If I have to make up a bloggy reason why this post was written, it’s recent noise from the Factual Opinion that Andy Diggle’s current run on Hellblazer is the best it’s been in years. I picked one up, saw with relish that the colour palette they’re using still contains every conceivable shade of mud, put it down. To say it’s currently firing on all cylinders isn’t saying much, as Vertigo’s old horror warhorse is a perpetual disappointment, which it shouldn’t, because the basic ingredients are so solid. It’s about the street-sorcerer John Constantine, magic, and a bit of London grime, all mixed together with a quip and a crafty fag. Despite these perfect alchemical elements something inevitably goes wrong with the final potion, which rarely drips the creep and splatter I hunger for from anything so keen to proclaim itself a horror comic.

Hellblazer #51 is as good as it ever got. It dropped in March 1992, pre-Vertigo, one mid-to-late teenager ago (I’m not a regular reader these days, so I don’t know if the title’s done a ‘Hoodies From Hell’ story. Bet they have.) In all those years, nothing’s topped its creepiness. It comes from one of the creative partnerships that first sold me on funnybooks in the first place: on pens and pencils, the godlike Sean Phillips in his unrefined moody-scratchy middle period, something slightly different to his later, telepathically communicative moody-scratchy period, but still full of grit. On words, we have the living legend John Smith, with his first – pretty-much his only – DC work. (There’s a lot to be written about Smith, the semi-automatic David Cronenberg of British comics, but not right now.) The pair had worked together before on strips for 200AD and Crisis – outlandish, collage-heavy psycho-thrillers, ripped from the headlines or nicked from the movies and twisted: Straightgate, Danzig’s Inferno, Devlin Waugh. So by this stage art and script sync well together. Showcasing a rare unity of direction in the storytelling, the elusive ‘serendipity’ that Alan Moore talks of as the sole benefit of mainstream comics’ arbitrary pairing of artist and writer, is in full effect here. This was Smith’s initial trial run for what should have been a bright future making fucked-up horror comics for DC, a mustard cutting exercise that lead to his editorially-aborted Scarab miniseries, a hastily rewritten Dr. Fate revamp pitch that ought to have brought that character to Swamp Thing level cult status, not the pointless relic, doing guest-spots and cramming team-books, wank-drip for the ailing golden-ager fan horde that it’s been left to rot to.

Issue 51 is interesting for lots of reasons. Smith can suggest labyrinths of meaning in a short aside, and excels at making eerie connections from innocuous twists of continuity. He gets in a cheeky mention of occult pisshead Willoughby Kipling, Grant Morrison’s Withnailian walk-in from Doom Patrol, probably the only mention of the character outside that title. Smith has more name-dropping fun with some horrendous but forever unseen old enemies, ‘The Tonguemen’ and ‘The Lapsed Martyrs’. Those familiar with Smith’s style will know what’s going on here. It’s one of his signature moves – one he shares with William Hope Hodgson, whose his style resembles in a lot of ways – to add to the atmosphere of mystery and fear by hinting at a bigger, stranger, dangerous world outside the cramped and narrow pages of the story itself. This is also the Hellblazer issue where the readership gets its first confirmation of Constantine’s bisexuality, only hinted at before: I’m sure in an early Swamp Thing there’s a Quentin Crisp-styled character who’s a friend of JC, and I doubt their relationship was ever intended to be thought of as entirely platonic. Remember Smith and Phillips, with the incorrigible Devlin Waugh, gave us British comics’ first openly gay character, so they’ve got a history here.

The story rings out with a skewed authenticity, script and visuals peppered with brand names and logos, hinting at then-current fashions and affairs that tie the story deeply into the society and politics of its own particular time and place. Like all the best pop art, this apparently random accumulation of ephemera becomes self-transcendent, and the precision with which it captures its cultural moment pushes it outside of time and beyond the simplicity of the zeitgeist and authorial intent to become something prophetic and profound, both an important artifact of its own day and a valuable indicator of things to come. Thanks to these extra flourishes, the issue has an emotional reach and a stylistic power that I’ve never seen another Hellblazer story pull off quite so effortlessly. But that’s not all, that’s not worth a write-up like this. There are two very noticeable things about this story that make it stand out a mile from Constantine’s other 200-odd appearances. The first is that, basically, nothing happens in it. At all. And the second is that Constantine, hardest magician anywhere from Liverpool to London, loses, and loses bad.

