Giant Hellblazer Re-Read Part I: Issues 1-3

Author’s Note: This is the first of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

The first part of this entry covers the first two issues of Hellblazer, “Hunger” and “A Feast of Friends,” upon which the Constantine episode named after the latter was directly based. For arcs adapted into the TV show so directly, I will be providing comparison notes as well as stand-alone analysis of the arc in the comics.

The last part of this entry covers issue 3, which is a standalone issue, the first of many in the series.

The first issues of such an iconic series deserve their own close look, as this pair of issues has a special place in comic book history. For most readers today, these issues, as the first two included in the volume Original Sins, are the standard comic book introduction to John Constantine as a character. When reading, though, it is important to realize that this was originally just an introduction to him as a protagonist rather than a side character. DC Comics was betting on the character’s popularity from Alan Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing to really get the series launched, and then for word of mouth and positive reviews to get new readers from there. The early issues, before the series became part of the Vertigo lineup (indeed, before the Vertigo lineup even existed), were part of the shared DC Universe, and it shows at various points, but these two issues are just to establish John as the main character of his own story.

The DC execs were aware, though, that if they didn’t refer to recent events of Swamp Thing, they’d have angry fans writing in to the letter columns (hey, remember when those existed?) and the whole project could be put in jeopardy. So issue 1, “Hunger,” starts us off a bit in medias res, with Constantine recovering from a victory against some of the major Swamp Thing villains that did not come without massive personal cost to him and those he loved – a pattern which becomes familiar, the more one reads of Constantine’s story. John is haunted, literally, by those he has sacrificed to achieve his ends.

For all those who had read about John Constantine in Swamp Thing, and been interested by his story and his perspective, it must have been an awesome moment to realize that not only is he the protagonist, he’s also the narrator of Hellblazer. From issue 1, we’re treated to a semi-lyrical, bitter, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and still shockingly candid narration of John Constantine’s thoughts and emotions, creating a breathtaking contrast between what we as readers are allowed to see, and the walls he builds between himself and the rest of the world. We are allowed to see the ghosts that only John can normally see; we are treated to the inside of his head, when others are kept out with his sarcasm, grins, and cigarette smoke. The point when, very early on, John sobs himself to sleep after being wished a good night by the ghost of a former lover is our sole warning of the experience we’re letting ourselves in for, by reading this series.

There’s a reason John Constantine has often been referred to by fans as “DC Comics’ whipping boy.”

The basic premise of this story is as follows: John Constantine comes home to discover an old friend, Gary Lester, curled up in his bathtub, absolutely covered in insects and strung out on heroin. After defumigating his apartment, he discovers that Gary has released a hunger demon from Sudan, which he had initially trapped inside a bottle. The demon is causing a deadly pandemic of consumption: a man starving to death in a restaurant while eating his way through the menu several times over; a body-builder who devours himself alive; a jeweler who dies from eating gemstones; a collector who perishes after literally chewing through his collection of comic books. Constantine is has two concerns: a) getting Gary out of his apartment, and b) keeping the hunger demon from destroying everything and everyone. He seeks out the aid of Papa Midnite, a wealthy and powerful magician with a penchant for strong ritual magic. Together they come up with the way to eliminate the demon: trap it inside the body of the man who let it loose in the first place. At first, John has little sympathy for Gary, who seems to be more concerned with his next fix than with the potential destruction of the human race; but as Gary appears increasingly pathetic and afraid, we see that this isn’t going to be easy. But Constantine follows through, tricking Gary into believing that he’s being led to his next fix, and instead imprisoning him inside MIdnite’s clubhouse and inviting the demon inside. In true Constantine fashion, he won’t let himself look away, and drinks and smokes his way through Gary’s grisly end. In the final panels of the comic, we see that Gary’s ghost joins the others haunting John.

There is one major fact that is brought home to readers meeting our protagonist for the first time through this story: he is a stone-cold bastard when it counts. Because we have the perspective of going into his psychology, we can see that John isn’t entirely unscathed by sacrificing Gary to his demons – literally – but at no point does he even hesitate to follow through in doing so. Constantine isn’t an easy man to read, and he’s definitely not an easy person to like.

All of which makes Chas all the more interesting as a character: Constantine’s oldest friend, his getaway driver, and the one person upon whom John can seemingly depend for absolutely anything. Magic isn’t his mindset or his place; he’s an ordinary guy, a cabbie, and he works with the material he can see and touch in front of him. And yet, he survives and sticks by John through thick and thin, even when John acts in a manner that would drive anyone else away. We get our first look at this relationship as well, though Chas has only a very minor role to play in this arc, and Chas is already someone whose fate and history we wonder about.

Chas is one of the most important differences between the comic and TV versions of the John Constantine story, but oddly enough not in this particular episode. He’s pretty much written out with the flimsiest of excuses on the show (in reality, apparently actor Charles Halford was juggling multiple projects and the script was simply written with the knowledge of his unavailability). He’s anything but normal on the show, in ways that haven’t been revealed as of this writing (shortly after the airing of episode six of Constantine).

