Jamie Delano notes that his Hellblazer run began during an election year for both the U.K. and the U.S. Revisiting his early issues in a 1992 introduction to the Original Sins collection, Delano notes that he is again writing in the shadow of both country’s major elections. Things looked a bit better in 1992 than they did in 1987:
Over here, it appears that some of the Thatcherite ‘vultures’ may be coming home to roost – or at least to hover patiently over the disabled and whining Tory body-politic. It would be nice to think that Bush and his Republican reptiles might similarly be forced back under their stones. Perhaps such an occurrence would be a tiny encouragement, indicating a minute turbulence of conscience disturbing the blank stare of our culture’s self-righteous myopia.
Reading Delano’s introduction on the eve of an inevitably disappointing election here in the United States of 2012, I find myself wishing for similar signs of encouragement. Laugh all you want at Mitt Romney’s many mis-steps (and I do: believe me, I do): the fact that this presidential election is going to be close at all is terrifying, and should President Obama retain his seat, he remains a watered-down, disappointing version of the candidate who ran four years ago. More locally, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Republicans try to get an MA senator out of a debate by delaying votes in Congress. Said candidate, when he was finally shamed into attending said debate, used the forum to accuse his opponent, a woman, of “scaring women,” and mocked her educational background by sarcastically calling her “Professor.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of terrible that is American political discourse, of course. Overseas things don’t look much more encouraging. Last Monday’s Guardian contained a story titled “David Cameron’s Men Go Where Margaret Thatcher Never Dared.”
Which brings us to our twenty-first century reading of 1987’s Hellblazer #3, one of the most explicitly political issues of Delano’s run. The story takes place over the course of June 11th, 1987, the day Margaret Thatcher was elected to the seat of prime minister for a third time. I’m not sure if the UK has experienced a Thatcher resurgence on the level of the Reagan mania that’s been on display during the century’s first decade, but I would not be surprised if similar sentiments had set in over there. 2008 did see the publication of There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, a book which praises her for being “one of the greatest enemies” of socialism and anarchy the world has ever seen, and a leader who not only “perceived the forces of history” but “mastered them.” That being said, vocal opponents of Thatcher remain vocal, Meryl Streep be damned. My own views on Thatcher, it should be clear by now, are less than positive. Blame the Vertigo books I grew up reading, the close friend of mine from Northern Ireland who lived through Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers, and my general aversion to “even-handed” biopics of historical figures, among other factors.
You don’t need to be well-versed in the ins and outs of 1980s British politics to enjoy Hellblazer #3 in 2012. Sadly, John Constantine’s desire for “something juicy” to distract him from election day will probably resonate with many contemporary readers in yet another oversaturated election season. The issue begins with John Constantine describing “where the abandoned people live” in Thatcher’s London. But he (and Delano, it seems) need a brief respite from acknowledging a sorry state of affairs that is clearly visible to most Londoners: “I’m not here to write social comment documentaries. I’m here to investigate dead yuppies.”
Constantine finds the distraction he’s looking for via Ray Monde, an “outrageous fag” who keeps tabs on London’s bizarre goings-on. Monde is a stock figure: an “old queen” who flirts with Constantine. He’s also one of London’s “abandoned people,” more an obstacle in the way of the desired “return to Victorian values” than a Wildean acolyte worth keeping around. Monde cops Constantine to some suspicious deaths among the city’s population of young urban professionals. Eventually John locates the source of London’s dead yuppie epidemic: demons from Hell’s financial district have taken up residence in the city, dishing out loans to its greedier would-be movers-and-shakers and collecting unpaid debts with impunity. They’re not the boogeymen behind Thatcher: this isn’t a They Live scenario. As John notes with disgust, “The bastards are slumming it.”
