Searching For Annihilation: Hellblazer #2 (1987)

The opening sequence of Hellblazer #2 seems to be a commentary on the conventions of the superhero team-up. If this were a superhero comic, John Constantine and Papa Midnite would punch each other in the face for a few pages due to some misunderstanding, take a smoke break, then decide to team up and go after the murderous insect terrorizing Manhattan. Here, Constantine heads to Midnite’s club to find a slugfest in progress: two zombies are pummeling each other to undeath in a subterranean arena while a crowd of yuppies laps up the ultraviolence.  The two magicians engage in a bit of posturing as they get ready to get their hands dirty, debating the ethical shortcomings of their respective magical practices. Constantine tries to lay claim to a moral high ground, but it’s clear that Jamie Delano and John Ridgway share Midnite’s skepticism.

The magicians are placed in the foreground of the panels depicting their exchange, while the slugfest is lightly sketched out behind them, to the extent that the combatants resemble the crude breakdowns of a generic superhero book, rough pencil sketches. The capes may not be there, but the formula is visible, revealed as a dull, lumbering dance where the partners are barely distinguishable from one another. The sound effects in the panel above seem to further invite a reading of this sequence as metacommentary: “THWOK!” sticks out particularly: letterer Annie Halfacree seems like she’s in on the joke.

While Midnite claims that the violence he stages are “no more than [what] may be seen in any movie or newscast,” the unspoken “or” seems to be “DC Comics,” and the staging of the sequence suggests that Delano and Ridgway are laying their cards on the table for readers curious about this new-ish comic on the racks. It may even be a commentary on the grim and gritty superhero tales cropping up in the 1980s, spandex battles made bloodier and more “realistic” in order to attract allegedly mature readers. “NEXT ISSUE: BATMAN HEMORRHAGES!” If your tastes are more in line with the crowd of arena onlookers (I love that one of them is looking back at the reader, perplexed), then Ridgway has conveniently drawn an exit for you at the top of page three.

Another artist might have placed the arena action front and center, especially in a story relatively light on dramatic set pieces.  I was really impressed by Ridgway’s art in this issue. He takes what’s essentially a talking heads book and packs a ton into its quieter, contemplative sequences. This is an issue that features John Constantine using a handkerchief: the last panel finds our hero gritting his teeth! Aided by Lovern Kindzierski (and Delano’s script) he also does great work with the brief moments of supernatural antics: check out this EC Comics-esque representation of one of Mnemoth’s victims and the almost-psychedelic image of the demon roaming the city.

So what is going on in this issue? Most readers of issue one probably have Gary Lester’s fate figured out, and Delano clearly knows that we know what’s coming. Initially I thought this second issue was a bit of a misstep, pacing wise: why not just wrap up the Mnemoth story in the extra-sized opener and move on to something else? But lingering on the consequences seems to be the whole point here: it would be easier on Constantine to just quickly get on with the ritual required to rid the city of Mnemoth. We need to see John giving Gary a false sense of hope, watch Constantine kept up at night by the ghosts of former friends and loved ones.

Constantine comes across as likeable, but not because he’s some kind of role model or moral compass. He’s made to feel pathetic by both the living and the dead. And while his attempts to justify, downplay, or otherwise diminish the realities of his magical profession seem to be undercut by the fly-infested face of Gary Lester staring back at him, he’s not exactly racing to turn his life around in the wake of his friend’s agonizing death. He makes light of the situation, then starts to wallow a bit, then walks off into the city, more furious with his ghosts than receptive to their message.

This issue is almost all anticlimax: John is a bastard, he feels bad about his bastard existence and his inability to bluff his way through life, he keeps living like a bastard, for now at least. We’re not exactly sure where he’s heading from here, what might be different next time, or whether more of the same will be on deck. But John remains far more interesting than the all-business, detached demeanor that is Papa Midnite, a suit who will not go beyond clichés like “A magician must separate himself from his humanity.”

