Previously in The Last War in Albion: Ennis’s Hellblazer concluded as it began: Constantine cornered, desperate, and tricking the Devil himself.
“Here, I’m John Constantine and loving it, bastard terrifying with my eyes full of history and my head full of secret things, here in one of London’s collapsed veins, feeding off it.” – Warren Ellis, Hellblazer
Astra, it turns out, is actually a disguised Ellie. The raid at the beginning of the arc that killed Header was to steal some old pages, which turn out to have contained the lore that Ellie/Astra revealed to the First of the Fallen at the beginning of the outset, prompting him to murder the other two demons to whom Constantine sold his soul and begin his final attack on him. All of this was part of Constantine’s plan, set up to allow Ellie to fashion a weapon that would kill the First of the Fallen and to get into position to do so. And so Constantine tricks the Devil, turns his own scheme back on him, and kills him, a final triumphant escalation of the basic pleasure he’d been offering since his second issue.
This was the heart of what Ennis offered on Hellblazer. And it emphatically served as the definitive take on the character. This was no mean feat given that Constantine was created by Moore, had been written by both Morrison and Gaiman, and had already had an iconic run at the start of his ongoing series. He was not a character who seemed in dire need of a reinvention, nor one who even straightforwardly appeared to have room for one. And yet going forward it was Ennis’s Hellblazer that would be the template. Any other writer working on Constantine would now be reacting to Ennis, whether to follow his lead or rebel against it. This was simply how the character worked now.
Implicit within that was a larger vision. It has already been discussed how Moore and Morrison found their success by bringing techniques from more literary fiction to the genres associated with pulp fiction. Crucial to this, though by no means the whole of the story, were the techniques that arose out of modernist writing. Ennis’s approach squares the circle to an extent, adopting both a pulp tradition and a modernist technique that were largely neglected by Moore and Morrison. But unusually, in this case the pulp and modernist traditions were never entirely separate in the first place, and their fusion, and the innovation came purely in the form of fully porting this process over to the medium of comics.
At the center of this is Ernest Hemingway. Unequivocally one of the primary figures of literary modernism, Hemingway, like Ennis, sat at a strange aesthetic remove from his contemporaries. Where writers like T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and James Joyce became famous for starkly difficult and complex prose, Hemingway’s prose had the by now familiar halmarks of terse directness. The beginning of his novel A Farewell to Arms is apropos: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
The plainspoken and concise style is by now familiar. In Hemingway’s specific case, he framed it as what he called “iceberg theory,” which held that what was important in writing was what the writer consciously chose to omit, using the familiar adage that most of an iceberg floats beneath the surface. So, for instance, his short story “The Big Two-Hearted River” is a story of war and PTSD that at no point mentions war, instead simply describing a man camping and fishing. “Hills Like White Elephants,” similarly, is a story about a man trying to convince his girlfriend to get an abortion that does not at any point mention abortion, babies, or pregnancy. These stories rely on the idea that if you depict something with enough clarity then its subtext will become apparent. And certainly Hemingway presents a compelling case that this works.
What’s significant, however, is that Hemingway was an influence on the noir/detective tradition from the start. Raymond Chandler notes, for instance, that “Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett, as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself.” And it’s true that Hemingway and Hammett were roughly contemporary writers, and both allude to each other in their works, each having characters reading the other. Elmore Leonard was similarly influenced, approvingly citing “Hills Like White Elephants” in his account of why you shouldn’t offer physical descriptions of characters. This was a popular, “low” literary tradition, but it was one that integrated the attentions of literary fiction early on, in contrast to, for instance, science fiction and fantasy, which remained resistant to literary influence until the New Wave of the 1960s, and to superheroes, which remained essentially untouched by the literary until Moore.
It would be overstating the case dramatically to suggest that Ennis is using Hemingway’s techniques in comics—for one thing it’s not entirely clear how directly they port over to the medium. All the same, there certainly are aspects of Hemingway’s style Ennis does adapt—it’s notable that he generally leaves his characters’ backstories vague, allowing their present actions to tell us who they’ve been in the past. It’s not until long after Hellblazer wrapped, for instance, that Kit got any sort of detailed backstory, and yet it can’t be said that the reader doesn’t know a lot about her before that point. But beyond the specific question of influence, by using a direct and straightforward style of storytelling while retaining Moore and Morrison’s underlying belief that comics could be serious and tackle weighty subjects, Ennis worked towards the same underlying purpose as them: incorporating literary techniques into comics writing. Ennis worked from a different tradition, and to different effect. The result was less flashy, and its virtues were subtler, but the result was the same: an account account of how comics for mature readers could work, of what the medium and industry could do. This was not a vision designed to fight elaborate magical wars. Indeed, it was a vision with a clear disdain for the pomposity of the wizards. And yet it was a clearly compelling one that was every bit the equal of more pompous and acclaimed writers.
