So I spent the last two nights re-reading Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s original Hellblazer run and once again I have to say this may be the best comic series ever. And yeah, I’m one who often makes similar hyperbolic statements about that same duo’s Preacher series (and so do a whole helluva lot of other folks) but you know, it’s not that these type of statements are insincere or made in haste, it’s that when you read books that occupy a level of craftsmanship and skill like these two do, well, they affect you in the immediate time/space you read them. They feed into your life in weird, synchronous and sometimes spooky ways and they affect how you see the world, your world, in their wake. And this particular book, Ennis and Dillon’s run on Hellblazer, for me it carries the most weight.
Ennis’ stuff is, admittedly, a joy for me because of the keenly intelligent and often downright sacrilegious methods he employs in dealing with existence and religion. Some of his newer books, The Chronicles of Wormwood for example, do the same type of thing in slightly more playful ways and that’s great, but Hellblazer stands as philosophical and emotional tour de force*. Ennis’ John Constantine, and his supporting cast, comprised of characters such as Kit, Brendon, George Ridley and even his Satan, are absolutely amazing avatars through which he masterfully tours us through life and existence in many of it’s different complexities and capacities. Hate – George Ridley and his battle with a racist police force and encroaching Nationalist movement. Friendship – John’s friends don’t last long. Love – John and Kit’s love and eventual break-up is just so fucking heart-wrenching that I find myself with tears in my eyes. Kit is one of the best supporting characters EVER and the fact that Ennis has two installments of Heartland to show us her history and life in Belfast is brilliant because it elevates her from simply being a supporting, love-interest style character to a main character all her own.
Another one of Ennis’ trademarks is betrayal – he gets you in ways you would just never in a million years expect. And betrayal is a big part of the Constantine character. Not to dis the many other writers who have tackled the bad luck magus over the years but there is just a certain level of depth with Ennis that no one else has been able to achieve. Anti hero? This guy is the definition mate. The way he undercuts and completely destroys his friends while simply trying to do his business, as if he wants to love and respect them – and does to a point – but can’t break the habit of lying to them and using them and eventually discarding them like rubbish. Or what about the angel Gabriel, ‘The Snob’ as Constantine calls him. Constantine’s hate for this one is almost palpable and it manifests in a plot so vile that even though you dislike Gabe, you end up actually feeling dirty and horrible for him as you watch John reduce the lord’s former golden boy to rubble and then toy with him on his fingertips – it is a moment where you kinda hate John Constantine, even though he is the guy you’re buying the book for. And Chas – the relationship between these two has always been one of powderkeg-like tendencies, but in Ennis’ run you get some real explosions. I wanted to see Chas beat the shit out of one of my favorite characters, and when he went one step further and dragged John down the hall and slammed his face into the toilet it kinda made me want to shake his hand. Friends shouldn’t take that kinda shit off friends.
That is a damn good achievement in character folks.
The way Ennis shows the interweaving of relationships, from friends and lovers to even passersby and the background characters of our characters’ lives, like say the barmaid who is obviously in love/lust with John and fails to catch his eye (or rather fails to catch his eye for anything other than an opportunity – funny how her wannabe salacious effort turns into drinks on the house) or the homeless drunkard and his son in Heartland – Ennis crafts his world subtly and with grand detail. He does this and it makes a book like Hellblazer become such a rich and concise world that it’s less fiction than a corner of our own world, these characters become people we know or know of, and this in turn is why the arcs of their lives carry so much weight.
The last thing I’ll say, and this is of course true of most of Ennis’ work, is the pub culture. It has always seemed to me that a pub can be a grand and magical place if you make them that way. The people you meet or share them with and the relationships that spin out of that; good times with a uniting continuity of friendly intoxication and celebration. This is central to English culture and it is most definitely one of the essential ingredients to Hellblazer as Ennis writes it. There’s something to be said for the sincerity of two best friends talking it out over a few pints; a cozy, endearing atmosphere that further helps paint the world according to Garth and as streamlined through his Hellblazer run – a run that has yet to be topped, even by himself**.
* Preacher, of course, is as well.
** Because he did return at least once for the ‘Son of Man’ storyline that while good, didn’t have the length to even come close to the arc he built from 1991 to 1994.