By T. Trewhella
John Constantine, like Captain America, is a pen and ink avatar conjured to deal with a fascist ideology. Both are agents of empires, men out of time who believe they serve a higher purpose beyond nationalism. Both are created as levelling forces to uplift the oppressed and tear down entrenched power structures, but shackled to the constraints of corporate IP management. Both have birthed echoes and expies beyond those limits. In-universe and as wider objects of will attempting to transform our world to a more just one, Steve and John succeeded in the short term, but are medium to long term failures.
Turns out it’s just reactionary hate all the way down and their tepid faiths aren’t enough to drive real world transformation. None of their creators love them any more. They give the illusion of change, a neat sleight of hand to make us feel that an on-page goal absolves us from making material changes off page. A safe and cosy little pressure release valve for any stray feelings of needing to improve our lot.
Now, John and I have history. Before I cared about magic or Politics, I could see something in him. The magical bastard with a glittering smile illuminated by a cigarette, in Moore and Bisette’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, John strolls onto the page to give the Swamp Thing focus and purpose. Through John’s actions, threats, and cajoling, the series moves from monsters of the week to addressing the end of all things.
The ongoing Hellblazer run which began in 1988 provided further focus. The Chariot is aimed at monsters both figurative and literal which flow from the brutalising Tory rule and the hatred which dwells in the heart of the UK establishment. John continues his journey into becoming a magical artefact – symbols like his cigarettes, his trenchcoat, the ruin which follows in his wake become foregrounded. He accrues catchphrases.
And then in the late 1990’s the Tory government falls. John is left without his most obvious enemy. The book stays good (the Azzarello and Carey-penned runs are personal favourites) but the face of UK state power and oppression subtly shifted enough to leave John without the machine to rage against. He goes to America and to Eden; he confirms his bisexuality. In the “real” world the prevailing narrative is that the spectre of division and the Empire has been banished and so John is another angry ex-punk, a radical who has won. A thing without purpose. Now everything is rosy in the hearts of every sensible grown up, John is just a cringe throwback. A cynical, nihilist who mistakes cruelty for wit, impotently punching downwards without bothering to look at the world.
Hellblazer ends in 2013 at issue 300 just as the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government was sliding into a pure Tory government in time for the 2015 election. Covert brutalisation and the illusion of aspiration was out; Thatcherism was back baby! Overt brutalisation and the re-intensifying of hatred of others was a sure fire campaign winner. Overton windows were flung wide and the long-rotten stench of this Sceptic Isle wafted in. And where was John? Fighting vampires with Justice League Dark. Wise-cracking and playing the hits. Becoming a cross-media brand who’d show up on the CW.
Enter Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell, Matias Bergara, Marcio Takara, et al. Their relaunched Hellblazer in 2019 plants its feet firmly in the actual dreadful reality of post-Brexit UK and the metatextual dreadful reality of John. Whilst the villain of the run is the vicious and uncaring UK, its antagonist is the John-who-won. The former firebrand absorbed into the carcinogenic state, the spirit of every revolutionary who now sports an OBE. The Brewdog Magus – inevitable, hollow, and comfortable.
It’s a run which wants to grapple with what could still be called good about the UK: and that brings us to the subject of Issue 6 “Quiet”.
The issue takes place in a terminal ward of an NHS hospital. For those unaware, the NHS (National Health Service) is the system of publicly funded medical care we have in the UK. In magical terms, it’s a totem of the post World War 2 Labour Government. It was conjured into being by the hard work of many but it’s often seen as the work of Aneurin Bevin, a socialist Welsh former miner who as Health Minister had a simple idea: a health provision that met the needs of everyone, that was free at the point of delivery, and that was based on clinical need rather than the ability to pay. John lays out my feelings in this issue:
“National Health Service is the only thing we ever got right. The one time we turned our pride into somethin’ that puts us all on a level – instead of in layers.”
It’s a system that’s kept me alive and many of those I love and care for. It’s imperfect and basically now at the point of sabotaged-into-irreversible-decline. Even with a purely rational economic (yuck) view it’s paid for itself infinite times. These totems of the left cannot be allowed to stand however. This is because, just like in John’s world, those who hold power understand the magic in symbols and words. “Carbon footprint” becomes a metaphor which pushes its thumb down on the scales. Our dying world is not because of oil companies; it’s because you drove to the shops to get your treats. By the same logic Bevin’s clear vision must be torn down one pillar at a time, redefine who counts for “everybody”, change free to “cost neutral”, make the whole system hellish to navigate and work in, gut the workforce. To break a nation you must shatter its icons.
