By Alasdair Stuart
You know it’s coming from the first panel.
‘Scrubbing Up’ opens with John Constantine being shit-talked by his angelically possessed smartphone as he dresses for the job he wants (dapper magician about town), not the one he has (actual human duster that’s not been cleaned since the Bayeux Tapestry ran its crowdfunder). John looks GREAT. Immaculate suit, coat, gloves (GLOVES!) and a new attitude, a new approach, a new page. This time is going to be different! WAY less people will probably die! At no point will he have to carve yet more off a soul now more whittled away than present! He’s got a new suit! HE’S GOT GLOVES! Nothing bad happens to and oh, that’s a shit demon.
A splash page made of literal splash and it’s beautiful to see. Matias Bergara’s clean lines render everything in that slow motion horror show we all see right after we’ve done something stupid but before said stupid thing has hit us in the face. John recoils with his face in mid ‘FUCK!’ as a gnome elemental hurls itself towards him; a gleeful cloud of effluvia and teeth. Meanwhile Jordie Bellaire wallows in the contrast between a sun-drenched London and the imminent drenching Constantine is about to receive, whilst Aditya Bidikar’s lettering gives you two glorious sound effects in two panels. Constantine lets out what can only be a shriek as the elemental wraps its gooey limbs around him and Bidikar includes a glorious ‘PLOOF!’ as it explodes wetly, under the focused yoga powers of Tommy Willow-Tree.
Pure of heart, dumb of ass, bun of man and John’s biggest fan.
This whole sequence with the panicky mage dressed up as a grown-up version of himself and the puppy made of shit hurtling towards his face is the story’s theme laid out in one fell blow. This is a story about John realising who he wants to be, and who he is. It’s also a story about John realising his destiny is to be covered in shit… and Tommy realising his destiny is to be perpetually downwind. On top of all that, it’s a story about what fandom and what happens when a fan gets too close to the subject of their fandom. A para(normal) social relationship, if you like. In other words, John is a story, Tommy is a reader and the conflict in this issue all stems from John realising he is perceived… and being completely unable to deal with that.
This isn’t master and pupil, it’s old school and new school and the sudden horrific realisation on the part of the old school that he’s suddenly not the punky young upstart. Spurrier weaponizes continuity as a knife between the ribs of his ‘hero’ here, as Tommy rattles off some of John’s previous adventures the way Doctor Who fans talk about their favourite stories and sports fans talk about their favourite victories or pick at their worst losses. To love something is to want to be a bit like it, to move into the story – and that’s just what Tommy does here. It’s an elegant subversion of both the braying Clarkson-era Top Gear machismo that John realises he’s entirely too close to around Tommy; and the tofu enthusiast yoga warriors whom Tommy is so clearly the patron saint of.
In the hands of a lesser writer, they’d be caricatures, but in the hands of Spurrier they’re people you’ve met (and odds are have been) at various points.
Tommy has the harder road here, which I’m sure disgusts John even more. He’s young, clearly experienced and absolutely of his time. He’s also walking next to his Keith Richards, his Jordan Peele, his Johnny Cash. The poor kid – who Bergara draws as a heart-melting big lad who clearly has opinions about the rugby he was forced to play and your author feels SEEN, my friends – desperately wants to do good; and to be fair, does, constantly. But Tommy’s a superhero sidekick in a John Constantine story. His obnoxiousness doesn’t come from malice, it comes from ignorance. He can’t see that he doesn’t fit, because if he does, it’ll break his heart. So he’s respectful and kind and goes out of his way to be ethical and John just keeps getting covered in shit.
But there’s someone else in these scenes too; a ghost defined by their absence; Chas. Both of him. John Constantine’s longest serving sidekick, the Sancho Geezer to his Don Fuck, has already died not once but twice – and both times because of John. The first Chas is lost in a pointless sacrifice that John engineers. The second dies literally from being in John’s presence; decades of second-hand smoke giving him cancer and rendering this most faithful of companions into yet another of London’s patron saint’s victims. The fact it’s not intentional, at least the second time, only makes it worse. John Constantine damages you just by standing next to you. He knows it.
Tommy doesn’t. Yet.
That’s where the complex knot of tragedy, ego, arrogance and hero worship at the core of his story really steps into the light. John’s reaction to Tommy is startlingly complex: bullying and insecurity wrapped around absolute terror and a perverse sense of protectiveness. John becomes the biggest, loudest, stupidest version of himself, a nicotine-stained puffer fish (WITH GLOVES!) desperate to scare away any new friends before they get too close because they always, always get too close in the end.
Which isn’t to say Constantine isn’t a colossal dickhead this issue because Good Lord is he ever. John carries himself exactly like a man who has been covered in shit twice and then asked to babysit a six foot two golden retriever puppy who wants to talk about yoga. Spurrier does John’s increasingly pained venom so well: there’s a scene where he and Noah are mocking Tommy that puts you right in the car with them. They laugh, you laugh and then you realise how hurt the big lad is and how frightened John is. He’s terrified because he’s old now and he’s very very bad at not being young. He’s also terrified because the man made of plans and swagger is now the old man made of joint pain and confusion.
That’s why the drinking contest, that Tommy barely notices he’s in, is such a brilliant sign-off for the issue. John has raged and preened and strutted and insulted: Tommy’s still there. He’s still in danger. John has failed, yet again, to protect people around him so he retreats into the emergency shelter of booze because he’s too tired to do anything else. To put it another way, John’s tried nothing, nothing’s worked and so he’s just being himself. Again. The gloves are off in every sense and Tommy is already too close and far too useful for him to let go. Again, there’s complexity here. The drinking binge is self-destructive, self-defensive, a test that both men fail and ultimately a moment of abject resignation. The cycle starts again and despite everything (HE HAS A SMARTPHONE NOW FOR GOD’S SAKE!) John Constantine is asked to give even more for the worst of reasons; Tommy’s found something real.
It’s no surprise that this is where John gets closest to some flavour of redemption, in another of those sun-drenched spaces Bergara and Bellaire draw so well. There is a pure Hellblazer moment when the creative team introduce us to the newly cursed Ravens of the Tower of London, who are using word magic to burn the union jack onto the faces of foreigners. This is John Constantine and Hellblazer to its raging bones; filtering the seething, exhausted racism of this miniscule island through a fictional lens so we can see it’s edges and stare the miserable shrieking little fucker down.
Yes, Tommy’s kind of an arsehole. But so’s John and he can smell his own.
Also the gnome elemental, but still.
That core of something truly, measurably horrific is what the ego-less Tommy and legless John careen around like electrons and you can hear the book step up a gear when you see it. It’s already racing but here is something to fight, here is something to un-curdle on an island made of nothing but spoiled food. Not the good fight, but certainly a good enough one for two generations of magic users. Even if one of them doesn’t smell great.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #4 “Scrubbing Up, Part One”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Matias Bergara
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Alasdair Stuart is a pop culture analyst, podcaster, narrative video game lead and voice actor. He does a lot. The best way to catch up with it is through Twitter (for now) @AlasdairStuart and his weekly award-nominated newsletter, The Full Lid.
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