13 Years Since the Move to San Francisco, and Hellblazer #100

It’s the end of April today, and it was in a sunny April in 1996 that I first moved to San Francisco. I didn’t really plan to move here. I told people I did, but since I had nowhere to live, and knew hardly anyone out here, I really only thought I’d stay for a month or two. After that I thought I might move to New York, where I had friends and family. But I’d never been to San Francisco, and it seemed easier to run away from my crappy job/boyfriend/apartment by moving, than it would have been if I’d just come for a vacation. With this non-plan in place, I really didn’t make any practical plans, and so I was crashing on a distant cousin’s couch for a week, living out of a suitcase, and getting to know this city. The weather was beautiful, there were palm trees in the streets, and no one really seemed to work much. It was pretty beguiling.

After a few days of wandering around the city, I was feeling a little overwhelmed with strange new sensations. It’s a small city, and in the sunshine I’d been exploring. I’d spent a day walking through Golden Gate Park where I’d avoided the drum circle and sat near a waterfall. There was an evening of wandering along the beach to see the Pacific Ocean, seeing this foreign ocean pulsing back and forth in the inky dark. For lunch one day I’d eaten the most incredible mexican food I’d ever had (chilaquile, with sweet fresh squeezed orange juice on the side, from Los Jarritos). One morning new friends took me for breakfast, where we ate more (and better) food than I’d had in an entire day in London (at Kate’s Kitchen where the breakfast is still delicious). One evening a strange, confused friend-of-a-friend told me that he’d dreamed about me before we met (which was a little too “crazy hippy” for my London instincts, but was still charmingly San Francisco, as experiences go.) My girl friend took me to dance at 1015 Folsom, before they did it up, when it still looked like an old crappy warehouse and bled sound into the street like crazy). On the funny electric bus there, she explained that the bus ticket was good all night (at the bottom it said “Late Night Special“, which i thought sounded like a music show from the ’60’s). She told me to dress warm because San Francisco is always cool in the evenings “… which is great” she explained, “because you can always wear cute boots to go out dancing”. And just like I always thought it’d be, when I read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test at 12 years old, a ridiculously relaxed pretty girl lay down on then couch next to me, and offered to share her drugs with me (I declined, but she insisted that I at least take some chewing gum because it was all “so wonderful”).

All in all, my first few days in San Francisco were pretty immersive experiences, filled with cliches-ridden fun. In general it was pretty much the opposite of what living in London had been. This was 13 years ago, the internet boom had yet to happen, rent was still low enough that the city was crawling with happy artistic types, and there were enough start-ups for a graphic designer like me to find work. But I didn’t feel quite at home yet. Something was missing, I still hadn’t figured it out…

Since this was essentially pre-internet times, I can’t tell you how I found it (the yellow pages maybe?), but I know that I joyfully sought out and discovered my first San Francisco comic shop about 5 minutes from where I was staying. It was a store called Comix Experience (extra “x”‘s in words were very popular in the ’90’s). This was a great first comic shop to start with as a foreigner here, because it sort of fulfilled a lot of what we Europeans think of as your classic, American comic shop. There were shelves of shiny new comics, lots of boxes of back issues (since then these are mostly gone), there were guys with long hair working behind the counter who were vehemently discussing how they felt about the newest issue of something-or-other, and the soundtrack from Star Trek was playing loudly on the stereo. The people working and shopping there might have been Americans (Californian’s even!), but for all that foreignness, it was a comics shop and it felt familiar and comfortable, just like any London comic shop. Well signposted, I walked over to the wall of new comics, and instinctively picked up the latest issue of my usual comic: Hellblazer #100 (by Paul Jenkins and Sean Phillips).

Without even thinking about it, I left the store and immediately sought out the nearest place to get something to eat and find a suitable place to do my reading. I don’t know if everyone does this, but whenever I have the time, I’ll buy my comics and then go for a cup of tea or something to eat so that I can read the comics immediately, waiting until I get home seems ridiculous, and unnecessarily spartan. Lately I seem to buy them when I’m in a rush to go somewhere, and end up stuffing them in my handbag and only remembering to read them slowly over the next days. It’s a bit of a shame. If I’m really lucky, I get time to go in at the weekend, and have time to sit around the store to read them (because now my local store is the Isotope, which has a comfy couch to sprawl on, so that you can read your purchases immediately!). In those days, waiting was never an option, so I got a slice of mediocre pizza across the street from Comix Experience, and sat down to read my comic. I opened Hellblazer #100 and began to read. This momentous issue had a typically moribund bend to it. At the time Constantine was often forced to confront his demons, both literal and figurative, and this one was a doozy. Back then he still had friends, they hadn’t all died or been frightened off yet. He’d recently beaten cancer through his usual dubious means, but was back at death’s door, his body in a coma as the rest of him wandered hell. But this was issue 100, and this story had to have a happy ending, at least as much of one as Constantine can ever have. The horrible, miserable story played out, and as much as possible, he triumphed, and awoke from his coma a healthier man, relieved of one or two emotional burdens, but accepting a few more damning memories to add to his baggage.

