Thursday, December 7, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Hellblazer Episode Guide, Part Five

For those playing catch-up, here’s

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 and 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 with our 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? And now, a few brief words about the very brief run of...

The Darko Macan Run

Hellblazer #144-145

Best known for his work in Croatian comics, this two-issue story marks Macan’s only story for Vertigo comics and one of his few works written for the American comic book industry not published by Dark Horse. Like Eddie Campbell’s brief series, this comic puts John into the unfamilar magical traditions of another culture. It is an ammusing little story and it’s a shame that Macan did not write something more for Vertigo, on Hellbalzer or any other title.

Hellblazer #144 – Ashes and Honey, Part One

Plot - An investigation into the source of a dog returning from the dead leads John to a Bosnian teen attempting to follow in his Grandfather’s magician footsteps.

Prominent People - First appearances of Kemal (A Bosnian magician), Azra (Kemal’s daughter), Samir (Kemal’s grandson), Huso (a friend of Samir’s), Paul (a boy with an injured eye that Samir temporarily heals), Richie (A rich boy) and Lizzie (Richie’s sister, who Samir raises from the dead)

Hellblazer #145 – Ashes and Honey, Part Two

Plot - John attends the funeral of Kemal and uses his own magic to tidy up some of the loose ends Samir left behind.

Prominent People - First appearances of Zana (Samir’s pregnant sister) and Jimmy Brooks (a local boy, and father of Zana’s child)

And with the brief run of Darko Macan done, that leads us to...

The Brian Azzarello Run

Hellblazer #146-174

There are many Hellblazer fans who think that only writers from the UK should attempt to write John Constantine. They think that JC, being such a quintessentially British character can only truly be understood by someone who grew up in that environment. Looking at the Hellblazer run of Brian Azzarello, it is hard to dismiss this notion as being entirely illegitimate.

I hesitate to say that Azzarello’s run is a series of bad stories. It really isn’t. The broad plot is intriguing and the story is well-written. Yet at the same time, it isn’t really that good. And good or bad there is no denying that what Azzarello has written here, despite the inclusion of a man named John Constantine, is not like any Hellblazer seen before or since.

However, it is my personal opinion that reading Azzarello’s John Constantine is like watching a group of American high school boys attempting to reenact their favorite Monty Python skit in a talent show; you can see the broad brilliance underneath it all, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Hellblazer #146 – Hard Time, Part One

Plot - John Constantine is put away in an American Prison and becomes a source of interest to one of the inmates.

Prominent People - First appearances of Traylor, “Candy” (Traylor’s prison bitch) and four of Traylor’s crew (who go unnamed). We also get introduced broadly to the various factions in the prison – The Crips, The Bloods, The Aryans, The Wise Guys (aka Mafia), The Bikers, The Guards, The Muslims, The Hispanics and The Lifers.

Hellblazer #147 – Hard Time, Part Two

Plot - The various gang leaders turn to the Mr. Stark, head of The Lifers – all telling their tales of how John Constantine has been getting the better of them.

Prominent People - First appearances of Carney and Shorty (two Skinheads), Ignacio (a Hispanic gang leader), Boxer (one of the Black gang leaders), Rakim (one of the Muslim gang leaders), Mr. Stark (leader of The Lifers) and Buzz (Mr. Stark’s right hand).

Deaths - Somehow, magically or through slight of hand, John switches his glass-laced breakfast with that of the brother of the inmate who was trying to kill him.

Hellblazer #148 – Hard Time, Part Three

Plot - To the displeasure of many, John starts working his way closer and closer to the seat of power in the prison.

Prominent People - First appearance of Kelly (a guard) and Weathers (a snitch)

Deaths - Stark shivs Kelly and frames John for the murder, cementing his tough guy rep in the prison and making him “a lifer”.

Hellblazer #149 – Hard Time, Part Four

Plot - Locked in Solitary, John is confronted once again by the ghosts of his dead friends as a prison riot breaks out.

Prominent People - First appearance, as a ghost, of Walter “Lucky” Fermin, though we don’t get his name yet. Brendan, Header and Rick can be seen in the ghostly horde, but the art is so cartoony it’s hard to identify anyone else.

Deaths - Buzz is thrown off a ledge by Stark.

John Screws Up - Reference is made to John somehow being responsible for Lucky’s death.

Hellblazer #150 – Hard Time, Part Five

Plot - With the riot calming down, a hostage negotiator is sent in to talk to the man running the prison – John Constantine.

