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Superpowerlessness: Hellblazer and Thatcher

By Seamus O’Malley

The third issue of the D.C. horror comic Hellblazer (“Going For It”, March 1988) ends with its protagonist, John Constantine, hanging from the ceiling, forced to watch election returns from Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory (3.24; Figure 1). It was her third since 1979. Constantine has just outmaneuvered a pack of demons working for “Mammon investments” who had been speculating on the free market for souls, as Constantine’s narrative explains: “The political climate’s perfect for them. Profit is definitely the top god of the eighties—for monetarism, read satanism” (3.14). The demons—“an eager group of junior commodity dealers”—had pitched their financial plans to their CEO, “Blathoxi, Lord of Flatulence”: “The way we read it, it’s a platinum opportunity to corner the UK market” (3.7). The demons buy souls in recently gentrified neighborhoods and then move in, one yuppie demon couple owning luxury items like “fetus-skin sun-drapes” and listening to a CD titled “Tears of Atlantis Re-Awaken the Desiccated Souls of Hiroshima” (3.9). 

 John Constantine forced to watch Thatcher victory footage
Figure 1. John Constantine forced to watch Thatcher victory footage.

Readers of certain political persuasions might deem such horror tropes the only appropriate ones for the long reign of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990). Her monetarist economic reforms, coupled with a nationalist, moralist populism, resulted in a drastic increase in wealth disparity, visually depicted as demon financiers in “Going For It,” but also via a series of panels, drawn by John Ridgway, portraying homelessness, unemployment, and aggressive policing: “All part of the great British ‘return to Victorian values’, I guess” remarks Constantine sarcastically (3.5). British works of horror from the 1980s, like those by Clive Barker or Alan Moore, attest to the true human horror of the Thatcherite Revolution, and the “Going For It” storyline in Hellblazer only needed a little tweaking of reality to arrive at its soul-swapping devils, literalizing one of Thatcher’s most famous quotes: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul” (Butt).

Hellblazer, however, confronts Thatcherism in even more complex ways, and I would argue that its plots and themes stage not just the horror of a free market run amok, but also, more specifically, the powerless nature of any opposition. Thatcher’s party won four straight general elections, the longest such run since before the Great War, and she was the longest reigning Prime Minster of the twentieth century. Even her humiliating removal from office by her own party led to further Labour powerlessness, her successor John Major easily securing a fourth straight Tory term in 1992. While much of this dominance was due to Thatcher’s successful populist appeal, the Labour Party’s failures at the polls, and the lack of any other mainstream political opposition, meant that it was culture, not political parties or movements, that spoke back to her silent majority. A whole sub-genre of British music specialized in skewering her image, testament to Thatcher’s cultural impact.((Stuart Hall, one of the founders of Cultural Studies, was one of the best contemporary critics of Thatcher and instantiated the study of Thatcherism in works like The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (1987), where he articulated her political appeal and analyzed her effect on culture. For music, see Buzzfeed’s “21 Incredibly Angry Songs about Margaret Thatcher.”))

While these voices most often spoke in bitterness and anger, Hellblazer, especially as penned by Jamie Delano through its first few years, simultaneously dramatized the anguish of powerlessness in the face of her unstoppable string of victories, often leaving Constantine as a witness, not rescuing hero, to some horrific event. Even when he wins, he loses: in “Going For It” he defeats the demons by going to Hell and offering to his own soul to Blathoxi, arousing the latter’s suspicions: “Why do you wish to take profits now? / What inside knowledge do you have? / I’m right, am I not? You think the left wing is going to win the election—and the UK soul market is going to crash” (3.18). Blathoxi refuses Constantine’s soul, tosses him out of hell (on returning to earth Constantine is ambushed by the demons and tied to the ceiling), and sells all his souls expecting a Labour victory. But the selloff crashes the souls market, and Constantine has prevailed: “I won—and I bloody feel good about it!” he says, dangling (3.24). The next panel depicts him staring at the television depicting Thatcher victorious, the narrative caption reading “Then I remember I’m hanging upside-down in front of a TV screen that’s going to be broadcasting election news ‘til dawn” (3.24). The final panel, a close-up of his face, reads, “Like I said, there’s more than one road to Hell.” Thus his “victory” over evil is only possible because he knows a Labour one is not. (An earlier page depicts Constantine, trademark cigarette in hand, in front of a Labour Party poster that reads “Vote Labour: the party with a conscience,” but underneath someone has graffitied, “Why bother? It only encourages them” (3.5).) Constantine is left a powerless witness, and the final panels of “Going For It” simply make explicit what the comic does for much of its early run, staging frustrations and despair at the impotence of Thatcher’s opposition. The horrors of Hellblazer are less the supernatural, and not always the human evils of society, but rather the inability of anyone to stop the emergence of neoliberalism.

