Sunday, November 26, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Hellblazer Episode Guide, Part Four

For those playing catch-up, here’s PART ONE, PART TWO and PART THREE.

And just so we know what the score is, once again, here’s all the things we’ll keep track of as we go along. Just for laughs, eh?

Plot - What happens in the story worth noting, without giving away too much. Our job isn’t to tell you the story. It’s to help those who read the story keep track of the details. Go buy the comics and read them yourself, you lazy, cheap wankers!

Prominent People - Characters whom we see more than once. First appearances, mentions of reoccurring characters, anything on the hierarchy of Hell, real life figures drawn into the story and anyone else who deserves noting.

Deaths - Any deaths of prominent people or any particularly gory and interesting ways of dying. This is a horror book, after all. Also, a running tally of all the times John has directly been involved in a friend or family member’s death. Deaths of enemies, except where John directly murdered the person in question, are not counted. Instances where it is unclear if the person died (Talbot in Issue #22) or where they probably would have died without John showing up (i.e. Una in Issue #25) are not counted.

John Screws Up - This happens quite a bit, but anytime John is directly or indirectly responsible for some bad thing or another happening, we note it. We advise not making a drinking game of this for two reasons – first, you’ll get pissed very quickly and be unable to keep reading and second, because you might spill lager on your comics!

Pub Trivia - Anything else worth noting that doesn’t fit one of the other categories.

Simple enough, right? So let’s get down to it and discuss...

The (brief) Return of Garth Ennis

Hellblazer #129-133

With Garth Ennis pushing boundaries in both good taste and what the comics medium could do with Preacher, it was only natural that Vertigo bring him back for another go at the character that made him, once the Jenkins run ended.

Son of Man is a serviceable enough a story, but to my mind it (not surprisingly, given when it was written) reads more like Preacher than your typical Hellblazer tale. It’s hard to say what makes this story feel so different but there are several possible factors.

One part of it is the artwork, which is quite different from the more realistic style favored by Steve Dillon during Ennis’ run. Pride and Joy artist John Higgins makes this story very surreal and almost cartoonish in appearance. Couple that with a plot and execution could almost be a West End farce were it not for the amazing amounts of blood, and you have one very silly but strangely dark story.

Another thing that makes this story unusual is John’s usual narration is spoken directly to the reader as he looks out past the fourth wall. While this device works okay in the introduction where John establishes himself as “a right miserable bastard” as he rants about the idea of children being considered sacred (indeed, this bit is one of the best introductions to John as a character ever, in this author’s opinion), it is somewhat odd as the story goes on and John breaks character in order to make a dry comment directly to the readers – though this could be more a fault in the art than the script.

Regardless, this story was a bit like a trip to see your parents during the holidays – different and unsettling, but not altogether unpleasant.

Hellblazer #129 – Son of Man, Part One

Plot - Chas, last seen abandoning John in the middle of nowhere during How To Play With Fire, shows up on John’s doorstep demanding sanctuary and help ditching a car. Little does he know that his run in with the infamous Cooper Mob has reopened a can of worms that John Constantine had hoped to have closed forever.

Prominent People - First appearances of Detective Inspector McNab (a bent cop), Mr. Fronts (John’s deranged next-door neighbor), Billy (John’s downstairs neighbor, a WWII veteran) and Sylvia (John’s downstairs neighbor, a non-militant lesbian)

Hellblazer #130 – Son of Man, Part Two

Plot - As The Coopers hunt for Chas, John tells the story of how he ran afowl of The Coopers himself and the dark secret he’s been hoping to forget for over a decade.

Prominent People - First appearances of Harry Cooper (a crime-lord), Norman Cooper (Harry’s brother, a gangster and a gay man), Ronnie Cooper (a dead boy, son of Harry) and The *uckpig (a demonic manifestation of the act of rape made flesh). Cameos by Brendan Finn, Ric the Vic and Header in flashback. Also an appearance by the ghost of Sid Vicious.

John Screws Up - John spells it out for Chas in detail, but basically he summoned a demon to possess the dead body of Harry Cooper’s son Ronnie since bringing the dead back to life magically is impossible. Granting that this was the best thing he could think of at a time when he was a) not at his best due to having just been sprung from the asylum and b) under pressure with the lives of Gemma and Cheryl at risk if he didn’t do what the Coopers wanted, this still resulted in an uncontrollable demon eventually being released upon the world.

Hellblazer #131 – Son of Man, Part Three

Plot - As the Coopers continue to search for the people responsible for the hit on Norman, John begins investigating the plans of the demon living inside Ronnie Cooper.

