First thing is first, this review is going to contain a few explicit details pertaining to illustrated sex, violence and general unsavory themes, so if you are sensitive to these things, please turn back now.
If you are familiar with Vertigo’s Hellblazer run, you will no doubt be intimately privy to the wild, dangerous and scandalous world John Constantine inhabits, be it encounters with his own fragile mortality, demons, elementals, witches, vampires, ghosts and other creatures of infamy. However, in Brian Azzarello’s highly controversial, neo-noir inspired Ashes & Dust, the Laughing Magician is faced with one of his most toughest and demanding opponents; a man.
The multi-millionaire playboy Stanley W. Manor is a vengeful, depraved and lusty man who fancies himself above any moral code with an unhealthy obsession with extreme sadomasochism, magic… and Constantine himself. Thanks to a long saga of demented lasciviousness, bitterness, hatred and retribution, Manor takes it upon himself to ruin Constantine any which way he can… but is all as it seems or is there more to this wretched tale?
Oh, don’t you know it, luvvie.
Although Constantine’s bisexuality had been prevalent up to this point, it never became more of a focus of any story. While in previous tales Constantine mainly dabbled in casual sex and occasional romantic relationship, never before Azzarello’s story was there a more pervasive theme to drive the narrative. Simply put, Ashes & Dust can be repulsive, actively vile and wrong, but by the same token, incredibly sexy and I don’t feel I have ever read another Hellblazer story which has ever been so heady in content and delivery. Which is precisely the reason why this arc caused quite the uproar.
While Ashes & Dust was more or less well-received, the key bone (hur) of contempt among fans was how different the approach to the story was, namely the fact it didn’t so much take place through Constantine’s eyes the way they were used to, but through the eyes of a third party. After years of being used to John’s third-wall breaking ways, readers were thrown for a loop when the Scouser Mage no longer shared his thoughts with them, instead his mental processes were invisible and his actions were kept as ambiguous as the magic he practiced. Instead, the story follows several characters, one namely being FBI Agent Frank Turro who is trying to make hide and hair of a gruesome crime which had taken place in the City of Angels, and let me tell you something luv, Agent Turro is the exact opposite of an angel. While a skilled and intuitive investigator, he is a man of many sins, and the story displays them in full view to the reader. It is understandable why Hellblazer fans were put off by this character but when you get down to it, nothing of what Turro does is any better than the acts Constantine himself has committed.
Personally, I didn’t have any issue with the mass involvement of Turro due to fact I was able to appreciate Azzarellos’ desire to attempt something different to a long-established factor of the Hellblazer continuity. As Turro’s investigation spirals deeper down into the uncouth, cum-scented nightlife (or afterlife some may say) of L.A, he unravels a mystery far beyond his initial expectations and his reaction to the information he uncovers, the people he questions, are very much ours. We are Turro in a sense, his eyes and ears are our own and his response to what he finds mirrors ours. While we know the overall notions of Hellblazer, we don’t know what is truly going on here and the closer Turro gets to the final climax, as do we.
Saying that, allow me to briefly discuss the central villain of the piece, Stanley W. Manor. The bastard is a piece of work, and by piece of work, I mean the very epitome of decadent evil embodied in the human heart. You see, Manor is a creature of wanton desire, venomous hate and unparalleled voracity for more of what he does not deserve and doesn’t get nearly enough of what he does. A dabbler in the dark arts, Manor is eternally on the look out for the most terminal of sensations, and when he fixes his smouldering reptilian gaze on Constantine, there isn’t much Johnny-Boy can do to escape…. or wants to do.
However, the most perverted yet brilliant part about this character is how he is essentially a vile doppelgänger of Bruce Wayne aka Batman complete with a problematic relationship with his parents and a taste for S&M gear. I feel this particular aspect of the character’s personality was intentional by Azzarello, quite possibly due to the inherent insanity of the character of Batman. At some point, Manor even takes a young boy as his ward, only instead of caring for him, he intimidates and frightens the child using bats.
You thought I was taking the piss?
Visual-wise, Azzarello’s hard-boiled erotic narrative is well-matched by the line work and colours of Marcelo Frusin and Lee Loughridge respectively, both managing to not merely capture the essence of the universe of Hellblazer but also carves out an identity of its own. Frusin’s bold strokes and renderings of the central characters and their bodies establish a dirty and foreboding yet unyielding sensual world filled with orgiastic menace complete with darkened rooms brimming with sin and the septic streets of L.A. Meanwhile, Loughridge’s use of colour, shading and textures forge an unforgettable route composed of reds, oranges, yellows and blacks, particularly while portraying scenes of violence and passion in silhouette. Almost every panel looks like it is set in sultry, sexually charged Hell; it’s gorgeous.
Good gravy Miss Daisy.
So, all being exquisitely undressed, I feel it’s fairly obvious where Yours Truly stands on this one. Although it has a polarizing reputation, it should never be said Ashes & Dust is remotely boring or does naught to challenge the status quo of Hellblazer as well as sexuality in comics on a broad spectrum. While some may hate it because of the fact it does not follow tradition, it is this defiance to the norm which attracted me and I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a good seeing to. The dynamic between John and Stanley is psychologically ill, Turro’s methods are ambiguous and the seedy underbelly of a big city filled with oozing perversion hasn’t been nearly as sexy or cruel since Basic Instinct. If you fancy reading something incredibly naughty with a solid dose of grimy neo-noir, this could very well be your whip and bind.