Then again, the words John uses to keep his conscience clean seem no less hollow: “He wouldn’t understand – how some people are doomed from the word go. How they devour themselves – searching for annihilation.” Constantine’s talking to what’s left of Lester here, but he’s also mapping his own trajectory. I like that Midnite is not necessarily a mirror image of Constantine and vice versa: both men have their own ways of keeping the ghosts at bay, their own reasons for questioning each other’s methods, their own attempts at retaining some sense of humanity.

Ultimately, it’s an introspective issue that highlights Constantine’s apparent inability to cope with what he’s doing to his friends and to himself. We get a lot of what’s become the trademark Constantine charm, but we also get John losing his cool, even crying into a pillow at one point. While Constantine has never been as hypermasculine as other fictional private eyes, the emotions lurking under the con man’s façade are more visible here than they are in later stories. The con seems more directed inward, the constant reassurances to Lester more for Constantine’s benefit than for his intended audience. It’s an odd story, meandering, rough around the edges at points, centered on a character who broods and contradicts himself. Not necessarily sloppy, though. Delano and Ridgway want us to see Constantine put through the emotional wringer, a bit unmoored and uncertain about the direction of his life.

There’s also an indictment of 1980s “cool” at work here, with Constantine veering dangerously close to yuppie terrain (see above). Delano and Ridgway make this point even more explicitly via a sequence in which Constantine’s sunglasses are knocked off his face by the possessed Lester. This is a bit heavy-handed — especially when John finds the destroyed shades at the end of the issue — but there’s probably more to say about manifestations of “cool” behavior during this particular decade. Peter Stearns’ book American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style presents a compelling history of how the “emotional culture” of the country shifts and transforms, tracing the origins of associations between the word “cool” “our culture’s increased striving for restraint” (1). Constantine is not American, of course, but the critique of cool demeanor and the acknowledgment of its manifestations via Midnite and other minor characters (and in cultural objects like John’s sunglasses) seems to be in conversation with the issues outlined by Stearns.

For example, Stearns’ discussion of the “growing interest in provoking audience terror” in the 1970s and 1980s might be useful when reading this particular issue:

Along with other fear-provoking experiences, such as the more challenging amusement park rides and staged “fright nights” on Halloween, terror films provided another interesting contrast to — another catharsis for — the dominant emphases of the new, real-life emotional culture being installed in the same decades. This was fear as pure sensation, not as a call to courage or to other, more complex emotional intensities. It provided what by the 1980s was intriguingly labeled a “rush” — a passing, spontaneous intensity separate from one’s normal emotional personality. Except for aficionados of daredevil stunts, escapist terror was experienced passively by people sagely ensconsed in movie houses or roller-coaster rides. It was a release from the normal rules, not an extension of them, and it was popular for that reason. As with professional sports, emotionally escapist fare sold well, adding a vital ingredient to a consumer culture that in other respects supported a more restrained emotional style. (280)

This mode of entertainment is the sort of experience offered by Midnite’s underground arena. Conversely, Delano and Ridgway reject the “rush,” or at least they temper it via the deliberate and decelerated kind of storytelling on display in this particular issue. They are not above shock tactics — see the images of Mnemoth’s victims — but we also see Constantine wrestling with the desire for restraint and detachment. While these issues are not unique to the 1980s, it’s clear that perceived oppositions between emotional outpouring and emotional restraint are prevalent here, and that the decade seems particularly invested in the latter.

Delano and Ridgway take an interesting course of action here: in making a case for the kind of book Hellblazer will not be, they rely upon a number of conventions and clichés. Constantine spends most of this issue falling back on older habits: using his friends, denying his own culpability, laughing away his troubles, drinking too much. He’s in the process of becoming a caricature of himself, more bad joke than laughing magician. And Delano and Ridgway don’t necessarily make any promises that things will get better. We’re watching a particularly low point in the character’s life, and this is where the story ends. For now, at least.

Hellblazer #2 (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

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