It starts like a rubbish joke: Bloke walks into a less-than-beautiful launderette. It gets worse, and like I said, there’s not even a punchline. He sits down, puts his shit-strewn smalls in the washer, sits back and soaks up the scene. He starts to freak, and the ambiguity of what really happens next is the key to why the issue works – maybe Constantine just has a funny five minutes because, you know, he smokes too much and he has a stressful life, so he sits down in a hot stuffy room and he goes off on one in his head, vivid imagination, unfamiliar public space, CO2 build-up, adrenaline strangling the blood vessels, just a common or garden panic attack. Or maybe John’s youthful hippy hedonism catches up with him, bad place for an acid flashback. In traditional Constantine territory the problem would be obvious, you could pin the plot to a wall like an unoriginal serial killer adding a new butterfly to the collection: the laundrette is haunted by the ghost of a dead old lady; or the dozens of demons possessing Constantine’s visiting, walk-in addicted old school friend are leaking out, and followed him from the flat where he just tried a quick, half-arsed exorcism. A normal Hellblazer story would tell you, let you off easy. There’s something weirder at work here.

Phillips’ layout grips the tension in our boring, everyday setting like Hitchcock or Haneke. A slow build-up, with the taut, calm, regular panel layouts occasionally spooking you with an overlapping blood-filled gutter; flashing back to Constantine’s shit- and devil-strewn flat, where the wretched school pal’s been left to battle his demons personally, his chicken magician mate having made his lame excuses. The potentially monotonous composition of the nine-by-three grid is cut and balanced by almost Warholian repetition of the circular doors of the launderette’s washing machines. These nasty square-and-circle juxtapositions will stick with the strip until the final gruesome pages. The rigid, right-angled panels are broken by these glowering glass circles, which hang in the background like the body parts of a monstrous, four-walled beast, alternately glaring like eyes, gaping like jaws, or churning like hungry bowels. When the stresses held back by the grids finally break through on page 13, and Constantine lurches painfully into the realisation that something’s wrong here, we lurch with him.

The Mona Lisa

From that point the panels struggle to reassert themselves over the narrative, trying various desperate reconfigurations of the preceding order in an effort to contain the encroaching weirdness, as innocent activities flip into a new and gruesome focus, until the narrative and Constantine bolt for it, finishing abruptly with a splash page like a gasp of free air, and the mercifully-obscure image of him puking under a railway bridge.

And that’s it – a finish, but not an ending. The demons, the undead granny with blood dripping from her shopping bag, the trapped patrons – all left to continue their bad business, and something unknown is somewhere triumphant. But the fear at work in this book is the fear of mundane places that eat your precious time on the planet, the fear of mundane things that sully your self-image, and ultimately the nagging fear that no matter what you tell yourself, you might be mundane too. Constantine, cocky master of the things that bump against the dark, runs scared from an everyday place full of nightside evils too normal to confront or comprehend, and in one brilliant, unsettling stroke becomes more human, more real and sympathetic as a character than a thousand issues of pints and cheeky winks to camera could manage. Because if he’s scared, I’m scared, and when a horror book actually frightens me, some real magic has happened, the man in the old trench has stuck his neck out to peer round man’s land, send a shiver down its spine.

Annotations:

P1. The final panel is a none-too subtle wink at the since-discontinued washing powder ‘Radion Automatic.

Although here the name of the brand has apparently been detourned as a copyright dodge, there’s a couple other things at work here. Radion itself is a weird one, as much as a washing powder can be weird – but looked at right it’s a name to conjure with. When it appeared in 1989 it quickly captured a big chunk of market share and embedded itself deep in the consumer consciousness, thanks in large part to its garish packaging and brash, in your face TV adverts. Deliberately positioned in opposition to the leading household brands, its bright orange packaging standing out a mile from the reassuring cool blues and minty greens favoured by its long-established rivals, dropping like a lump of radioactive rock from an alien dimension, into the commercial breaks and making supermarket shelves creak under the threat of its nuclear-powered deep cleansing energies. It’s success was invasive, obnoxious and indescribably threatening. Looking back, its arrival augured the subtle shift of mood in the UK as Major took over from Constantine’s archenemy Thatcher and the frozen rictus grin of the 90s slowly took shape. An advance scout, Radion was always going to be short lived, and by the middle of the decade it had vanished from the shops and the TV screens as mysteriously as it had arrived.

