“I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness.”
And so begins the famous Garth Ennis run on Hellblazer. I got into this series because it became apparent that all of my favourite writers had – at one point or another – written for it. Garth Ennis is perhaps my favourite of the bunch. Sometimes he can completely miss the target and deliver something pretty dire, but when he succeeds he’s the best in the business. Just look at Preacher, for my money the greatest comic of all time. So with his brash style and general cynicism around the religious and supernatural, Hellblazer is a perfect fit.
Ennis begins with a bang. Before this, we’d had Jamie Delano’s frequently excellent 40-odd issue run (with a few near-perfect one-shots by Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison). His style is very different to Ennis, preferring to go for a more meditative, surreal take on the character. I’ve seen one online commenter refer to his writing as “hippy shit”, which isn’t at all fair. But it’s true that his writing does have a pretty unique, counterculture feel – with plenty of hard psychotropic drugs thrown in for good measure. Ennis’ take on John is a little more direct, a lot more brash. Without being able to throw f-bombs around like usual, Ennis gets creative with the language. And he doesn’t let it hold him back. This John Constantine is rougher, more aggressive, but still the same guy underneath.
And he’s dying. Lung cancer. It’s interesting to see how a quirk of the character like this comes back to haunt him. John is always puffing on a cigarette, so it makes sense that it’s what gets him in the end. It also mixes the mundane and the magical, the supernatural and the every day. Here’s a guy who makes deals and bargains with devils, dying from a violent but commonplace disease. There’s always been a feel with John Constantine that we’re seeing him past his best. When we meet him he’s already in his thirties and washed out. Through flashbacks we’ve learnt about his life thus far, but the bulk of Hellblazer has been about this man dealing with the sins of his past. And that’s a theme Ennis mines for great effect. From John’s smoking, to his old pal and fellow mage Brendan who is also dying, but from alcohol abuse. This generation of men lived this way, smoking and drinking and not caring about tomorrow. And it all catches up to them eventually.
Except John might just have a way out. As his friends perish, he lives on with the guilt – that’s John’s way of life. And we know the comic isn’t going to kill it’s main character. Like with the best Hellblazer stories, the fun is seeing this mess of a guy navigate the problems and impossibilities of the gods. Whereas Jamie Delano often delved into trippy, surreal solutions (which I love – check out The Fear Machine arc), Ennis has John simply going door to door, asking for help from friends, demons, and even the angel Gabriel himself. That’s what makes John such a fantastic protagonist, particularly in this arc. Against unimaginable evil and horror, he’s not scared (or he is and he masks it with arrogance). Instead, he just stands up and gives hell the finger.
There are demons galore in within the pages of Dangerous Habits and it’s good to see John tackle a few once again. It feels like he’s been dealing with monsters of a much more human nature as of late. The main antagonist here is The First of the Fallen, a figure that clearly holds a lot of sway in Hell but who is bested by John in a humiliating fashion. It feels like Ennis is setting up a big villain for the series, and I’m more than happy for them to flesh out the hellish side of the universe. If nothing else, it gives the artist the ability to draw some truly ghoulish stuff, plenty of which is on show here thanks to William Simpson – the man who went on to draw the storyboards for Game of Thrones. His art isn’t as detailed in the backgrounds but he has a really great noir style, often veering into two-tone panels and almost black and white moments. It works really well, especially in this, John Constantine’s key moment of decision.
Dangerous Habits feels like a fresh start. It forces John to confront the demons of his past – quite literally – and rethink his life. It ends on a melancholy, but bittersweet, note, but one that I hope will shape Ennis’ run on the story going forward. John is not a healthy man. Though he ends the comic in a better physical position than he starts it, he’s broken mentally. So many friends have died in his wake, and it’s understandable that he blames himself for it. One of the best things in this story is the character of Matt, a cantankerous older gentleman that John meets on a cancer ward. Like John, he’s dying too. But throughout the issues, John bonds with him in a way and the pair discuss life and death together. My hope is that some of what Matt said puts John back on the right track, and the ending certainly hints at that. He’s been living on the fringes, in exile, for far too long. It’s time for him to come back.
Though it’s undeniable that things are going to be different going forward. Throughout the course of Dangerous Habits and as a result of John’s Faustian pact, Hell itself has had a shake-up. He may have escaped death this time, but the future doesn’t look good for John Constantine.
Note: I read this arc as part of the fifth volume of the collected trade paperbacks (though it is available on it’s own) I just wanted to review ‘Dangerous Habits’ specifically. I may review more individual arcs going forward.