Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol concluded at the end of 1992, and was followed by a run by Rachel Pollack published under the new Vertigo imprint.
“I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.”-Alan Moore, Swamp Thing
The conclusion of Morrison’s Doom Patrol run and the concurrent creation of the Vertigo line marks a clear transition point in the War—an endpoint to the initial wave of British comics writers making their name in the American market, and the de facto establishment of a core of books that make up that wave’s canon. Among those books, of course, was Hellblazer, the spin-off of Moore’s Swamp Thing run. Like Swamp Thing, the book spent an initial period after the job of being Alan Moore freed up in a nebulous transition towards the British Invasion, written by Moore’s friend Jamie Delano in a run that is iconic but deeply uneven. By the time of the transition to Vertigo, however, the book was in the hands of the person who was effectively the final person to get in as part of that initial wave, Garth Ennis. Ennis serves in many ways as the transitional figure between the wave that Morrison inaugurated and what came after. He is notable as the only figure whose American debut wasn’t edited by Karen Berger, although she was involved in his hiring to replace Jamie Delano on Hellblazer. He’s also notable as the only one whose professional debut came after the British Invasion had started; Crisis #15, which featured the first installment of Troubled Souls, came out in April 1989, more than a year after Morrison had made their debut in the American market.
That Ennis should be a liminal figure within the chronology is fitting, however, as he is also a liminal figure in terms of the larger aesthetic of the British Invasion writers. For one, as mentioned, he is not actually from Britain, but rather from Northern Ireland. More to the point, however, the sorts of comics he writes were vividly unlike those being written by Morrison, Gaiman, or Milligan at the same time. The differences were not so stark as to render classification within the tradition impossible, but they always made Ennis be an odd man out—a frequent exception to any generalizations one might draw.
Another way of putting this is that Ennis stood out as having a clear style that was distinct from writers who more straightforwardly followed in the Moore tradition. This was clear from his first issue, Hellblazer #41, which began the six-part Dangerous Habits arc. In an era of comics where the shockingly bold reinvention of titles was the coin of the realm, Dangerous Habits stood out. For one thing, this was not a reinvention of some crusty old relic of a concept, nor of a derelict title on the brink of cancellation. John Constantine had only debuted six years earlier, and while Delano as a writer could be obscurantist and undisciplined his Hellblazer run was a beloved classic in its own right. This was not a situation where Ennis faced a relatively open opportunity to do whatever he wanted with a character; instead he came to a book where the bar was set high and had to figure out a way to both clear it and to put one’s own stamp on the material. This is a situation other talented writers have struggled with, even when their work was in practice quite good—consider Peter Milligan on Animal Man or Rachel Pollack on Doom Patrol.
For Ennis, however, the result of this pressure cooker situation was one of the mot shockingly effective debut issues in comics history—the only character revamp of the British Invasion to calmly look at “The Anatomy Lesson” and go “yeah, I can top that.” Ennis achieves this the only way you possibly could, which is to simply not try to repeat any of Moore’s tricks. He does not offer a radical reimagining of John Constantine’s character. He does not offer any sort of transformative new take on the character. Indeed, he does not really change anything about the book. Instead he takes a long look at John Constantine, the unruly trickster magician who can talk his way out of any problem, and gives him lung cancer.
This decision works on a number of levels. For one thing, it’s cruelly funny. Constantine had been smoking like a chimney since Moore debuted him in Swamp Thing. Lung cancer was a vicious and yet obviously logical consequence of this. It’s transgressive, in many ways, because of its obviousness: of course someone who smokes as much as Constantine would be likely to get lung cancer, but equally this is the sort of thing that lead characters in comic books don’t generally have to worry about. Constantine’s smoking is supposed to just be a bit of decoration—a visual signifier of the sort of cunning rogue he is without significant consequence. Constantine is not quite a superhero (although at the time Ennis took over Hellblazer was nominally a regular old DC Universe book), but this still amounted to a savage and unexpected intrusion of realism into the comics. All of which would have been a tedious shock tactic if it weren’t also a brutally compelling threat for Constantine to face. He could not, after all, talk his way out of cancer. There was nothing to trick or negotiate with. It was a terminal illness that left him coughing bits of himself up into the sink, an awful note of body horror with no demons or spells behind it. This was a problem to which the reader would have no obvious solution, making the age-old engine of serial fiction, “how is he going to get out of this,” a genuine and compelling question.
Ennis’s first issue stays almost entirely on this note, to an extent that threatens to tip into overdoing it. Nothing supernatural happens across the entire issue—the closest is a bad dream where Constantine is tormented by the ghosts of all the people he failed and let die over the years. Instead Ennis stays on the note of Constantine’s grim certainty that he’s going to die. The stark and one-note nature of the issue, however, serves both to emphatically sell the fact that John Constantine is going to die and to make sure that the shocking brilliance of the idea comes through. And while the risk of bathos is clearly present, Ennis is aided by the fact that his style is pointedly not excessive. Constantine provides narration throughout the issue, but this never engages in the sort of poetic flourishes that could make a comic in which the lead character spends the whole thing convinced that he’s going to die into something overwrought. Instead his prose is bluntly efficient: “I should die as I lived. Someday I would push it too far. Get too clever. The jaws of hell would snap shut and for once I’d be that little bit too slow. My death would be unique. That isn’t really the problem, though. Maybe I’m still stupid enough to believe that it matters that my death will be so… ordinary… But that’s not really the problem. The problem is simply this: I’m dying.” The style is clipped, the language direct, and the result is that it never feels like it’s trying too hard, so as to both emphasize the core idea of Ennis’s plot and let it stand on its own.