The cheeky reworking of the brand also recalls a fad of the day, bubbling away In the cultural background. Rave was showing the early signs of losing steam, with the papers filling with stories of ecstasy related deaths and the Criminal Justice Bill‘s early drafts. The resonance, the horror of the issue comes from the all-too familiar pain of facing a dreary public space on an E comedown. Serotonin crash. Disco Horror: The Day After if you like. Anyway, by ’92 Rave had got too big, long since broken out of the M25‘s ceremonial circle of protection, and the kids from the provinces were pointing its strobing dayglo energy into every corner of their lives. There’s something infantilising about the Ecstasy experience and its attendant feelings of euphoric innocence and apolitical utopianism. The sunset youth cult brought us rave-dummies, theme tunes from kids TV shows remixed with 303 squiggles and a four-to-the-floor beat. The kids poured Rave’s anarchic spirit into every shared and half-cherished icon of their mums’ kitchens, icons of domesticity become teased into familiar but dissonant caricatures of a suburbanism resisted by the new playing fields of the allnight soundsystem. ‘Culture jamming’, the ones who read The Face might have called it: washing brands become deadly radiation to the crustifying raver, childhood favourite fizzy pop is morphed to produc such endearingly naff objects as this druggy little beauty:

P2-3. This is the double-page opening splash, a deliberately generic establishing shot with two important details embedded: The street name: ‘Bolsover Street’; and the ‘For Sale’ sign (someone wants rid of the place.)

The Bolsover Street ref is a bit harder to place is in Fitzrovia W1, one of the most exclusive, expensive areas of real estate on the planet. I’ll net there are no launderette’s like this one round there. And besides, John even says at one point (P20), that he’s in Peckham. So why Bolsover Street, why so clearly? Difficult to tell, it could easily be a personal in-joke from Phillips, but a good guess is it’s a nod to ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Dennis Skinner MP (pretty pissy voting record lately – god they’re all so crap), stalwart of Labour’s awkward squad of the day, whose hard-lefty, pro-gay anti-Maggie voting record in the House could deservedly make him something of a hero in the authors’ eyes. That”s still a reach though.

P6.

Constantine’s reading the Daily (or Sunday) Sport (NSFW). Here’s a working class anti-hero who ain’t posing, in other words. The Sport is a UK ‘news’paper, famous for being a mixture of a jingoistic National Enquirer-style tabloid (‘London Bus Found On Moon’ is a headline that springs to mind) and a kind of graveyard for Page 3 girls who couldn’t make it into the Murdoch papers. The ‘Tory Sex [Scandal?]‘ headline could have been ripped from any newspaper in the early 90s. Despite Tory responsibility for Britain’s emergency withdrawal from the ERM on Black Wednesday, despite the systematic disembowelment of the working classes over the previous decade, it was the seemingly endless succession of petty sex and corruption stories which finally broke the Conservative stranglehold over the UK (or at least, that’s how it seemed for a while. Meet the new boss, as they say.)

P11.

As we well know, Constantine smokes Silk Cut. I’m not even sure if Silk Cut exist any more, they seem so much like a relic of another time, as eighties as… well, as having a lead character whose look was based on Sting, I suppose. I kind of miss Silk Cut’s bizarre old billboards. As I understand it, government regs at the time said that although tobacco products could be advertised, they couldn’t actually be shown in the adverts. So Silk Cut’s ubiquitous yet elusive posters were forced to perform early experiments in anti-branding, keying the audience to respond to cryptic pictographic implications of cloth, or the verb ‘to cut’, and the purple (read: ‘classy’) colour from their logo. Addictive, million-pound depictions of an aggressive absence.

