Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time for a candidate for best single issue ever! This post was originally published on 26 May 2008. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Published by DC, 1 issue (#27), cover dated March 1990.
SPOILERS ahoy, I guess, but it’s not really a spoiler-y story.
“Hold Me,” Gaiman and McKean’s short story about John Constantine, has to be one of the best single issues ever. Theoretically, it’s a horror story, as John must deal with a ghost who kills people, but it’s more than that. Somehow, in one issue, Gaiman manages to write that horror story, a love story, an indictment of our indifference to the homeless, a sad commentary on the realities of relationships, and a character study of a man with no hope. That’s not a bad day’s work.
Gaiman had shown he could write a good Constantine before, when he used him early on in Sandman (issue #3, to be exact, about a year before this issue). His John in that book was similar to this one, although he’s a bit more bitter in this comic. The most interesting aspect of John Constantine has always been that he’s mostly a failure – he might stop whatever evil scheme is being cooked up (and occasionally he doesn’t even do that), but he’ll lose a few friends along the way. He’s terribly bad at keeping people he knows alive, and often willingly sacrifices them. Gaiman doesn’t turn that on its head too much in this issue, but he does allow John a small moment of triumph in the midst of this sad tale. He has no need to sacrifice friends in this story, and he is able to give a ghost a dignified farewell. In serialized fiction, the context of the issue becomes something to consider. This issue came on the heels of a Grant Morrison/David Lloyd two-parter, which is decent but a bit pretentious and ultimately too standard a Constantine tale – he doesn’t really help the situation, and someone close to him dies. Then, Gaiman shows up, and we think this is going to be more horror. In setting the stage on the first few pages, Gaiman lets us know that the story will deal with the homeless, and that there’s something strange happening to one of them, Jacko. But we also get a taste of what we can expect: Gaiman writes, “Fat Ronnie and Sylvia from Hull ripped down a curtain, wrapped it around themselves, held each other for warmth. Jacko knew it was too cold even for that. And there was no one to hold Jacko anyway.” In those few lines, Gaiman foreshadows the way the issue will play out. It’s far more than just a tale of the tragedy of the homeless.
In fact, Gaiman shows how the tragedy of the homeless is the one that affects us all. Jacko only wants someone to hold him and keep him warm. Some of us have that, and some of us don’t. But Gaiman recognizes it as a universal desire, and he is able to link Jacko to Constantine and Anthea, the girl in the story. Jacko is a filthy, messy ghost, but he’s not evil. When Constantine confronts Jacko, he does more than just hold him. The first thing he does is ask his name. By naming himself, Jacko regains a tiny measure of dignity. By learning his name, John can no longer see him as a ghost, but as a person who simply wants some human contact. After he gives Jacko what he needs, John returns to Anthea, desperate for some human contact himself. Gaiman overdoes it slightly with the narration on the final page, heavily making his point instead of letting us come to it, but the penultimate panel of the book leaves us shaken and touched by what John must go through in his life. Jacko’s desperation is born of lack of friendship, while John’s stems from the fact that he recognizes that he uses people, and he is alone because of it. The idea of human warmth holding back the tide of darkness isn’t original, but Gaiman puts an interesting spin on it by suggesting that the lack of it is a kind of death. In Jacko’s case, that’s literal, but Shona’s mother dies because she refuses to engage Jacko as a person. Is Shona’s mother a bad person? We don’t know, but we don’t believe it. She’s just a person like us, one who would scream in fear if a homeless person appeared in our home and asked for a hug. John, with his background in odd situations, can handle it better, but he can also deal with Jacko because he is someone so like him. We don’t know much about Shona’s mother, but if she didn’t have someone to hold (her daughter), would she be more open to giving Jacko what he needs? Possibly. What we do know is that John understands, more than most people, the simple joys of life, because he’s done such a good job ignoring them.
