Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Editor: Karen Berger
There has been considerable efforts made to prove comics are a legitimate form of artwork, worthy of standing beside other, more traditionally respected mediums. While publishers like Drawn + Quarterly and Fantagraphics admirably push the medium through the work of great cartoonists, it often falls to the major superhero publishers to showcase what the medium is capable of, mostly because they have the infrastructure to support a wide reach. Often, it is the big 3 of the late 1980s – Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus – that are held up as examples of comics’ potential. However, two of them are dependent upon the tropes and traditions of the superhero genre in order to be fully appreciated. Maus, on the other hand, is completely brilliant, but it still falls short of demonstrating what is capable within comics’ flagship format: the single-issue periodical. Enter Hellblazer #27, which fills that void admirably.
It is incredible to think that writer Neil Gaiman only wrote a single issue of Hellblazer, but in doing so he managed to put together arguably the best issue of the entire series. While Gaiman is synonymous with his landmark series Sandman, he is no stranger to John Constantine, having written one of the best versions of the character in his Books of Magic miniseries, which released the same year as this issue. Moreover, Hellblazer is a series that is notable for having been touched by many of the U.K.’s best writers, including Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Paul Jenkins, Andy Diggle, Warren Ellis, and Mike Carey. It’s a shame that this is the only issue of Hellblazer proper that Gaiman writes, because he’s a natural.
The issue’s title, “Hold Me”, clues the reader in to what kind of story they should expect. The title is a request for comfort, usually after a traumatic or trying experience. There are two major narrative threads – which eventually intersect at the issue’s end – that involve a degree of trauma. As is the case in these early Hellblazer issues, John Constantine does not directly interact with the supernatural subject for most of this issue. Instead, his experiences are very grounded in the real world, and therefore very relatable.
In “Hold Me,” Gaiman places Constantine at a party where he doesn’t really know anyone. The party itself is a celebration of Constantine’s friend Ray, who was killed back in Hellblazer #7. It’s a situation many people have found themselves in at some point in their lives, and Gaiman’s script does a masterful job in conveying both the awkwardness and the isolation that comes with such a scenario. He finds himself comfortably positioned as a wallflower, observing while questioning how he even ended up there. Or, at least he would have, if not for the host – the only person John knows – using the party as a chance to set him up with his friend, Anthea. While not a wholly universal experience, this situation is once more one that readers can at least identify with.
Gaiman is intently focused on ensuring readers have an emotional attachment to John and are able to sympathise with him. He is able to succeed without undercutting the abrasiveness and personality of John’s character. Just a page or two prior, we had seen him be a bit of an asshole to a cab driver, though it’s justified given the cabbie’s outspoken bigotry. The groundwork that Gaiman lays here pays off in a big way later in the issue, as John realizes he’s being targeted sexually, thanks in part to a Freudian slip on Anthea’s part.
Often, we do not think of men as being targets of predatory sexual behavior. Often, it’s seen as a pop-culture punchline. It’s a trope used in many comedies throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. So for Gaiman to address this matter back in a 1990 comic is an extremely progressive stance to take. Gaiman also manages to tie this back to Constantine’s usage as a vessel for Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane to conceive a child, as Anthea and her partner, Sarah, are hoping he can provide the seed to start their potential family.
On the flip side to the Constantine narrative is that of a seemingly scruffy, unkempt man named Jacko who is desperately seeking comfort. First, he reaches out to a couple wandering the nighttime streets of London. Later, Jacko finds himself in the bedroom of a little girl, Shona, who’s mother comes to her rescue only to be killed by his life-sucking, cold embrace. How Gaiman inevitably makes this story thread intersect with Constantine’s narrative is demonstrative of the latter’s knack for ending up where he’s needed, especially when he’s dealing with his own personal shit. As a result, the resolution is melancholy, poetic, and ultimately perfect.
Of course, Gaiman’s script is only part of this issue’s success. It is difficult to imagine this issue working with artwork by anyone but Dave McKean, who contributes not just the cover art as he has done for all Hellblazer issues to this point, but the interior art as well. While his cover artwork often has a surreal and painterly aesthetic, Hellblazer #27 sees him employ raw, scratchy pencils and inks. That combined with his monochromatic colors make a great complement to Jacko’s icy nature. But perhaps the most notable element of McKean’s work is his penchant for drawing his characters in a manner that is stylized, but still realistic. Unlike most comics, these people are visually imperfect, and in some cases straight ugly. It works so well in establishing this world. In addition to making ugly faces, McKean fills pages with heavy inks, adding to the issue’s melancholy and ominous tones.
From the writing to the artwork, Hellblazer #27 is an exercise in pure artistry. Gaiman and McKean’s efforts work in perfect harmony, resulting in a story that holds up decades after its initial publication, a feat very few comics can boast. Though this creative team never again contributed to this series, they left an indelible mark on the title. If ever there is a comic that can, in a concise manner, demonstrate the artistic potential of the medium, this is it.