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[Retrospective]Hellblazer: All His Engines

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
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Hellblazer has always been an odd duck. It doesn't really check any of the regular boxes for commercial success in the United States of America. British protagonist, no costumed heroes in sight, grim, gritty, and adult-oriented, full of black magic and trenchcoats but it's neither Doctor Strange or your average occult detective yarn. And it was a longrunner. Maybe that's part of the secret of it: Hellblazer is a survivor of the 80s, when stuff like G. I. Joe, Transformers, and The 'Nam topped the pull-list next to American Flagg!, Groo, and Alf.

Doctor Strange is perhaps an apt comparison, too. Magicians are hard characters to write for. Every threat the good Doctor faced was more or less one rhyming couplet away. His powers fluctuated entirely based on the needs of the situation, Silver Age Superman with a sartorial sixth sense that belong to Liberace; under a disciplined writer like Steve Ditko or a creative one like Warren Ellis, you could still get good Doctor Strange stories, but it generally meant either really hard limits on the character and/or his powers, sometimes amounting to a reboot...and Marvel had lost whatever discipline it once had for reboots in the 90s. Perhaps that's the reason why Doctor Strange never managed a series as long-lived as Hellblazer, and even today often plays mystical second banana in some other group, the Wolverine of the occult set, ready to team up with anybody.

Hellblazer has had troubles along those lines, but nothing quite as severe as Strange's: he's had the mystical symbolic rebirth, the spiritual nonsense, the power-ups and power-downs...but mostly the writers keep it much more sane. In his own book, at least, John Constantine is as likely to use a half-truth as a cantrip, a trick as a genuine occult artifact, and most of his better plots involve him pitting some other supernatural entity against his latest foe. Hell, his deadliest enemies tend to be common London criminals rather than the demons and archangels he rubs shoulders with.

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Some people absolutely love this moment, and others complain about it. Screw you, that was a great storyline, even if the end requires the three most powerful demons in hell to be idiots.

I don't want to get too far into the history; I thought it was interesting that John Constantine, like Frank Castle, was allowed to age...and that he drifted away from DC's regular universe. I was, in the time before New 52, one of those people that suggested that maybe they should bring Constantine back in line with the main DC 'verse. Then of course it happened, and I realized the mistake. It's not that the writing on Constantine was particularly bad - it was sufficiently clever - and the new worldbuilding for the occult side of things was competent. Not great, but then DC never had as robust a magical cosmology as Marvel did; that's a retrospective for another day, though. I even liked the Constantine/Captain Marvel crossover. No, the problem was basically that John Constantine was too much a superhero, and too little a bastard. It's just not Hellblazer if you don't have the freedom to do more than your average comic - not because you need titties and blood on every page, but because if you don't have the artistic freedom for bad language, nudity, and gore, you're never going to be able to do stories on race, sex crimes, human trafficking, really nasty black magic, bitterly cynical politics, or any of the rest of it. So Constantine was a bit too...neutered. I reserve judgment on the new series until it has half a dozen issues under its belt.

Anyway, like Doctor Strange, Hellblazer doesn't have a lot of graphic novels - that Ian Rankin bizarre black-and-white thing Dark Entries for the short-lived Vertigo Crime imprint, and Pandemonium - but like how Doctor Strange had that one graphic novel everyone remembers (Triumph and Torment), so too does anybody with the least sense of taste appreciate All His Engines. So set your time machines to 2006.

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Next time, maybe. This is actually a really good one to lead in to a discussion on the difference in how Marvel and DC have approached magic in comics.

All His Engines is written by Mikey Carey and illustrated by Leonardo Manco. These two were the regular creative time on Hellblazer for about, 2002-2006 (with Manco taking a break for some issues but outlasting Carey as the series artist for a bit). I've always liked Mike Carey as a writer; he handles relatively low-level occult grim-grittiness well, and did a respectable five-novel series about an exorcist named Felix Castor coming off his Hellblazer run which, if he's not quite John Constantine is only because he prefers a Russian greatcoat to a trenchcoat and isn't half as clever. Leonardo Manco, on the other hand, I first became associated with when Marvel was going through it's experimental phase, letting Warren Ellis script Druid and Hellstorm, with Manco on art duties. So with Carey, you have a writer that isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, and with Manco you have an artist that complements the series perfectly - everything is defined by shadows, every face is defined by its eyes, nothing cartoonish in it at all, and when you let him bring out the red paint for the really gore-filled sequences...it's nice. He's technically proficient without ever being boring; keeps things to human scale without diminishing the characters. Superman could never walk down the street with the same grace as John Constantine stubs out a cigarette in Manco's world.

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The plot of All His Engines is fairly straightforward: people are falling asleep and not waking up. John Constantine doesn't give a shit, until one of the afflicted is the granddaughter of his longest-surviving and longest-suffering friend, Chas: a London cabbie trapped in a marriage he probably never really wanted but makes the best of. So he calls his mate, and the next thing you know they're on a plane to sunny L.A.

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I know, I know, shades of the 2005 film - but trust Carey: he has good explanation.

John does his thing, hooking into the local occult underground, and he finds out that demons have come to L. A. to create their own private hells. Less competition. One of 'em - the biggest and nastiest of the lot - is holding his friend's granddaughter's soul. And he blackmails Constantine into helping him take out the competition. That was probably his first mistake.

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John taking out a bunch of demons involves a deconsecrated church, a couple gallons of holy water from a defrocked priest, a summoning ritual involving cockroaches, and an Aztec death god that's seen better days:

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Arc words: "What is there left of you, to buy or to sell?