Thatcher and Thatcherism

Thatcher’s victories were landslides: she won by 43, 144, and 102 seats in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Once in power, aiming to tame both inflation and the power of trade unions, she cut tax rates for high earners, privatized government services (British Petroleum, for example) and deregulated many private ones. Social spending dipped, although even she felt compelled to fund the NHS at functional levels. Unemployment remained high, not ideal for her image, yet it kept both the unions and inflation in check. An unexpected boost came in 1982 when Argentina, under the dictatorship of Leopoldo Galtieri, annexed the Falkland Islands, leading to a military response by the United Kingdom that was its most extensive since the Second World War. The quick victory intensified patriotism across the U.K., aided by Rupert Murdoch’s enthusiastic championing of Thatcher and the war in his newly-acquired Sun tabloid. The Labour Party, in the face of such forces, could only muster 27% of the vote in the following election. Furthermore, the epic, failed miner’s strike of 1984 was the biggest blow to organized labour since the 1926 General Strike, and the Labour Party has never been the same: while its name is an indicator of its historical roots, “Labour” belies its current base, much of the working class having crossed over to the Conservative Party, a process initiated by Thatcher and effectively completed by Brexit and Boris Jonson.

But Thatcher was unlike any Prime Minister in recent memory because of how she embodied a political philosophy, how she became an -ism in both politics and culture. Alwyn Turner writes in Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s (2010) that she was not just a powerful politician, “she came armed also with a philosophy and a morality about the individual and the nation that resonated in a way denied to her immediate predecessors,” and that we have not seen since (x). Robert Hewison writes, “although Thatcherism was presented as an economic doctrine, the underlying moral philosophy was more important. As Thatcher told the Sunday Times in 1981: “‘Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul.’ The British soul was to be remade, by creating a new myth of economic individualism to replace the old ideas of community and collectivism” (212). We can now recognize the emergent ideology as that of neoliberalism.((David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. [..] State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit” (2).))

Her successes led to years of unchecked Tory rule, but also provoked such a strong cultural backlash because of how she chose to speak morally and culturally, not just politically. Turner writes, “Pop music, comedy, fiction: all felt moved to remark upon political developments, normally from a hostile position” (xxi), and comics were no different, as we can see in Delano’s literalization of the market for souls. The comics that eventually became the Vertigo subline of D.C. were at the forefront of the resistance to Thatcher, mostly penned by left-leaning British writers: besides Alan Moore and Delano, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison all began their careers in Vertigo (or proto-Vertigo) books that took for granted an oppositional stance towards Thatcherism. 

Comics and the Horror Genre

The character of John Constantine was created by Alan Moore in Swamp Thing #37 (June 1985) with art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Moore had taken over the title in 1983, rebooting it to become a playground for his experimental storytelling that used horror tropes to explore the social and political themes of the Thatcher years, tackling such issues as environmental collapse, racialized violence, and imperialism, with a heady glorification of drugs and all-around counter-culturalism. He was in the midst of further explorations with V for Vendetta and Miracleman, and he would begin work on Watchmen soon. When Moore asked Bissette and Totleben what they wanted to draw next, they said a character that looks like Sting. Moore decided to make him a “blue-collar warlock” with anarchist political leanings and a punk background (and Sting’s face).((Moore described Constantine’s creation in a 1993 issue of Wizard magazine. See https://alanmooreworld.blogspot.com/2018/06/john-constantine-and-sting.html.))