Prominent People - First appearance of Frank Turro, Special Agent FBI. First mention of S.W. Manor – the rich man Lucky conned.

Deaths - 32 and 33 on the dead tally. John blames himself for Lucky’s suicide. Traylor appears to be in the final stages of being raped to death, John having worked a spell to make him appear to be a beautiful woman.

John Screws Up - We finally learn how John was imprisoned – he turned himself in after his con-artist friend Lucky asked him for help in dealing with the rich man who put a bounty on his head, John refused and then John stood idly by as Lucky shot himself.

Pub Trivia - John makes a deal with Turro – freedom in exchange for handing over the prison to the FBI and agreeing to find a way to go after S.W. Manor for the FBI

Hellblazer #151 – Good Intentions, Part One

Plot - On the road to Doglick, West Virginia, John has a chance encounter with some murderous thugs preying on stranded motorists.

Deaths - 34 and 35 on the dead tally. John somehow does something that allows him to survive a car-crash that kills two thugs and spares the woman they have tied up in the trunk.

Hellblazer #152 – Good Intentions, Part Two

Plot - John comes to Doglick, to tell Lucky’s family of recent events. They in turn invite John to help with the family business.

Prominent People - First appearance of Rose Fermin (an old friend of John’s), Dickie Fermin (Rose’s husband and Lucky’s brother – aka The Smart One), Richie Fermin (Lucky’s other brother - aka The Special One)

John Screws Up - John does something that leaves him downing shots and muttering “My God, what have I done?”. We don’t find out what, though, for another two issues.

Hellblazer #153 – Good Intentions, Part Three

Plot - Still unsettled by what happened the night before, John confronts Richie and Dickie and finally goes to look up Rose.

Pub Trivia - Contains a flashback to John’s punk days and his meeting Rose in London.

Hellblazer #154 – Good Intentions, Part Four

Plot - Something in the woods of Doglick is eating children. And John watches the tape of “what happened.”

John Screws Up - We finally find out what happened two issues previous – John, while drunk, received oral sex from Richie’s dog, while Dickie and Richie filmed it.

Pub Trivia - Contains a flashback to John’s punk days and his meeting Rose in London.

Hellblazer #155 – Good Intentions, Part Five

Plot - As the townsfolk hunt a monster boar, John readies himself to fight a different battle - and rescue two women from a different monster.

Deaths - 36 on the dead tally. Dickie is charged by the giant boar – a creature John seems to control, somehow.

Pub Trivia - Contains a flashback to John’s punk days and his meeting Rose in London.

Hellblazer #156 – Good Intentions, Part Six

Plot - The boar is dead and Dickie with him, but John – as usual – has managed to screw things up completely.

Prominent People - First mention of Marjorie, Lucky’s widow, whom John came looking for six issues back.

Deaths -Dickie is confirmed dead. Richie’s dog also dies a messy death.

John Screws Up - John thought he was saving a girl being held hostage by Richie and Dickie and Rose in the bargain. It turns out that the entire town is in on the sex-tape business, with Dickie and Richie taking the video footage they shoot with all the townsfolk, selling it on the Internet and supporting the town with the proceeds.

Pub Trivia - Contains a flashback to John’s punk days and his romance with Rose in London

Hellblazer #157 – “And Buried”

Plot - John and Agent Turro meet up, with Turro sending John on to the town of Highwater. Meanwhile, a group of thugs worry about a man who may not be quite dead.

Hellblazer #158 – Freezes Over, Part One

Plot - Snowed into at a bar in a small town, John finds a mystery when a man turns up dead, stabbed by an icicle.

Prominent People - First appearances of Keith (a bartender), Hope (his mail-order bride), an unnamed trucker, an unnamed corpse, Alma (an old woman), Rudy (an old man), Pete (a local), Jay (a father), Marnie (a mother) and Doris and Ellie (Jay and Marnie’s two daughters)

Deaths - 37 on the death Tally. We don’t find out until #161, but John talked a killer into committing suicide somehow.

Hellblazer #159 – Freezes Over, Part Two

Plot - The locals tell John the legend of the Ice Man monster, as a group of desperate men join the folks trapped in the bar.

Prominent People - First appearance of Dwight, Lamar and Waylon (three thugs)

Hellblazer #160 – Freezes Over, Part Three

Plot - The situation becomes tense as the three would-be robbers take hostages.

