Trade Post: Hellblazer & The Goon

I really can’t understate how influential Wizard was to me as a budding comics fan. I’d been going to the comic shop for a few years by the time I discovered the mag at a mall book store. I started out reading Superman and Batman comics and added other DC comics because I knew about them from the house ads, but it wasn’t until Wizard that I really began to learn more about comics as a whole. I’ve always been pretty risk-averse and budget conscious, so it took an extra push to spend my limited funds on something new. With Wizard, I found a group of writers who opened up my world to all sorts of new books I’d never heard of including, but not limited to Hellblazer and The Goon, both of which I’m writing about here today!

Fun fact, I actually started reading John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 4 back in 2019 when I was focusing on Vertigo trades during the Halloween season. The truth of the matter is that these (mostly) Jamie Delano-penned comics are REAL dark and tough for me to read in quick succession. Somehow, even with all of the terribleness going on these days, I managed to finally chip my way through this collection that includes Hellblazer #23-33, which originally came out between 1989 and 1990. In addition to Delano, this book also features the work of Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Ron Tiner, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dean Motter and more.

Much like the other trades I’ve written about in this series, this one features a variety of tales that plumb the darkest corners of the human soul while occasionally leaning into the supernatural. We start off with the tale of a raconteur who may or may not have taken too much from literature (or inspired them) and then shift into the nefarious serial killer who gives his name to this collection: The Family Man. Constantine’s dark relationship with this murderer makes up the majority of the trade, but you also get the most depressing and dark Grant Morrison story I’ve ever read (#25-26) and a bone-cold horror story from Neil Gaiman in #27. It’s kind of funny because the literary story actually felt a lot more like a Gaiman tale!

The wild thing about this collection is seeing not just how John deals with uncanny elements, but how they weigh on him moving forward. You don’t just see how he deals with a man from the stories, but how that then ties into the Family Man’s exploits. When that thread gets entangled with Constantine’s we wind up with a clash of the physically terrifying and the mystically so. If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Wizard, well, I first heard about Constantine in the mag and finally started reading his adventures when I found out (from The Guide To Comics) that one of my then-favorite writers Brian Azzarello was taking over! Since then I’ve been an on-and-off fan of the character who is putting together a solid collection of these trades in hopes of learning all I can about this fascinating character and his world.

Following the Wizard thread, one of the last books I remember getting excited about before I interned there was Eric Powell’s The Goon. It turned out that my future good friend Jesse Thompson had found this comic and lobbied hard to get it in the mag. By the time I got there as an employee, I was handed a hardcover Goon book and a flask that Powell had sent to the office as a thank you! So, when I recently saw that Powell’s Albatross Funny Books company was producing a series of omnibuses called The Goon: Bunch Of Old Crap I bought the first one immediately…followed shortly by the second! At over 450 pages, this volume collects the first several years of Goon comics, starting with the two pre-Dark Horse minis and then the first eight issues of the Dark Horse book.

I could not have had a better time with this book! I wound up reading a good chunk of it leading up to and then through the wild election and was easily distracted by Goon, Franky and the gang. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Goon is presumed to be a collector for mobster Labrazio, but actually killed the man when he was a kid and has been the head honcho ever since. Along with his scrappy pal Franky, he runs around collecting debts in a town that’s feels both old and familiar, but also grimy and filled with monsters. Goon’s opposite number is the nameless Zombie Priest who rules over his army of the dead on Lonely Street, a part of town our heroes avoid at all costs, but aren’t always successful. As Frank Darabont notes in his reprinted intro to one of the volumes, all of this feels like it takes place in much darker alley of the same world as Will Eisner’s The Spirit. When I read that it clicked so hard because it really does help establish the visual tone of the series and, to a lesser extent, the tales themselves.

The beauty of this book is that Powell built a world where everything works. You’ve got zombies, a gambling Spider (long before Dr. Mandible made his Mandalorian debut!), ghosts, sea creatures, a psychic seal, a guy who can only live by eating the flesh of the undead, Santa, Hellboy and then we meet mad scientist Dr. Alloy and his robot assistant Bruno! The wide-open nature of the comic also comes through in how it’s presented. There’s a whole framing story in one issue that features photographs of an actual kid! You also get a variety of fake ads that occasionally have something to do with the story and sometimes not. It’s a world where anything can happen, but it all feels of-a-whole in a way that makes perfect sense within the established internal logic, a harder feat to pull off than you might think.

Of course, I’ve also got to talk about the art. In one of the intros in this book, someone notes that it seemed like Powell burst on to the scene fully formed as a creator. Sure, the first black and white story looks different, but from there it’s like he leveled up to the perfect style for The Goon and has maintained that and even gotten better. It’s a fun treat when Mike Mignola and Kyle Hotz pop up, but I was always excited to get back to the Powell goodness of the proceedings. And it’s not all just huge action sequences and wild jokes either, though those are prominent and glorious. Powell isn’t making a surface-y cartoon here. We see the toll that this life has taken on Goon (like that scene in Daredevil where you see all of Affleck’s back scars) and it’s rough (I can’t wait to get to the oft-referenced Chinatown story!), but others like Buzzard and the tragic ghost woman from #8 hit you in the gut like a roundhouse from Franky.

I hope I’m doing a serviceable job of explaining how fantastically fun, but also dramatic and emotional this series is. I’m confident that the material in this first collection is excellent, but it was also the perfect read at the perfect time, probably my favorite reading experience of the entire year. I had such a good time that I bought the second omnibus and am keeping my eye on the third because it’s a good time to inject excellent art into my brain. It’s probable that I would have eventually made my way to both of these books without Wizard, but I’m forever grateful to the people who made that magazine long before I got there who laid the groundwork for the expansion of my personal comic landscape, but also for my current career!

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