When he appears in Swamp Thing, Constantine is a knowing resistor of various evil plots, leading Swamp Thing by the nose throughout the universe, always with one trick up his sleeve. Constantine knows what Swamp Thing has not yet discovered: the green monster is in fact a plant elemental, not a freak disaster (as previous iterations of Swamp Thing had it).

Constantine got his own comic book in 1988, this time written by Delano and drawn by Ridgway. Now the all-knowing aspect of his character functions only as a veneer. His own life is a wreck, with no steady income and only a loose social network. Delano also fills in his past: from a troubled Liverpool home, Constantine went to London as a young man, got involved in the punk scene and was briefly the lead singer for the atrocious band Mucous Membrane. Along the way his interest in magic and the arcane intensified. A typical storyline might involve Constantine trying to help out a friend by riskily summoning a demon, which leads to increasingly ghastly results. Many of those he tries to help end up in worse shape than when they came to him, yet Constantine sometimes prevails, or at least survives, due to crafty thinking or a called-in favor (favors are the currency of the arcane underworld). All the while, he maintains his political edge, as Marc Di Paolo writes in War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film (2011): “Constantine was a drunken, foul-mouthed populist with angry socialist views and union sympathies. He was the perfect mouthpiece for the disenfranchised members of the Labour Party who looked on in horror during the 1980s at what Thatcher was doing to England” (174).

Hellblazer’s staging of powerlessness is partly the result of its experiments in genre and form during Thatcher’s revolution, an era in which the horror genre come to a cultural prominence unseen before. Horror is a broad genre with roots in Western myth, folktales, and the Gothic. Theorists often look to Tzvetan Todorov for foundational work on horror, and although he  did not deploy the term, he distinguished between “the fantastic” and “the uncanny,” arguing that when the reader is not sure if the strange occurrences in a text are supernatural or explainable by naturalist means, “The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny, or the marvelous” (15). Horror narratives often open fantastically, in Todorov’s terminology, but usually give way to the uncanny. In the universe of Hellblazer, magic clearly exists, and Constantine might be the uncanny presence in the marvelous world of Superman, operating in the created world of superheroes but experiencing it through horrific twists and turns. 

Theorizing horror has mostly neglected comics, focusing, understandably, on novels and film, but Philip Brophy, in his article “Horrality—the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films,” traces the influence of 1950s horror comics on the new wave of horror films that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s. Such films (like George Romero’s 1982 Creepshow) were: “the cinematic realization of the textual organization of the comic book. The most famous of Horror comics were the E.C. comics from the early 1950s, the style and form of which have influenced the contemporary Horror film to a large degree” (283). The more genteel, 1960s Hammer Production films, by contrast, drew on British Gothic literature, and, as Gregory Waller notes: 

Virtually all Hammer’s horror film […] offer the viewer a world in which religious faith, ritualized violence, and individual heroism defeat a powerful but easily identified threat. Thus quite unlike Psycho and The Birds, Hammer’s films reaffirm what are assumed to be the ‘normal’ values of heterosexual romance, clearly defined sexual roles, and the middle-class family and testify to the importance and the relevance of social stability and traditional sources and wisdom. (257) 

The ideologies of horror thus span the political spectrum, but no doubt the political edge of 80s horror—in contrast to the safer, postwar, consensus feel of Hammer films—was in response to Thatcherism.

A comic like Hellblazer is clearly more indebted to Creepshow (or the “video nasties” of its day((“Video nasties” were a phenomenon in 1980s Britain made possible by VHS technology. Films deemed too extreme for theatrical release became available for home viewing. Moralistic conservatives were briefly joined by feminists in calls to censor the films (Turner 207). ))) than any Hammer film, and often denies narrative closure or a return to an established order. Many critics of the genre detect reactionary underpinnings in horror’s need to foreclose alternatives to established norms, marking Creepshow and its associates as radical exceptions.((Lindsay Hallam nicely summarizes such critical trends: “Film scholars such as Vivian Sobchack and Andrew Tudor have contended that the horror genre functions to ultimately restore order, that the monsters in horror embody what must be rejected by society. Their vanquishment in the narrative represents an expulsion of unwanted elements and a return to the status quo. In this sense horror is considered to be a fundamentally conservative genre” (“Drink Full and Descend”). Hallam persuasively argues that the open-ended works of directors like David Lynch do not fall into these categories.)) But the political status of Hellblazer becomes more complex when we consider how it occupies space in a larger, more conservative marvelous universe, represented either by the mainstream Americana of Superman or the Gothic anxieties of Batman, both fitting easily into the conservative landscape of Thatcher and Reagan that sees crime as the result of individual moral choices that must be met with either benign charity or harsh, extra-legal punishment. Hellblazer openly flouts such mores, and not just in its lack of narrative closure; its early issues embrace countercultural elements like queer forms of sexuality, an openness to drug use, and critiques of racist police brutality (rather than violent street crime). 

