Hellraisers takes the basic framework story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and twists it on its ear, presenting the story in an non-seasonal manner. This absolutely absorbing and unapologetic graphic novel tells the classic tale in a more gritter milieu by way of intertwining the biographies of four of the most rabble rousing drunken playboy European actors of all time – Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, and Peter O’Toole – and depicts them as sort of ghosts of decadent past (and in O’Toole’s case, right up to the present day) to help mentor and tutor a young everyman who is headed on the same paths that pretty much destroyed the aforementioned men.
The book, written by Robert Sellers and illustrated vividly and wildly in stark black and white by JAKe, is a tense, turgid, infectious, and hard to put down ride through the four men’s lives, a ride that has the top down, without seatbelts, and going an out-of-control 120 miles per hour.
The narrative pretty much runs like this: Martin, an alcoholic whose life is spinning out of control, a pub frequenter who only has a grip on his next drink, and is losing ever so quickly the grip of his family, has another extreme bender. Passing out on his bed at home, neglecting his small son and earnest wife, he starts to have an intense dream/nightmare in which his father, who basically is one of the main ingredients for the subconscious and rather conscious current state of Martin’s mind, body, and soul, ravaged by his own self-immolation and volition, attempts to apologize for heavily contributing to his rough childhood and in essence neglect. It is then that the story takes off like a rocketship, as Richard Burton, the late Welsh actor whose extreme penchants for fast living, womanizing, carelessness, devil-may-care demeanor overshadowed his acting craft, which when stripped down to those layers stood with Hollywood’s all time best, comes in to mentor Martin by way of his own life and lifestyles. Martin (and us too) follows the maze-like life that was Burton’s, from his childhood to his early formative years, which were already on the path of destruction, and into his peak as an actor and Hollywood craggy sex symbol, which only fueled fires within him even to higher flues, flames that ultimately self-immolated him. Martin is at once bystander and participant, as Burton shows that even though there was relish to be had for the lifestyle he lived, there was also rapid regret. Burton died in 1984, at the age of 59, his body an emaciated by-product of all the party filled ruckus life handed him on a silver platter.
And the men who follow Burton’s inference on Martin’s life/dream/nightmare are more of the same. Richard Harris, who made no apologies for the same kind of fastlane existence he welcomed, just basically acting as a metaphoric landmine to those around him in business (like Hollywood) and in his personal life, letting the explosions occur and having no onus or care for where the shrapnel and fall out of his actions landed. Oliver Reed, whose stocky build and pulsating personality also put him on the path of the decadent and became not only one of the biggest actors in his native England, but also one of its biggest headaches in the industry. Reed presents his story to Martin by way of a Carnival Barker, in essence, a freak show, again, albeit unapologetic, and if anything, glad to have the notches on his belt that belied his lifestyles and alienated everyone around him who actually gave a right shit, save for the sychophants, loose women, yes men, and laymen ale swiggers who challenged these aforementioned men to countless fights in pubs and bars worldwide. O’Toole presents more of the same. The men intertwine in each other’s lives as the story trudges on; appearances by many of their peers at the time, who pretty much shared the same paths to destruction, like Keith Moon of The Who to name one, give more depth and more metaphoric fall of Pompeii negative credence to these men. The controlling and uncontrollable temptations and libations these men voraciously devoured like great white sharks were all fodder for them to pretty much act above the law, above the human race. And in doing so, they were one part larger than life and two parts well beneath it.
Unlike Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, or even the original Rat Pack, these men were in a class by themselves. There was nothing spoiled about them; they didn’t have rites of passages, they were in essence men who partook in lifestyles because it was in their DNA, it was alpha males of the highest order, and beneath it all in their stovepipe canisters that nested way deep in their souls there may have been teddy bears, but by the time anyone could get to that area within them, all they could find would be the charred carcasses of those teddy bears, wrecked by decades and decades of damage. The price they paid to nowhere had increased a dollar more, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin, a band who also in their own way, also tread down the same paths and in the footsteps of these four Hellraisers in every essence of the term, both parties living a rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt.
In essence, the graphic novel is like The Celebration of the Lizards (a plural version of the term that was first coined by The Doors’ lead singer and another casualty of reckless, spinning top out-of-control lifestyles, Jim Morrison). At first glance and read one might feel envious, green-eyed, wishing they too could have the courage and easy open door policy the world gave these men with all the wanton glory and fame and riches it could muster up. But then at a second glance, and something which is successfully imparted to Martin ultimately, one realizes that it was lifestyles of quick fix variety, that for every moment of bliss, there was ingredients of anguish, and pain, of ultimate loneliness and rash repetition, men who became flummoxed and nonplussed ultimately, there was nothing to be cultivated by the lifestyles they lived except for death. For some of the men, if not arguably all of them (only Peter O’Toole somehow still lives, as a cinema and playboy legend), they were individuals who died way before their time and with a physical makeup etched on their faces and souls and reputations that became indelible and almost more the focal point than the acting crafts that got them there.
Hellraisers does a splendid job making us and Martin understand all of this. The key point of the book is that the men are presented refreshingly and thankfully unapologetic and even unsympathetic (just the way they would probably like it). For the most part, we already know most of the story, we know most of the men’s fates, so it’s more of a voyeuristic; you are there, seeing what you already knew kind of approach, and the men are presented more as three dimensional characters in a way, than cartoon caricatures on a page, something that could have easily been so temptingly achievable in the wrong hands, but from the pen of Sellers (who has written biographies on such luminaries as Sting and Tom Cruise and has also penned many other books on Hollywood Hellraisers), the characters have their own voice, their own dialogue. A reader who is easily familiar with remembering how Burton, Harris, and Reed sounded will in essence read what they say in the novel here in their own respective voices: Burton’s gritty Welshian drawl, Harris’ trebly British vernacular, and Reed’s clenched, clipped voice. And of course O’Toole’s as well, that almost randy English basic style vocalizing. All the men are cheeky, gregarious, charismatic, magnetic, and ultimately tragic. Sellers does a good job of walking the tightrope and presenting all the aforementioned adjectives, JAKe’s art complements this perfectly as well, putting the whole story in a kind of dizzying alcoholic haze, sort of asking the reader to hang onto a rope that’s trailing from a hot air balloon eclectically deflating, by their fingernails. It’s just the right concoction needed to tell a story like this visually, and the chemistry between the writer and illustrator here makes this an absolutely gripping, fun, and lesson learned without being beaten over the head with it tale.
There are endless quotes in the book which can sum up the story of Hellraisers: Burton exclaiming “God Put Me On This Earth To Raise Sheer Hell,” Harris with the “wisdom” of “People Spend The First Half Of Their Life Being Cautious And The Second Half Of Their Life Regretting It,” Reed with “The Finest People I Ever Met In My Life Were In Pubs” and finally O’Toole, with the memorable statement, “I’ve Always Said, If You Are Going To Have A Disaster, Make It A Big One.” Put them all together, and you have pretty much scratched the surface of Hellraisers. Dig a bit deeper, a lot deeper actually, and you see the end product of those statements. To sum up, this is a graphic novel that almost plays out like a Greek tragedy, except that the stories are oh so true and the men, although mythic larger than life figures, ultimately became that notion to everyone in the world, but themselves. Hellraisers is a superb piece of work that will leave you drunken with intelligence, whimsy, delight, and thought-provoking candor, but without the hangover.