John and Gary have their differences as well, and they make for a very different version of this story. In terms of plot, there is one huge change in the adaptation: the sacrifice to the demons is Gary’s own choice, in the end, although he is conscious of the fact that he has been to some extent manipulated into making that choice by John’s own plans. John is still cold and manipulative in many ways, but since the showrunners made the (wise, I think) decision not to have a voiceover for the entirety of the show, the only way we can see his inner conflict over the situation is for it to be displayed externally, and we see tears in his eyes at several crucial moments – something Gary Lester in the comics would never have had a chance to see. At the same time, it makes more sense, because this version of Gary is much more sympathetic, both to us and to John. He’s seriously screwed up after “the Newcastle incident,” about which we know much more in the TV version in episode four than we do by the conclusion of the first two issues of the comic, and has gotten himself into the situation with the hunger demon in a desperate attempt to atone for what he sees as his own part in that debacle. He makes mistake after mistake, but it is clear that his intentions are in the right place, unlike the Gary from the comics whose focus is always on his next fix.

John himself goes through a very different series of psychological contortions over the course of the story, between the two versions. In the comic, he has to deal with the fact that he is forcibly sacrificing a former friend to a hideously evil force, and with the fact that he does so in the hope that Gary will die without ever realizing it. In the TV episode, he puts on a spectacular display of a redemptive story arc, a realization that people are capable of change, which turns out to be entirely fake – but then has to deal with the fact that his manipulative con job has inspired an actual turnaround in Gary, even if not in himself. Both are typical of the character, in different ways, but the TV version is definitely focusing on the gentler, kinder aspects of his character while the comic takes pains to introduce readers first and foremost to the fact that John Constantine is dangerous. Of course, there’s also a key difference here in that “A Feast of Friends” is not the introductory episode in the TV series – and the fact that it’s highly unlikely that any network TV series would start by deliberately introducing its audience to one of the least likeable aspects of its protagonist.

That’s Hellblazer for you, though, right there – this arc is the only heads-up readers are going to get, that this is not a series that’s going to flinch from anything, and if you’re looking for moral black-and-whiteness, for a superhero who will go out and be noble and shining and glorious, well, this isn’t the series for you. Given which, it’s easy to see why the series was so groundbreaking from its earliest issues, and why it eventually became one of the six starting series for the Vertigo lineup and later would be identified as the singular flagship title for the label.

Issue 3 is a serious contrast from the first two, being overtly political and full of ridiculously over-the-top imagery that nonetheless makes its point: politics are hell, says Jamie Delano. Literally, in this case. Ha. Ha.

One would expect an issue about demon yuppies rigging an election in favor of Margaret Thatcher to age less well than this issue has. But while this is definitely one of the least subtly political issues of Hellblazer, it actually holds up reasonably well, simply because John’s experiences are so well unfolded for the reader. This is a brilliant example of character-based storytelling, and establishes that this series is first and foremost about its protagonist doing awesome things, and everything else is, to some extent, incidental.

A bit of summary: John is tipped to investigate the deaths of a number of yuppies in poor areas of London, by his friend Ray Monde, who trawls newspapers for unusual patterns. He discovers a pair of demons collecting souls for their master, Blathoxi. Constantine returns home, summons Blathoxi directly rather than going through his underlings, and offers up his soul to the demon. John’s eagerness to sell his soul indicates to Blathoxi (as intended) that John might have inside information that the Conservative party, which Blathoxi has backed in an attempt to shore up the UK soul market, might actually lose the election, and the demon pulls out of the market immediately. John is thrown back into his apartment, which is now full of angry demon yuppies who want his blood; his life is saved by Blathoxi, who turns up to drag his employees back to hell for punishment, because he doesn’t dare let on that John has successfully conned him. John is left hanging upside down from the ceiling where he can do nothing but watch the election results come in as Thatcher wins again.

It’s amazing how the same metaphors are still used to talk about politics almost thirty years later: people selling their souls, people being morally bankrupt, buying and selling elections, that helplessness that makes watching the numbers on an election come in a special kind of torture… and as a result, this issue holds up because the reader can play a form of mental Mad Libs with it. It doesn’t have to be about Thatcher anymore – fill in the candidate of your choice. It doesn’t have to be about her brand of economics – fill in the policy of your choice. The fact that this story is only a single issue long means that Delano didn’t take very long to actually discuss any of the policies under criticism, with the result that even if one disagrees with him, one can still pretty much ignore that and enjoy the humorous last panel, when John realizes he can’t reach the TV to turn it off, and has to just watch the election results until dawn. Ugh. Torture indeed. (As an American reader, I’m imagining not being able to turn off Fox News on election night… I can imagine plenty of people would feel the same way about MSNBC. I don’t know what the channels are in other countries, but I am sure they exist.) And yet, I think anyone sufficiently politically minded has been there, in some sense.

It’s also an interesting moment for John Constantine, because we have to ask ourselves why it matters to him. He spends so much time insisting that he doesn’t care about anyone, he’s concerned only for himself, and the world can go to hell for all he cares. Why, then, does it bother him to watch the elections turn out in a way he doesn’t like? We get our first example of John’s own narration lying to us, and of course to himself, about his own motivations. This is a signpost for future issues, if we’re watching carefully: don’t trust the narrator.

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