Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blogathon 05: Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits

[Discussed in this post: Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits (#41-46).]

Garth Ennis's tenure on Hellblazer pretty much made his career and is still considered by many to be the best run by anyone on the book. He begins it in a ballsy fashion: he gives John Constantine lung cancer. There are a few constants with John and one of them is silk cuts (brand of cigarettes). That he would get lung cancer isn't surprising in some ways, but it is somewhat surprising given that that sort of thing doesn't happen to the stars of comic book series. But, Hellblazer is the sort of book where that happens. Characters die, they go through life changes... well, not so much John Constantine, actually. But, other characters do. John is sort of like House in that writers will throw out the idea of him changing his ways and his life and it will stick for a few issues before he returns to his old self, because that's more interesting. I don't know how much of that happened prior to Ennis coming on board here and giving John lung cancer, but it's happened quite a bit since.

Ennis writes John learning the news and reacting to it well. He takes it as hard as you'd expect, wallowing in self-pity, especially when he learns that the demon blood in his veins (something that happened previously) is something that has shown up as strange to the doctors. There's no chance of a cure. He will die. He meets another guy dying of cancer and they strike up a little friendship based on their mutual suffering. It seems pretty hopeless, though.

In the second issue, Ennis introduces Brendan, an Irish friend of John's who he goes to see and, it turns out, is also dying of cancer. For Brendan, it's his liver because his primary vice is alcohol. During that last night with Brendan, Brendan reveals his talent for turning holy water into beer and that comes in handy when the First of the Fallen comes to collect Brendan's soul in exchange for lending him those magical abilities and for helping him acquire the best collection of alcohol possible. However, the First of the Fallen has until midnight to collect or the deal's off. John tricks him by making sure the beer turns back to holy water after the First of the Fallen has drank it, burning him from the inside and delaying it long enough for Brendan to go to Heaven. In the process, he pisses off the First of the Fallen, which is handy somewhat.

In the following issues, John tries some of his connections, both from above and below, to see if there's a deal to be made to save his life, but no go. So, he tries to set things right with family and friends before killing himself, because he doesn't want to die on anyone else's terms. And because it's part of his plan. You see, before killing himself, he sells his soul to two of the three demons that are part of Hell's ruling triumverate. So, when he dies, those two show up plus the First of the Fallen who wants his soul because of the trick he pulled with the holy water. It's a big gamble on John's part since it relies on them not being able to come to terms with his soul. They see that if he dies, their claims on his soul will results in a war between them, which suits none of their purposes. As a result, the First of the Fallen cures his cancer (in the most painful fashion) and his staying alive is now in Hell's best interest. Before the First of the Fallen departs, John gives him the finger for good measure.

But, the story doesn't end there. The final issue has him starting the next day with him realising what he's done. He's a little depressed about it, because it was selfish and could have backfired easily... and, well, that finger at the end wasn't exactly necessary. He knows that he's made some powerful enemies and that he's screwed if they figure out a way to get around what he's pulled. While walking, he runs into Kit, Brendan's old girlfriend and they catch up on things. She accompanies John to the hospital to visit the friend he made, but his friend dies while they're there. John saved himself, but he can't save the people he cares about. In the end, Kit holds him in the rain and we get the impression that they'll soon be a couple.

It's easy to see why this story is so highly regarded by people. John goes through a lot, bearing his soul to the readers, and shows off his trademark cleverness. It looks as though he's going to pay the price for his years of smoking, but manages to dodge the bullet by fucking over the three most powerful demons in Hell. And, even then, it's not satisfying, it was just necessary. It isn't a time for celebration. Most of the time, when John wins, it's by the skin of his teeth and it comes with a high price, either paid then or more than likely to be paid later.

William Simpson does the art for this arc and the first half of Ennis's run before Steve Dillon takes over. It's not entirely to my taste. It's in a similarly realistic vein to the art in issue 11. There's a bit more emotion and solid line work in Simpson's art. He's good at exaggerating characters. His John looks rundown by the time he kills himself. There's something about it that just looks of its time -- in a bad way. You can look at the art and know where and when it was from... same with the beginning of Sandman. It has that quality, which turns me off somewhat.

In 30 minutes, we'll cover the next four issues of Ennis's run...

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