P23. Suitably climactic, the appearance of the dead granny, shown only by her blood-dripping Tesco bag, is the story’s creepiest moment, the part today that still chills coldest. At the time, Tesco was just one of many similar-size supermarkets on the high street. Now it’s practically the only game in town – one in every eight pounds spent in the UK is spent in a Tesco. The effect on Britain’s social, financial and physical landscapes is a matter of much angry debate. Tesco is building the biggest warehouse in Europe just metres from Stonehenge. Remember the ‘For Sale’ sign on page 3? What do you think the launderette is today?

32 Responses to “Dee do dough don’t dee dough? or why Hellblazer #51 is the title’s best issue”

  1. Qthgrq Says:

    Like I said in the email, I really like this. Kept me entertained and, perhaps more importantly, made me want to read the comic. Don’t think I ever have.

    The granny with the bloody Tesco bag = extremely horrible.

    Oh, and, SNOW. Probably won’t settle in Brighton, but tres excite.

  2. Sads Says:

    “I’m not a regular reader these days, so I don’t know if the title’s done a ‘Hoodies From Hell’ story. Bet they have”

    Yes! The Denise Mina-written Hellblazer from a couple of years ago did feature some sort of ‘guilt demons’ or something that were basically portrayed as packs of ‘hoodies’ with monstrous faces. It was actually a not bad story, though, from what I remember.

  3. bobsy Says:

    Oh good – an interesting parlour game now suggests itself: Name The Storyline You Bet Hellblazer Has Done.

    A few starters would be:

    CCTV being the eyes of some massive citywide demon.

    That spider sculpture that used to be in Tate Modern is a demon, coming to life and eating people (Damien Hirst as its drooling art-dealer/acolyte type.)

    Police-demons running around shooting illegal immigrants in the head several times. Chief police-demon is unrepentant ‘They shouldn’t even be here, should they?’ Until Contstantine come calling…

    Two mayoral candidates are both in league with the same nasty demon.

    A float at Notting Hill Carnival is full of demons.

    A misunderstood Muslim kid possessed by a suicide-demon, keeps walking into public spaces, exploding, then walking off feeling a bit sorry for himself.

    A troll-demon lives on Millenium Bridge and keeps throwing people over the side.

    Binge-demons running amok, puking on Constantine’s shoes.

    Evil fossil-fuel mages convince everyone that a sun-demon is making the weather so hot. But you can’t put a porky-pie like that past Constantine, me old china!

    Any more? Come on, it’s easy and fun – basically you take a headline from the Daily Mail / The Independent (depending on your side of the fence), insert the word ‘demon’ and you’re off!

  4. Qthgrq Says:

    A tribe of gun demons possessing the nations shrilldren.

    No fucker who reads the Daily Mail is getting space in my blog

  5. Tucker Stone Says:

    I’ll own up to a bit of over-the-topness in my praise for Diggle’s recent work–in all honesty, Hellblazer has always succeeded for me based on what I think was a strong idea for a book, with a definitive protagonist that few writers seem to be able to “get wrong” as the argument goes. For me, their could be nothing better than a return to Sean Phillips, as much as he’s gone on to much more financially rewarding pastures–that being said, it’s the rare book that refuses to build up a major continuity and retain a relative freshness to it after so many different creators have had a hand in. Still, that speaks to a sort of allegiance and nostalgia that completely disgusts me–so ehh. I don’t want to give the book a free ride from criticism–your mud comment is spot on–but it’s somewhat difficult when mashed up against so many other terrible books.

  6. Qthgrq Says:

    Don’t worry, it’s pretty clear Bobsy isn’t actually criticising the book’s latest incarnation from a position of genuine knowledge, although
    I do empathise with his prejudice. Somehow I just can’t bring myself to read an issue – think it must have something to do with the gargantuan weight of continuity it’s carrying around these days.

    Just want to take this opportunity to say how much I love your blog.

  7. bobsy Says:

    What you’ve hit on there is definiely the title’s greatest strength – the Hellblazer continuity has some kinfd of eternal reset button, which leaves each succecssive writer a great deal of freedom in putting their own voice on the narative, and that’s a rare thing in such a long running book.

    I’m going to give Diggle’s run another look too I think, I enjoyed the opening where he’s chained-up under the bridge, just not enough to make a new believer out of me. I just need to get past my problems with the art, I guess, and there’s probably a relatively reliable good book there waiting for me.

