Previously in Last War in Albion: Ennis wrote a blistering satire of the Royal Family featuring Prince Charles being possessed by Jack the Ripper.
“There was a smell of magic somewhere, like the blue sparks smell of ozone at a funfair.” – Neil Gaiman, Sandman
The climactic realization—that the guy who asked for Constantine’s help had in fact summoned the demon into Prince Charles—is framed in blunt and power-mad terms. “I wanted to restore the monarchy of this country to its rightful power. I wanted a king who would have the iron will to rule absolutely. And believe me, he was willing. He would be backed by the military and advised by me. There would be no parliament. No opposition. Nor radicals. No liberals. No thinkers. No immigrants. There would simply be the rulers and the ruled.” When Constantine raises the obvious objection to putting Jack the Ripper on the throne as absolute monarch, namely that “the bastard eats people, you headcase,” the reply is blunt and incisive: “What has our royal family ever done except feed on the blood of the people?” It’s brilliantly incendiary stuff, aggressive and angry and to the point—the political fury of the Delano era crystalized into brutal and clarifying effectiveness.
Perhaps the most crucial thing to understand about Ennis is the way in which he both clearly fits into the larger British Invasion scene and feels fundamentally different from all of his peers. Were one to create an aesthetic geneology the bulk of the British Invasion scene would branch off from Alan Moore. Some of these branches imitated and built on Moore—most obviously Neil Gaiman, of the early crowd—while others like Morrison and Milligan had more complex and contested relationships. Nevertheless, all of them arrived in the US market ready-made to be compared to Moore. Ennis did not. Instead, Ennis was a parallel branch from the generation before Moore, branching off from a common influence in a direction as distinct from Moore as Gaiman and Morrison were from each other. This common parent was Pat Mills, and nowhere is that influence clearer than in Royal Blood.
Mills has come up several times already. This is inevitable—he was, after all, the star of the British comics scene prior to the great Moore-led explosion. And he was a star with a long-lived career, producing major works in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. These later works such as Marshal Law and World War III, written after Moore had revolutionized the industry, revealed a writer wholly capable of thriving in the auteur-driven world of post-Moore comics. His best attributes in that period were a sense of utterly uncompromising political ferocity—a willingness to just go for it that led to comics with a sense of purity of vision entirely unmatched by his peers. But the bulk of his career had existed in a world where British comics were aggressively low-rent and grubby things.
Even in this period, however, Mills stood out. He was at the forefront of three separate magazines that could fairly be described as transforming the landscape of British comics, beginning with Battle Picture Weekly in 1975 and continuing with Action and 2000 AD, where he co-created the flagship Judge Dredd. His work through this period showed an impish, satirical edge—a memorable sequence at the beginning of Invasion! in 2000 AD saw the invading Volgans publicly execute a barely veiled Margaret Thatcher clone on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a clear antecedent to the sorts of games Ennis would later play with Prince Charles’s identity in Royal Blood. But Invasion! was a far cry from the hard-edged politics of Third World War—the strip’s primary tone is more clearly set when protagonist Bill Savage blows away a Volgan with his shotgun while proclaiming “my war’s just begun!” Which is to say that it’s a strip of violent and over the top action akin to many of the other classic strips Mills wrote—killer animal gorefests like Shako and Hookjaw, or the sword and sorcery epic Sláine, which combined a meticulous level of research into Celtic mythology with a barbarian protagonist who named his axe Brainbiter. Mills was an unequivocal master of this sort of thing—a writer who could take gloriously stupid comics and be tremendously smart about them, with a thrilled directness and sense of mischief that would be picked up and run with by Ennis.
The pinnacle of this was Charley’s War, which Mills wrote for Battle Picture Weekly in the late 70s/early 80s. This was a comic Ennis read as part of his larger interest in war comics while growing up, and was a major influence on him and, for that matter, British comics at large. The core dynamic of Charley’s War was a fairly standard setup for British war comics—one Mills nicked from the already popular The Bootneck Boy. In it, a young and patriotic boy enlists in the army to fight the First World War despite being underage. The content of the comic, however, was bracingly anti-war, with Mills using his copious research to bluntly depict the horrors of trench warfare. The second strip, for instance, had Charley working to dig a trench when he uncovered a body. The third, meanwhile, consisted of Charley comforting a dying friend. This was a ruthless and brutal strip of open horror—an obvious antecedent to the white hot fury that would animate Third World War.
But Charley’s War was still a war comic in a popular weekly anthology, and was obliged to deliver a requisite dose of action. And Mills obliged, weaving his blunt depiction of the horrors of war with bracing action sequences. An early set piece is the Battle of the Somme, where Mills takes care to depict the lethal idiocy of the British attack, but also tells a rolickingly exciting action story. Mills notes that he struggled with this, recalling how he “tried to ensure Charley’s War… could never glorify war,” recalling a soldier in Northern Ireland he interviewed while researching Third World War who cited reading war comics as a child as part of why he became a soldier. But equally, Mills had to entertain or get his strip cancelled, and he obliged.
