The orgasm that saved the world
Fair warning: I’m about to say some really inappropriate things. What with all the movies and memes, it might be forgotten that Jamie Delano’s Constantine is an outright radical, with multiple explicit connections to hippie protests in the 70s and the early days of punk. The first two years of Hellblazer followed on the heels of the 1983 UK election and into the 1988 one, and as a text, it’s absolutely livid with rage. This post is about where I was and how I felt about reading its second year. It’s the most screw-it, I’ll say it anyway autobiographical post yet, about the late-80s me, with the full blast of California TMI in action.
To start mildly, I was embarked on what turned out to be my profession, research in evolutionary biology. Instead of going straight to grad school, I was employed as an assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, pretty much apprenticed to an (awesome) elderly scientist straight out of a Dickens novel. I’d been working all the way through school and every summer, but this was my first J-O-B as they say. But it was truly odd – descending into the depths and catacombs, poring over bones and body parts like a fantasy necromancer, engulfed into the arcane museum research environment that made world-famous university faculty hush their talk and step lightly. I’d also been adopted by a bunch of grad students at the U of C and attended lots of their seminars and group discussions throughout this time too. I was the youngest person in the specific culture, barely tolerated; yet out of the workplace, I was regarded by anyone else as if I’d gone to the moon or some other dimension for working hours.
And I stress here that although I did after all go on to grad school and a faculty career, this was the period – and it’s not alone – during which I simply did not conceive of a future. The money in my paycheck was all I had in the world and I didn’t even own a credit card; my most valuable possession was probably my little boom box without much boom. A line in a novel I read about then made perfect sense to me: something about how being alive next morning is the real victory, and not being in prison when you wake up, the bonus.
I won’t make a big deal out of it that I watched literally zero TV, except that it might help explain why I didn’t understand half of what anyone said, culturally speaking. I watched everyone around me and knew what I was seeing: the death of the dream, the cementing of the Reagan Era into the New Normal. People started saying “the Left” when they meant boring-soft liberalism, as the actual New Left and Left – my own life-experience – were written-out before my eyes, including punked-out peers getting very anti-hippie as I discussed in Scouse, and the military side of my life too, with spitting-on-veterans shifting from cinema to worldview, as I discussed in Back from the Zone. My politics died completely during this time, specifically at the outcome of the Iran-Contra trials, and I ceased voicing my views, to the point of not having any. I was also displaced regionally, and surprisingly ideally in that Chicago is the border town between Yankeedom and the Midlands, and that Hyde Park is a weird little zone of its own – I was able to observe the labeling directed toward me and others rather than internalize it, and being outside my native culture, I had no functioning framework for it.
I’d been on my own long enough to realize I needed to deal with the failure of hippie ideals to work for me, and I deeply distrusted anything else, with the result being almost complete moral anarchy. You have “Ron-rules,” a friend told me around this time: meaning it’s a good thing that my internal code was more-or-less legal and more-or-less compatible with others, because if it weren’t, I’d be doing it anyway. Sort of my spin on Dali: “The only difference between me and a sociopath is that I’m not sociopathic.” My face developed a strange look, innocent but primal, calm but unpredictable, alert but detached. I said whatever came to mind, indifferent to a listener’s delight or outrage – my thinking was, I could never tell which they’d respond with anyway, so why bother trying for anything, just say what was real.
Something odd was going on with violence, too. I don’t know why, given how many people I pissed off, and some of the completely apocalyptic and/or seriously non-legal scenes I wound up in, no one ever punched me or worse. Or how people knew I was a natural “cooler” and asked my help in, for instance, keeping things non-violent when they moved their stuff out of a toxic apartment situation, or had to get their stuff from an abusive boyfriend’s place. I am not big or intimidating and I sure as hell knew nothing about fighting then, so that wasn’t it.
