Friday, 3 May 2013

Books: Hellblazer: The Family Man


Hellblazer: The Family Man
Written by Jamie Delano
Art by Ron Tiner, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, and Dean Motter

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Most of you out there probably already know all the Hellblazer trivia already - but for those who don't - let's just do it all at once (yeah? Cool):

John Constantine was created by beardy comics grandmaster Alan Moore all the back in the mid 1980s when he was writing Swamp Thing. Legend has it that his sole reason for existing was that the Swamp Thing artists (Steve Bissette and John Totleben) wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting [1] (hey - it was the 1980s ok? Totally different time). I couldn't say for sure whether it was the Stingness of the way the character looked or (more probably) because everyone loves a good anti-hero in a trenchcoat who wields magic less like some airy-fairy mystical delicacy and more like a dirty, greasy hammer to throw at someone's face - but the character made such a big splash that the bigwigs at DC thought it would be a good idea to give him his own series: and thus was born a comic called Hellraiser (or at least - that's what it was going to be called until Clive Barker's film came out a few months before the first issue hit the stands and thus - well: we got the sightly less apt: Hellblazer [2]).

Yes - the world at large probably knows him best (if they know him at all) from the Keanu Reeves film [3] which committed the outrageous crime of recasting a blonde Liverpudlian as - well - Keanu Reeves (who is - breaking news - neither blonde nor from Liverpool) but somehow still (speaking personally) did have a small hint of the same rugged charm (there's a moment towards the end that I particularly liked that involved a well-placed middle finger that seemed pretty spot on: but - then again - I've only ever seen it once and ain't in a particular rush to ever do it again so maybe it wasn't that good after all? [4]): even if every "true" Hellblazer fan regards it in the same way as you would an ugly boil on the back of your hand that leads you to wearing long sleeves in the hope that it'll cover it up so you won't have to talk about it (which - when you consider how amazing a Hellblazer film could be [5] makes a certain sense I guess).

Ok: with all of that purged - let's get down to business:

So. I kinda got it in my head that it would be a good idea to go through the Hellblazer comics and write a separate thingie on here for each one [6]. I mean - why not right? Everyone likes a little bit of John Constantine now and again ("a working-class magician, occult detective, and con man stationed in London. He is known for his endless cynicism, deadpan snarking, ruthless cunning, and constant chain smoking" - I mean - what's not to like?) and seeing how he's been going since the late 1980s and attracted a whole host of comics writing talent [7] along the way - it's not like there's a lack of fun, weird and strange comics to choose from. Only - well - (and this has been a sticking point for a while now): the comic that started the whole thing off (Hellblazer: Original Sins) - there's only one copy available in the whole of Islington and - last year - someone took it out and (I mean - so far) hasn't brought it back (but - what the hey: I live in hope).

Having been waiting a while to start off at Part One I finally decided - oh well: let's take things from Part Two instead and maybe we can double-back on our tracks some other time. Plus - you know: mostly it doesn't make any real difference what order you read your Hellblazer's in: John Constantine is always going to be his bitter old moany self - falling head first into a whole mess of trouble and - for me anyway: the only way I've ever really experienced Hellblazer is by reading random trades here and there so I guess it's somewhat apt that things aren't completely plain sailing (and I'm sure John wouldn't want it any other way).

But I should probably just quit it with all this prancing around and blah blah blah and actually get down to it and write a few words about the book we have in question: The Family Man.

Of course (wouldn't you know it: just my luck) as opposed to the clean fresh start I was hoping for The Family Man begins in medias res with the events of Original Sins still hanging around like the smell from the party the night before - it doesn't really matter tho - it's just that seeing how Hellblazer was still just starting out: it's acting as if it was all telling the same story rather than (which I guess happened slowly over time) different installments of a seemingly never-ending franchise: I realise that I may have mentioned the X-files quite a few times on this blog (hey: what can I say? It was one of my must-watch TV shows when I was growing up) but it's like the difference between the first seasons when Mulder and Scully would be seriously affected by the stuff that they saw [8] and the later seasons (when me (and everyone else) stopped watching) when their encounters with the strange and paranormal would be treated as common-place and just part of their daily routine. The reason for this (obviously) is that when they were just starting out they had no idea / no real hope that anyone would be paying that much attention or that they would have to keep spinning out the same form of stories year-in year-out which lead them to be much more reckless with their characters and their situations (and the way that the situations impact upon the characters) which leads to the sort of unexpected storytelling that you get in: well - like you get in The Family Man. Of course - as time goes on: things start to solidify - and because people have certain exceptions - well: it becomes much harder to mess with the status quo and be adventurous with who the characters are [9]: yeah?