More than that, the idea that John is able to “save” Jacko because he’s utterly alone is also explored. John can never form long-term attachments, because he knows that people close to him end up dead, so he rejects anyone who attempts it. Only with Jacko, who’s already dead, can he let his guard down. But Gaiman isn’t just interested in making this point, and that’s where Anthea comes in. John meets her at a party for a dead friend (yes, another one), and escorts her back to her apartment. As she tries to seduce him, he realizes she’s a lesbian, and she and her lover want to use him to have a baby. John, not surprisingly, gets angry at this, but more at the deception than the idea. As he leaves her, he says, “You could have bloody asked, you know. That’s all. You could have bloody asked.” John doesn’t form attachments, but he craves them nevertheless. We don’t get a sense of him recognizing the irony of someone else trying to use him when he uses people all the time, but what we do get is this idea that John is terribly lonely, and he wants to form something with someone. One of the tragedies of the issue is that the closest he can come to someone is when he hugs Jacko, but it leads to the less-than-tragic ending, when he attempts, once again, to make a connection with Anthea. Does John learn any lessons? Well, we can hope, can’t we?
As we circle back to the homeless, Gaiman subtly shows us how prevalent these dispossessed people really are. The human tragedy extends beyond a one-on-one connection that so many people lack to a societal problem, as we as a society don’t recognize the failings of the civilization we’ve created. Gaiman doesn’t try to push a grand agenda, concentrating instread on the fact that when we dismiss these people, we compartmentalize them, by necessity, into a section of our minds where we don’t view them as humans. John takes his cab driver to task because he’s a bigot who hates immigrants, and although we can easily mock him, what about the way we view the homeless? Displaced people haunt the book, from the man who borrows cigarettes from John, to the people at the party, “trying desperately to have fun,” to the people at the shelter that Anthea manages, who “don’t have anywhere else to go,” to Shona, who is orphaned by Jacko. Homeless people are just the most obvious manifestation of something much deeper in our society, the disconnect we feel with each other. “When we hold each other,” John narrates, “For just a moment or two the darkness doesn’t seem so bad.” But, as the final image of the comic shows, Jacko is always there. And we can’t escape him.
This is early in McKean’s career, so he actually draws it instead of using other media to create a tableau. It’s a striking book, with McKean and Vozzo draining the primary colors from every panel and creating a London that is brown and polluted. The characters match their surroundings, implying that they are as polluted as the landscape. Jacko is a black smudge on the comic, sucking up the life around him, but when John holds him, his face becomes beatific, almost Christ-like. He doesn’t redeem the world, but he gives a bit of redemption to John, who, on the last page, walks away from us until he seems almost to fade. The final actual panel (before we see Jacko smeared across the bottom of the page) is fascinating, because McKean makes it unclear where John ends and Anthea begins. For that brief moment, they share their meager strength, and it’s enough to help them move on. McKean is a marvelous artist because he can make something grotesque yet strangely beautiful, and he manages that with Jacko and the other wayward souls in this soulless London.
This issue appears in the trade paperback Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection, which was apparently released in conjunction with the movie. If you’re not interested in getting that, I’m sure this isn’t too hard to find nor too expensive. It’s one issue, after all! And a damned fine one at that.
As always, the archives are available for your perusement. Take them for a spin!
[This remains a haunting story, one that doesn’t really get enough love, I don’t think. It’s so nicely layered, and it’s impressive what Gaiman is able to do in 24 pages. McKean’s art is amazing, of course, and I might have gone into it a bit more if I wrote this today, but I think I got what’s beautiful about it. I didn’t get into his Anthea at all, but she’s amazing – even before we know what she’s up to, McKean does some heavy lifting with her facial expressions to let us know that there’s something painful and missing in her life, so when she tells John why he’s in her apartment, the earlier pages make sense. It’s really well done. Anyway, I linked to the trade below, which seems to be not hard to find, because it appears the actual issue might be harder to find than I thought. I think it’s been collected in at least one other trade, but I’m not sure. Have fun looking for it!]