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Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits by Garth Ennis and William Simpson

01/11/2005. Contributed by Paul Skevington

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pub: Titan Books. 160 page graphic novel. Price: 9.99 (UK), $14.99 (US), $19.99 (CAN). ISBN: 1-84576-105-7.

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One of the few good things about having read the monstrosity that was 'Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection' (containing the horrific comic adaptation of the movie) was that it gave me the chance to read the first issue of Garth Ennis' run on the title, which was characteristically excellent. Now I've had the good fortune to read 'Dangerous Habits', which collects the storyline started in that issue. This volume is the crystal clear ocean to 'Constantine's urine polluted paddling pool.

Most people by now are familiar with the character of John Constantine, a chain-smoking magician whose powers have singularly failed to bring him fame or fortune. Indeed, the English sorcerer's gifts have awarded him with little other than the deaths of his closest friends and endless guilt over his role in them. At the start of this collection, Constantine has just learned that he will finally have to pay the price for his nicotine addiction: terminal lung cancer. After dealing with this shocking news, he starts a journey to try to find a cure, using the mystical knowledge and skills he possesses. He has no real hope of doing this, but he decides to try anyway.

If you decide to join him as he travels, you will encounter a work of immense importance, not just within the world of comics. Like Ennis' other major achievement, the comic series 'Preacher', this collection manages to be greatly entertaining whilst still providing the reader with a focused study of the issues it chooses to examine. Ennis has a gift for depicting people, mixing both humour and pathos in just the right amounts. Ennis' protagonists are almost always, at heart, average Joes, and he writes them superbly with a high degree of verisimilitude.

This base layer of 'reality' that Ennis brings to the book allows him to integrate the fantastical elements in a successful way. Like all great imaginative works, the supernatural element is not placed within it to be gawped at like an unsubtle circus attraction. It is a tool in service of the story, darkening the shadows and illuminating the heights and bright edges of the piece. The most magical moments for me were contained within Constantine's constantly self-reflective monologue. Moments when it was easy to feel real pain with the character, as individual lines or situations spoke of truths universal to all of us. For example, here Constantine reflects on the moment the doctor gave him the news of his illness:
'He talked for some time, about growths and cell death and weakened lungs. Showed me charts I pretended to read. Asked me how many fags I went through a day. Twenty or thirty, I told him. Ah, well there you are, he said. And that was it.'

The arbitrariness of the doctor's remarks, the useless nature of his information generates a sense of helplessness that many will be familiar with. It is the feeling of no escape, of the pointlessness of struggle, a dark vision of life indeed. Typically, though, Ennis will go on to counterpoint this with the full range of human experience: anger, pain, triumph, friendship, love. All this woven into a story you will never be able to forget.

This book is currently being advertised as the source for much of the material that was used in the film 'Constantine'. This is true, although the relation of book to film bears much in common with the resemblance of the film 'Saving Private Ryan' to its near contemporary 'Shaving Ryan's Privates'. In each case, the latter is utter balls. The film contained much of the plot concerning the lung cancer, presented in a half-hearted way nowhere near as effecting as when it appears in Ennis' narrative. The comic contains a character named Matt, who also suffers from lung cancer. He is conspicuously absent from the movie. Matt anchors the lung cancer story-arch, whilst the films underpinning is flawed, leaving its plot threads flapping in the wind. The encounter between Gabriel and Constantine which was re-used in the film (sometimes almost word for word) is much more subtle in 'Dangerous Habits' and is all the more powerful for it.

As I emphasise the depth of the work, it's important not to forget how funny, clever and wondrous it is neither. This is a book in which magic is real, where demons are manipulating people from behind their nebulous disguises, where the mundane co-exists with the mind-blowing. It is also a world where Constantine can negate all of these unimaginable terrors and evils with one single upraised finger.

Throughout all this, William Simpson's art succeeds in capturing the dark days of Constantine's trial with a great degree of style. As Ennis points out in his hilarious introduction, it can be more challenging for an artist to have to depict the average and the everyday convincingly than it might be to work on blatantly outlandish settings. Simpson's input creates a distinctive look to the work that is highly important in the tone and texture of the final product and much praise to him for this.

DC's Vertigo imprint has produced some of the finest works in any format in the last two decades. This collection is part of the foundation of that output and I will re-read it many times in the years to come.

Paul Skevington

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