By Ewan Paterson
John Constantine is a character I’ve found to be depressingly more relatable as I’ve gotten older. There are obvious reasons for this – the foremost being that, like John, I am a scouser. This is less a purely geographical similarity as much as it is a cultural one. Liverpool, and by extent, Liverpudlians, are proudly not in step with England as we know it today. The “Scouse, not English” identity has been forged over a period of centuries – through the exploits of Empire and Irish immigration – but most significantly the last sixty years, during which time Liverpool suffered a series of injustices enacted and enabled by the English establishment.
Margaret Thatcher – the Conservative prime minister who tore up the welfare-based post-war consensus, and who we can largely thank for the mess we are currently in today – argued for the policy of “managed decline” in Liverpool in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth riots, essentially wishing to impoverish the city further on top of the austere economic policies she introduced in her first term. Liverpool was (and still is) a Labour stronghold and the suffering of the city fermented an anti-establishment sentiment during a time where vast swathes of England were embracing Thatcher and the Conservatives.
This opposition was fuelled further in the wake of 1989’s Hillsborough disaster, where 97 Liverpool fans were killed in a crush as a direct result of the actions of Yorkshire Police. In the immediate wake of the tragedy, the right-wing Sun newspaper smeared the victims with a front-page story – titled “The Truth” – claiming that the fans themselves were responsible for the deaths. There was also a police-led cover-up. It would take twenty years of campaigning from survivors and the families of the victims to achieve a modicum of justice, with a 2016 inquest recording a verdict of “unlawful killing”, overruling the previous coroner’s report of “accidental death”. However, subsequent attempts to prosecute members of the Yorkshire Police failed, and Hillsborough – along with chants that joke about poverty and unemployment – is still used as a taunt from fans of other English clubs when playing Liverpool FC. It’s little wonder that “Englishness” isn’t embraced when the city has borne the brunt of its most repellant features.
This is why John Constantine and Hellblazer have become so important to me as I’ve grown older, and why I think Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell, and Matias Bergara’s run is such a notable corrective contribution to the series. The past decade has largely seen John’s political elements diluted, with the character transplanted to the superhero genre, where he has taken on the role of magical arsehole to contrast with the DC Universe’s other heroes. In live action, writers are content to leave John’s identity as an afterthought and not a foundational element of his character.
But Hellblazer has always been an inherently political book – one made in the wake of a decade of brutal Thatcherite conservatism – and the 2019 comic brought that sense of political venom back when it was most needed: after yet another decade of Conservative dominance. Here, John’s Scouseness is never an explicit topic of conversation, but his identity is still an important element, as it informs why he’s the perfect figure to rail against the “Englishness” that Spurrier takes aim at – the kind that has led Britain to become the “Normal Island” we all know today.
“A Green and Pleasant Land, Part Two” typifies this aspect of Constantine particularly well, as he comes face to face with the figure who has manifested a Tulpa – initially suspected to be “angels” – preying upon people in Peckham Rye. This park-goer is revealed to be a veteran of the first Gulf War, whose wife (an academic who specialised in the study of William Blake) has long since passed away. This same figure expresses racist sentiment to John, informed by a traumatic wartime experience and also Blake’s work, giving physical, murderous form to a strand of British identity that has been a throughline from empire to the present day: English exceptionalism.
In regards to the post-Brexit politics with which Spurrier’s Hellblazer is largely concerned, English exceptionalism has propelled the country into its current boggy mire. That feeling of wanting to be important in the world stage, to reignite notions of empire and global “leadership”, has been the backbone of British foreign policymaking in the decades since decolonisation. Conservative England has struggled to reconcile Britain’s inevitable decline in influence with the rise of the United States, China, and Russia, over half-a-century on from the end of the Second World War. It’s why so many are keen to cast the British Empire as a benevolent force, a Kipling-esque exploit that ended the slave trade and educated continents – never mind the pillaging, massacres, and concentration camps. It’s a delusion on which Brexit was partially sold, together with racism towards particularly Black and Asian refugees and migrants.
Constantine confronts the latter-most aspect during his conversation in the second part of the story, which he almost seems depressingly resigned to expect, reciting Blake’s poems from Wikipedia with total disinterest. A lack of enthusiasm for English notions of “manifest destiny” feels right on brand for John the character, but also John the scouser. This isn’t to imply a sense of Scouse exceptionalism, as there is no real monolith, but more that off the back of forty years of establishment injustice, it seems fitting for a Liverpool-born character to stand in opposition to the identity that has enabled those injustices. In that sense, Constantine is the perfect vector through which to channel all the anger and cynicism regarding the current state of the country. To the veteran, it’s something to be proud of. To John, it’s embarrassing.
This isn’t to suggest that Scouseness is some kind of progressive haven, a lone safe area in an unsafe country. There are plenty of other English cities that have rejected the Tory party, and it’s vital to point out that my own sense of pride for Liverpool shouldn’t overlook the ongoing injustices present in the city. Hate crime doesn’t stop when you reach Merseyside, and Liverpool suffers just as badly for racism and homophobia as cities up and down the country, with there being a reported increase in anti-LGBT offences over the last two years. Anti-Tory attitudes might be a foundational element of Scouse identity to many, but it isn’t all-encompassing, and it’s important that pride in the city doesn’t lead to a feeling of complacency. There is always more work to be done, more introspection, even if Liverpool hasn’t embraced Englishness the same way other cities have.
And that’s important to remember because pride is a core theme of this issue. The veteran character has been warped and twisted by it, latching on to Englishness and using it as the guiding principle of his bigotry. But at that same time, pride inherently isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can all be proud of our accomplishments, and there’s nothing wrong either in being proud of your roots, personally. I’m proud to come from Liverpool, for sure. It’s a city I’ve always felt is home to me – stepping off at Lime Street station feels like I’m opening the door and walking into a great big hug from an old friend. But pride and perceptions of identity, of belonging – as Hellblazer shows – can be easily twisted into something horrid. There’s nothing wrong with it being there, but it shouldn’t be all that’s left. In this issue of Hellblazer, pride is all the Veteran has – an angry smorgasbord of jingoistic cliches so toxic, they literally destroy his surroundings.
I suppose it’s bad to say that I find Constantine relatable. He is, to his own confession, a complete bastard. But his brand of cynicism and contempt feels apt, given the current state of things. Britain has only gotten worse since the 2019 Hellblazer series ended (and within the time it took me to write this piece in October 2022, hilariously), and while there may be the occasional glimmer of hope on the horizon, it feels as if we’re toiling against a never ending tide of Tory-sanctioned misery, with an opposition that isn’t brave enough to stand up for those who need it the most. Nothing works. Everything’s broken. Can you really blame Constantine for being done with it all?
John Constantine: Hellblazer #2 “A Green and Pleasant Land Part Two”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Aaron Campbell
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Ewan is the gaming features editor for Screenrant, with bylines at several publications including, most prominently, WhatCulture. For more, follow Ewan on Twitter here!
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