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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?