An Underwater Man (Book Three, Part 45: Elmore Leonard, Royal Blood)
Previously in Last War in Albion: Garth Ennis tore onto the American comics scene with an arc in which John Constantine gets lung cancer and pisses off the Devil.
“Day after fugitive day; footstep after shuffling footstep; heartbeat after anxious heartbeat, my enemies hunt me down. Down to the rocky bottom of this sunken city’s ruined heart. I am an underwater man.” – Jamie Delano, Hellblazer
This provides the cliffhanger into the final part of Dangerous Habits proper, in which Constantine’s scheme is revealed: he’s sold his soul to two other demons with whom the Devil (now named as “First of the Three,” eventually to simply become First of the Fallen in an effort to reconcile Ennis’s take on hell with what Gaiman had been doing in Sandman) is endlessly feuding, kept from open warfare by an extremely tenuous alliance, meaning that for anyone to claim it would start a war that would destabilize hell completely. And so the demons are left with no choice other than to keep him from dying. The issue ends with a splash page of Constantine gleefully showing all three of them the middle finger, wholly cured of cancer at their expense.
It is difficult to seriously contest the claim that this is the single most definitive moment for John Constantine as a character. It takes the core pleasure of the character—that he’s a cunning bastard one step ahead of everybody else—and puts it in a context that’s at once audacious and simple. “Selling your soul three times so the demons fight over it” is an eminently straightforward concept that explains itself, but cheating the Devil to cure your cancer is staggeringly gutsy. To pull off both at once while he flicks the demons off and says “up yours” is utterly perfect—a plot beat that literally anybody who is inclined to like John Constantine will enjoy.
Ennis followed the conclusion of Dangerous Habits with an epilogue issue in which Constantine runs into Kit, Brendan’s ex-girlfriend who he’d spent time setting up a few issues before. The effect of this is to set up a new and unusual status quo for Constantine, in which his life both has a bigger source of instability (in that he’s made a mortal enemy of the Devil) and a newfound anchor that made that instability more of a threat. Perhaps more to the point, however, it established a fundamentally delightful character; Kit was a no nonsense character who was at once unimpressed by Constantine and sympathetic to him. (As she explains over coffee following their reunion, “I used to watch you bullshitting loads of people and I had to admit, you were bloody good. I think you could have foxed me completely if you wanted to, but you didn’t. You always came to us because you wanted a break from all that, didn’t you?”)
It is clear, looking at Dangerous Habits, that Ennis was not merely a singular talent within the British Invasion but that he was operating from a fundamentally different set of influences than those more directly caught in the escalating Moore/Morrison dichotomy. The tight, efficient construction of his storytelling and the focus on narrative elegance instead of ostentatious cleverness is a fundamentally different way of working, and has its own roots. The most obvious of these, especially given the nature of Constantine as a character, are in the pulp tradition of crime and detective fiction. In terms of the early 1990s the premier writer in the genre was Elmore Leonard, who Ennis would later namecheck in Preacher by way of mocking Neil Gaiman for, broadly speaking, being a pompous twat.
Leonard’s prose is famous for its concision and directness—an unfussy and terse descriptive patter unafraid to spend long stretches in dialogue. Quoted, there is nothing obvious or remarkable about it, just as no page of Dangerous Habits can readily be isolated and presented so as to show its brilliance. The opening to his 1985 novel Glitz, which served as his breakout into mass appeal, is indicative. “The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming” is a solid opening sentence to be sure—a catchy number that raises enough questions to propel the reader forward. But what follows is ruthlessly functional: “The guy approached out of the streetlight on the corner of Meridian and Sixteenth, South Beach, and reached Vincent as he was walking from his car to his apartment building. It was early, a few minutes past nine.” Nothing in this immediately demonstrates why a chorus of critics and peers proclaimed Leonard one of the best prose stylists of his generation. It is functional, workmanlike, and efficient, and seemingly nothing more. Leonard makes it look easy, much as Ennis does, and in doing so foregoes the ostentatious clatter of self-professed genius.
Leonard and Ennis also share a love for plots that center around schemes and cons. For instance, Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, released not long into Ennis’s Hellblazer run, floats around multiple viewpoint characters on various sides of a complex con. As with Ennis, especially in his later Hellblazer work, the con has a lot of moving parts, relying on the clarity of Leonard’s prose to keep it all organized. Again, the mark of success is very much the invisibility of the technique; if the complexity of Rum Punch’s con stood out and was impressive than Leonard would have failed at the things he was setting out to do.
Leonard codified these approaches in an oft-quoted essay setting out ten rules for writing, in which he sets out a guide on how to “remain invisible” as a writer. These rules vary—some, such as “never open a book with weather” and “never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’” seem strangely hyper-specific, but others serve to map out the sort of terse style Leonard prefers. The one-two punch of “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue” and “never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’” establish clear constraints on dialogue that enforce an aggressive simplicity. Likewise, his admonitions to “avoid detailed descriptions of characters: and “don’t go into great detail describing places and things” serve to focus the writing aggressively on plot and event. Perhaps the bluntest is his simple injunction to “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Leonard does not entirely hold to this rule—there’s any number of places where he disappears into detailed technical accounts of things that no shortage of readers surely let their eyes drift over. But the real point is less a description of how, precisely, to write than a demonstration of an aesthetic ideal.
