John Constantine: Hellblazer #8, like the rest of the series, seems to take its cue from a famous clip of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: “I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards.”
John Constantine: Hellblazer #8
Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Aaron Campbell (Artist), Simon Spurrier (Writer)
July 28, 2020
This oft-quoted line is meant, like the rest of the show, to be satirical—Marenghi is a fictional hack horror writer, the kind whose ego drives him to say absolutely ridiculous statements like the above. A writer who denigrates subtext is probably not much of a writer.
And yet, I find myself increasingly drawn to stories that are not just clear about what they’re doing, but that point neon signs toward their themes and frankly dare you not to get it. This is, in fact, one of the things that made me fall in love with Hellblazer as a series: it wears its grimy heart on its sleeve, tackling societal issues with humor and magic and a healthy dose of cynicism. There’s little subtext—evil is evil, even if evil is sometimes magical.
The story of John Constantine: Hellblazer #7‘s mermaid continues in this issue, with Constantine finally speaking openly and honestly with her. She’s dying, because the man she loves—the man who summoned and maybe even created her—has sold her very flesh for profit. She loves him; she can’t believe that her lover would do this to her, to which Constantine replies, “You take it from me… all love’s magic. And all magic has a price. It’s just… some kinds’re steeper’n others.”
There’s subtext here, of course. Within the context of the narrative, we know it isn’t just about this mermaid—she may represent the environment, the working class, abused women around the world. But to say outright that all love is magic, and all magic has a price is a defiance of subtlety, too, one that works in the series’ favor.
I agree, to an extent, with the fictional character of Marenghi—not so much that subtext is for cowards, but that to say something outright in plain, unadorned speech, is a kind of bravery. It’s much harder to wear your heart on your sleeve than to pretend you don’t have one at all. This speaks not only to the series’ roots, but to the roots of the characters as well—Constantine came from a working-class background and performed in a punk band, where honest, straightforward speech is part and parcel for the genre. “Nazi punks fuck off,” is hardly subtext; sometimes you need to say things loud and earnestly if you want to be understood.
This delightful brazenness isn’t confined to the dialog; the artwork, colors, and letters, too, drive their message home with clarity. Everyone is in particularly fine form on the page where Constantine, in a flashback, casts a spell to detect what the mysterious man who’s been haunting every issue has been up to.
Writer Simon Spurrier, whose lively and colorful dialog has made the series uniquely enjoyable to read, uses the phrase, “consensual nibblage.” Aditya Bidikar’s lettering for spellwork is a gorgeous mess of layered text, vowels on top of consonants on top of unreadable shapes in black and red and yellow. Try to read it aloud and you get nothing but a mouth of nonsense sounds, but you know from looking that these sounds are magic. It takes skill to pull that off.
Likewise, Jordie Bellaire’s colors not only do the literal work they’re meant to do on the page—drawing the eye to the fire Constantine uses in his spell, lighting the scene in shades of warm yellow against the ocean’s cool blue, creating a miasma of fear and evil within the spell—but also carry themes. Fire is lively, growing and moving and leading the way forward. The mermaid, dying from her wounds, is still, cold, blue. Constantine, lit by fire, is somewhere in the middle.
Aaron Campbell’s linework, too, does more than it needs to. The scene largely takes place beneath an overpass, part in shadow, part in light. To draw Constantine in that same half-light, half-shadow isn’t subtle, but it is effective. The saturated blacks not only emphasize the pre-dawn time frame in which the issue takes place, but also, at times, seem to bleed Constantine’s form into that of his surroundings.
John Constantine: Hellblazer introduced this arc with a misleading description of the fisherman—”Fond of smoke, fond of shadow,” it read, over an image of Constantine wandering Billingsgate Market. There’s a parallel being drawn here, even as we see Constantine explaining to the mermaid that her lover has abused her. Both he and the fisherman have the same capacity for evil, the same love of smoke and shadow. If Constantine is to become a better man, he must make different choices. As the issue progresses from night to day, with Constantine passing the right to vengeance on to the wronged rather than taking it for himself, it becomes lighter, leaving the shadows behind.
But there’s a key to making this lack of subtlety work: realistic roots. Yes, Hellblazer is a fantasy/horror comic. This arc features a mermaid and a magic necklace. But the problems within it, the trickle-down of evil from the top—”evil,” as in demons or the devil or some other primal source, down through the powerful government agencies, down to the fishermen, down to the man in the flat cap, down to the mermaid’s lover—to those whose bodies and lives are sacrificed is real. Not “real,” in the literal sense, but “real” in the way that the mermaid grapples with—she is tangible, physical, but also summoned, created, just as the problems of our real world are.
The characters, too, do much of the work in keeping the series grounded. Even the mermaid and the fisherman, who stand in for other things, have enough character to them to lend even a fantastical story involving a mermaid and demons and whatever else credibility. It’s not subtle, it’s barely subtext.
To make these themes subtextual would be to allow for misreadings. It’s not that the John Constantine: Hellblazer team are ineffectual—far from it. But when you say something out loud, something as clear as quoting an MP on TV saying, “until we cut free from foreign interference, and stifle the immigration torrent, we are prey to hostile forces both economic and ideological, and our very way of life is at st–” what you are doing takes a serious level of narrative confidence.
Moreover, such directness forces us to find ourselves in the story. Are we the MP spewing violence, encouraging people to turn against one another? Are we the fisherman looking for a way to escape our social status?
Or are we the mermaid, our lives sacrificed for profit, our bodies used up by those who pretend they care?
It’s not that this team doesn’t have confidence in their readers to get subtext. It’s that they know their readers are like them—pissed off and fed up with the world in which we live. Sometimes you want to be reminded of that subtlety, and sometimes you want to gnash your teeth and scream along with others who feel the same. I’m glad that John Constantine: Hellblazer is the latter.