Having set the supernatural hook of the book aside for the entire first issue, Ennis uses his second issue for something of a concrete demonstration of how he intends to handle it. In it Constantine goes to Ireland (unsurprisingly) to visit an old friend, Brendan Finn, in the hopes that he can help. Brendan, it quickly emerges, is an alcoholic magician who has rigged an ingenious scheme to convert a well of holy water in his basement into an endless font of utterly perfect stout via a simple spell that persists as long as some candles stay lit. So they drink and philosophize for a bit, and then Constantine finally admits why he’s there only to find out, in a bleak twist, that Brendan is also dying of liver failure, and indeed doesn’t expect to last the night. It is at this point that the issue comes to an obvious conclusion, as Ennis switches to narration as the pair drink and stagger and sing. “That does it, of course. All we can do now is get rat arsed, and to hell with the lot of it. I’m dying, Brendan’s dyng, I can’t help him, he can’t help me, and God help both of us if he can be bothered. I pinned all my hopes on Brendan, and I’m sure he did the same thing with me and what a waste of time it all turned out as. And thank Christ we did it, because I’m pissed and happy and I’m with my mate.” And then Brendan gently slumps to the floor and says that he’s a bit tired, and suggests John see himself out, and John sadly leaves, knowing he’s saying goodbye to his friend, and the issue reaches what is obviously supposed to be its conclusion.
The trouble is, there’s nine pages left. And as Constantine is leaving, he runs smack into the Devil himself, who has arrived to claim Brendan’s soul, which he apparently sold in exchange for “a collection of the finest drink ever tasted.” The Devil scoffs at the nostalgic, old-fashioned nature of this, but admits to a certain sense of charm, especially at Brendan’s quaint insistence on a clause that the Devil had to close the deal by midnight on the night Brendan died or forfeit the soul. Combined with a sadistic comment about how Constantine’s father is in hell for all his hatred of Constantine, and with the fact that he’s drunk off his ass, this is enough to push him over the edge and decide that he’s going to rescue his friend’s soul. And so he badgers the devil for a drink, scooping two glasses of stout from the spring. The devil drinks it, at which point Constantine mentions that it’s made from holy water, and with a gloriously smug smirk kicks the table with the candles over, transforming the beer back into holy water inside the Devil’s throat before slashing his face with a broken wine bottle and shoving him into the spring. The issue ends with Constantines walking away, noting that having just pulled that trick he’s even more determined not to die and face the consequences.
It’s a smart and efficient bit of business, and a refreshing shift off of Delano, whose approach to Constantine could often be over-engineered, with a real risk of leaving Constantine oddly disengaged from the plot, as was (arguably appropriately) the case with the end of The Fear Machine. Ennis, in contrast, goes for a certain elegance in simplicity. On one level he has Constantine’s first real bit of supernatural engagement immediately go for maximal impact: there are few stakes clearer than “Constantine tries to trick the Devil.” And the mechanism is straightforward, an “oh yes of course” application of a plot point Ennis hides in plain sight. There’s a clear focus on the mechanics here—an insistence on the solution making sense given the setup. Indeed, Ennis puts a great deal of emphasis on clearly setting up his resolutions throughout the issue, flagging at two separate points that Brendan looks poorly and is clearly ill in his own right. And though it’s obviously invisible in the issue itself, much work is also being done to set up his larger run. The conflict with the Devil, for instance, will serve as the metaplot for the entirety of Ennis’s run, while a sequence in which Constantine and Brendan talk about one of Brendan’s exes named Kit sets up one of the run’s most significant characters.
The third issue is similarly focused on setup, introducing several more supporting characters: the archangel Gabriel, who sits as a member of the effete Cambridge Club and makes chit-chat with a neonazi, along with Ellie, a succubus who apparently owes Constantine some favor. In this case the sense of setup is more obvious, with the issue not really forming a self-contained story in the way that Hellblazer #42 did. Instead it sets up the next two issues by having Constantine realize that “I’m running about the place looking for help from other people… but… but I usually rely on myself, don’t I?” And suddenly he’s hit by a scheme that he describes as “sneaky and crazy and up the bloody wall. But it might actually work!” Ennis uses the next issue as a sort of settling of accounts, as Constantine visits his surviving family and the endlessly loyal Chas to say goodbye before summoning a series of demons to make some deals, the details of which are obscured. And then, having completed this, he slits his wrists, and the Devil arrives to watch him die. [continued]