Highlight at your own risk. Some women went nuts for this, is all I can figure. I was cute as a button thirty years ago, that’s true, but also completely anti-80s in my cheap and worn clothes (I think I spent less than two hundred bucks on clothes from 1985 to 1990) and mop hair and (my God) teardrop-shaped thick glasses, and grunge was not fashionable yet. In contemporary terms it makes zero sense: I had no cash, no cocaine, and no car. Also: never in any understandable social framework, as if I were always someone else’s moment or year of madness. It was the attitude, I guess – not for all women, but a lot. I never pursued sex or a relationship, but I was almost always in a relationship since that’s how some women preferred to frame things, and in one or not, having sex with anyone who was interested and whom I liked. I gave up all investment in what would or wouldn’t happen, and it just kept … happening.
I was also a skilled, well-traveled, and fearless hitch-hiker, a habit I’d picked up back in high school and had brought to a continental scale during college; after college, I still preferred it to any other way of getting around. I wasn’t slumming; it was literally the only method I could afford, living on a few oranges, a jar of peanut butter, and tap water in my canteen. During a school break or (after graduation) a paid vacation, I’d bring basic camping gear, hitch out to some national park or wilderness area, and disappear into it for a while. I never asked for money and never started conversations, but sure got a hell of a lot of the latter. The above paragraph, too, did not overlap with this activity even a tiny bit. Whatever it was that I was, socially or psychologically, it seemed to work: otherwise mean-looking cops always gave me a break, bikers covered with prison tattoos decided not to kill me. I must have slept in hundreds of strangers’ homes, one night for each. Believe it or not, this panel was a dead ringer for me at 20, doing exactly what it shows except for the noir captioning:
Reading this Hellblazer issue at age 24 or so, staring at my couple-years-younger self in surprise, I was overcome by hope. Could it be that these guys doing this comic … got it? If they did, I couldn’t be a bigger fan or a harder to satisfy critic, and engaging in this hope was a painful prospect, as I was simultaneously agonized that others weren’t getting it and infuriated at its missteps.
So, about the Fear Machine story, from Hellblazer issues 14 to 22, possibly counting the nuke-the-world dream in #13 as a prequel. Hard-right police, MI-5, various government personages, and generally the all-too-real-world cabal among business and war policy, here called the Lodge, have gone batshit for broke to remake reality or something into a fear-driven nightmare in which they have total control. Their mystic arm is this creepy church of Moonies/Jesus/Mormon super-moralistic normality called the Resurrection Crusade, and their shock troops are the Black Squad. They want to eradicate everything a Londoner holds dear, whether cool Rastas who live downstairs, bright and telepathically-gifted teenage girls, gay journalists, or, not incidentally, Constantine. They’ve made a machine out of whacked-off heads of fear-deranged whackos. And even when the Lodge itself is scared off by its own plan, the nuts in the mix take it up to 11 to remake reality by summoning
On the bright side, we have the neo-Pagan neo-hippie caravan of “caravans” (the latter being what Brits call vans for some reason), convening along ley lines to marshal the power of the earth and/or the Goddess. They’re led by the former manic pixie dream girl of some preceding issues, named Zed, now a topknot matriarch who’s all “keep your filthy paws off me Constantine” as opposed to what she said and did in those preceding issues, and the M.P.D.G. role is now taken by a bright and telepathically-gifted teenage girl named Mercury.
You might be groaning a little already. But dammit, one thing works incredibly well, and it’s the same cosmic dualism/Taoist stuff Moore did in Swamp Thing – perhaps better, taken on its own basic content. See, Jalla-whatsisname is just one of the two dragons, as in the dragons, man, and it can’t be fought like a villain; instead, it’s all about balance, so the other dragon has to get generated too and now they can entwine, and the whole concept of “bad evil being impinges on reality” is now “balance is restored and let’s not do that again.” This is quintessential Cosmic Zap – hey, did you read Elfquest #1 when it was actually Fantasy Quarterly? I did; I bought that off the shelves. Remember the other story in that issue, with the guy named “Goer” who’s tormented by a veiled lady in black until he learns that the veiled lady in white doesn’t defeat her, just balances her? And he “goes” on, walking into the whacked dimenional landscape in the double glare of the black-casting and white-casting lanterns? I don’t remember who did that story … anyway, all this is completely familiar territory to anyone who read that kind of stuff. Yes, it’s ridiculous and excessive, kuh-razy and right out of left field, but that’s part of the fun. And it’s a knockout at the Fear Machine climax … did I say “climax?” (sigh) Yes, at the climax, the birthing of the egg and then the dragons in and of themselves are pretty damn cool, especially after your comics have been a dusty drought when it comes to this kind of thing for a decade. And when you are yourself not unfamiliar with >1 person engaged in such activity, have a big snake tattooed on you, and might sorta associate those sets of imagery given half a chance.
