“Getting to grips with John Constantine is like trying to pin down a shadow.” Satchmo Hawkins, the music journalist responsible for the “Faces on The Street” music column “reprinted” in the back of Hellblazer #1 (1987), seems to think that a direct line to the man himself would clear things up, and he promises readers an interview with John in the next issue of XS magazine. Though it’s a relatively small thing, I really liked the inclusion of the XS column at the end of this issue. It’s a reminder of how contingent our sense of history is on the perspective of the people doing the telling, and in retrospect, it’s a helpful cultural artifact for contemporary readers curious about the ways the 1980s looked at itself and the recent past. The particular architects of this story, writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgway, use Constantine to provide readers then and now with a pretty grotesque image of the 1980s, but they don’t necessarily romanticize earlier decades. They seem as fed up with the current state of the counterculture as they are disgusted by the yuppified antics occupying center stage.
For Hawkins, Constantine is a “hero of the counterculture,” a man who’s “got history” because he’s seen the moments in time the rock journalist values most. Hawkins is probably as old as Constantine, given his dismissal of a “young and hungry” generation who “don’t want to hear about some has-been hippie who pulled a few stunts back when dinosaurs still lived in Hyde Park.” He looks back fondly on the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, recalling John’s mischief during a London protest against the Vietnam War and his time as lead singer of “the short-lived but brilliantly vitriolic MUCOUS MEMBRANE back in ‘78.”
Constantine never takes part in the interview promised by Hawkins, in part because he’s preoccupied with the events taking place in the main pages of his first major storyline. But we get the sense that he wasn’t all that interested in going over his past with a journalist who idealized him and the world he came from; as he tells a fellow magician in this issue: “Never look back’s a good motto in our business. Too many bloody ghosts following.”
The ghosts that haunt this particular issue of Hellblazer are not just the shades of the 1950s and 1960s. I’m by no means an expert on the conventions of pulps or the touchstones of film noir, but even I can see traces of this material in the story told here. Constantine’s “voiceover” is one clear giveaway, as you can see above. He’s a bit of a globetrotter in this issue as well, heading to Africa and New York City as he tracks down a particularly troublesome demon. We run into low-level hoods (Gary Lester, the junkie responsible for all the trouble), club owners (Papa Midnite), and moll-types with piercing eyes (Emma). But we also get our share of William S. Burroughs, psychedelic imagery, sequences that seem more grindhouse or Blaxploitation than black-and-white, caricatures of 1980s life. It’s no wonder that Constantine seems unmoored in this issue: he’s adrift in a cultural imaginary that’s fragmented, a place in time that’s borrowing fast and loose from a wide range of past moments.
In his recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds claims that the twenty-first century “has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel” (x-xi). I’d argue that we can see the beginnings of this nibbling in the 1980s, at least insofar as the decade is envisioned in this particular issue of Hellblazer. Satchmo Hawkins locates history (and Constantine) firmly in the past; the perception that the present is morally bankrupt and pretty vacant (to borrow a phrase from some contemporaries of Mucous Membrane) might be a symptom of its imaginative shortcomings. And with punk in the rearview, what’s a boy to do but look back fondly on this recent era as a moment in time when “make it new” still meant something?
Reynolds describes the 1980s as one of several earlier decades in which “pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy” (x). But he also aligns this energy with hip-hop, a cultural force absent from this issue. I think it’s important to note that Constantine’s sense of displacement is very much a cultural crisis experienced by an older, British, white male (though it may no doubt resonate with people beyond this demographic, many of whom may have felt out of sync with or disavowed by the present for decades if not centuries). Constantine can dismiss the British Museum as “the treasure house of the empire,” but he can’t quite extract himself from its implications: it’s where “we keep all the loot.” He can keep his distance from people like Hawkins who want to romanticize the past, and he can condemn people like Lester more interested in keeping the “drop out” aspects of the 1960s counterculture alive instead of the movement’s political and social aspirations. But Constantine can’t necessarily shake the feeling of survivor’s guilt, a sensation that’s obviously tied to the personal losses he suffered prior to this storyline but also seems to be saying something about the legacy of colonialism and empire.
This reading might seem like a stretch to some, but John’s trip to Africa seems to invite this train of thought. At first things seem a bit too Rudyard Kipling: John, surveying a Sudanese landscape, tells his guide: “This is another world. I feel like a spaceman.” There’s the familiar trope of the magical black character that practices a primitive form of spell-casting (the first of two we’ll meet this issue). And Ridgway’s emaciated Africans are silent and somewhat inhuman-looking, though many of these images appear in a hallucination sequence that distorts everything. That being said, Constantine does not master the “dark arts” learned in this context, instead playing a subservient role to a more powerful Haitian magician, Papa Midnite (though there is the apparent elision of difference between Haiti and Sudan here via the suggestion that Midnite, as a fellow black man, is “naturally” well-versed in African sorcery) . While I don’t want to explain away or justify images of race that many readers might find problematic, I do think Delano and Ridgway are struggling with the challenges of their representation rather than running away from these issues. They avoid sounding like Bob Geldolf, to say the least. Constantine’s final image of Sudan is a bleak yet candid assessment of the damages caused by Western culture’s contributions to and disavowal of global poverty and famine: “Below our shadow scythes a city of tents. Tiny black dots move amongst them – like insects.”