John’s quote above also pulls at the other driving themes of this issue. Layers and levels. “We” and therefore by contrast “those that aren’t us”. Class and belonging. The ur-question of the UK. Do we count you as one of us and if so do you need to bow to me or must I bow to you? A social sorting that infuses the hearts and minds of the UK. Politeness above kindness. Pride above helping. Not making a fuss above standing one’s ground.
The hospital in this issue is full of those who’ve dedicated themselves to an idea of the UK. Charge Nurse Headley’s family came over on the Empire as a part of Windrush – post World War 2, the UK needed mass immigration to fill shortages in the Labour market. And so, with the strike of the pen a spell was woven. The British Nationality Act 1948 gave Citizenship of the UK and Colonies to all people living in the United Kingdom and its colonies, and the right of entry and settlement in the UK. The “we” for the UK state was changed. Those that came over into the UK and worked hard in whatever jobs they were allowed to work in were allowed to stay as thanks for their work.
And then in 2018 the UK state changed its mind.
Appearing tough on migration was more important than decency or human cost. At least 83 people were wrongly deported from the UK. An independent report into the actions of the UK Home Office found that the harm caused was foreseeable and avoidable, and that it had acted with complete disregard for the Windrush generation. A compensation scheme was announced… but only 5% of those affected received any compensation and 23 of those who could have claimed died before they got a penny. The Windrush Generation and their families were bought over in times of need, told that the UK counted them: that they were “we”, only to be stripped of this and told that they were “those that weren’t us”. The “we” for labour market purposes might have been changed but good old British racism hadn’t been.
It was a brazen theft of lives, an uncompensated extraction of decades of hard work for the UK, a callous and vicious display of the state’s ability to destroy lives to uphold its mercurial definition of “we”. Charge Nurse Headley has John to help her, to find the papers to allow her to escape this round of state terror. This echoes throughout the issue, the sense of being trapped within a system (the ward, the fragile sense of being allowed to belong, Noah being unable to talk to his comatose mum).
We’ve looked at both John and Hellblazer the comic as avatars of anti-Thatcher, a leveller of power differentials, and a thing of the left. John himself hails from Liverpool – once the industrial dockland heart of the UK, left to rot once the docks didn’t deliver the value for the UK state, which is perfect commentary. At the same time, however, both John and Hellblazer have historically suffered from the problems that the UK left have. The voice and attention is largely white and male. The characters of colour are few and far between and women in Hellblazer fall into “family”, “evil”, “victim”, “John’s romantic interest” or combinations of the four. Hellblazer is centred around John – a being of total overt agency wrapped in a Silk-Cut stinking overcoat. Everything is filtered through his perspective and the largely white and male creators who have formed the majority of his creative history.
John and Hellblazer are built on flaws; this adds texture but the gaps are important. Who is the “we” that John and Hellblazer are fighting for?
This most recent run looks to improve this with a broader cast which better reflects the UK; but not one that is a total success. Noah, a young black man, is John’s constant companion in this run. He has dreams, drive, and can move stories. Noah however cannot talk – so although this creation of the left has allowed a black character some depth, agency and history, he is not allowed an audible voice. Also to introduce Noah via his gang affiliation seems more than a little regressive.
And the setup in “Quiet” is an absolute Hellblazer staple – the horrors that lurk behind the mundane cruelties of contemporary Britain. Subtext becomes text of fang and claw. Someone or something is killing patients in a terminal ward. The patients beyond saving are being unfairly snatched before their time and Noah has a personal connection to one of the potential victims. John and Noah need to unravel what’s happening and stop the revenant whose stalking the ward killing these people who the state has stopped treating as useful. Are they smart enough and wily enough to diagnose and treat the threat? Spoilers – yes – but maybe the old Hellblazer methods aren’t quite up to this ever strengthening opposition?
Noah’s mother is a member of the ward too; she’s the reason he’s in the ward and therefore why John’s there too. A cop – and a detective inspector at that – she’s an enforcer of the status quo hiding in plain clothes.