The plot itself was simultaneously drawn-out and rushed, preachy as hell, like Delano just had to spew it all up (just as many characters did … always something about vomiting with these Brit writers, I dunno). It’s full of weird slowdowns and repetitive sections for not very important stuff. The several-issues sequence with John meeting a bunch of people in London to team up with, while Mercury is being used by the Lodge to build the Fear Machine, is especially plodding with tons of unnecessary backstory material that reads as if it had originated as someone’s Barker-esque, King-esque horror novel attempt as opposed to a Hellblazer script. Being a long-time comics reader especially regarding the mid-70s, I can forgive that pretty easily – solid pacing is rare and sweet in serial comics, not an expectation. But the ongoing purple thought-balloon-voiceover-captioning drones on and on, ramped up even from Delano’s usual word-flooding, and the net effect is this grinding obvious atmosphere that I found ultimately artificial, and yes, I say that about Clive Barker and the later Stephen King too.
What wearied me fast within a few issues was the heavy-handed, flat characterizations as if Delano had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, itself second-hand lit, take it from a real on-the-roader, or seen hippie characters in movies. The characters in issues #1-2, the immortal Gary Lester story, are vivid, dangerous, and tragic; these, however, are literally nothing of the sort. None of them move and talk like real people, but like tropes, oh, here’s the big dyke named Samson who teaches the allegedly streetwise Constantine a lesson; oh, here’s the conservative but honest cop who decides the queer journo might be an all-right bloke. The caravaners in particular aren’t hippies, merely hairies, as if I were seeing a film whose performers hadn’t met any of the characters they were supposed to be depicting. A couple of them come close, like Errol’s tic of smoothing his hair back, but only briefly.
It’s the perfect exemplar of where I think the good side of the acid-mystic-encounter combination (see Buddha on the road, Steve! Get’im!) went off the rails.
The pagan nation is not hiding – just concealed.
In the secret garden, secret things are being done. The women are at work.
And how can anyone doubt this woman, Zed — who’s stood close to her, looked into her brimming eyes?
Who’s touched her, smearing her with fruit, so that the sweet juice bathes her —
Running down, mingling with her essential oils, carrying them into the world’s fertile flesh — to spread, to search, to seek.
Marj has no doubt that all you need is love.
And love is a vine that climbs their spines and binds them together.
And this is the truth — the way it should be.
Outside the garden, the men play their part, plodding the ritual patterns defensively about them.
But in here with the women is where the magic is — wrought with passion. A communion of trust.
You can see the wooey-woo taking center stage from the politics right in front of your eyes. Essential oils? What next, acupuncture meridians? There’s a lot more of this throughout the whole thing; in the beginning it’s about fascism but that fades right out and becomes butcher-shop atrocity cellars and a bunch of orgies under standing stones, and crucially about gender all of a sudden. “Now the women will lead the way with their womenfolk way.” Once that rhetoric gets going, not only Zed but everyone else simply will not quit it.
It’s also inherent to the plot. When Constantine does his shave-and-leather-up coolness transition to go back to the city and kick ass, he assembles a team of in-the-know guys to fight the bad guys, and all that happens is they get slaughtered. Zed and her mystic sisters have it in hand and Constantine is pretty much an addendum from start to end. Even when he gets to be the meat in the Zed-and-Marj sandwich that produces the orgasm in the post title, after multiple reminders of how cosmic Zed is and how sex with her is “like holding onto the world,” according to Marj, there’s still a bunch of “know your place, Constantine” putdowns.