Horror comics depart from the logic of superheroes in another way, as the “laws” of its universe are not so programmatic as that of superheroes, whose well-established protocols invite endless calculations and nerdy inquiries. For Hellblazer specifically—a horror book ensconced in a superhero universe—its narratives could play upon the heroic expectations of readers who encounter it alongside Superman and confuse form for genre. Moore has described some of what he calls the “absurdities” of such a dynamic: “to work properly, horror needs a delicate and carefully sustained atmosphere—one capable of being utterly ruined by the sudden entrance of a man in green tights and an orange cloak, especially if as a character he’s fond of puns” (vii).((Moore continues, however, to point out the “charms” as well: “The charms are harder to find, but once revealed, can actually be rewarding. The continuity-expert’s nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters co-existing in the same continuum can…become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters around, waiting to be plucked like grapes on the vine” (vii).))

Hellblazer—Todorov’s “uncanny”—relies on a system of magic never fully explained, at risk of ruination by the quantifiable world of superheroes. When successful, Hellblazer steers clear of such dangers, while still playing with readerly expectations that remain superheroic. We cannot be sure what Constantine is able to do, nor, it seems, does he. The vast nature of Hell and other supernatural realms lie beyond any one person’s knowledge, and the result is a narrated world that resists the reader’s attempts to organize it into a coherent pattern. As a result, we are often left without the solace or narrative closure offered by many comics in the same universe, and, as I will argue, such narratological features produce political critiques.

Origin stories

The generic qualities of Hellblazer allowed Jamie Delano to experiment with readerly expectations, deconstructing superhero tropes all in the service, I would argue, of conveying a sense of political helplessness in Thatcher’s England. This is best expressed through Constantine’s buried origin story, which is slowly excavated through the first issues of the comic. As early as Swamp Thing, Constantine had made cryptic mention of a disaster at Newcastle, the first troubling of his confident persona. As Hellblazer began, references to Newcastle mounted, suggesting some unresolved trauma. Finally issue 11, titled “Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come,” revealed the full truth about the event, serving as a perverse origin story, one that ties together Constantine’s personal demons (both literal and figurative) with Thatcher’s hellish landscape. 

Astra’s behavior reflects her recent trauma
Figure 2. Astra’s behavior reflects her recent trauma

In 1979 a young Constantine, still with the band Mucous Membrane, needs a place to play in Newcastle and hears of a man named Alex Logue, a “sex and drugs magician” (11.3) who owns the Casanova Club. Constantine brings his band and a stray cast of magic enthusiasts, but they discover that the club is haunted. Logue’s young daughter Astra summoned demons to get revenge on Logue’s friends for sexually assaulting her. We first see her maniacally dancing. When some of the group tries to comfort her, she screams “Don’t touch me! I won’t do it anymore, I don’t like it!”, her face staring straight at the viewer (Figure 2, 11.6). She had conjured up the worst thing she could think of, which she calls a “Norfulthing” (really a “terror elemental,” explains Constantine), which raped the men to death (11.8-9). The Norfulthing still haunts the club, so Constantine decides to conjure a demon of his own to fight it, but when the demon arrives it occupies Astra’s body and drags her to Hell. Constantine pursues her, grabs her, and returns to Earth, but the gates of Hell close as they escape, severing her arm: the only piece of her that Constantine brings back. This is the image that haunts him, and he will spend months in an asylum. (The severed arm had appeared sporadically in previous issues, and subsequently it becomes the comic’s shorthand for his past failures, raging guilt, and unprocessed trauma.) Astra remains trapped in Hell. 