Ennis made a handful of returns to Hellblazer in the years that followed. His first was, to say the least, understated: a 1997 one-shot with Steve Dillon entitled Heartland that carried no overt mentions of its connection to Hellblazer or John Constantine. This was a forty-eight page slice of life comic focusing on Kit’s life in Northern Ireland, unpacking her backstory and her life. By this point Ennis and Dillon were a third of the way into Preacher and, with Gaiman having moved on to novels, had essentially become the marquee stars of Vertigo. In this regard, Heartland read as an idiosyncratic passion project—blockbuster creators doing a small indie project for the sake of proving their credibility at it. Unsurprisingly they have a lot of it; like the Kit-focused issue of Hellblazer with the same name, this is Ennis and Dillon doing a story that consists basically entirely of people talking. Ennis is great at this, as he always had been: it’s the same sort of stuff he did in Troubled Souls, complete with a focus on what the Troubles were actually like for the people stuck living in them. (“I like the way the Troubles slow to a gentle massacre, myself,” muses one character.) And Dillon, multi-talented workhorse that he is, once again excels with forty-eight pages of emotive dialogue. The result is scarcely an illustration of the merits of their Hellblazer work, being as it’s in a completely different genre and style, but it’s an emphatically worthwhile footnote to their iconic run.
Ennis’s second return to the well, in 1998, was more of a mixed bag. Following Paul Jenkins’ run on the comic and before Warren Ellis’s aborted tenure Ennis came back for a five issue story called Son of Man with John Higgins on art. Ennis’s underlying competence with the character is in place, and he has a neat hook in the idea that years ago Constantine was forced into helping a mob boss who wanted his son brought back from the dead. Lacking good options (resurrection itself being impossible), Constantine desperately summoned a demon to possess the dead child’s body. Years later, with the father dying, the demon, still in the unaged body of the son, is primed to take over, and Constantine has to clean up his old mess. It’s a perfectly good premise that has the core pleasures of Ennis’s take on the character in place—a desperate Constantine making deals and reckoning later with the consequences of them.
The actual arc, however, ends up being a sort of split ticket between two not entirely desirable goals. On the one hand the comic is clearly a nostalgia trip—flashbacks to Constntine’s original con give Ennis an opportunity to do a reunion tour of his supporting cast, bringing back Brendan, Header, and the rest for a bit of fond nostalgia. This is admittedly fun—the supporting cast was one of the quiet highlights of Ennis’s Hellblazer after all. But it’s an empty and indulgent sort of goal. On the other hand, Ennis indulges in a lot of the juvenile shock humor that had been a part of his ouvre since his early days in Crisis and that was a a prominent part of Preacher’s appeal, even if the book was always more than that. And so Son of Man has crass jokes like the reveal that the demon Constantine summoned is known as a “fuckpig” who impregnates his mobster father by, as he bluntly explains, cutting a hole in his stomach and fucking him in it, or a sequence where Constantine turns to camera in the middle of sex to happily proclaim “I’m shagging a lesbian,. Do I win a prize?” The combination of vapid nostalgia and crude excess leaves the comic with little of substance to offer. It’s not bad enough to tarnish Ennis’s iconic run, which is largely untouchable anyway, but it’s in no way an argument for returning to the well.
Ennis made a final return shortly after the end of Son of Man to do a ten page Hellblazer story for Vertigo’s Winter’s Edge anthology. Working with Steve Dillon’s brother Glynn on art, the story is an meditative and plotless thing of Constantine sitting in a pub watching a family with kids trying and failing to escape the rain as he muses on childhood and old friends. This allows for a mix of Delano’s supporting cast, some of the supporting characters Moore created for Constantine back in Swamp Thing, and his own side characters, mostly introduced for a panel or two as Constantine, for instance, reflects on tricking a childhood Gary Lester into disturbing a wasps’ nest before reflecting on his untimely death in Delano’s first arc. It’s an elliptical piece, never resolving into a plot so much as an introduction to Constantine that could only possibly be compelling to someone already familiar with the character—an odd and vaguely unsatisfying capstone to Ennis’s time with the character.
The result of these returns is by and large another reminder of the strange selectivity of Ennis’s talent. As with Crisis, where his best work by a mile was the one where he had to prove himself, Ennis is a writer whose talents wax and wane with the circumstances. He is at his best when he has something to prove, whether out of a need to establish himself as with Troubled Souls and Hellblazer, or simply out of a desire to show he’s capable of something, as with Heartland. When left to his own devices, however, the crisp directness of his best work gives way to self-indulgence. At his best he shows an entirely coherent and utterly compelling vision of what mature comics can be. At his worst, he offers an almost self-parodic demonstration of their crassest failure mode. [continued]