Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hellblazer - the Ennis years (issues 41-83)

What has two thumbs, hates organised religion, loves pub culture, and has the permanent outlook of a 15 year old boy? Garth Ennis. With two thumbs. That might make four thumbs all up, then, given that he probably already has the two on his hands. It'd help with the typing.

So yeah, Hellblazer. You know the one: John Constantine, Liverpudlian working-class mage and adrenaline junkie, battles demons using his wits and the lives of his friends, angsts about the state of the world and the state of his soul, yadda yadda. The book's been going for over 20 years now, and it's the Vertigo imprint's longest lasting ongoing title. So, even though it's not their highest selling title, or their most acclaimed title, Hellblazer's reached a sort of implacable, unstoppable status - for now, at least. It's also about the only ongoing I actually bother collecting.

Garth Ennis, well known and acclaimed writer on such titles as Punisher Max and Preacher, as well as a bunch of lesser known WW2 based titles, took over the writing job for the book in the early 90's, taking the baton from the initial writer Jamie Delano. Like Jaime, Garth was young, British and angry, but his take on the title had a lot more of a working-class slant than Delano, who's run had an extremely New Age Hippy feel to a lot of the stories. In addition, Garth took what was designed to be a horror book and really ramped up the horror and gore. When I first read the title a few years ago, only Brian Azzarello's run instilled the same feelings of disgust in me (though that was mostly for entirely different reasons). As a Horror book, Garth Ennis' Hellblazer keeps things pretty down-to-earth and urban, but that's okay, because as it turns out, there's plenty of horrible, disgusting things happening to people every day. And it's that cynical world view that really permeates the entire run - the world's a joke, everyone in power's a bastard, everyone under their thumb is too stupid or scared to care. Truth be told, this is clearly the work of a very young man - indeed, Hellblazer was one of Garth's first big titles. It certainly feels like a young man's work - the world view it presents is one you'll find echoed in the statements of many a frustrated adolescent. So while it certainly struck a chord with a teen audience at the time, it's hard to take a lot of it as seriously nowadays. That doesn't stop the title from being enjoyable however.

To be honest, what really makes Ennis' run kick for me is the dialogue. A lot of the storylines involve little more than characters down at the pub, drinking, gambling and gossiping like old women. There are several issues where nothing supernatural occurs at all, and the book focuses simply on human drama. And this is where the book really takes off. John's break up with the love of his life, Kit, feels heartbreakingly painful - not simply because it occurred, but it ends for mundanely natural reasons, and neither John nor Kit could really hold their heads up high after the fact. Comics portraying flawed, realistic characters have become reasonably commonplace in the market since, but it was Ennis' Hellblazer that really created a bridge for regular comic readers to perhaps be drawn into something a little deeper than blood, guts and foul language.

Now, I'm not going to pretend Ennis' stuff is particularly poignant or intelligent. He hits a few good beats, but a whole lot of his schlock is purely there for shock value. And you know what? For a horror title, that's okay, that's what we're here for. What really shines through are his characters, and his dialogue. Sure, the issues address by the book are dated, now. Sure, the art (mainly down by regulars Will Simpson and Ennis' long time partner in crime Steve Dillon) is more than a bit rough. Sure, much of the story seems trite, and the ideas they present often seem more than a little childish. But Ennis' time on the book was probably one of the best runs the title ever had.

Picks of the bunch? Dangerous Habits, the opening storyline, where John's dying of lung cancer is a classic tale, that really puts all the pieces in place for the stories Garth wants to tell. Pretty much everything in the Fear and Loathing trade is solid gold, as John faces down racists, arch angels, and the bleak hopelessness of his greatest personal crisis. The Royal Blood arc is an entertainingly silly story featuring demon possession and the Royal family, the two-part King of the Vampires story featuring John as a homeless derelict, and the grand finale Rake at the Gates of Hell, where all John's deeds, good or bad, catch up to him. There are some real clunkers, too, especially the Mortal Clay two part, possibly the dullest story the title ever put out, but over all, this run represents a time when Hellblazer was at least somewhere close to the cutting edge of mainstream comics, which has allowed the title to continue on for as long as it has. It's not my favourite run - I think that Mike Carey's authorship edged it out, despite it's over-focus on big picture, epic-length arcs, but the Ennis' run is probably the most important run on the title, and certainly worth a look for anyone who wants a good piece of early 90's horror.

Is it entertaining? Yes, yes it is. Mostly because Ennis is quite funny when he wants to be.

Is it worth reading? I would say so. Definitely a must for Hellblazer and Ennis fans, and probably worth at least a cursory glace for everyone else.

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