Earlier in the storyline, Constantine had thought, “There is a fear which thrusts, like splintered wood, in the center of your being. / It is the fear which comes with realization that you are utterly helpless— / —powerless and fragile, trapped between the bloody jaws of unreason” (11.19). Such a “powerless” emotion is aptly placed in the origins of the mature Constantine, and much of his dark obsessions emerge from this moment. Looking back on it, however, we can see how Delano parallels this event with political developments in Britain. Remembering when he was even younger, before Newcastle, Constantine thinks, “But that was then. / Before Thatcher. Before the Falklands War. Before the country—starving—ate out its own heart. / Before Hell impaled and toasted us, writhing over the roaring fires of our own inadequacies” (11.2). Newcastle is not the violent event that propels superheroism, as in Batman or Superman, but rather the undigested trauma, which Delano links to the reign of Thatcher. 1979 was no innocent year, as David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2007): “Future historians may well look upon the years 1978–80 as a revolutionary turning-point in the world’s social and economic history” (1). Deng Xiaoping liberalized China’s communist economy, Thatcher came to power, and “Paul Volcker took command at the US Federal Reserve in July 1979, and within a few months dramatically changed monetary policy,” leading to Reagan’s radical restructuring of the American economy in ways that mirror British developments (1). Harvey writes, “Volcker and Thatcher both plucked from the shadows of relative obscurity a particular doctrine that went under the name of ‘neoliberalism’ and transformed it into the central guiding principle of economic thought and management” (2). Delano, with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight, likely saw the origins of Constantine and the origins of neoliberalism as horrifically bound, the radical event whose traumatic registers we keep feeling. Delano suggests powerlessness in the face of demons and sexual abuse conveys what living through Britain in the 80s feels like, and the ambiguity of the line, “Before Hell impaled and toasted us”—do we take this literally, or politically figurative?—stages the politically allegorical nature of Constantine’s origins, aptly located in a northern city decimated by Thatcher’s postindustrial revolution.

Delano continues this parallel in Hellblazer Annual #1, “The Bloody Saint,” which opens with Constantine watching footage of the Falkland War. Still not recovered from Newcastle, he kicks in the television, downs some pills and alcohol, and writes in his journal, “They must know that there are no cures for this returning nightmare” (2). Again the “this” is ambiguous in its referent, it might be read as the Falklands or Constantine’s traumatic memories, and he is powerless against both: standing in front of Westminster Abbey, he thinks, “Before Newcastle gave me the lie, I thought I had the power—the ancient voice of the Giant Albion—to bellow my rage at this authority that dares to speak, to go to war on my behalf. / That was then, now I was defeated—bound again and delivered helpless to this altar, humbled and sobbing” (9). Such was the anguish of the 1980s leftist, and to make matters worse, he has just run into a former punk buddy turned Thatcherite, hawking “Nuke Buenos Aires” t-shirts on the street (6). “What happened to the good old anarchic revolution, then?” Constantine demands, but the friend only responds, “Thatcher and Reagan hijacked it and turned it into a libertarian free-for-all. Great, eh?” (7). Thatcher did indeed effectively co-opt anti-establishment currents, often depicting herself as up against both the powerful trade unions and old-rich Tory forces that resisted free market reforms in the name of tradition (Turner 73-4). The left had lost even its radical affect to Margaret Thatcher as she performed the role of political revolutionary out to disrupt the status quo.

