Hellblazer, part 2 (or The Laughing Magician)
Decades ago, Alan Moore was nobody. He had written a few pieces for 2000 A.D. and a few comics here and there such as his work on Miracle Man (which I’ll be covering in a future piece). DC approached him in the mid-1980s and asked him to take on the writing duties for a relatively unknown character named Swamp Thing. Seeing as they were considering canceling the title due to low sales and small interest, they would win regardless of the outcome: if it failed, they would cancel it as planned; if it succeeded, then they would have revitalized a decayed character and it would simply be more money in the pocket for them. And so Moore took over and with his help and that of the artists assigned to his team Swamp Thing quickly revitalized the horror genre in a time when horror comics were no longer amongst the more popular genre of the comic newsstands.Amidst the many characters and stories that Moore would go on to tell, there was one personage that stood out. He was a simple character devoid of powers. All he had to rely on was his wit, vast knowledge of the arcane, and an increasing network of friends that owed him favors. John Constantine came about as a result of Moore wanting to write a different kind of warlock. He was tired of seeing the same cloak and potions types of spell casters that were to be found in printed page, the Zatannas and Dr. Stranges. When he pressed the artists for ideas on the type of things that they wanted to draw, one of them suggested the musician Sting and thus Constantine was born. Now Constantine is a different sort of character. As I’ve mentioned before, he ages and has no powers to speak of. Sure he might be able to dazzle people in a hypnotic sort of way or cast a few basic spells but only of the variety that anyone else would be capable of. He’s blonde, british, and doesn’t give a shit what others think of him. He outwits the highest levels of demons with nothing more than a shit-eating grin and a flick of his ever present cigarette. He was unlike many of the personalities throughout the DC universe. He cursed and drank, chain-smoked Silk Cuts cigarettes. He was a conman by trade and nature and was not above using his friends or family to further his own means or save his hide from dangerous situations that usually came about as a result of a previous scheme (and if it happens to also help humanity then even better). He was the laughing magician, always dancing one step ahead of danger and spitting in the face of his worst foes. And although this character began in the swamps of Louisiana, his adventures mainly take place in London. Alan Moore wasn’t the only one to take a crack at writing such a distinct personage, though, with Jamie Delano taking over writing duties starting with Hellblazer issue one and followed by a pedigree of writers to include Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Brian Azarello, Paul Jenkins and (currently) Peter Milligan. These writers and more would have Constantine face demon after demon, curses and possessions but he was also their vehicle for social and political commentary of the England at the time. Margaret Thatcher had just been sworn in and John was the mouthpiece for these authors, many of whom were British themselves. Azarello used Constantine as a vehicle as well when he had him travel across the United States beginning with his Hard Times story arc. But of all the stories contained within this simple comic, the succubi, the blood-mage Mako, the sadistic billionaire Stan, even a demonic entity composed of all the evil bits of his own soul, the story that stands out above all others is Ennis’ Dangerous Habits story-line in which Constantine contracts terminal lung cancer. Now that I am aware of I don’t know of any other comic character that has contracted a terminal illness much less cancer. John starts off by talking to his doctor before visiting a cancer ward and befriending a patient there. He struggles to find any possible solution and even going so far as to visit his friend Brendan Finn in Ireland to see if he would possibly have a cure. What he doesn’t know is that his friend’s liver is shot and he was hoping John would have a cure for him. Faced with this terrible reality and his days running short, John and Brendan drink into the night until the Devil himself comes a’calling for Brendan’s soul. John tricks him into drinking holy water and thereby saves his friend’s soul from the pits of hell and torment. There’s repercussions to this of course, but I’ll not spoil the story for you (it’s only 6 issues and available in trade and I highly suggest it) but John does get his in the end and then some. It’s a damn clever bit of writing especially when Ennis is better known nowadays for his gratuity in Preacher and more-so in his current comic The Boys (which is a few issues away from ending).
But there’s always something for everyone in this title, there’s a humanity to these characters who are thrust into horrors both supernatural and of the human variety. There’s gore here and there and horror encroaching upon the pages, there’s drama and sadness and even a few happy moments as well (such as John’s 40th birthday complete with Swamp Thing growing a marijuana plant to 10 feet tall while John and his friends get stoned and smashed). This is a comic I cannot praise enough, even the bad bits. And I will continue to read it until John’s inevitable death.
(And if they don’t kill him eventually I’ll kill everyone in DC myself)