Did I say explicitly stated? Very. Men get to be the haulers of wood and water, patrolling the perimeter, keeping their ignorant penis-driven mouths shut. The one mystic dude gets sternly schooled that ley lines are “too male” to be important, being straight and all, because the “real” mystic lines are the curvy oriental ones, as explained by a bunch of uniformly white women and gormlessly confirmed by Constantine doping it out once it’s been explained to him. These are later revealed to trace the meridians for the (cough) yes, the planet – yup, there they are. The good guys’ best guy is Errol, the developmentally-delayed and/or perpetually stoned, amiable black guy who scrawls his life-adventures in stick figures on the side of his van. I get it: the sooner all men, especially black men, learn to be like him, the better. If you think I’m over-stating this, go ahead and read it.
“No. Just no,” as they say today. Although this period of my life included a pretty troubled head-space, it was a transitional one into accepting that women were not special, and that it was cruelly unfair to make them so. In ten years of weirdly frequent sexual contact off the social grid, I’d learned a lot of things. First among them being that no actual one human has special insights based on demographics, even if a given collective reveals specific insights. Second being that the whole “men are aggressive and dominating, women are concilatory and consensus-seeking” is horrible bullshit. Third being that women like and seek sex, that their experience of sex is entirely accessible and non-mysterious, and they cannot be said to own or master or represent it in any way. Fourth – and here it comes – that women do experience and generate characteristic social crisis situations. Fifth, that many women had internalized awful things about themselves which needed serious work on their parts to unravel, which I could not solve or be handed as a problem to solve. Sixth, that I was a man, but not “men” or “most guys,” and would never again be held responsible for that collective.
I’d found, without knowing the vocabulary yet, what I wrote about in Long live Lib: that re-casting women as cultural or mystic leaders simply because of gender, is nothing but a marketing device aimed at people with money to spend, and it disintegrates the insights and leadership from some really amazing people who happen to be women. Nor do I think this POV is “such a male” one, or backlash against feminism as such. The title of this post is a quote from a lover during this time, referring to this story, equally aggravated with the stereotypes and the claim.
I stress again: I’m not railing against feminism, but against its betrayal and the appropriation of its good name. That the insight of Women’s Lib is not “women know the way,” but that hey, we aren’t anyone’s ideal anything, not even our own, and as people rather than things, we’ve got some crazy shit to work out too. I say “we” because this insight is something that a man can see if not actually feel, and maybe that too for some of us. What Echols described as the advent of radical-then-cultural feminism is, as I see it, the betrayal of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which above all else urges men and women to re-connect as humans, to recognize how we have each generated a morass of bad-faith and evilly-powerful powerlessness which we demand the other solve, and thereby dishonestly turn a person who should rightly be “another” into the Other. The gibble-gabble dramatized in this story is a perfect example, especially in how all relevant politics and real problems with humans trying to get along are subsumed by and ultimately drowned in simple evangelism, same as it ever was.
If you want to see a portrait of my frustration with the 1990s publications of the game company White Wolf, just read the Fear Machine, stopping at every page for a full semiotic breakdown, to see how it starts with some muscle, and to watch the visceral and political power of the material drain out of the holes in this immediate application, becoming anemic and whiny even as it piles on the bloody grot and PG-13 sex in seeking more intensity and failing.
Next: Striking twice, some day
Posted on November 5, 2015, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit, The 80s me and tagged Alice Echols, Clive Barker, cosmic zap, Elfquest, Fantasy Quarterly, Fear Machine, feminism, grot, Hellblazer, hitch-hiking, Jack Kerouac, Jallakuntilliokan, Jamie Delano, John Constantine, ley lines, manic pixie dream girl, On the Road, Simone de Beauvoir, snake fetish, Stephen King. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.