Ways of resisting remain fleeting in Hellblazer. While Constantine anguishes in front of Westminster, a woman (who turns out to be a sorcerer) points out that the site of contemporary political power used to be a shrine to Apollo. Constantine only whines, “I just feel so helpless. I just want to tear it all down” (10). She replies, “Oh, you can never do it by force. If you play their game, they’ll crush you. / She tried—Boadicea,” pointing to a statue behind her. Boadicea’s brave forward assault was launched in vain against the Roman legions: “she stood up against the imperial might of Rome and burned London, the sun-god’s own city, to the ground [but] the legions ran her down, defeated her and slaughtered eighty thousand of her people. She swallowed poison and this land’s been stamped by marching feet ever since” (10). The sorceress recommends a different approach to confronting power: “No, fire and iron are not the goddess’ way. Ours is a secret war—fought with magic, memory and truth, by those who know” (10). Delano makes the political parallels between Rome and Thatcher clear, but less obvious is the contemporary corollary of the “secret war”: are the very comics we read the underground resistance to Thatcher? That is certainly the vibe of some of Hellblazer and especially Moore’s V for Vendetta, the latter fueled by anarchist wish fulfillment that makes a revolution against British authority feel imminent. Hellblazer is more circumspect, its victories more narrow, and most of what Constantine does is witness, not triumph. 

Witness to Horror

Issue #5, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” has Constantine visit the town of Liberty, Iowa, where American soldiers from the Vietnam War are somehow still active, supernaturally transported from the past to the present, from Asia to America. Mistaking the local Iowans for Viet Cong, they slaughter dozens. Constantine is only passing through, travelling to see the Swamp Thing, and from the outset realizes he is powerless against whatever force this is: “Whatever is brewing here, I’m not going to be able to stop it” (5.9). After escaping a massacre, he says, “Looks like I’m the one that got away. I only have to watch” (5.14). In a superhero comic this would be the moment where the protagonist thinks of a solution to the problem: “You should do something, Constantine / But there’s nothing to be done. I’m shut out of this thing” he narrates, watching a man shoot his wife (5.16). He continues, “As ruptured realities collapse and fold together into one, I drag a nest of straw around me— / and listen while thunder beats a climax to this corrupt passion play” (5.16). An explosion finishes off Liberty, Constantine flees and eventually hitches a ride to a larger nearby town. Ironically flashing a peace sign to a disabled war veteran, he thinks, in the final panel, “Sometime, while the war visited Liberty, I stopped being an observer and became witness. / I’ve got the evidence—now where’s the court?” (5.24). The unanswered question refuses narrative closure (again aligning the comic with the anti-conservative trends within the horror genre). Constantine, like Hellblazer itself, can only watch and witness.  

Witnessing and powerlessness also inform a two-part story by guest writer Grant Morrison—then writing Doom Patrol, not yet comics-famous for his run on Batman and X-Men—and David Lloyd (V for Vendetta). I argue these issues—titled “Early Warning” and “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” (issues 25 and 26)—explore notions of community divisions and dig deeper into at least one source of the left’s impotence in the fight against Thatcher. The story stages the conflicts between environmentalist anti-nuclear protestors and workers of the town of Thursdyke, who want to keep a local power plant open, at risk due to Thatcher’s neoliberal privatization schemes. In a pub, with townspeople preparing for a masked procession, Constantine’s friend Una explains: “I mean, we’re talking about a community on its knees here, John. / When the government closed the pits, it kicked the guts out of Thursdyke. / That’s what this whole carnival thing’s about—an attempt to salvage some community spirit. To shout ‘we’re not dead!’ to the world…” (25.8). Locals resent the environmentalists, “Driving up in your great big cars from London. Who the hell do you think you are?….You’re nowt but a bunch of middle class yuppie bastards!” (25.9). Constantine raises his drink and sarcastically toasts the town’s “Community spirit.” 

Constantine dons a Thatcher mask
Figure 3. Constantine dons a Thatcher mask
Constantine leads the mob
Figure 4. Constantine leads the mob

