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 Some facts may be slightly out-of-date e.g. there is now, of course, a Constantine TV series that is slightly better than the Reeves film.
, in case you hadn’t noticed, is one of the greatest long-running modern comics, an enduring account of the continuing adventures of mystic, ex-punk rocker and morally dubious confidence trickster, John Constantine. Initially published by DC, then subsequently by its Vertigo imprint since 1993, it has been published continuously since 1988, and is the only Vertigo title still going, which suggests a lot about the enduring popularity of the character.
For any comics fan, the back-story of this title hardly needs explaining, but let’s do a quick round up anyway – created by Alan Moore as a supporting character in his excellent run on Swamp Thing back in the mid-nineteen eighties, Constantine’s popularity led to the creation of his own title, initially written by the excellent Jamie Delano, who used the character to express many of his own views about the problems of late-eighties British society under the Thatcher government. Delano is also responsible for firmly rooting the character in London, and explained what he was doing with the character with the memorable quote:
“…generally I was interested in commenting on 1980s Britain. That was where I was living, it was shit, and I wanted to tell everybody.”
His final issue was handed in the same week as Margaret Thatcher was forced out of office.
He was followed by such respected writers as Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello and there was also a notable one-shot by Neil Gaiman (‘Hold Me’), illustrated by Dave McKean, which everyone should read.
Hellblazer is, whatever that atrocity of a film starring Keanu Reeves may tell you, an inherently British comic. John Constantine is a Liverpool born resident of London. He is the ex-singer of a very British punk band named Mucous Membrane, he chain smokes, drinks Guinness, wears a dirty trench coat and lives in a world filled with: Nazi skinheads, cigarettes and cups of tea in greasy spoon cafes, anarcho-punks, New Age travellers, football hooligans, the National Front, Merlin, ley lines, the Green Man, and the worst of all evils, the Tory party.
He is not Keanu Reeves.
Obviously each individual writer has had his or her own unique take on the character, but for those interested in, like I am, such themes as psychogeography, British mythology, punk rock, the occult, London, and counter-cultural history, there is a massive amount of rich material to enjoy and explore.
In the work of the first
writer, Jamie Delano, we can see all kinds of examples from the very early issues. The broadly satirical issue ‘Going For It’ paints the yuppies buying up property in suddenly-fashionable East London (sound familiar?) as demons dealing in hellish real estate; ‘Extreme Prejudice’ features the horrific image of four Nazi skinheads being slaughtered by the demon Nergal and remade as a four headed, eight armed monstrosity that tears itself apart due to its constituent parts being rival Arsenal and Chelsea fans. So far, so funny, and relatively lightweight touches that add some nice background colour to the Ramsey Campbell style-horror stories that unfold.
I really feel that Delano went up a gear with the fantastic nine-part storyline ‘The Fear Machine’, which revolves around a Tory/Masonic plot to raise the population’s collective fears and disrupt the natural ley energy of Britain in order to raise a demon known as Jallantilliokan. Constantine, of course, ends up battling against this, falling in with a displaced group of New Age travellers and environmentalists who are on the run in the wake of the Battle of the Beanfield. He himself is on the run after having been painted as a satanic murderer in the tabloid press – Delano clearly detests
, as any sane person does – and is forced to flee London, and his subsequent involvement with the travellers leads him on a journey into the heartlands of Britain. He becomes close friends with a powerful psychic girl named Mercury and her mother Marj, where it soon becomes clear something sinister is brewing; the discovery that an ancient stone circle has been fenced in by a shady quasi-governmental organisation named ‘Geotroniks’, who appear to be attempting to shackle and control the system of ley lines that run across the UK.
(The existence of ley lines were first suggested in 1921 by amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins. They probably aren’t real in any literal sense. But they remain a powerful metaphor for the connections between places of natural and historical significance.)
I have read a number of reviews of this storyline (now collected into a graphic novel) that are rather negative, mainly written by American readers, that oddly seem to downplay the focus on the traveller movement, the Pagan Nation and the various references to, (and depictions of) police brutality, Tory corruption and British mythology that permeate the book. I would argue that these elements are crucial, and vital to the whole fictional world that Constantine inhabits.
At the time, New Age travellers were perceived as a very real social ill and threat to public order, and Delano’s choice of placing them firmly in the action suggests a lot about his sympathies at the time, as well as highlighting the constant efforts of British government over the generations to silence or eradicate any group of people who attempt to deviate from the norm and live a different life. Delano’s bringing to the fore of what we can call occult knowledge – as in the sense of bringing hidden histories to the fore, be it the history of counter-cultural movements, ley lines, or obscure but important aspects of British culture – is key, and is what, for me, makes the comic so compelling.
Inevitably, police raid and smash apart the travellers camp, Mercury is abducted, the travellers flee and end up in hiding with fringe group The Pagan Nation in a group of remote islands off the coast of Scotland; Constantine is forced to return to London as national fear increases and a rash of suicides and Masonic murders increases. The priestesses of the Pagan Nation weave their magic, as the Masonic Tories begin raising some sort of hideous conglomerate, corporate beast-thing. Constantine faces police corruption, the involvement of the KGB, and even a little guest appearance by Neil Gaiman’s sandman, Morpheus. I won’t say any more and spoil the story; needless to say there’s a lot going on here, and in classic
style it’s pretty bleak and low on heroics. The climax is pretty stunning – go read it.
The Fear Machine
is a wonderful example of how British history, mythology and sub-culture is used not only as a backdrop, but as an integral part of a compelling story that displays an utter lack of faith in the police and government, mixing in weird sex-magic, murder-mystery conspiracy theories, cold war espionage and counter cultural hope and optimism. It is a pretty accurate depiction of the mood of the times, taken to fantastical extremes and merged with the horror genre. Delano’s work, and this storyline in particular, serves as a potent example of how the comics medium can be used as social commentary, mixing in various occult references that clearly also appeal to the horror/fantasy crowd, all tied up in compelling narrative.