    I Bet Hellblazer Has Done: Mortgage demon is literally eating house prices. Hear the banks scream! But Constantine, he no take no negative equity, no sir.

  8. bobsy Says:

    oops, x-comment.

  9. Qthgrq Says:

    Reset, you say. Dunno about that. I mean, yeah, it’s technically possible to ignore stuff, but I seem to remember a herd of writers fixating on the number of friends betrayed/killed over the years – a list that’s starting to take on Spider Man like proportions

  10. bobsy Says:

    Azzarello’s was the last run I read that had any balls to it, and he striaght-up ignored all that ‘carnival of souls, following JC to the bog’ stuff. I assumed he’d kind of put all that stuff to rest.

  11. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Apr. 9, 2008: Dullsville hoedown Says:

    [...] (part one, part two) and an interesting critical analysis of John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Hellblazer #51. Check it out. (Thanks to Tucker Stone for emailing me the [...]

  12. Tucker Stone Says:

    The Azzarello run is one that got slighted a lot, a criticism that completely escapes me. It struck me as having what was inarguably the best art Hellblazer had since Phillips–hell, if Corben is going to draw a rip-off of Oz, what’s to complain about? That was also during the Bradstreet cover days, and Vertigo never should’ve let that go.

    You’re right about the carnival of souls thing–Carey’s run on the title always struck me as if the guy was trying to create some kind of magnum opus out of some disjointed stories. Out of all the Hellblazer runs, I still find his to be one of the most unreadable. Although there was a period, early in the book when it was still under Delano that the art was just insanely godawful–i still can’t handle John with a mullet. It’s a shit complaint, but yech.

    And thanks for the nice words qthgrq.

  13. Qthgrq Says:

    Too many American writers/artists foisted the mullet on characters long after civilised people stopped sporting ‘em, which made them stand out horribly, and caused one to infer that their inclusion had more to do with the creators’ style prejudices than anything else.

    I suppose Constantine was supposed to have an Action Mullet, like Jean-Claude van Damme in Hard Target

  14. Sean Phillips Says:

    The person puking under the bridge on the last page is Garth Ennis.

  15. bobsy Says:

    Sean Phillips, ladies & gentlemen (alright, just gentlemen probably…) – thanks for the tidbit, it’s stuff like that makes this blogging lark worthwhile.

  16. shep.ca: the writing work of Matt Shepherd » Blog Archive » Great Mind(less Ones) Think Alike Says:

    [...] brilliant writing out of the gate, including a wonderful re-examination of Hellblazer #51. They don’t seem to be immune to the [...]

  17. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    Y’know I wonder if anybody actually still ‘hears’ Constantine as a scouser? I mean, to my mind, he’s become the quintessential Laaarndon geezer. Strange to think of his origins as a Liverpudlian Sting-alike with an earstud…

  18. Qthgrq Says:

    I’ve never heard him as anything other than a geezer. I don’t think I understood what the Liverpudlian accent was when I first encountered Hellblazer, and by the time I did, a trillion writers had driven the scouser right out of him.

  19. Qthgrq Says:

    We really must do more of these best ofs. It’s hard to think of many comics as well suited to it as Hellblazer, though.

  20. Der Falke Says:

    Incidentally, Bob – repeat x 1000 and you are the new Jog.

    Great.

    Tucker’s absolutely right about the Carey stuff, it’s what really put me off Constantine ultimately; the ceaseless pandering, really, look! it’s Chas! Driving his old cab! (I think Chas is dead now? Maybe not?) And Gemma, John’s niece, oh she’s in bother – this is possibly even more irksome with a less, ah, overground title, cf: Robbie Morrison’s abysmal Authority run than it would be otherwise, not sure – I can barely remember a moment of the 20+ issues I bought, something about a poker game with REALLY high stakes maybe, impossible odds, and looking through some collections in the library the other day I recalled, actually quite viscerally, how dreadful a character Angie Spatchcock was.

  21. Der Falke Says:

    Oh God, I just got the title. American readers abandon all hope; I wish there was a youtube of that Liverpudlian in that promo trailer for whateveritwas a few years back when the police were like “we’re arresting you under suspicion of murder” and he went: “MEHHHDEHH???!!!”