Hellblazer #161 – Freezes Over, Part Four

Plot - With lives on the line it falls to John and Pete to save everyone – with a little help from “The Ice Man”.

Deaths - Lamar bleeds to death. Dwight is shot by Hope. Waylon is stabbed with an icicle by Pete.

Hellblazer #162 –Lapdogs and Englishmen, Part One

Plot - Mostly told in flashback, John recalls a story of the punk days when he was hired to steal the Clock of Rasputin – supposedly able to tell the future.

Prominent People - Appearances by Gary Lester and Chas Chandler. First appearance of Angie White (another aspiring punk magician) and SW Manor (aka Stanley)

Hellblazer #163 – Lapdogs and Englishmen, Part Two

Plot - John and friends pull a con on Stanley, as Angie White, armed with a book that tells the life story of whoever you want, is horrified by what she reads on John Constantine.

Deaths - Angie White is killed by a mysterious figure.

John Screws Up - John mocks the idea of a magic artifact that tells the future here. Had he been kinder to Angie in the last issue, he might have learned that such a thing DID exist.

Pub Trivia - This issue marks one of the few times Chas seems to be actively involved (i.e. doing something besides driving) in one of John’s scams. The figure that kills Angie seems to be The First of The Fallen, though we never get a look at his face. He talks about the role he plays in John’s life and preferring that nobody knows the real role he plays. This begs the question – if it IS the First of the Fallen and he knew of what was coming in his life with Constantine, why didn’t he try to stop it?

Hellblazer #164 – Highwater, Part One

Plot - John tracks Marjorie Fermin to the racist militia-run town of Highwater.

Prominent People - First appearance of Marjorie Fermin, Jimmy and Kyle (two skinheads), Mister Gage (the skinhead leader) and Gwynneth (Mister Gage’s daughter)

Hellblazer #165 – Highwater, Part Two

Plot - Marjorie takes John to meet the man who changed her life, as the neo-Nazis arm themselves for a fight.

Prominent People - First and last appearance of Wolfman, an arms dealer.

Deaths - Wolfman is beaten to death after suggesting that Neo-Nazis would be cured of their racism by sleeping with a Black woman.

Hellblazer #166 – Highwater, Part Three

Plot - Angered by his followers incompetence, Gage strikes out at Jimmy. Meanwhile, John volunteers to clean up the mess and then suggest to Jimmy and company that Gage is waiting for a bigger test of their abilities.

Prominent People - First appearance of Shawn, a friend of Mister Gage. SW Manor and one of his employees also appear briefly.

Hellblazer #167 – Highwater, Part Four

Plot - John raises a golem to fight the neo-Nazis, as S.W. Manor pays a visit to Mister Gage.

Deaths - Jimmy is shot by the police while playing with his son and daughter.

John Screws Up - John frees Marjorie of Gage’s influence and Lucky’s ghost tells him the reason for his suicide even as he thanks John for his good deed. The reader does not read the reason, but it is enough to make John angry enough to try and punch Lucky and to tell Marjorie that she wasn’t worth saving or the effort of hating.

Hellblazer #168 – A Fresh Coat of Paint

Plot - John wins at Bingo, hires a hooker and meets up with Agent Turro one more time.

Pub Trivia - Turro changes look (again) but this is explained as being a result of his undercover work. Also, John finds out that on paper, he is legally dead following the prison riot.

Hellblazer #169 – Chasing Demons

Plot - John sits in a bar and drinks with strange strangers. Meanwhile, S.W. Manor has his cruel fun with a priest.

Prominent People - First appearance of Fredo (a guard), Father Sean (a priest with a photographic memory) and confirmation that S.W. Manor and “Stanley” from “Lapdogs and Englishmen” are the same man.

Hellblazer #170 – Ashes & Dust In The City of Angels, Part One

Plot - Turro steps into investigate a mysterious death at a Los Angeles S&M club – the mysterious, fiery death of one John Constantine.

Prominent People - First appearances of Detective Havlik (a cop) and Agent Gucardi (a coroner).

Pub Trivia - The fake clock of Rasputin is scene, conforming S.W. Manor’s identity more than the use of the name “Stanley” the issue before did.

Hellblazer #171 – Ashes & Dust In The City of Angels, Part Two

Plot - Turro continues to interview witnesses to John’s death – apparently caused by spontaneous combustion. Meanwhile, S.W. Manor is being haunted in his mansion by... John Constantine.

