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Sun, January 11th, 2009 at 6:36pm PST | Updated: January 11th, 2009 at 6:37pm

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

HOLD ME: THE EVERLASTING TOUCH OF "HELLBLAZER" #27

Dave McKean's beautiful cover to "Hold Me" ("Hellblazer" #27).

There are some stories that just never leave you. It could be the furthest thing from your mind when those warm memories of it might suddenly spring up. Very rare are the comic books that have transcended with such emotional resonance to become a beloved classic, and “Hold Me” (“Hellblazer” #27) by writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, is indeed one of these unbelievable experiences.

For myself, what makes “Hold Me” evoke so strongly is the true sentiment of this particular tale. It says so much about the human condition and the walls we’ve built that separate us from ever really knowing our fellow man and woman. We shouldn’t need stories like these to remind us to be considerate towards our neighbors, but we live in a hectic world that seemingly doesn’t allow us the time to be tenderhearted, nor does it often reward sympathy.

It was during an interlude when then-regular “Hellblazer” writer Jamie Delano took a brief three-issue break that Neil Gaiman was given the opportunity of writing his lone issue of John Constantine’s series. Originally, the illustrator was to be a recently-married Dean Motter, but obligations to his bride and a honeymoon took precedence to this drawing gig. After Gaiman mentioned his particular dilemma to frequent collaborator Dave McKean, the artist quickly stepped up and accepted the assignment upon seeing the script and the removal of a story page featuring “the obligatory scary stuff.”

Jacko returns from the dead to frighten Shona's mom to death with his request.

The story opens as a derelict named Jacko and a homeless couple discover little refuge from the chilling cold via trespassing into a vacant apartment, with no electricity or heat. Freezing right before our eyes, Jacko’s body transcends into nothingness as he escapes the frost only in death. But, like any poor ghost, he returns, looking for the fulfillment he never had in life. Jacko seeks only the warmth that was deprived from him in life. It’s like Gaiman told POP!, “He dies of cold and neglect, literal and metaphorical…”

Months later, John Constantine is having one of his typical nights where nothing is quite what it seems. He doesn’t look for these sorts of things, they just keep finding him. At a friendly get-together he’s introduced to Anthea, who is dropping some pretty strong signals to Constantine from the get-go. As fortune would have it, Anthea also resides a few doors down from where Jacko died. As the conversation between the two unfolds, it turns out that Anthea is actually a lesbian, who intended to awkwardly seduce John, much to his chagrin, in order to conceive a child for her and her partner.

Dragging his machismo pride across the floor after leaving Anthea’s apartment, he counters a sobbing little girl named Shona. The child’s mother died after Jacko entered their apartment and tried to embrace the alarmed woman as he chanted the words: “Hold me.” After inspecting the nearly frozen body of Shona’s mum, the natural curiosity and instincts of Constantine lead him to Apartment 512, the spot where it all started, the very place Anthea had told him that a down-and-out couple was discovered dead after having rotted away.

Constantine is just having one of those days.

Inside the chilly flat, John finds the smelly Jacko. With his needy stare, Jacko immediately tells him, “Hold me!” Looking him over for a sec, Constantine ponders what he’s gotten himself into and only asks the dead man to give him his name, which he does. Without much hesitation, Constantine earnestly hugs the poor guy who seems overwhelmed in delight as he finally feels the warmth he looked for everywhere. With Constantine’s action, Jacko is now complete as he’s finally released and fades away in John’s very arms. The emotional experience is such an enlightening one to John that he goes back to Anthea and holds her in his arm, not wanting to feel alone on this most particular of nights.

Despite his somewhat mischievous exterior and sense of humor, somewhere deep inside John Constantine lies compassion. He’s a good judge of character, has friends, and does his bit to help when he can. Because Constantine was genuine to Jack — not fearful or repulsed by the poor bum like Shona’s mother — he survives the encounter. As a reader, the ending of this tale is what I treasure the most. Here you have this cynic give Jacko something heartfelt and even some individual self-respect when he asks him for his name. “Where did that come from?” I asked Mr. Gaiman. He answered, “I think he recognized something true and real about people connecting.”

Perhaps my favorite scene from any comic. While I might forget some layers of this story over the years... I can never forget this moment. The emotional payoff courtesy of Messrs. Gaiman and McKean.

The elusive comic story was first reprinted in the now-out-of-print “Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days,” a collection of the writer’s short Vertigo stories. “Hold Me,” along with “Ramadan” (“Sandman” #50) stand as Gaiman’s favorite short stories from his written works in comics. In a brief introduction in which the author introduces the story, he points out that some elements of the story were true. I always felt that the story had aspects possibly of his personal observations on the human behavior, as well. Being curious, I asked him what about the tale was real. Gaiman said, “It's always silly looking at a piece of fiction and going these bits are true, because even the things that happened to me didn't happen in that order or in that context.”

“Hold Me” is one of those rare stories that emphasize to me what a gift life really is — believe it or not, a thing many of us might forget whenever we’re trapped in our own self-pity or vanity. In a theology college course, I was once coerced to read a book entitled, “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” that asked its titular question. The book merely points out that we can’t depend on anything to save us but ourselves. The bad things that happen to us are there to test our spirit. No matter how awful things get, we can’t give up on ourselves or anyone else ever. There is inherent nobleness and an amazing potential in all us to do what’s right, whether strong or weak, rich or poor. Especially in these trying times, whatever you do in life… never count anyone out. “Hold Me” is a story that is a lovely testament to all these notions. Life, as beautifully defined by J. M. Barrie, is nothing more than “a long lesson in humility.”

TAGS:  neil gaiman, dave mckean, hellblazer, john constantine, vertigo

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