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Comics You Should Own – Hellblazer #27

For only the second time, I look at one issue exclusively. But why this one? WHY????

Oh, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS below. You know the drill!

Hellblazer by Neil Gaiman (writer), Dave McKean (artist/colorist), Todd Klein (letterer), and Danny Vozzo (colorist).

DC, 1 issue (#27), cover dated March 1990.

“Hold Me,” Gaiman and McKean’s short story about John Constantine, has to be one of the best single issues ever. Theoretically, it’s a horror story, as John must deal with a ghost who kills people, but it’s more than that. Somehow, in one issue, Gaiman manages to write that horror story, a love story, an indictment of our indifference to the homeless, a sad commentary on the realities of relationships, and a character study of a man with no hope. That’s not a bad day’s work.

Gaiman had shown he could write a good Constantine before, when he used him early on in Sandman (issue #3, to be exact, about a year before this issue). His John in that book was similar to this one, although he’s a bit more bitter in this comic. The most interesting aspect of John Constantine has always been that he’s mostly a failure – he might stop whatever evil scheme is being cooked up (and occasionally he doesn’t even do that), but he’ll lose a few friends along the way. He’s terribly bad at keeping people he knows alive, and often willingly sacrifices them. Gaiman doesn’t turn that on its head too much in this issue, but he does allow John a small moment of triumph in the midst of this sad tale. He has no need to sacrifice friends in this story, and he is able to give a ghost a dignified farewell. In serialized fiction, the context of the issue becomes something to consider. This issue came on the heels of a Grant Morrison/David Lloyd two-parter, which is decent but a bit pretentious and ultimately too standard a Constantine tale – he doesn’t really help the situation, and someone close to him dies. Then, Gaiman shows up, and we think this is going to be more horror. In setting the stage on the first few pages, Gaiman lets us know that the story will deal with the homeless, and that there’s something strange happening to one of them, Jacko. But we also get a taste of what we can expect: Gaiman writes, “Fat Ronnie and Sylvia from Hull ripped down a curtain, wrapped it around themselves, held each other for warmth. Jacko knew it was too cold even for that. And there was no one to hold Jacko anyway.” In those few lines, Gaiman foreshadows the way the issue will play out. It’s far more than just a tale of the tragedy of the homeless.

In fact, Gaiman shows how the tragedy of the homeless is the one that affects us all. Jacko only wants someone to hold him and keep him warm. Some of us have that, and some of us don’t. But Gaiman recognizes it as a universal desire, and he is able to link Jacko to Constantine and Anthea, the girl in the story. Jacko is a filthy, messy ghost, but he’s not evil. When Constantine confronts Jacko, he does more than just hold him. The first thing he does is ask his name. By naming himself, Jacko regains a tiny measure of dignity. By learning his name, John can no longer see him as a ghost, but as a person who simply wants some human contact. After he gives Jacko what he needs, John returns to Anthea, desperate for some human contact himself. Gaiman overdoes it slightly with the narration on the final page, heavily making his point instead of letting us come to it, but the penultimate panel of the book leaves us shaken and touched by what John must go through in his life. Jacko’s desperation is born of lack of friendship, while John’s stems from the fact that he recognizes that he uses people, and he is alone because of it. The idea of human warmth holding back the tide of darkness isn’t original, but Gaiman puts an interesting spin on it by suggesting that the lack of it is a kind of death. In Jacko’s case, that’s literal, but Shona’s mother dies because she refuses to engage Jacko as a person. Is Shona’s mother a bad person? We don’t know, but we don’t believe it. She’s just a person like us, one who would scream in fear if a homeless person appeared in our home and asked for a hug. John, with his background in odd situations, can handle it better, but he can also deal with Jacko because he is someone so like him. We don’t know much about Shona’s mother, but if she didn’t have someone to hold (her daughter), would she be more open to giving Jacko what he needs? Possibly. What we do know is that John understands, more than most people, the simple joys of life, because he’s done such a good job ignoring them.

