With a new ongoing series from DC featuring John Constantine, we have a look at a forgotten classic issue, from a one-and-done Constantine writer, John Smith.
Yep, John Smith wrote Hellblazer #51 from DC Comics in 1992.
The issue was a fill-in, giving Garth Ennis a break, but there was no slapdash rushed and rough-edged substitute here; instead, John Smith delivered one of the most understated and terrifying issues that the title ever produced.
“Counting to Ten” starts with John in an all-night laundromat in London just before 10 pm. An innocent brightly lit location, filled with normal people doing normal things, but everything starts to tilt slightly for John, and we slowly learn that nothing here is what it seems and a slow-burning feeling of dread and terror grows at the turn of every page until we understand the horror that is at work and how our favorite mage may have made a terrible mistake.
As I said, this was a fill-in on the title, coming hot on the heels of some of the most iconic Hellblazer issues ever, yet relatively unknown writer John Smith delivers a masterclass in suspense and dread, that showed us that he had a real understanding of the character and left me, and many others, wanting to see more.
For whatever reason, it never happened. He never had another crack at the title, although he continued writing for other publications, including 2000AD and Image.
As far as DC was concerned, he wrote a mini-series for Vertigo entitled Scarab, which was meant initially to be a reboot of Doctor Fate, but that was about it.
Hellblazer #51, though, still remains one of the 300-issue run’s most haunting installments.
Constantine starts the story with his usual confident line in patter and bravado, but as the reality of the situation starts to unravel, so does John, and as the tension in the all-night laundromat rises, we as readers are as much in the dark, with John, as we have ever been.
Hellblazer #51 was illustrated by Sean Philips, who had worked with Smith on 2000AD, and his scratchy dark style helps sell this atmospheric ghost story.
With Ennis, the horror of Hellblazer was very often violent and graphic, but this issue inverted the standard, making everything seem as if you only caught a slight glimpse of the terror from the corner of your eye. Cutaways showing a hand on the outside of a protective occult symbol, a dripping supermarket shopping bag held by a never-seen character, a twisted drawing by a child of “our holiday”, all building a claustrophobic, terrifying nightmare for both us and John.
Hellblazer #51 may not be remembered by a lot of fans of the character. They may recall John beating his cancer with a devilish deal, and damning an innocent child to Hell, but this single issue captures everything you need to know about the character.
Get to the back issue bin on your LCS and dig this out, and let me know your thoughts in the future.