Prominent People - First appearances of “Little Ronnie Cooper” (in the flesh as it were), Carol (John’s downstairs neighbor, Sylvia’s very militant lesbian partner), Fessenheim (a psychic grifter and friend of John’s) and Gestapo (a psychotic thug in the employ of The Coopers).

John Screws Up - We find out that John missed Gemma’s birthday, much to her annoyance.

Deaths - Rather a horrific scene as John is buried under a horde of dead babies.

Pub Trivia - Famous for being “the one where John shags a lesbian”.

Hellblazer #132 – Son of Man, Part Four

Plot - As all-out war erupts between the gangs of London, John nurses a black-eye and finds himself the unlikely savior of Norman Cooper.

Prominent People - Cameos of Ric the Vic, Brendan and Header.

John Screws Up - John tries to talk things out with a confused Sylvia only to get a black-eye for his trouble when Carol walks in on the two of them in her bedroom. Also, in flashback, we find out that John’s skimping on his research wound up resulting in his summoning a REALLY bad demon to stuff into Ronnie Cooper’s body back in the day.

Hellblazer #133 – Son of Man, Part Five

Plot - “Little Ronnie” unveils his plan to bring about the birth of a Satanic Messiah and it’s up to John to save the world, assuming he can save himself first.

Prominent People - Cameos of Ric the Vic, Brendan and Header.

Deaths - Norman Cooper is rather roughly sodomized to death by the *uckpig after it leaves its’ shell. Gestapo is similarly ripped apart. Inspector McNab blows his own brains out before the *uckpig can get its’ hands on him. And Harry Cooper dies shortly after giving birth to the Demonic Messiah, which John kills with a fireaxe. Chalk up 30 on the Death Tally for that last one.

Pub Trivia - This marks another one of the few occasions where we see John directly kill someone.

With the end of Son of Man, we come to the beginning of a brief but important part of the Hellblazer Chronology. This run would be cut short by creative differences between the writer and the editorial staff of Vertigo comics. Whether you agree with the reasons behind the argument or not, it cannot be denied that this run has proven popular despite its’ brevity.

The Warren Ellis Era

Hellblazer #134-143

More than any writer before him, Ellis came onto Hellblazer as a rising star who was expected to do big things. Already a big name at Vertigo thanks to his work on Transmetropolitan, he would launch the mature-readers series Planetary and The Authority at about this same time in early 1999.

Sadly, while these series would go on to become legendary and build Ellis a devout fanbase, it was not to be with Hellblazer. Ellis came to blows with Vertigo editorial over one storyline, the now infamous Shoot - a story about the motivations behind school shootings that came out shortly after the Columbine High School shootings in the United States.

While Vertigo originally intended to let the story run as Hellblazer #141, they eventually decided the story proved too “insensitive” (some would say victim-blaming) and they decided to err on the side of caution (some would say chicken-out) and not run the story.

The entire issue of Shoot is available for reading, script and finished pencils and I urge all of you to take a look at the story and decide for yourself.

Angered by what he saw as an act of censorship, Ellis resigned his position as the writer on Hellblazer and racked up a run that proved, despite its’ brevity, to be popular enough to warrant collection in two trade-paperbacks; Haunted and Setting Sun.

Hellblazer #134 – Haunted, Part One

Plot - After reading about the death of an old girlfriend in the paper, John begins investigating her mysterious, magic-themed death only to have her ghost appear before him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Isabel (one of John’s old girlfriends), Watford (a police officer who John is blackmailing), Sanjay (a shopkeeper, from whom John buys his silk cut), Clarice (an old sorceress) and Albert (a ghost, and one-time court magician to the Cray Twins)

Deaths - 31 on the death tally. Though he hasn’t seen Isabel in years, John blames himself for her death as he was responsible for getting her interested in magic, which no doubt brought her into contact with her killer.

John Screws Up - See above: John blames himself for Isabel’s death, though he won’t learn who her killer is until next issue.

Hellblazer #135 – Haunted, Part Two

Plot - John starts using his contacts to track down Alister Crowley wannabe Joshua Wright, only to have his men find him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Map (a magician with a unique bond to London), Dareen (a “crack magician” who uses drugs to do magic) and Sparrowfart (aka Hawkstorm, a pimp, electrician and amateur magician)

John Screws Up - John walks into a rather obvious trap at the end of this issue – meet me alone someplace dark and secluded and all that.

Hellblazer #136 – Haunted, Part Three

Plot - Beaten to near death by Joshua Wright’s thugs, John calls Chas for help and sets about getting his revenge on Sparrowfart, who he figured ratted him out.