More than that, the idea that John is able to “save” Jacko because he’s utterly alone is also explored. John can never form long-term attachments, because he knows that people close to him end up dead, so he rejects anyone who attempts it. Only with Jacko, who’s already dead, can he let his guard down. But Gaiman isn’t just interested in making this point, and that’s where Anthea comes in. John meets her at a party for a dead friend (yes, another one), and escorts her back to her apartment. As she tries to seduce him, he realizes she’s a lesbian, and she and her lover want to use him to have a baby. John, not surprisingly, gets angry at this, but more at the deception than the idea. As he leaves her, he says, “You could have bloody asked, you know. That’s all. You could have bloody asked.” John doesn’t form attachments, but he craves them nevertheless. We don’t get a sense of him recognizing the irony of someone else trying to use him when he uses people all the time, but what we do get is this idea that John is terribly lonely, and he wants to form something with someone. One of the tragedies of the issue is that the closest he can come to someone is when he hugs Jacko, but it leads to the less-than-tragic ending, when he attempts, once again, to make a connection with Anthea. Does John learn any lessons? Well, we can hope, can’t we?

As we circle back to the homeless, Gaiman subtly shows us how prevalent these dispossessed people really are. The human tragedy extends beyond a one-on-one connection that so many people lack to a societal problem, as we as a society don’t recognize the failings of the civilization we’ve created. Gaiman doesn’t try to push a grand agenda, concentrating instread on the fact that when we dismiss these people, we compartmentalize them, by necessity, into a section of our minds where we don’t view them as humans. John takes his cab driver to task because he’s a bigot who hates immigrants, and although we can easily mock him, what about the way we view the homeless? Displaced people haunt the book, from the man who borrows cigarettes from John, to the people at the party, “trying desperately to have fun,” to the people at the shelter that Anthea manages, who “don’t have anywhere else to go,” to Shona, who is orphaned by Jacko. Homeless people are just the most obvious manifestation of something much deeper in our society, the disconnect we feel with each other. “When we hold each other,” John narrates, “For just a moment or two the darkness doesn’t seem so bad.” But, as the final image of the comic shows, Jacko is always there. And we can’t escape him.

This is early in McKean’s career, so he actually draws it instead of using other media to create a tableau. It’s a striking book, with McKean and Vozzo draining the primary colors from every panel and creating a London that is brown and polluted. The characters match their surroundings, implying that they are as polluted as the landscape. Jacko is a black smudge on the comic, sucking up the life around him, but when John holds him, his face becomes beatific, almost Christ-like. He doesn’t redeem the world, but he gives a bit of redemption to John, who, on the last page, walks away from us until he seems almost to fade. The final actual panel (before we see Jacko smeared across the bottom of the page) is fascinating, because McKean makes it unclear where John ends and Anthea begins. For that brief moment, they share their meager strength, and it’s enough to help them move on. McKean is a marvelous artist because he can make something grotesque yet strangely beautiful, and he manages that with Jacko and the other wayward souls in this soulless London.

This issue appears in the trade paperback Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection, which was apparently released in conjunction with the movie. If you’re not interested in getting that, I’m sure this isn’t too hard to find nor too expensive. It’s one issue, after all! And a damned fine one at that.

As always, the archives are available for your perusement. Take them for a spin!

17 Comments

[…] Comics You Should Own – Hellblazer #27 […]

It’s also in that Neil Gaiman collection that collects everything of his that wasn’t collected. I think.

It’s the only issue of Hellblazer I own– I got it because the creative team behind Black Orchid (my favourite DC comic of the late 1980s– Neil Gaiman back when he was the cool new DC writer and not, well, Neil Gaiman) was doing an issue of Hellblazer. It’s a great story, and I love the sad and haunting ending.

I remember at the time being disappointed Gaiman and McKean weren’t going to do the book regularly. I smile when I think back on that.

Actually, it IS both rather hard to find AND quite expensive for a single issue. It’s one of the few Hellblazer issues I don’t own because of this, since I started reading the book during the Ennis/Dillon days a few years after this issue was published.

it’s in “Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days”, the odds and sods collection of everything that gaiman did that wasn’t already collected in TPBs from a few years ago.

I was never too impressed with this issue. The art was fantastic but the story, for me, was never anything spectatcular

I agree with Punch: I felt this was a pretty mediocre issue after I’d read it in “Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days,” and it is actually kind of hard to find and expensive (Gaiman even comments on this in his introduction to the story in “Midnight Days”).

Hmmm … that’s weird. I guess because I bought it a long time ago and didn’t pay a lot for it, I thought it was more common. I haven’t looked for it in years, but that’s what happen when you assume! Thanks for letting me know about its status.