Hellblazer #172 – Ashes & Dust In The City of Angels, Part Three

Plot - Turro’s interviews continue, as S.W. Manor tells Father Sean about how he has used his fortune to hunt the paranormal – all the things his money could not touch – and how he hired Lucky Fermin to get back at John Constantine.

Pub Trivia - The plot is finally explained. S.W. Manor, who had developed a hated for John Constantine during “Lapdogs and Englishmen” paid Lucky Fermin, who knew John, to contact him and then kill himself, framing John for the murder, with all the money going to care for Lucky’s wife, Marjorie. S.W. was content to see John trapped forever, not expecting the riots to occur or John to die. This enables John, thought dead by the world thanks to Agent Turro’s interference, to surprise S.W. at the S&M bar and begin the slow process of seducing him.

Hellblazer #173 – Ashes & Dust In The City of Angels, Part Four

Plot - Turro and Havlik finally get the name of S.W. Turro in connection go John’s murder. Meanwhile, S.W. Manor continues his story for Father Sean and tells him of how his hate for John became love and how John promised to use his magic to give S.W. want the wanted most – a chance to talk to the parents he lost as a boy.

Hellblazer #174 – Ashes & Dust In The City of Angels, Part Five

Plot - As the LAPD and Agent Turro storm Manor’s manor, S.W. Manor finishes his story and how he and an equally vengeful Richie Fermin joined forces to kill John Constantine.

Deaths - We find out the burned body was actually Richie Fermin. S.W. Manor kills himself, thinking he really did kill John. Agent Turro is killed in the assault on the mansion.

Recommended Reading

The good news is that Azzarello’s entire run is available in trade-paperback format, so there’s no trouble getting it if you want to read it.

The bad news is that there is almost no reason WHY you’d want to read it, apart from a Constantinesque desire to stare at the train wreck.

In all honesty, it’s not that writing itself is BAD, really. It’s just that it isn’t Hellblazer.

Go back and reread all these entries. Notice how short they are? That’s because there’s nothing worth noting that relates to the overall story of John Constantine. There’s no supporting or returning cast worth caring about. No send-ups of British politicians worth noting. Not even any particularly noteworthy deaths. Gruesome deaths, to be sure, but nothing that truly inspires a reaction past “Well, that’s horrible... but what does it have to do with anything?”

The story of a man wandering the backwoods of the United States observing strange, sick things happening and taking a hand when he can could be a good one – but John Constantine is not the character to tell such a story with. Had this been told with a new character, it would have been a good story. In metaphorical terms, the plot is banging its’ head against the brick wall of the foundation of John’s character and it is doing little more than knocking itself senseless.

The John seen here is a total bastard who is driven to do the right thing only by a sense of guilt. There is no laughing magician – only a sneering sociopath. And it doesn’t work. At all. John can be a bastard yes, but underneath it all is the man screaming at the unfairness of the universe and trying, in his own way, to fight against it.

The Final Analysis

Years before Warren Ellis became a sad parody of himself, Brian Azzarello wrote this series of Hellblazer stories that were a sad parody of Warren Ellis’ Hellblazer stories. While some good stories have been done with the basic plot of “John investigates something weird and bad stuff happens”, the best Hellblazer stories have centered upon John in a mess of his own making or trying to help a friend and making things worse. It’s no shock then that the worst stories, for the most part, have involved John just being there as something bad happened and reacting to it.

Despite being an anti-hero, John works best as an active character, not a reactive character. Strictly speaking, there’s not much interest to be found in a bloke who is a total bastard who just happens to observe weird things happening. That’s all the Azzarello run is, really – a bunch of stories where John the unshakable just wanders around, stuff happens and eventually we get an explanation.

Mistakes in the art, such as switching between the hair-color of Richie’s brothers in Good Intentions and Agent Turro’s ever changing appearance (bald with a goatee in Hard Time to short-haired, balding and beardless at the start of Freezes Over to slightly-shaven headed and beardless in Highwater (which is explained away as being not an art mistake, but a serious attempt at disguise) only further complicated the confusion many readers had regarding this series.

Indeed, it took me three re-readings to figure out exactly WHAT THE BLOODY HELL HAPPENED during the last five issues.

This is decompressed, ass-backwards storytelling hitting an all-time low and even in the trades, like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you just want to grab Azzarello and yell “Get on with it!”

Thankfully, for all Hellblazer fans, things were about to get a lot better very quickly.

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

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