Monday, 19 May 2008

Hellblazer

I bought a lot of comics as a teenager. Sadly as the 90s wore on I lost my interest in the hobby and ended up leaving my collection in the corner of a grimy student house in Brighton. My head was pretty muddled at the time (relationships, dope, the usual) and the comics just didn't seem that important.

Fast forward a couple of years and I return to Brighton in the vain hope that my collection might still be piled up where I'd left it. Stupid obviously, but I thought there was a chance.

Getting into the old flat was easy enough, I still got on with the landlady and it was a simple task to convince her to let me in while the students who moved in after me were out. I probably wasn't really expecting to find anything, but to my surprise the comics were still there! Only trouble was the bloke who had moved into my old room had decided to tear them all up and use them as wallpaper. Bummer.

Fair play, he'd made quite an artistic looking collage out of my prized collection arranging the pages in a huge jagged spiral with the cover to issue #1 of Hellblazer as the centrepiece. It was a grim moment.

I'm over it now and I've replaced most of the collection, but it's only recently that I've picked up the first trade of Hellblazer again. There on the cover is that picture of John Constantine staring back at me...

Ha-Ha. I swear when I look at that it's Brighton 1995 all over again. Honestly. it's like magic. Constantine would approve.

Thankfully I'm old enough and ugly enough to put aside any spooky feelings and enjoy the collected edition which reprints the first nine issues of the series. Original Sins is a great book, a real period piece. It's also very British, which sets it apart from other American comics of the time. The likes of Moore and Gibbons were setting the comics agenda back then, but Hellblazer feels like it belongs outside American comics altogether. Constantine uses British slang and inhabits the back streets of Camden Town and Newcastle. So while writer, Jamie Delano takes his leading man to the States, and trains his satirical eye on Reaganomics and Vietnam, at its heart Hellblazer is a critique of Thatcher's Britain.

To anyone who wasn't around at the time it's hard to explain the grip Maggie Thatcher held over this country. Back in 1987 when she was winning a third term in office it seemed like the British left was dead. Greed was the norm. Civil liberties and moral responsibility were things of the past. "Society" claimed Thatcher "Does not Exist" and the British electorate were backing her up by voting her in for a third term. It was a great time for the rich and those who were determined to join them, but a grim slog for huge swathes of the population who were being fucked by a government that seemed intent on marginalising the needy rather than helping them out of poverty.

For a lot of people then, Thatcherism was an evil business. Jamie Delano certainly thought so. He took the idea and ran with it, turning the money grabbing yuppies of the day into disciples of the devil and painting the rampant consumerism encouraged by the right as a form of possession which threatened to destroy the world.

In doing so he produced some of the best satirical horror ever seen in comics. Sure some of the flowery language in his script seems unnecessary 21 years on, but to criticise Hellbalzer for that would be as churlish as taking exception to the heavy handed exposition in a silver age Marvel comic. The metaphor laden script marks Hellblazer out as a comic of its time. It still works and the forces of greed and corruption which Delano seeks to satirise are still recognisable.

Fighting against these forces is Constantine, a cynical occult detective who is as disgusted by the times in which he lives as Delano. He's almost resigned to the fact that Britain and the World are going to Hell, but for reasons of faith and conscience feels obligated to take a stand against the dark forces at work.

He's a familiar figure to readers now, but back in the 80s he was unlike anything else in American comics, a character who owed more to the neo noir of Get Carter than the spandex world of the DC Universe. Alan Moore invented him and let him loose in the pages of Swamp Thing, but it was Delano who defined John Constantine, and it's within the pages of Original Sin that he comes into his own.

All good historical stuff then. I enjoyed reading the first trade so much that I'm going to read ALL of Hellblazer right up to Andy Diggle's current run on the title. When I've finished I might plaster my comic room wall with the pages, just for old time's sake.

4 comments:

mr wheatley said...

haha a chilling moment indeed! I remember selling off an unbroken run of x-men from 130 - 200 for £40 when i was 17 thinking it was a waste of time. And spunking up all my Shadows and Mister X in Brighton to some crusty shitbag market bloke in Victoria Market for 25p a copy just so i could buy some beer.
i still get comic related nightmares about that watchmen art you were intimidated out of buying in comics showcase.. £70! it would be worth a fortune now

Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

One of the greatest tricks of John Constantine is how he adapts to writers. The best writers who have taken on the character for any length of time have subtly reinvented him, their own personalities squirming under the Constantine skin. But the best part is that each has been able to use the character as a mouthpiece without compromising what makes the character work. He's always recognisably Constantine.

What do you think of Paul Jenkins' run, by the way? A lot of people turned on it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time and I think it's a real shame it's never had a collection. It's certainly the equal of the Azzarello run.

Anonymous said...

Mr Salmond,

Mate I've got to be honest and tell you I've never read the Jenkins run. The only Hellblazer I've read is the Delano stuff and the latest Diggle trade (which I loved).

That's a bummer about the Jenkins stuff not being collected. I have it in mind to read all of Hellblazer in chronological order and will have to hunt down the single issues of that run.

Mr Wheatley

Mister X is coming out as an expensive omnibus very soon, so you will be able to replace that. I've got most of my X-Men run back now.

As for the Watchmen art, well they were probably right not to sell it to me. It would only have ended up cut up and pasted on a wall in Brighton.

Cheers to you both

Dom

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