    Glaswegian equivalent, heard at a Celtic game whilst Italian hardman full-back Enrico Annoni warmed up to come on: “Aw naw, no Annoni on an’ aw noo”.

  22. e-n Says:

    [...]As we well know, Constantine smokes Silk Cut. I’m not even sure if Silk Cut exist any more,[...]

    They do in Ireland. I miss em.

  23. bobsy Says:

    That’s incredibly kind of you to say so Falke, but I think we both know it’s more likely that I actually go for a jog than become the next Jog. That’s to say, not very likely at all, no matter how many posts I write.

    And yes, sorry about the irritating title for this post – just the sort of thing that makes me chuckle when I’m alone with a computer and it’s late. I’ve never taken Constantine for anything other than a Walthamstow wide-boy really, I can’t make out even a trace of Scouse in his ‘voice’. London will do that to you though – it’s an imposing place, and you tend to adopt the accent that it wants you to have – anything that makes you appear to fit in is an excusable survival tactic. When I moved there my Westcountry idiot-burr morphed into an unconvincing Dick Van Dyke within minutes.

  24. Qthgrq Says:

    Sean (assuming you’re still lurking), I have to ask, would you be interested in doing a quick interview at some point?

    Feel free to tell me to bugger off.

  25. Sylvia Says:

    Don’t know whether he also appears in Swamp Thing, but Ray Monde is probably the Quentin Crisp analogue you’re thinking of, and he’s in a few early issues of Hellblazer (“Original Sins” happens to be sitting at my elbow right now). Ray and Zed have a conversation that appears to establish that a) Ray and John probably didn’t *actually* have a little somethin’ somethin’ going on back in the day, but b) it sure wouldn’t surprise anybody if they had.

    Ray is such a perfect Tragick Homo; he’s kindly, harmless, urbane and witty, he still carries a torch for the handsome dead soldier who was his one true love, he has AIDS, and–spoiler alert!–he’s murdered by homophobic loonies. (Who, to be fair, would have killed him anyway for story reasons, but they definitely have more enthusiasm for killing him because he’s gay.)

    Oddly, although Ray’s definitely among the people who’ve been killed because they happened to be friends with John, I don’t think he ever made a post-mortem appearance. Maybe he’s in Heaven with Sergeant Bill…

  26. bobsy Says:

    That’s the chappie. I think he is in one of Moore’s Swamp Things – the latter chapters of the American Gothic/Crisis/War in Heaven maybe? Maybe I’ve got him confused with Baron Winter or someone…

  27. Tim O'Neil Says:

    Small point, but fun to point out nonetheless:

    After Animal Man #26, Grant Morrison became a member of the Suicide Squad during the tail end of Ostrander’s run. He didn’t last long, I think he got – I don’t recall exactly – eaten by a gorilla or something?

  28. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » HB85: Peace and Constantine. Constantine and Peace. Says:

    [...] during my recent refresh; the Ennis stuff has some great character work, the Morrison, Gaiman and Smith shorts have nice, salient bits of social commentary, unlike Jamie Delano who’s never [...]

  29. John Smith Says:

    Nice article! Thanks for the kind words!

    Re. ‘Bolsover Street’… That was a reference to a Harold Pinter play, though I can’t for the life of me remember which one. I read all his plays before writing the script in the hope some of that oblique Pinteresque style would rub off on me. I think Constantine does work best when he’s grounded in more mundane situations rather than fighting demons and angels and all those naff horror tropes…

    Anyway, thanks again!

  30. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Competition roundup Says:

    [...] Thrilly goodness. And because its 2000AD c.1993/94, lots of other remarkable stuff too: John Smith, who knows we exist, on a couple of episodes of the awesome Slaughter Bowl; the same gent on Revere with the gothy [...]

  31. Ales Kot » ON MINDLESS ONES Says:

    [...] being incredibly erudite — their posts on John Smith, the hyper-abrasive well-hidden Cronenberg of comics, are nothing short of brilliant and incredibly useful to a [...]

  32. Tom Murphy Says:

    Wasn’t Willoughby Kipling a Constantine analogue? ISTR Morrison wanted to use Constantine in Doom Patrol but editorial wouldn’t let him.

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