Hellblazer #137 – Haunted, Part Four

Plot - Recovered from his beating, John starts calling in favors as Map kills two of Wright’s men who come for him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Haine (an old psychic)

Deaths - Josuha Wright kills Sparrowfart and a bloody if generic manner.

Hellblazer #138 – Haunted, Part Five

Plot - John pulls more and more favors together, as he gets ready to turn the tables on Joshua Wright.

Prominent People - First appearance of Joshua Wright (a dark magician and Isabel’s killer)

Hellblazer #139 – Haunted, Part Six

Plot - With Wright in police custody, John and Watford set about instituting a very special punishment for Joshua Wright.

Hellblazer #140 – Locked

Plot - Watford calls John in on a most unusual homicide case involving a room that inspires people to commit murder.

Hellblazer #141 – The Crib

Plot - John winds up on the doorstep of writer David Niles, who fears he has become possessed by a cursed box that holds the aborted corpse of the Anti-Christ.

Hellblazer #141A – Shoot (Unpublished Story)

Plot - John journeys to America to investigate the secret causes of school shooting and winds up telling the truth nobody wants to hear to an investigator working for the US Senate.

Hellblazer #142 –Setting Sun

Plot - John is called to the scene of a haunting and must put the ghost of a Japanese war criminal to rest.

Hellblazer #142 –One Last Love Song

Plot - Leaving the bar three sheets to the wind, John thinks of all his old girlfriends.

Prominent People - First appearances of Mandy (a drama student), Annabel (a colonel’s daughter), Tess (a girl John met in a club once ) and Keeley (a girl who apparently married up and became a vampire). Cameoes by Emma and Isabel.

Pub Trivia - For some odd reason, Kit and Dani don’t seem to be in the group of girlfriends at the end of the story.

Hellblazer #143 – Telling Tales

Plot - A general writer asks John Constantine to tell him of the secret history of London, including a famous maker of artificial phalluses, the Royal Family being aliens and how the Kennedy assassination really happened.

Pub Trivia - Most of John’s secret history is taken whole from the theories of conspiracy theorist David Icke, particularly the bits about the British Royal Family being lizard-like aliens.

Recommended Reading

Son of Man is a must read simply because it’s Garth Ennis writing the character who made his career. It’s not the best thing he ever wrote with John but it’s nowhere near bad.

Haunted is worth reading just to see the first appearances of some characters who would later be used to great effecter by Mike Carey. Otherwise, you can just skip anything else Warren Ellis wrote during this period without fear of missing anything important to the larger Hellblazer Epoch.

The Final Analysis

Many people wonder what might have been and what stories might have come down the pike later, had Warren Ellis stayed on Hellblazer. They wonder what Warren might have written had he kept going and had a 40 issue run, like Jenkins, Ennis or Jenkins. They consider Warren Ellis’ abrupt departure from Hellblazer to be a great loss.

To put it plainly, I am not one of these people. Indeed, I think Warren Ellis is perhaps the most overrated writer to ever work on Hellblazer.

This is not to say that I don’t like anything he has written. I just don’t believe that an extended Warren Ellis run would have been the new golden age of Hellblazer that all the fans were hoping for had he just been given more time.

One of Ellis’ biggest weaknesses as an author is a tendency to shout editorials through his characters. On a book like Transmetropolitan or anything with Ellis’ own characters, this can be done brilliantly. But the way he uses John in most of his one-shot stories is a bad fit to the character.

Most of Ellis’ one-shot stories are less about John Constantine as a man and more about John Constantine as a myth. While the idea of seeing John from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know that he is 90% bluff and bluster is an interesting one in theory, it just doesn’t seem to work in practice in the stories Locked and The Crib.

Haunted also suffers for being too long by half. The third part is about nothing – nothing but John waking up in the gutter, calling Chas, and threatening Sparrowfart. Even for the master of decompressed storytelling, this is a bit ridiculous. This story could easily have been told in four issues and seems to have been “written for the trade”, even though this book came out before “written for the trade” became a rule of thumb for most publishers.

And I’m going to take a stand here and say that it’s a damn good thing Vertigo decided NOT to publish Shoot. I’m firmly against censorship but this isn’t truly censorship. A publisher deciding not to publish something it doesn’t think will sell or otherwise be bad for business is just standard. And releasing this story so shortly after the Columbine Shootings WOULD have been salt in the wound to a lot of people – particularly since John’s conclusion about why school shootings happen is basically that American Kids are too stupid, cowardly and/or apathetic to fight back when their lives are in danger.

Quite honestly, ignoring all the controversy, Shoot isn’t that good of a story. And Warren Ellis’ Hellblazer run wasn’t all that great.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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