important to keep in mind is that these events are all happening to one individual character, John Constantine, while the same can be said of most comics with a central focus, few happen in real time with clear dates on which individual moments can be laid out in a sequence of terrifying events. When we first met John Constantine in Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing we’re presented with a suave confident individual who apparently has all the answers but over the course of Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis’ run, (with contributions from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and a few others) we find out what a deeply troubled individual this man actually is. So much to the point that an encounter at a launderette has the overtones to send him into an fit as “Counting to Ten” by John Smith with art by future regular artist Sean Phillips does.
The entirety of “Counting to Ten” focuses on an evening Constantine spends at a launderette, and while this may seem like the most bland and banal setting for an issue of Hellblazer the reader should now be well aware that this is anything but the case. Stylistically, John Smith’s Hellblazer is a far departure from the previous 10 issues of Garth Ennis. Much of the the horror depicted within the issue is rather the mood and narration the scene, rather than the actual reveal of the horror element. In this sense it is much more in tone with Jamie Delano’s style, but to an even further degree. Delano’s run had an over looming feeling of dread to it, attributed to the political climate of the late 80’s in the United Kingdom, but still managed to deliver a demon on a regular basis. Smith’s issue takes this even a step further relying more on the implied psychological terror of an otherwise perfectly normal (if somewhat unsettling) scene. Supernatural aspects are present within the issue, as Constantine in a launderette is a direct result of performing an exorcism on a friend of his and having to wash the clothes his friend soiled. Whereas Ennis would most likely depict John’s friend Jerry come crashing through his window and the actual exorcism taking place, in step with his style, Smith instead has John recounting the series of events via narration with Sean Phillips art depicting the arm of Constantine going through the steps of operating a washing machine. The only time we actually “see” the exorcism is a scattering of panels throughout the issue when John is recalling the event, and the panels only give glimpses of the scene, most often a hand lying in what appears to be a pentagram of sorts. Combined with some other oddities that occur within the launderette, a trio of elderly woman waiting for their dead friend to arrive, or a word jumble that only has words like “abattoir” “offal” and “Satan” in it makes both the reader and John question just what really is going on and how much of the scene is actually real and not just a construction of John’s overburdened psyche.
Things take a turn for the weirder when John receives a mysterious call describing some rather disturbing scenes described by the voice on the other end of the line that asks him what he is running from. Returning to his bench John tramples over a children’s drawing of a car crash with bodies thrown about labeled “A Family Holiday”. Unsettled by the the call and the clock approaching 10pm, when the dead woman is supposedly going to arrive and the sound of breaking glass from next door pushes John over the edge and he flees the lauderette. At the launderette the woman the old ladies were waiting upon has arrived carrying a sack dripping blood on the floor. Deciding that the strangeness of the launderette is too much for him John sets off to find a pub, but not before vomiting out of fright around the corner despite not seeing the shambling woman first hand.
While this issue stands alone as a story of just a day in the life of John Constantine, one particular panel stands out that the issue is famous/infamous for. Constantine’s sexuality has always been something shrouded in a touch of mystery since the beginning of the series. We have seen John be with a number of women over the course of 50 issues and know of some prior relationships that existed in other books. While this would lead us to believe that Constantine is heterosexual, a brief conversation between Zed and Ray back in issue #7 “Ghosts in the Machines” suggested that at one time he and John may have had a relationship, but he remains tightlipped over it. John’s narration here confirms that he is bisexual, or at the very least has experimented, as one would expect based on his lifestyle. While this facet of Constantine may not sit well with some readers back in 1992 (or still with some today), Constantine’s sexuality is very rarely a focal part of his narrative. True we have seen John in numerous relationships and will see many more over the course of the series, but a majority of these are more about an emotional connection that John often needs/wants as opposed to having sex as an end goal. Do they get hot and steamy as relationships are apt to do? Of course, and there are likely many more that we don’t see in between the series. However there are readers of the series who are very passionate about this as they themselves are not heterosexual and it is only recently that more lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters are appearing within comics.1 So when it was announced that John Constantine would be straight in the NBC TV series, there was a bit of an uproar. This is a completely understandable response as setting in stone that “this is how the character is” (sexually or otherwise) limits the stories that can be told. John’s sexuality may not be directly brought up often with Hellblazer but when it does it makes for some rather interesting moments within the overall story of John Constantine.
“Counting to Ten” may not be the most memorable issue of the series overall, but with one panel is able to open up a whole area of discussion over John Constantine, representation within comics and other forms of media, and author authority. While some may be happy to know that Constantine’s tastes go both ways, others may not, and that’s fine. This issue could be skipped if people have a problem with it, but to some it may be cherished because of this very moment within the issue. Needless to say the scene did have some effects later within the series, and when Constantine: The Hellblazer began in 2015 under the helm of writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, the pair made it clear where John stands from the first issue.
- I have left trans people out of this sentence as its a gender identity term and despite being grouped into LGBT in this instance I believe it is different issue than what is discussed here. If you disagree with me I am more than happy to hear about it in the comment section below.