BRITISH SUB-CULTURE AND HELLBLAZER: PAUL JENKINS' RUN

These pieces first appeared on the defunct Swipe Stuff website. I wrote them a fair few years ago, but thought they were worth reproducing on my blog here for any interested readers. Some facts may be slightly out-of-date e.g. there is now, of course, a Constantine TV series that is slightly better than the Reeves film, and the Jenkins issues are now appearing in collected paperbacks.

“They’re pulling down all the standin’ stones and puttin’ bypasses through the old green lanes. Settin’ up some kind of network so we can all be buried under lorry-loads of French apples. I don’t know what they’re really doing though – they’re afraid of us, mate. They know there’s power in all the old sites an’ that, so they’re trying’ to wipe ‘em from the face of the Earth.”

Crush the Crusties

“I’m with MY aborigines now.”

Paul Jenkins is one of the most overlooked of all the writers to have tackled the long running DC/Vertigo comic series

Hellblazer.

In my previous article looking at Jamie Delano’s run, we looked at the title’s deep ties with British sub-culture and mythology, focusing on how he weaved social commentary, underground movements, Police brutality, myth and folklore and a deep distrust of the Conservative government into a compelling horror/dark fantasy narrative.

Paul Jenkins, (who took the reins after Garth Ennis’ celebrated run ended), picks up and expands on many of the themes started by Delano, which may be a reason why his run was rather less successful that others I could mention; to date his is the only run to not have been collected in trade paperback form, though thankfully this is set to change very soon with the new reprints from Vertigo. Finally the wider public will be given access to some of the most fascinating Hellblazer stories ever put to paper (in my humble, Celtic-mythology loving, crusty-friendly opinion), offering something rather different to the standard ‘Constantine VS a demon from Hell’ archetype.

After an initial burst of issues focusing on Constantine’s adventures in Australia and the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Jenkins brings the character very much home, exploring the character’s roots in the punk band Mucous Membrane, the effects of the then-contemporary Criminal Justice Bill, the wave of road expansion that was going on at the time and the continual hounding of people with ‘alternative’ lifestyles.

With Issue 91 ‘Running the Green Lanes’, Jenkins begins to lay down his own agenda on what his version of Constantine will be. Beginning with a prologue set at the Battle of Edgehill, the first pitched battle of the English Civil War, the story then brings us back to modern (i.e. nineties) London. A newspaper is displayed with the aggressive headline CRUSH THE CRUSTIES – without doubt we’re back home in Tory Britain. This issue introduces a number of Constantine’s friends from his seventies punk days – namely Rich, Michelle, and their son Syder – who will be instrumental in the stories that follow.

Much like in Delano’s run, specifically ‘The Fear Machine’ story arc, the Tories are up to no good again, disrupting ancient sites and standing stones in order to disrupt the power of the British landscape, and by implication, of the British people. This being Hellblazer, ‘the people’ are the punks, the hippies, mystics, squatters, protesters and dole scroungers, something that makes Jenkins’ run on the series so endearing. There is a deep distrust and antipathy toward police and government, and a general cheering on for the losers and the underdogs. By the time we discover the direct ancestor of King Arthur is a red haired, good natured tuneless punk rocker, it’s pretty clear what Jenkins’ version of ‘Englishness’ is, and for this I cannot commend him enough. However, I imagine this didn’t make much sense to a lot of Hellblazer’s US readership. Or to Conservatives.

Road protesters are gathering at Edgehill in order to prevent the building of a motorway – remember this was one of the key political issues in nineties Britain – in a dangerous echo of the past, poised for a violent confrontation with the police. Obvious parallels are drawn with our earlier Civil War, with the country being torn apart by ideological differences. We are introduced to a notion of the ‘British Dreamtime’, a flashback to Constantine’s younger days as an acid-addled punk rocker and a fierce confrontation with the police familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a protest turned sour. It’s a powerful opening salvo that sets the tone for the stories to come.

To Boldly Go Where No Punk Has Gone Before

As the series progresses, things take a headlong dive into British mythology, introducing us to a decidedly sickly looking Green Man, Aleister Crowley and one of his demonic cohorts, Buer, tarot reading forest-gypsies and the fabled, dangerous, town of Abaton.

Abaton is one of my favourite creations, a place that is home to every figure from all of Britain’s folklore and myth. For example, a rather forlorn looking Robin Hood is found nursing a pint in Abaton’s pub (naturally, even a mythical English town has a pub as its focal point). When Constantine takes his punk and crusty friends on a day trip to the shifting mythical town, in the issue ‘Punkin’ up the Great Outdoors’, it is once again suggested that these are the very people who make up the essence of Britain, that they

belong

in Abaton somehow; modern day folk devils, if you will.

This issue also includes a long musing on the general war on the poor and attacks on the rights of everyday people; we’re treated to a

Sun

headline stating: THUGS INVADE GLASTONBURY: FREEDOM NETWORK NASTIES IN NEW BATTLE OF THE BEANFIELDS. Jenkins once again reinforces his political sympathies, clearly aligning British sub-culture with the pre-Christian myths and legends that simply refuse to die.

There are a number of notable one-shots, such as the issue ‘A Taste of Heaven’, which concerns Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’ and a mysterious ancestor of Constantine’s who turns out to be Coleridge’s opium dealer. Elsewhere we meet the ghosts of World War Two soldiers, packs of werewolves out on the Yorkshire moors, and discover what happens when you run round a graveyard ‘widdershins’.

Jenkins vision is most fully realised in the five-part story arc, ‘Last Man Standing’ that takes the action to epic proportions. Meardon (read: Myrrdin, or in English, Merlin) has risen after centuries asleep, tempting the new leaders of Albion to destroy the old sites of power for their own financial gain; his motives are more sinister, wishing the very death of Britain itself, and Arthur is nowhere to be found…

A drum once belonging to Sir Francis Drake (there’s a nice little link back to the Battle of Edgehill that we saw in #91) that beats whenever Britain is in peril has started up once more, the ravens are fleeing the Tower of London, and the all signs in general point toward something very bad about to happen.

The story goes on to include the unlikely true heir of King Arthur, the severed head of Bran the Blessed, a hunt for the Holy Grail, ‘dragon lines’ i.e. the ley energy first mentioned in Delano’s ‘The Fear Machine’, and an attempt to build a motorway bypass through every site of power in the country. To say more would be to spoil things, but let’s just say its an ambitious, exciting and fascinating storyline that ranks up there with

Hellblazer’s

very best.

What makes Jenkins’ run so compelling is the seamlessly, and thematically coherent, merging of mythology and temporary concerns, the mythic and fantastical with a recognisable and affectionate world of punk rock, fags, cups of tea and nights down the pub. It contains all the things that, for me, make Constantine such a great character and

Hellblazer

one of the most enduring comics of recent history.

An absolute must for anyone who is a fan of the series, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, the occult, British history and punk rock. If you can track these issues down either second-hand or online, I thoroughly recommend doing so, or else wait for the reprints that will (eventually) make an appearance.