This helps in understanding how they apply to Ennis. Many of them, after all, do not translate straightforwardly to comics, which use their visual dimension for much of what Leonard advises against doing in prose, but Ennis nevertheless gets at their spirit. His voiceovers in Dangerous Habits are a simple and plainspoken account of Constantine’s train of thought, as opposed to Moorean flights of fancy, and he doesn’t tarry in rich symbolism or sections whose relation to the overall story is largely metaphoric. In this regard he holds to Leonard’s eleventh and most fundamental rule: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Ennis’s comics style is by and large an effort not to have a visible style. This immediately distinguishes him from Moore and Morrison, neither of whom have ever sought invisiblity in their lives. They are writers who thrive on material that sounds like writing—who repeatedly strive to make themselves visible. They do so thrillingly—and Leonard freely admits to liking writing that violates his rules so long as it’s done well, noting in his descriptions of most rules at least one example of a writer who violates it with aplomb. But visible genius is far from the only sort, and it took fewer than six issues of Hellblazer for Ennis to establish himself as a master of another kind.
For all Ennis’s immediate triumphs, the issues in the immediate wake of Dangerous Habits were largely uneven. His subsequent arc—a two-parter about arson at a pub—sparkles in scenes where he’s just depicting ordinary people at the pub, but finds itself stumbling when it comes to the supernatural beats. Hellblazer #49, a Christmas piece in which Constantine cheers up a dejected Lord of the Dance, an ancient pagan spirit of revelry who wrongly believes he has nothing to give to a modern Christianized world, is a surprisingly charming bit of fluff given Ennis’s tone and reputation, and is clearly the highlight of the stretch as well as one of the first collaborations between Ennis and Steve Dillon, who would each go on to be the other’s most significant creative partner. The nadir of the stretch, meanwhile, came in Hellblazer #50, an oversized anniversary issue that sees Ennis attempt a formalist structural flourish of splash pages alternating between narrating Constantine’s life story and that of the King of the Vampirs, who serves as the antagonist for the issue. The problems are severalfold. First, this sort structure just isn’t what Ennis is good at; his “poetic” narration ends at once bland and overwrought. Second, the King of the Vampires is simply a misfire—an obvious second string antagonist. Constantine only flipped off the Devil five issues ago, and asking the reader to invest in an edgy vampire as a threat worth pages of florid prose is a tough sell, and Ennis never really comes close to selling the parallelism between Constantine and the King of the Vampires.
But even at a lull, Ennis has a basic, efficient competence, and after a fill-in issue by John Smith he comes roaring back in full form with the “Royal Blood” arc, which sees Constantine begged by a prominent member of the House of Lords to investigate a series of killings that, it quickly emerges, are being perpetrated by a demonically possessed Prince Charles. Ennis does not go quite so far as to name him; the script merely goes with “very prominent member of the royal family,” and there’s a bare level of plausible deniability in the art, but it’s clear enough what the intention is, and doubly so when the possessed royal’s coke-addled brother attempts to convince Constantine to sell his brother out so he can get closer to the top job. (And if it’s still not sufficiently clear this brother is Prince Andrew, Ennis has him later screaming at Constantine in fetish gear.) These deliberately inflammatory details, along with things like the nearly full-size panel of Prince Charles pinned by two swords into an occult circle, his face covered with blood served by and large to turn the vague anonymity from timidity into a well-chosen restraint, making it so that the excesses Ennis indulges in come across as a endearingly naughty transgressiveness instead of overkill, which would have been a real risk of the comic had openly named Prince Charles. It puts Ennis in the sympathetic position of rebelling against whatever empty suit at DC said he couldn’t name Prince Charles. Notably, this works regardless of whether any such censorship happened; the ostentatiousness with which Charles is not named implies a faceless editorial killjoy, and so everything Ennis does indulge in becomes a well-struck blow against the bastard, existent or not.
Of further interest are the details on the demon, which is revealed in Hellblazer #54 to have previously been summoned by the freemasons to possess Sir William Gull, who had been asked by Queen Victoria to clear up a royal scandal when Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert had impregnated a Whitechapel sex worker, but who was blanching at what would be required. Once possessed by the demonic Calabraxas, however, Gull had no problem becoming Jack the Ripper. This conspiracy theory, first proposed by Stephen Knight in a 1976 book entitled Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, was notably also used as the basis for Alan Moore’s From Hell, which was well in progress by the time of Ennis’s story. Where Moore uses the (clearly false) conspiracy theory as a jumping point for a sprawling philosophical meditation on the nature of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, Ennis takes a far more direct attack. For him, the conspiracy theory is a launching point for a comic full of blood, murder, and demons. And yet in this far simpler approach is a sort of brutal clarity.