This is where it gets interesting. For Doctor Strange, summoning the bigger entity to eat the demons would probably be the end of it; all wrapped up except for the ribbon. For John Constantine however, things are a little more interesting. Mictlantecuhtli strikes a deal with the demon John made a deal with - meaning he's stuck in the middle, no better off than when he started. Chas is about ready to give up, and is already having an affair with a Latina chica (great Constantine one-liner: "You're far ahead of me in fucking married men.") But John isn't done yet.

We always like to talk about determination in these kind of stories - Goku or Superman reaches down and finds some inner reserve of strength to overcome the Big Bad of the issue. That's not generally how Constantine works. This is a character whose solution to a particularly dangerous pimp is to hire a couple of local toughs to work him over with cricket bats. This is a guy that spent several issues homeless and alcoholic, and still managed to urinate on the King of Vampires.

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My point being, Constantine can lose. He has lost. It's one of the defining aspects of his character. He may know a thing or two more about how the world works, but he doesn't have a bunch of magic artifacts a la Doctor Fate or a supernatural benefactor like the Spectre backing him up; he can get his ass kicked. He can be out-maneuvered and out-smarted. Sometimes, to beat the baddy, he has to sacrifice someone. This essentially vulnerability and powerlessness is key to the character. That, and the lack of self-righteousness. Batman and the Punisher know that they ultimately aren't responsible for their parents/family's death - Superman didn't destroy Krypton - but Spider-Man knows he could have stopped the burglar that shot his Uncle Ben. And that loss is part of what defines Spider-Man, it's why they emphasize responsibility; lots of heroes grieve, but not many people know they could have done something about it. John Constantine, of course, is one of the few that have tried and failed. Repeatedly. But he keeps going.

Because there's always another con. One more lie. Garth Ennis in his run compared Constantine to a Pogues' song, "The Rake at the Gates of Hell."

I'll be with them asleep or dreaming
I'll be there when they wake up screaming
At the hour of death I will nurse them
To have a moment more to curse them
Watch the maggots crawl out of them
Hear the angels call above them
Watch them as the cold air sucks them
Down to hell good night good luck
Then if any should escape above me
Beg and cheat until they trust me
Drag them down to be damned with me
Laugh at them as they forgive me

Damn straight. So you can pretty much imagine the ending: John convinces Mictlantecuhtli to do the demon, calling on the deity's responsibilities - you see how that works? John's only working this thing because his mate asked him to. And Chas had given up. Told John he'd done the best he could, no hard feelings. John could have walked. But then, of course, he'd have let the demon beat him.

Of course, after the demon is dealt with, there's still Mictlantecuhtli to sort out...which involves a bit of a bluff on Constantine's part. Whether you like it or not depends on whether you think an Aztec death god would buy the threat; like with giving the powers-of-hell the big middle finger, it has a bit of a feel of an asspull...but then, the nice thing about these little occult comics is that they can play a bit fast and loose. In a screenplay, you need to foreshadow every stupid bloody thing two acts in advance, or the studio shits themselves lifeless. Carey gives readers the benefit of the doubt.

Then it really is all over except for the ribbon. Chas takes his granddaughter home, probably never to mention his little affair in L.A. Constantine has done right by his mate. All is right with the world, in a graphic novel that feels like an extra-long issue of Hellblazer, but a well-paced one that doesn't drag on or feel overblown. It's solid, and it stands well on its own or with the regular series, and those are all good things.

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And really, I love it when they take the chains of Leonardo Manco and just let him go nuts.

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    manjimanji Registered User regular
    Carey's whole run is rock solid, start to finish. i liked the Felix Castor books a bunch too, even if he is just Constantine with the serial numbers filed off.

    I wasn't fond of nu-52 Constantine either. He was one step away from just casting Magic Missile at any given time, which is the exact opposite of what he should be doing.

    Probably my most re-read Hellblazer trade is Hard Time, where John is basically stuck in Oz. No demons there, his foes are just supermax prisoners. Watching things spiral out of control, then seeing him just pull the place down is terrifying.

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    ShortyShorty touching the meat Intergalactic Cool CourtRegistered User regular
    christ I miss Hellblazer

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    GvzbgulGvzbgul Registered User regular
    This was the first Hellblazer book I read. The second (or the second one I remember) is the one with the rage? virus?. Anyway, it ends with the fate of the world relying on nobody at a soccer match getting angry. Which is an impossibility since the hooligans will riot either way.

    Anyway, All His Engines is good. Although I didn't realise it was a Graphic Novel until you said it, since I've only read trades of Hellblazer they're all graphic novels to me.

    fake edit- The second book I read was The Red Right Hand - Amazon synopsis: This volume features Constantine facing perhaps the most difficult task of his life: a dream of universal empathy that proves to be hell on Earth for Glasgow. He must gather up all the happy people he can and get them to Glasgow in order to stop a tsunami of bad vibes from overwhelming the world.
    He fails! But he discovers an emotion more powerful than anger, schadenfreude!

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    Ronin356Ronin356 Nowhere MORegistered User regular
    Still one of my favorite comic book characters, bar none.

    Also Matt Ryan killed it playing john in the TV series. I love his take on the character.

    Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time - like to have a friend takes time.
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    PhillisherePhillishere Registered User regular
    Ronin356 wrote: »
    Still one of my favorite comic book characters, bar none.

    Also Matt Ryan killed it playing john in the TV series. I love his take on the character.

    He'll be playing the character again on the upcoming season of Arrow.

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