Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The New Labour demon
In the latest issue of Hellblazer, a US horror comic, in its twelfth year of publication, the protagonist John Constantine walks into his local newsagents, orders 40 Silk Cut and a disposable lighter and tells the newsagent to 'stick your national lottery tickets up your arse'. The banter continues with John complaining about the government: 'New Labour, Old Bollocks'. He is a labour man from way back, he tells the newsagent, 'but this ain't Labour how I bleedin' remember it, Sanjay, more like bleedin' Thatcher.' What US readers make of this is a bit of a mystery, but for British readers the terrain is instantly familiar.
This has been the tone of Hellblazer for the past 12 years--first savage assaults on Thatcher's Britain and now New Labour--all in the pages of a monthly comic produced by DC, the Batman people, and reprinted as a series of popular graphic novels.
The Constantine character was created by arguably the greatest British comic book writer, libertarian socialist Alan Moore, as a bit part in another DC horror comic, Swamp Thing. He was given his own comic, Hellblazer, at the end of 1987 with the stories written by a friend of Moore's, Jamie De Lano. From the beginning Constantine was a very distinctive character, not at all in the usual DC superhero mould. He was a working class Liverpudlian who had dabbled in magic in his punk days. Now he has emerged as a trenchcoated, wisecracking spiv and magician, a wide boy with no respect for authority casting a deeply cynical eye over Britain under the Tories--a metaphor for hell if ever there was one.
What gave Hellblazer its radical edge, however, was not just Constantine's world view, but the comic's whole approach to the notion of horror. Most horror fiction comics and films are essentially conservative in ideology. Society comes under attack by outside forces that threaten to overturn it, but they are beaten off, usually by recourse to religion. The situation in Hellblazer is very different. The horror is aspects of the social system.
First written by De Lano and later by the Belfast writer Garth Ennis, the comic has provided a succession of tremendously powerful horror stories with a savage social and political cutting edge. In one early story, Constantine is investigating the death of a number of yuppies: 'Man Drowns In Guacamole', 'Deb Chokes On Cocktail Umbrella'. They are the victims of the Yuppies From Hell who are harvesting souls. The political climate is perfect, according to Constantine: 'Profit is definitely the top god in the 1980s--for monetarism read satanism.'
In another story the demon, Nergal, takes four racist skinheads and forms them into a single composite monster. Constantine is helpless in front of it until he asks how part of it can support Chelsea and another part Arsenal. He leaves it fighting itself. Later on he takes shelter with a remnant of the Peace Convoy which is brutally attacked by the police. This is a prelude to an attempt to establish a new authoritarian order in Britain by means of the Fear Machine.
My own favourite, however, is Garth Ennis's 'Royal Blood' story. Here a right wing cabal are trying to give the heir to the throne some backbone. Inadvertently they cause his possession by a demon that has a taste for human flesh, and Constantine is called upon to try and stop Charles eating his subjects. The scene where he substitutes Prince Andrew's line of coke with Mountbatten's ashes is particularly amusing.
Ennis ended his time on the comic in 1995 and it was taken over by Paul Jenkins who proceeded to eliminate all the political and social comment. His stories were conventional and conservative. Now, at last, another radical has been given the helm. Warren Ellis, who already writes the comic Transmetropolitan, a satire of American politics, has taken over, and Hellblazer is back on track to expose the demonic inspiration behind New Labour.