Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Heaven and Hell

John Constantine: Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon (1992-93; collected 1997): Writer Garth Ennis made his name at DC with his violent, moody work on DC's horror flagship title John Constantine: Hellblazer prior to creating the popular and influential Preacher series with artist Steve Dillon.

Ennis is one of those writers who seems to have arrived fully formed, primarily because his early development took place in British comics that weren't readily available in North America in the early 1990's. By 1992, Ennis really was pretty much fully formed -- for good and ill (mostly good), his voice is as distinctive here as it is today.

As only the fourth person to write John Constantine (after co-creator Alan Moore and Rick Veitch in Swamp Thing and, on Constantine's own book, Jamie Delano for the first 40 issues), Ennis quickly put his stamp on the character, upping the violence and writing in a more direct, less poetic style than Moore and Delano. Constantine now seemed more of an aged punk and less of a dandyish mod -- he was straight out of Liverpool.

Ennis' peculiar and fairly rare (at least in the early 1990's) synthesis of ultraviolent splatterpunk with a detailed and increasingly harrowing portrayal of the supernatural still packs a punch in the stories collected in Fear and Loathing. The world is an awful one whether the violence is being perpetrated by monsters human or supernatural -- and even the highest of angels can be a monster in Constantine's world. Constantine works ceaselessly to thwart the plans of Heaven and Hell alike, because both Heaven and Hell seek control over the fragile, fallen human world.

In this collection, Constantine's personal life -- his rewarding relationship with Kit -- comes under fire even as he attempts to stop a British Neo-Nazi group from gaining favour with the archangel Gabriel. Constantine also celebrates his 40th birthday with a party involving most of DC's supernatural characters -- Hellblazer was still nominally part of the mainstream DC universe at this point, despite the fact that thematically this made absolutely no sense.

So we get such supernatural stalwarts as Zatanna, Swamp Thing, and the Phantom Stranger involved in a surprise birthday bash for the 40-year-old Liverpudlian (or Scouser). That issue is one of the few blessedly free of tension, and involves instead some of Ennis's funniest (and earliest) scenes taking the piss out of mainstream superhero characters. But damnation, as always, looms. Highly recommended.

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