Gather ‘round, kiddies. Old Man Wetmore is gonna tell you a tale of scary comics from the days before the internets!
The year: 1990. I was an avid reader of horror comics especially, but also anything from DC’s Vertigo line, as well as selected superhero comics. (Never understood the appeal of Superman – sorry not sorry.) While passionate about Alan Moore – Watchmen and V for Vendetta were transformative for me – I thought his Swamp Thing run showed that horror comics could escape the pale imitation of EC Comics it had become by the 1980s and use horror to explore the very real anxieties we collectively felt and still represents some of his best work. I suspect, having grown up with Marvel’s version of Dracula and the seventies and eighties House of Mystery and House of Secrets (for all practical purposes, just one step up from Scooby-Doo in terms of horror) that I was blown away by Moore’s intelligent approach to horror. The “American Gothic” cycle was nothing short of brilliant, uncovering the hidden horrors underneath the image the United States wanted to believe was its true self. It also introduced us to John Constantine [the last syllable rhyming with wine and pine, not clean, no matter what the films and television programs say…].
Constantine is an occult detective in the traditional mold, but with a smirk, a quip, and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Cool, smart, snarky, rebellious, and knowing stuff the rest of us can only guess at, he helped Swamp Thing (and the reader) understand the true nature of the occult world. So, when he got his own book in 1988, John Constantine: Hellblazer, I was in from issue one. It was a wonderful and brilliant narrative. We learned about the fatal exorcism at Newcastle, hinted at for the first year until finally revealed in issue 11 “Newcastle,” in which John returns to the scene of the crime and in flashback we see how, thinking he was a magician ready to tangle with demons, he tried to exorcize a possessed little girl named Astra, instead he watched her die (Her arm is the only piece of her left when we’re done.), as well as some of his friends. Constantine spent several years in the Ravenscar Secure Facility as a mental patient as a result. The book was evocative and dangerous in its storytelling. I connected to it so much that when I moved to the U.K. in 1991 for a few years, I discovered Newcastle Brown and in John’s honor that became my preferred lager.
The first two years were good. The book was promising and delivered on those promises. I enjoyed it each month. Then, issue 27, though – written by Neil Gaiman. Sandman had been in full swing for about two years at this point. Issue 6, “24 Hours,” tells of the day in a diner where Dr. Dee waits for Morpheus and spends the time tormenting the six people trapped there. Far more terrifying than what Dee does is what they reveal about themselves. It was a beautiful example of stories within stories for which Gaiman has rightfully become famous, but also creepy as hell, with parts that were genuinely disturbing and haunt me to this day. I would read anything Gaiman wrote then; I will read anything he writes now.
So, Master Gaiman, ol’ Neil himself, pens a single issue of John Constantine: Hellblazer. Starting in 1988, Jamie Delano wrote most of the first forty issues, with three exceptions: two by Grant Morrison, and Neil’s one-shot story here. You must remember, in the '90s we were all into long arcs, with the occasional one-shot in between longer stories. Hellblazer then ran until 2013, with about seven other main writers in sequence, for a total of 300 issues (not including annuals and specials - I still have my original run in mylar bags, safely stored). Did I mention the artist for the issue was Dave McKean? His covers for Sandman and Hellblazer were true works of art, collages that both echoed ideas, themes, and images from the stories but also added to them.
(“Great, old man. You have a nice comic collection. But I thought this was Fanbase Press’ Scariest – why the history lesson?” “Background, kids, we’re getting to the scary!”)
There’s one more thing you need to understand. At this point when the issue comes out, I am in college in Maine, America’s little Canada. The March issue, like most comics at the time, would come out at the end of the preceding month. Every Friday afternoon, my associates and I would trudge through the snow a mile from campus to our local comic book emporium (not being an old man now – I told you this was Maine! There was lots of snow and it was almost exactly a mile!) Friday evening, before any socializing, after dinner, one would sit down and begin to work one’s way through the haul that day. It’s the last Friday in February. My room is cold and dark. Being pretentious, I light candles and put on a Pink Floyd cassette (one must be true to one’s demographic). Sitting there, I am transported.
Gaiman’s story is a simple one. (Wikipedia calls it “a simple romantic ghost story,” so screw Wikipedia, those no nuance-having unlettered heathens!) The issues opens, as it often does, with people who are not John Constantine. This, for me, was one of the appeals of the book. Constantine was often a secondary character in his own story, showing up halfway through and realizing how deep the shit was. We are shown that three homeless people - Fat Ronnie, Sylvia, and Jocko - are in danger of freezing to death on the streets of London during an unseasonably cold spring. It’s three in the morning, they are drunk, and they are desperate. They break into an abandoned flat and huddle together for warmth. The odd thing is, Fat Ronnie and Sylvia don’t seem to acknowledge or see Jocko, even though he is right there with them.