So: yeah - even tho the artwork is pretty much of that kinda scrappy 1980s style (these issues were originally published between 1989 - 1990): that those of you of a delicate disposition might have a tough time getting used to it [10]: but there are still places here and there where they manage to do some cool stuff (I liked the scene where they're sitting in front of the fire and the colours are all yellow and orange: I mean - yeah - maybe they just did it because they couldn't be bothered to mix up their palette at all - but still: I think it's pretty effective nonetheless). Plus (oh man) you will have to be willing to give Jamie Delano's purple prose a pass [11] or at least just hold your nose during the most particularly repungent parts. But - damnit: I'd say that it's worth the effort: there's a quote from Delano that I've seen reprinted a lot in quite a few places that lays down his motivation for writing Hellblazer to be: "...generally I was interested in commenting on 1980s Britain. That was where I was living, it was shit, and I wanted to tell everybody." [12]: and - man: that kinda of attitude and determination to wipe the reader's nose in some of the most depressing aspects of the period certainly comes through on every page: not that it's practically preachy (except for maybe the last episode in the book: but that's so surreal that I'm even sure if I could tell you what it's about apart from the fact that - you know: everything is rubbish and all people everywhere are awful) the first story in the collection (Larger than Life) is like a B-side from The Unwritten and is of a certain sort of flavour that (and I'd say thankfully to this) John Constantine never really returned to: and the main bit in the middle (The Family Man) is constructed like a really good 1980s Thriller - the type best watched on VHS: like something directed by Brian De Palma - dirty, nasty and cheap - yet still completely mesmerizing.

And - of course: the best bit about all of this - is that this is only still just the beginning.


[1] Alan Moore from this here: "I can state categorically that the character only existed because Steve and John wanted to do a character that looked like Sting. Having been given that challenge, how could I fit Sting into Swamp Thing? I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that"

[2] Which - and is this just me? - always just kinda makes me think of a particularly devilish piece of a school uniform....

[3] Which - confusingly - was titled not Hellblazer - but "Constantine" (which - if you ask me: is a pretty boring/shoddy title for a film - but what do I know: it earned nearly $30 million at the North American box office on its opening weekend so it must have been doing something right I guess): which lead to the comics (hoping to get themselves a few pieces of that sweet and tasty money-pie) to redo the "John Constantine" above the title from thin little slender letters into big chunky bold ones.

[4] Of course the question is: who would have been better cast? Daniel CraigPaul Bettany? John Lydon? Or - if you wanted to get meta about it - Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner?

[5] Although - if you ask me: if you really wanted to make an adaptation: the best thing would be to make a Hellblazer TV show: I mean - looking back at the twenty years plus of comics it's not like you would have any trouble finding a decent story-line to sustain you. But whatever.

[6] Of course - if you look on the right hand side under "Books" - you will notice that there's already entries for Hellblazer: City of Demons and Hellblazer: Pandemonium: but (for the moment at least) they're barely fleshed out - seeing how they were written all the way back when my intention was just to create a big fat Hellblazer entry and stick all the books together in the same place (City of Demons and Pandemonium are both kind of one-off specials - (if you check the wikipedia page on the List of Hellblazer publications - they're listed under "Other collections" and "original graphic novels") so I figured it didn't matter that I had them buttoned off separate): but - blah blah - whatever.

[7] Including (amongst others) Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey and at one point - Ian Ranken (but we'll get to all of those - hopefully - in time).

[8] Most notably I'd say in an episode called Darkness Falls which ends (spoiler alert I guess) with Mulder and Scully held up in a quarantine facility: which is the kind of thing that - as things went on and the creators realised that they were going to be able to get more than one season out of this - the show just didn't have much time for anymore.

[9] Then again: things are a bit more complicated than I might be making them out to be: because - even tho it may become harder to wreck violence upon your characters: it does allow you to be a little bit more exciting with the types of stories you tell (which is why a lot of the best X-Files episodes (Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Small Potatoes and Bad Blood) happened in the mid-Seasons: as the set-up was solid enough that you could start to shift things around in a cool way.

[10] But then - my feeling is: that if you're reading or watching anything that's a little old-fashioned then you kinda of need to be willing to adjust your perspective just a little: it's my friends who can't take the first Terminator film seriously because the special effects are a little - well - ropey and argue that it's a problem with the movie itself - while I'm much more of the thought that you just need to be willing to relax a little and not try to hold everything up to modern standards (well: in most cases at least).

[11] I did write down some of the most toe-curling examples as I went along - but now I can't find the piece of paper I wrote them on and I don't have the book to hand: so you'll just have to venture in yourself and find the most egregious lines on your lonesome. (Sorry).

[12] You can find the original interview (with also includes Garth Ennis): here.

Links: Now Read This Review.

Further reading: Hellblazer: City of DemonsHellblazer: PandemoniumThe Unwritten, Swamp Thing, Cradlegrave, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, Signal to Noise, The Sandman.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

I vividly remember reading this story even though it's been years since I read it. It's good stuff but difficult to say much about it without ruining its impact.

There's a reissued version of this book which came out recently which includes a couple of unrelated fill-in/interlude stories which took place in the middle of this storyline by Grant Morrison/David Lloyd and Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean. They're both great, (and some of the finest work of each of the creators) but the Gaiman ghost story 'Hold Me' (which I suspect you've probably already encountered elsewhere) is one of my favorite stories ever, even though I'm usually a bit ambivalent about the author. I still often think of it when I see homeless people lying half dead in doorways.

Islington Comic Forum said...

Yeah - "Hold Me" is pretty cool (and collected in "Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days" if anyone else fancies trying it out) and the Grant Morrison/David Lloyd one ("Early Warning") is collected in a Hellblazer book called "Rare Cuts" (which hopefully I should one day get around to: but we'll see....)