I also respectfully disagree with the adverse opinions. But that’s cool – we’re all friends here!

Huh. I read “Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days” a couple years ago. I don’t remember anything about this comic. But admittedly, I’m not a big Gaiman fan. I mostly just wanted to read the Swamp Thing story.

fourthworlder

May 26, 2008 at 11:16 pm

I was really excited when this issue came out, but was somewhat let down. I’ve enjoyed it more on re-readings since, so I think my expectations were probably a bit over the top at the time. I agree that the art is beautiful, but I wouldn’t call it one of my Gaiman favorites.
I do prefer the truly freaky Grant Morrison two-parter that immediately preceded it, in Hellblazer #25 and 26.
Waaaay over the top.

I’ve read it in Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days as well (which is easy to come by and not very expensive) and thought it was one of the highlights of that collection. It isn’t the most impressive Gaiman/Mckean collaboration (that’s Signal To Noise imo) but it’s a very solid short story.

SanctumSanctorumComix

May 27, 2008 at 8:00 am

I have this issue, and it stands as one of my all-time favorite comics – period.

I was a pretty huge Constantine fan (up until the comic brought him to the USA for several arcs about 5 years back – near issue 130 or so). But eventually, I had to make cuts in the buying-habits and sadly, Hellblazer fell under the knife.

I have everything up until that point (all the one-shots, tie-ins, guest appearances, mini-series, etc…) but even though I’ll be selling off all the rest of those issues, THIS is one that I’m pretty sure I’ll keep.

It speaks to me of the character (both for good and ill) of Constantine as well as ourselves.
I immediately was pulled into the story and wondered how I would react to many of the situations therein.

I’ve had many experiences with “the homeless” (a sad, one-size-fits-all-lump-them-together title), and usually treat them one-on-one as people and give my time (and money, whenever I can) to treat them the same respect and humanity that I would hope for if I were in their shoes (although, some aren’t even wearing those).

The friends who would chastise me for doing so aren’t my friends any longer, and though I have moved to a place where the plight of the homeless is less seen, I know that if I were to meet up with them, I will try whatever I can to help.
This issue always comes to mind and reminds me of doing right.
(Odd, that most of my morality lessons are more deeply ingrained from reading comics, then they are from all my years of Church-going or Christian-instilled learnings.)

~P~
P-TOR

Roquefort Raider

May 27, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Outstanding artwork in that issue, which comes as no surprise since we’re dealing with McKean. Neil’s story was okay, I thought; a quiet ghost story with more sensitivity than horror in it. I agree that it was better than the the Morrison/Lloyd two-parter that preceded it; that one was pretty generic and basically recycled the core idea of “the fear machine”, a multi-part story that had concluded shortly before. Oddly enough (maybe meaning that *my* tastes are odd) I was never much taken by the way certain very popular writers handled Constantine : I thought Neil’s story was decent, that Morrison’s two-parter was weak, and I loathed Ellis’s “haunted” storyline. (But then one of my favorite runs is Paul Jenkins’, so go figure).

I’ve never posted on this board but was compelled to tell this story here.

About 12-13 years ago I worked for a CD-ROM gaming company that was working with Neil Gaiman to make video games from a couple of his properties; the company tanked and the games never got made but I did get to spend some time with one of my idols and that job is still the greatest professional experience I’ve ever had. I’d brought in a handful of comics/books for Neil to sign (my comics are an unorganized mess – I brought in what I could find) and one of them that I brought in was Hellblazer #27. Everything else he just signed but he actually sat down and re-read this one cover to cover. He obviously hadn’t seen it in a long time and was also very pleased with it.

Great comic and a really good guy. Thanks for writing about it.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to, and briefly meeting Neil Gaiman while he was here in Australia and speaking at the State Library. I was already a fan of his writing, but after seeing the obvious pleasure and grace he exhibits he takes in both his apperances, and interacting with his readers I’m even more so. I used to own that issue not to mention most of the early Hellblazers and sandman until I gave them to a friend who was just discovering comics and he was hooked after that. Its not hard to see why.

Hey Dave great story. What properties were you working on? Was one of them the Mr. Punch “game”?

Punch – Not Mr. Punch; we were in talks to do Neverwhere and a Sandman game. Neither got very far off the ground.

my all time favorite comic book ever.

Go Mavs!!!

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