One of this key techniques for this was a sense of black humor, an approach highlighted in one of the most famous Charley’s War strips, which opens with the debut of Britain’s first tanks. The reader’s first sight of these so-called “Mothers of Destruction” comes as one of them goes crashing into a French farmhouse as the soldier piloting it notes that steering the machine is “all a bit technical! Driving tanks is a funny old business, you know that?” Subsequently Charley and his friends return to the trenches, where his friend Ginger leads him to look at a humorous sign someone planted in the trenches only to, in the strip’s final panel, be swiftly slain by a shell. This led straight into the start of the next strip, which sees a dazed Charley carrying a bag. He’s stopped by another soldier who demands to know what’s in the bag, accusing him of stealing supplies, to which Charley explains, haltingly, that no, the bag contains his friend’s remains. It’s a brutal sequence, and one Ennis recalled vividly, noting the way in which it came “early in the strip [so] that you weren’t used to Charley’s mates having such a high turnover rate,” describing it as “a genuinely touching and horrible moment. I was only eight or nine, but I was able to recognize what was going on.” And there’s a clear line from this to the approach Ennis took in his own work, with its similarly brutal clarity and morbid humor.
Ennis followed Royal Blood with another series of short stories—a single issue with art by David Lloyd called “This is the Diary of Danny Drake” that, while unremarkable, was still a demonstration of Ennis’s growing confidence and ability to do an effective one-off. The two-parter that follows, meanwhile, shows several of Ennis’s strongest suits. The plot is deliberately ghoulish—Constantine and Chas investigate a mysterious cadaver-stealing facility after Chas’s recently deceased uncle is graverobbed. But Ennis balances this against his peerless knack for small personal moments, a contrast most clearly shown in the opening pages of the story. It begins with four wide shots of faceless orderlies pushing carts around, with the clear reveal that they’re carts full of bodies on the fourth panel. “It just wasn’t fir,” begins the narration, in a third person limited perspective from the souls of the dead people. The second page shows one of the corpses being strapped into a chair in front of some sandbags, then breaks off to several panels telling one panel vignettes about the dead. “Jim Masters never sold his seven acres, no matter how much he was offered. Every night he watched the sun dip behind the hills, with a whiskey in his hand and old Sal at his feet. What was he going to spend the money on anyway?” goes one. “Gerry Connolly lost his virginity at the end of a perfect sixteenth birthday party. He never saw the girl again. He never forgot her either.” And then a bunch of men prepare a ballistics test, opening fire on the dead body, which explodes in horrendous gore. “It made heaven worthless, this kind of thing,” Ennis narrates. “It just wasn’t fair.”
An essential part of the staggering weight this sequence has comes down to the work of Steve Dillon, who returned for art for this two-parter and would soon take over as regular artist on the book in general. Dillon was by this point an industry veteran of over a decade, having gotten his start back in Hulk Comic doing various strips, most notably with Steve Moore. He continued to work with Moore in Doctor Who Magazine, co-creating Abslom Daak and then the lightly reskinned Axel Pressbutton for Warrior. He did a bevy of IPC work, including the first couple of Alan Moore’s Abelaard Snaaz stories before making the jump to the US, first as the inker on Skreemer and then moving to Animal Man as the artist after Tom Veitch took over for Milligan before finally teaming up with Ennis to prove that he could draw characters whose names didn’t begin with A.
Dillon’s style was of a kind with several of the other major British artists to emerge in that period like Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland—an impeccably clean-lined approach that prioritized clear storytelling first and foremost. But where Gibbons and Bolland took this approach in a hyper-detailed direction that could, especially in Gibbons case, be fairly criticized as stiff, Dillon offers a fluid expressiveness. Somewhat unusually he is adept both at action (and particularly brutal violence) and at emotive dialogue scenes. This combination, combined with the underlying simplicity and clarity of his linework, was a natural fit for Ennis’s style, a fact Ennis discovered drinking with him in 1990 one night when “something audibly clicked. After everyone else had passed out, we sat up ‘til dawn and killed off a bottle of Jameson, talking about what we wanted to do in comics—what we thought could be done with them, what the medium was for. I can recall a sort of mutual ‘Oh yes, you. You’re the one. You get it.’”
Prior to Dillon’s taking over on art Will Simpson had one more three-issue run, which saw Ennis return to Ellie, the succubus from the third issue of Dangerous Habits and fill in her backstory as she comes to Constantine seeking help in escaping the wrath of the First of the Fallen, who has learned of her friendship with Constantine. It emerges that the favor she owes Constantine is because he helped her avoid the consequences of a forbidden romance she had with an angel, which resulted in a monstrous child taken away by heaven. This is interesting on several fronts, not least that it anticipates a key aspect of the premise of Ennis’s later Preacher. But it also serves as something of a theological statement for Ennis, who literalizes the imagery of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell but finds in the interplay not a generative tension but utter horror. In Ennis’s Hellblazer heaven and hell are both fundamentally authoritarian forces whose interactions with the world only leave ruin and destruction to the ordinary people caught in their wake. [continued]