The demons from middle management are clearly enjoying their time in London, embracing any and every bad fashion decision and trendy band. They don’t want to take over for the Tories: they’re content to hang out in dimly-lit bars, drinking goat’s blood while their investments trickle in steadily. Throwing demons at the Thatcher era seems like a no-brainer, but I love the particular set of monsters invented by Delano and Ridgway here. There’s no real need to set nefarious events into motion in 1980s London: if anything, the devils are taking their cues from their human counterparts.
I don’t think we’ve entered the post-yuppie era yet: if anything, we’ve seen a doubling down on class warfare in recent years, especially in the hipster-hating debates that have bored the internet to death over the course of the last decade. Then again, younger readers might be amused to find that jogging and the consumption of guacamole are two signs that you might have embraced the yuppie lifestyle. Many traits persist and remain recognizable: the interest in terrible music, the greed, the patterns of urban gentrification. And the distance of history might be appealing to readers wrapped up in making careful distinctions between themselves and the hipster / yuppie aesthetic: we can safely laugh at the 1980s model without recognizing too much of ourselves there. Unless we shop at Buffalo Exchange, of course.
While I wouldn’t call John Constantine a camp figure, the plot he’s been thrown into here is definitely in conversation with the aesthetics of camp. When I first began reading Hellblazer, I was put off at times by stories in which the underworld seemed too cartoonish or ridiculous. In retrospect, this seems like an absurd complaint, and I think this particular issue is a successful trip into satirical terrain. Mainly because it’s not afraid to go over the top. I love the smaller, goofier bits in John’s trip to visit (who else?) Blathoxi, the Lord of Flatulence: his desire to apologize to the people embedded in an infernal staircase, his decision to turn down a plague towel upon entering a sauna in Hell’s financial district. And there are the nods toward urban living and the effects of London’s economic straits on John: he notes that the ritual he performs to summon Blathoxi is shoddy because “half of my bloody magic kit is either lost or borrowed.” There are certainly creators who drag Constantine down with bad jokes and absurd premises, and your own tolerance for such fare might vary. But I enjoyed this particular escapade, especially its hilarious, bittersweet ending, which I won’t spoil here for readers.
At the same time I couldn’t resist digging around a bit for more historical and cultural context, and there is a bit of meat to the satire here. Also, my graduate student training prevents me from talking freely about anything without invoking at least ten experts on a subject. Let’s stick to one for now. Using “Thatcherism” as a keyword in the MLA Bibliography, I found my way to “The Third English Civil War: David Peace’s ‘Occult History’ of Thatcherism,” a 2008 Contemporary Literature article by Matthew Hart. I know Peace from the BBC adaptations of his Red Riding Quartet (well, it’s a Red Riding Trilogy on film: and yes, they’re on Netflix Watch Instantly), but Hart is primarily interested in GB84. For our current purposes, I’m interested in Peace’s idea of “occult history,” a term Hart privileges to suggest that “the political history of Britain – and the narrative form required to cover that history – is subterranean in more than one sense, a matter of bodies that will not stay buried as well as stories that have not been told” (578).
Hart notes that Peace doesn’t literally mean “occult” as in supernatural, but nonetheless I think the phrase is helpful when thinking about Hellblazer and its legacy as a kind of secret history of London at the end of the twentieth century. Not so much a literal secret, in that the book has clearly found its share of readers, and we’re still talking about yuppies from hell and lords of flatulence. Part of Constantine’s appeal is his function as the all-seeing, all-knowing investigator of London’s dark secrets. And his authority comes not from institutional backing but from knowledge acquired through trial and error, experiencing the stuff firsthand, collecting bits and pieces from the city on the ground (and underground). And these stories then circulate in a site that was for years regarded as more refuse than refuge on the pop culture landscape. For many readers of Hellblazer, London has always been subterranean.
Hellblazer #3 (1987) by Jamie Delano (W), John Ridgway (A), Lovern Kindzierski (C), Annie Halfacree (L), and Karen Berger (E). First image on page taken from the cover of Hellblazer #3 by Dave McKean. Available via Comixology or the Hellblazer: Original Sins trade paperback.