Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Leonardo Manco
The word "pulpy" gets thrown around a lot in comic-book discourse. While in all probability, very few readers under the age of seventy have first hand knowledge of the cheaply-produced paperback publications (with such titles as Spicy Detective or Rapid Fire Action Stories) collectively known as pulp-fiction magazines, the word has developed a salience among the comic-book audience. In its current usage, pulp connotes a sense of trashy fun, a lack of polish, and an embrace of genres such as crime, horror, and science fiction: the weird cousins of “respectable” fiction. With Hellblazer #207, Mike Carey and Leonardo Manco have produced a textbook example of pulp, circa 2005, and as it turns out, it is John Constantine’s distance from the crystal-clear CG sheen of Hollywood that energizes his character.
After a seamless and deftly narrated recap of the story so far, Hellblazer #207 explodes with a splash page that all by itself goes half way toward reaching this issue’s outrageousness quota. The page is dominated by a dead woman’s upside-down face, her mouth agape and eyes rolled back into her head so that the irises are only barely visible. A one-eared, demon-possessed rat is perched upon her neck. Constantine narrates: “That’s still my sister lying down there, staring the last judgment full in the face. So this time I’m going to Hell.” Cheap thrills, rather than refinement, are the pleasures of the contemporary pulp. And thrills abound as Constantine makes good on his promise and sets out (after acquiring some innocent souls and covering his bare feet with the blood of his dead sister) on the long, dangerous road to Hell.
John Constantine is defined as much by his foul-mouthed decisiveness as he is by his filthy, brown raincoat. As he crosses a bridge built of lost souls spanning the chasm of Limbo, a bridge his living flesh cannot touch, things go badly, and he is soon facing down an enormous demon intent on consuming him. “Desperate situations—” he thinks. And then, with a knit brow and a sneer of determination: “Fuck it. You only live once.” His bare hands touch the ghostly bridge which disintegrates, plunging him into the abyss.
This is an archetypal scene of true grit, set in Hell’s antechamber and accompanied by a chorus of the damned. The reader is almost reminded of another twenty-first-century pulp hero, 24’s Jack Bauer, if he were more British, more alcoholic, and fought devils rather than terrorists. The theme is simple, but it is the roughness of the visual execution that brings the book to life. Credit for Hellblazer’s brilliant darkness goes to colorist Lee Loughridge, who seems to have spilled whole bottles of black ink onto every panel, forcing the blood reds and rust oranges to struggle for the small glimmer of light available. In another phantasmagoric full-page image, artist Leonardo Manco populates the blackness below Constantine’s living bridge with a sort of demonic Sea World. The suction cups on an octopus’s tentacles, the hideous round jaws of a lamprey, and the menacing outline of a giant squid are burnt auburn shadows carved into a blotchy black.
That same messy black soils John Constantine’s trench coat, his blond hair, and every crevice and crack of Hellblazer #207. The well-kempt Constantine of the silver screen, fresh from the dry cleaner and the beauty salon, would be appalled by the sheer stench one imagines fills this comic-book Constantine’s world. It’s not pretty, but then again, pulp never is.
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