Agansing Ghale, a Havildar of the 7th Gurkha Rifles, lies dying in the ward,. The Gurkha’s have a long and complex history which flows from the East India Company (the first time capitalism built itself into a truly global weapon of theft, extraction, ransacking, and ruin) went to war with the Kingdom of Nepal and hired a load of defectors as mercenaries. The British Army – because the lines between enormously profitable private UK company and the UK state were soluble in money and power – saw value in keeping a battalion of those from the area to help them hold the stolen lands of the British Raj, and the “we” was expanded.
Ghurka regiments fought for the UK in all major conflicts until Indian independence in 1947 when four regiments joined the British Army. They became the “we” for the purpose of committing state sanctioned murder, but not for the purpose of pay, pension, or equal treatment. Ghale gave everything but ended as another life chewed up by the UK state. Another “we” transformed back into “not us” once the state has extracted all of value.
When the ghost tries to extinguish Ghale, John steps in. The spirit doesn’t kill John, it shows him the horror that forms his core. Although it hates him and wants him to know that he’s a virus in human form, John know that it won’t end him. It won’t because as John whispers “I’m British.”
John sees the system. John knows who the “we” is. John knows that whatever ruin he may bring, however many times he’ll strike at the UK (regardless of how many times he leaves this country) he cannot escape this. That stinking, horror-wake, dickhead John Constantine counts for the UK – whilst Headley and Ghale do not – tells you what you need to know about the British psyche. Action and intention matters less than being “the right sort” and John knows this. What a dreadful snivelling little country this is.
Turns out that the ghost is hunting those she believes aren’t “truly British”. The killer is a projection from a lonely old lady whose hatred has been honed to a cutting edge and pointed at those who fit with that moment’s ever-shifting definition of “Not British”. Windrush, Ghukha, those welcomed from warzones. All of them were “we” whilst there was value in it, but now they are cast aside and slaughtered by a radicalised ageing population. This book is as subtle as a Constantine punchline.
Mystery killings solved the issue moves onto resolution which comes down to a discussion between Noah and John. Noah wants to kill the murderous old lady. John says it’s a better punishment to let her live on in misery and loneliness. On this John and the UK state agree. “She deserves it”, is John’s parting line for the issue. Noah’s mum is saved and the old lady’s hate-ghost is dispelled by Noah’s compassion. How easy for John to preach love when it’s not his mum in the firing line.
I wrote the initial draft of this article over the course of December 2022. Strikes are rising in the UK, including Ambulance crew and nurses. As a result of chronic underfunding noises are now being made about supporting the NHS with a European Style Health Insurance by former Health Secretary and Senior Tory Sajid Javid. Without it – in Javid’s view – the NHS will not “survive many more years”. Those giving up pay and refusing to be undervalued are being accused of putting patient lives at risk. Icons must be shattered. A new group of “not us” must be identified.
Magic, money, and politics. All describe the same systems of recreating the world to be as we want it. John represents a particular left view, less poisonous than prevailing power structures but not beyond critique and blindspots.
At its very best, Hellblazer can be a glorious lens to bring the power imbalances of his and our worlds into focus. This run didn’t last long, but in its short life it leaned into much of what is so vital about John Constantine engaging fully with John’s first, worst, and most insidious enemy – the sclerotic British establishment and its continued global strip mining of humanity. John can remind us that the empire never ended but also shows us that you can’t fight on nostalgia and slogans alone. In Hellblazer John is often his own worst enemy, not just through his actions but through his inability to recognise the shortcomings of his methods, to accept the help of others; but because the monster is you and you are the monster. The terror lies not in seeing the ghost but in realising that you’re British. The strip mining is coming from inside the house.
John’s series currently lies fallow. This last great run ended because the needs of art do not correlate with the needs of capital. John’s oldest enemy grows larger and bolder, and wears his face. What’s needed is a fresh approach to Hellblazer informed by the best of the past, engaging with politics and the lived experience of those that suffer at the hands of the state. Maybe one which is less white, male, and glib. As below, so above.
At times I fear that we are possessed by John and it will lead us to ruin. At times I fear that we are guided by John and it will not be enough. And very occasionally I feel that maybe a spark will leap from the page and allow us our happy ending.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #6 “Quiet”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Aaron Campbell
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
T is a writer who writes about comics, games, feelings, the future, and nail polish. More of their stuff can be found on Twitter over here. They are toxic.
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