Meanwhile a shady government agency has been field testing a kind of technology that activates people’s repressed desires and plans to experiment on Thursdyke. The town descends into bloody chaos, neighbors murdering each other, men raping their children, and the final page of the first issue depicts Constantine, with a ghastly grin, donning a Margaret Thatcher mask (Figure 3, 25.24). The next issue opens with him leading the procession, shouting “Follow Me! Mummy knows best! Mummy knows best! / In your hearts you know it’s right!” (Figure 4, 26.6). Una tackles him, removes the mask and puts noise-cancelling earphones on him to block the frequency causing his breakdown. Constantine remarks, “This thing…It’s unlocking doors in the head. Letting all the repressed stuff come up…all those masks…”, and Una replies, “Masks that tuh-tell the truth” (26.12). Does the anarchist Constantine secretly desire to be ruled by Thatcher, to cede all decisions to the Iron Lady? Or become her? He realizes, “I wanted to lead people. To show them my way was the best way. Christ almighty!” The social dynamic of Thursdyke is similarly unmasked, as Una asks, “Do you believe that a town can commit suicide? / The town can’t take any more. Years of failure and neglect. It’s destroying itself” (26.13). The social degradation of Thursdyke does not result in a united solidarity against its cause, but rather a morose descent into squabbling that enervates any form of political resistance. Early Hellblazer thus embodies the cultural period just before the triumph of what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism” in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?his titled informed by Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative.” “Capitalist realism,” Fisher argues, is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but  also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (17); it is “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action” (38). Such an atmosphere is the result not just neoliberalist policies, but the hegemony of a mindset that can posit no alternative means of organizing society, the notion, ascribed to Frederic Jameson and Slavov Žižek, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (17). Hellblazer has no trouble imagining the former, repeatedly, and it expresses the dying embers of our ability to imagine the latter as Constantine witnesses the dismantling of alternatives to an unchecked free market.((Hellblazer, at least as penned by Delano and Morrison, resists the conservative hardboiled turn of the late 1980s that Fisher observes in the works of writers like Frank Miller and James Ellroy, whose protagonists “pose as unflinching observers who refuse to prettify the world,” and who, like Constantine, reject the easy binary of the superhero or the crime novel world, but through their “hyperbolic insistence on cruelty, betrayal and savagery” lose any ability to critique the ravages of early neoliberalism (Fisher 31). As Mike Davis writes on Ellroy, “The result feels very much like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest” (quoted in Fisher 31).))

Abandoned by neo-liberalism, any opposition divided, the industrial, soon to be post-industrial town of Thursdyke has no hope, and the story ends like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”; everything is in flames after an explosion at the nuclear facility, and Constantine is powerless to prevent the catastrophe. Surveying the wreckage, he does not take sides, only survives and witnesses, concluding that: “The town was never alive….A pained sheet drawn over a corpse. / A mask. / And now the mask is cast away” (26.23). I would argue the story’s bleak ending is the only one imaginable in the midst of continued Labour powerlessness, and what this story arc uncovers is not so much Thatcher’s privatization plans, or the neo-imperialist relationship to the U.S. in the last days of the Cold War—such concepts are on the surface—but rather the left’s fracturing as the demographics of British politics realigned, and the former base of the Labour Party—represented by the “Red Wall” of post-industrial England that was gradually turning Tory—got edged out by the more educated, identity- or issue-driven politics centered in London, Labour’s new base. (Tony Blair would exploit these new developments for his own long run in office.) The explosion that concludes the story simply marks the irreconcilable conflict as one weakness of the political opposition to Thatcher. For Hellblazer, the true horror is not Thatcher herself—always out of the narrative frame, or mediated—but the lack of any power, super or otherwise, to stop her.

Works Cited

Brophy, Philip. “Horrality—the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films.” The Horror Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, Routledge, 2000, pp. 276-84.

Delano, Jaime and John Ridgway. “Going for It.” Hellblazer 3, DC Comics, March 1988.

Delano, Jaime and John Ridgway. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Hellblazer 5, DC Comics, May 1988.

Delano, Jaime and Richard Piers Rayner. “Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come.” Hellblazer 11, DC Comics, November 1988.

Delano, Jaime and Bryan Talbot. “The Bloody Saint.” Hellblazer Annual 1, DC Comics, January 1989.

Di Paolo, Marc. War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. McFarland & Company Publishing, 2011.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.

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List of Illustrations

Figure 1: John Ridgway, Hellblazer 3.24 John Constantine forced to watch Thatcher victory footage

Figure 2: Richard Piers Rayner, Hellblazer 11.6 Astra’s behavior reflects her recent trauma

Figure 3: David Lloyd, Hellblazer, 25.24 Constantine dons a Thatcher mask

Figure 4: David Lloyd, Hellblazer, 26.6 Constantine leads the mob

Footnotes

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