John has been invited to a party. He meets Anthea there, leaves with her. We find out that she lives in a building where the corpses of some homeless people were discovered months ago, and the smell has not left the building. We come to realize the bodies were Fat Ronnie and Sylvia. In the meantime, elsewhere in the building, Shona, a young girl, calls to tell her mom that there is a smelly man in her bedroom. The mother goes to investigate and is confronted by a disturbing-looking man who simply says, “Hold me.” He embraces her, saying, “So cold,” and then leaves her corpse on the floor. John discovers Anthea simply wants him to get her pregnant so she and her girlfriend can have a child, and John leaves in a huff, having just served as an unwilling sperm donor for Abby and Swamp Thing. Instead, he finds Shona, wandering the halls. Bringing the girl back to Anthea, he goes into the flat.
There have been ghosts before and after in Hellblazer, but none like Jocko. If you had told me a comic book could creep me out, I would have laughed, but McKean, one hell of an artist and inker himself, offers a phantasmagoric Jocko that still haunts me. There it is, on page 20, Constantine finally sees the ghost that has been killing people by embracing them. Jocko is not your standard comic ghost – no translucent outline of a person. No full-figure apparition that reads immediately as “ghost.” The page is a black mass, vaguely in the shape of a person, flecks of darkness flying off at the edges to discolor the blank space next to it. Two hands at the bottom of the panel, twisted yet imploring. A single eye, the suggestion of unwashed, filthy hair hanging down over a face, a hit of nose, and what may or may not be a mouth are all we can see of the face. It is pathetic and terrifying all at once. I gasped at McKean’s work the first time I saw it.
But it is not just the actual art that scared me, filled me with dread, more accurately, and as Clive Barker reminds us, there is no delight the equal of dread. No, the story and its implications are what drove me deeper into unease. Jocko froze to death. His ghost embraces people and they die. Constantine asks for his name. “Jocko,” comes the response, “So cold. Nuhhhnobody caressss…Hold me…” And Constantine, who exorcizes demons, fights sorcerers, and is perhaps one of the baddest badasses in the 1990 DC universe, simply says, “You poor dead bastard…all right,” and hugs the ghost. “You’re freezing cold, and smell like an abattoir, mate,” Constantine remarks as they embrace, “Must be hell being dead.”
That’s the line that got me. It must be. The ghost was the monster-of-the-week so to speak, but it was, in the end, in no way evil. If ghost stories are, as Gillian Beer has said, about the insurrection, not the resurrection of the dead, then this issue forces us to ask critical questions. Jocko came back because he froze to death, alone and unloved, longing for human contact. I read this in a cold February, in a cold dorm room, in a building full of people, many of whom were feeling alone, lonely, unloved, and longing for human contact. The characters in the story died because when confronted by a ghost simply wanting human contact, they reacted in horror, and still denied him what he needed so badly in life. It must be hell being dead, yeah, but sometimes it’s hell being alive. We can neglect others – the unhoused, the stranger in the street, even the person in the next dorm room or apartment over – because we are busy with our own lives and forget the importance of just a simple moment of human contact.
So yes, Gaiman and McKean gave us a very scary ghost, not just in image and concept, but in implication. If a sign of good artistry is the ability to generate real empathy in the reader, then they won, as I was on the verge of tears for Jocko. Empathy for a ghost who haunted in a lonely miserable death, having died alone and cold, having lived in very much the same way. Ignored and unwanted, just looking for someone to hold him once. No exorcism, no complicated formula needed. Just a willingness to look beyond appearance and smell and see a human being in need – that’s what ended the horror.
John goes back to Anthea’s flat and asks her to hug him. All the poor bastard wanted was for somebody to care, John narrates. Nobody would. Then comes the kicker: “When we hold each other in the darkness, it doesn’t make the darkness go away. The bad things are still out there. The nightmares are still waiting. When we hold each other we feel – not safe, but better.’ It is an object lesson in small graces, in combatting loneliness, in reminding us of common humanity and the need to sometimes just hold each other. As John says, it doesn’t make the situation change, but it makes us feel a little stronger, a little more capable. When we forget that, the darkness wins, and that, for me, was that last little bit of dread.
So, that’s all. A really cool illustration of a ghost and some existential dread. No jump scares (which aren’t actually scares but startling someone), which are impossible in a comic book anyway. Instead, what scared me, filled me with dread, was that idea that it must be hell to be dead, and for some folks it is hell to be alive, and that I have contributed to making that hell by not caring. Perhaps it is the angst and anxiety that a sensitive, pretentious college student with delusions of artistry manifests so easily, but this issue shook me. Stayed with me. And odd though it sounds, there have been times when I have thought of it when I saw someone in pain and was reminded we feel better if someone just cares, even if just for a moment, that we feel better if someone is willing to hold us.
Happy Halloween. Be seeing you…