Later in the issue there’s an odd moment of dark humor involving Constantine and a servant of Papa Midnite. On one level the scene, in which Constantine handily dispatches an opponent twice his size, is a display of the kind of deception the magician traffics in. But the image of a white man slapping down a black man in a loin cloth can’t just be a moment of character development, nor can Constantine’s echoing of a plantation owner – “There. You’ve just got to put the hard word on them.” — be mere coincidence. Things get complicated from here — the servant is a zombie in the employ of another black man; Constantine is a Brit, the servant is Haitian, the scene takes place in New York – but the crudity of the imagery and the fact that it’s played for comedic effect seems like something out of grindhouse cinema or even Blaxploitation. Even the drugged-out Lester can’t believe what he’s seeing – “My ‘ead’s gone, John” – suggesting, as I hope I’ve made clear, that Delano and Ridgway are aware of the scene’s implications.
Gary Lester is an interesting companion for Constantine. He’s explicitly cut from Beat Generation cloth: John informs Chas that “Last I heard, he was in Morocco doing the William Burroughs bit. Y’know, junk boys and general weirdness.” As we quickly learn, Lester is following the Burroughs biographical script fairly closely, traveling to Tangier and coming across young male prostitutes. I don’t think Delano and Ridgway are necessarily anti-WSB: the insect demon that infests this particular story seem particular indebted to the author’s Interzone escapades (and interestingly enough, the imagery here predates David Cronenberg’s bug-loving adaptation of Naked Lunch by a few years; oh man, why did I just imagine young Peter Weller as John Constantine directed by Cronenberg that would have been so great and it will never happen!). But via Constantine, there seem to be some criticisms being lobbed at Burroughs and the Beat boys: John seems to be talking as much to Burroughs as Lester when he scowls as the sight of needles lying around the apartment, or when he insists repeatedly on knowing the fate of a possessed young boy in Tangier. The Beats aren’t completely at fault for the legacy of “junk boys and general weirdness” taken up by their unimaginative acolytes, but they don’t get off scot-free here either.
We also run into a former flame of John’s, or the spectral figure that’s left of her. Emma, who met her unfortunate fate in an earlier Constantine story, appears here in the issue’s most noir-saturated sequence. Constantine is doing his best Bogey, and Delano / Ridgway lay out and “block” the actors in this stairwell conversation like they’re directing a film in the 1940’s. The shift isn’t completely jarring, given Constantine’s running dialogue throughout the issue: in London “The streets are hardened arteries leading to the city’s dead heart,” so it’s no surprise to find Constantine in such company after he’s been “swim[ming] upwards through human soup” in Greenwich Village. The juxtaposition of Constantine’s pulp-infused voiceover and 1980’s New York is reminiscent of the trick Robert Altman pulled off with Philip Marlowe and Los Angeles in 1973’s The Long Goodbye.
New York is more a collection of cultural artifacts than a fully realized, living and breathing city: hot dog carts, skylines, subway cars, fancy nightclubs, Noo Yawk accents. It’s mainly a site to stage a critique of the 1980s culture, a place to unleash a demon whose victims starve to death when they can’t consume at a fast enough pace. If you want to see yuppies meet tragic fates, you’ve come to the right place. The story is more interested in an abstract reading of moral bankruptcy than in drawing a map of reality, more in the vein of 1980s revenge flicks and tales of urban decay: this is hanging out in John Carpenter territory rather than keeping Stanley Kubrick company, and that’s fine. In fact, you could probably lightly tweak this first issue and publish it as a story set in the twenty-first century, further proof that Reynolds may be on to something with his sense of Retromania: Delano and Ridgway aren’t predicting the future, but the present has caught back up to them.
We’ll get to the conclusion of this two-part story later in the week (and much more on Papa Midnite, who’s up to more interesting stuff in #2). But overall I think Hellblazer #1 has a lot to offer contemporary readers: Constantine’s sense of himself as a man shackled to history on a personal and cultural level definitely resonated with me, at least. And like Reynolds, who admits his own complicity in retro culture in the twenty-first century, I’m interested in spending some time with that past in the present.
Hellblazer #1 (1987) is by Jamie Delano (W), John Ridgway (A), Lovern Kindzierski (C), Annie Halfacree (L), and Karen Berger (E). It’s collected in Hellblazer: Original Sins and is also available via Comixology. As of this writing Vertigo is giving away free digital copies of Hellblazer #1 via Comixology: details here.