Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon: Hellblazer: Damnation’s Flame

Antony Johnston

John Constantine, Hellblazer. A legend in his own closing time, or at least ever since Garth Ennis got a hold of the character. Constantine is a magician; he lives in London; he looks like Sting (no, seriously). He doesn’t wear Dr Strange-style cloaks. He doesn’t wave wands and skulls about (at least, not for magic). He’s just an ordinary bloke who happens to have cheated Hell out of his soul and likes a few beers. [continued]

This is precisely why fans of Ennis will like this book (and the other three Ennis-penned volumes already available); Constantine, more than any other Ennis character, is imbued with most of Ennis’ own personality. As time passed and Ennis settled into the role, Constantine’s stories became ever more grounded in reality. This is the third and penultimate book before Ennis and Dillon moved on to Preacher, and to be perfectly frank there’s very little outright horror, or even magic, to be found. Even Ennis’ usual hyperviolence is thin on the ground.

But it’s still worth a read. So long as you aren’t expecting pages of spellcasting and punch-ups with the Devil, it’s hard to see how this book could disappoint. Confused? Allow me.

Ennis’ main (and not inconsiderable) talent is simply for telling a good yarn. His characters come to life with ease, his pacing is excellent and his twists are very twisty indeed. And, like all good comics, his stories refuse to be told any other way. Ennis has too much of a cinematic style for prose — something like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust would require a massive shift in his narrative style.

Hellblazer UK cover

Enter Steve Dillon, of whom Warren Ellis said, ‘Dillon has been drawing comics professionally since he was four years old,’ and Alan Moore desribed as ‘that Kaspar Hauser of the comics industry.’ Dillon’s style is economical and cinematic, but his prodigous strength lies in the storytelling. The man’s a god, pure and simple, and as shown with Preacher, he and Ennis just ‘click’ — storytelling with no frills, but plenty of meat.

So what DO we have here? The magic’s taken a back seat. Instead we have Constantine moving to New York to rest for a while after the death of his girlfriend. Of course, trouble just follows the man around and soon he’s the target of a vendetta by a houdon enemy out of his past. There’s a trip into hell (or at least part of it) and, as said before, some very twisty turns. But it’s the examination of Constantine as a character which takes prominence in this book, excellently complemented by the retrospective follow-ups to the main story which examine his past still further (and include his own funeral!).

Another popular Ennis theme, the corruption of the American Dream, is also given full reign. It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the plot, but be assured Ennis pulls no punches in his deconstruction of Uncle Sam, both reviled by the Dream’s corruption and yet unflinching in his admiration for the myth. Like I said, hard to explain.

I’m not even a big fan of the Hellblazer books. But that’s the point — Ennis projects such sympathy for Constantine that you can’t help losing yourself in the book and rooting for him. Perhaps even more so than Preacher, this book is a perfect showcase for Ennis and Dillon’s skills, and that alone makes it worth reading.

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