As I finished the comic book, I flipped it back and forth, wondering why I’d craved this item so much, marveling at how this flimsy, depressing tale could grip me so completely. Mostly, at issue 100, I began to glimpse the longevity of my habit. I remember thinking “I can’t believe that I’ve been reading this for 100 issues, that’s got to be years!? How did that happen? How much longer will I keep reading this? How much longer can this character deal with this bollocks? I’ll probably stop soon…” But here I am, 13 years later, still living in this place that’s oddly surreal, still buying comics in the same places, and still reading Hellblazer, wondering how much hell one small fictional man can put up with.

Sonia Harris is a Londoner, transplanted to San Francisco, where she lives, designs and writes. Sometimes all at once… which is pretty exhausting. Please send any of your thrilling missives to her at sonia@ifanboy.com.


  1. Your "getting into comics" story sure beats mine! Mine is all depressing, while yours was exciting and in the midsts of discovering an awesome new city!

     So I love living in NYC, but hearing you talk about Cali makes me want to visit there all the much more! I’ve never been there, and as great as NYC is, San Francisco seems like it has some great little differences from my home city. I can’t wait to go there some day!

  2. San Francisco, how I love you. It’s a great city.

    Paul Jenkins has my favorite Hellblazer run ever. It’s weird since I haven’t really enjoyed anything else he has done. Now I just wish DC would trade the damn thing.

  3. @comicBOOKchris Oh dear no, this isn’t my getting into comics story. That’s up here: http://www.ifanboy.com/content/articles/Obsession__life_in_comics This is just the first comic I bought when I got out here. I envy you living in New York though, it’s a brilliant city.

  4. I do hate having to wait to read my comics because my nearest comic book shop is 40 miles from my house, so I usually find somewhere at my college that I can be alone and quiet and read some comics while I can. Either that or I wait till I get home and I actually have a chair designated for reading comics in, because my office chair at home is not that comfortable in my room.

    I envy anyone who lives in a different city right now, I live in the middle of a cornfield far from the nearest city and go to a small community college, I would rather live in Chicago, New York or L.A. Great article Sonia.

  5. I read articles set in California and other warmer climates and ask myself all through the winter why I live in the midwest.  I hate the snow.  I want to read my comics while basking in the sun with the sounds of the ocean in the background. 

  6. One the singular pleasures of my week is stepping out the door of the comic shop and directly into the sandwich place next door for an immediate read-through of the Wednesday offerings. (I don’t have the Pacific Ocean; the best I can do is a sandwich.) It turns out I like it so much that the period when I was getting my books by mail order positively deflated me; it was like I had surgically extracted pleasure from my routine.

  7. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    What does pre-internet mean? How did you access email?  

    My shop is moving around the corner to a larger location. Hoping it ends up half as awesome as Isotope.   

  8. @Paul: I honestly don’t know how I functioned pre-internet. I probably managed it by having no social life at all.

    I’ll be visiting SF in July later this year and you’ve made me even more excited to explore this wonderful city. Thanks for the tip about Los Jarritos too, I love good Mexican.

  9. Coincidentally, starting at midnight (atl) I’m embarking on an adventure called netfreeyear.

    Goodbye iFanboy!

  10. @reg5000:  Be aware that SF isn’t all the rage it’s usually made out to be.  There’s definitely some awesome places to see, but don’t drive yourself around, and be prepared for people begging you for money on every street downtown.


    Hate to be the negative one, but I’m also from the SF Bay Area and I absolutely hate San Francisco. I’ll only go for concerts and WonderCon, and even then, only if someone else will drive (or ride BART with me).  Even with a big group I feel completely unsafe.  I’ve never ever in the hundred or so times that I’ve been there NOT seen police arresting someone or ambulances picking people up from the scene of an accident, etc…  ugh.   I’ve had friends mugged there, pickpocketed there, and one friend commited suicide in a hotel there.  That’s all I can think about when I go there.  I work next to the SFO airport, but luckily it’s pretty far outside the city… 


    However, if I DID live in the city, I would totally just go to work, comic book store, and home every day.  

  11. @RyanHoyt I’ve lived all over the world and this is the safest, prettiest city in the world. If you avoid two small blocks in the city, you can avoid almost all of the drug crime. Parking is difficult, which works out fine for me, because I don’t drive. I’m sorry that you’re friend commit suicide, but it’s hardly San Francisco’s fault that they chose here to do it.

  12. @Sonia: Can you tell me the two small blocks I should avoid? I also don’t intend to drive. My plan is to walk/tram about. Any recommendations for cool places I should check out?

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Haha, "tram about."  


  14. I remember getting that issue like it was yesteday. Has it been that long? Wow, I’m getting old…

  15. @Paul: I have that phrase trademarked so try not to use it too much.


  16. The amount of bollocks in THIS article cannot be measured by conventional means.

  17. @reg5000 Definitely. Avoid Market between 8th and 5th. The Tenderloin isn’t great, especially at night or early on a Sunday. 16th to 17th and Mission is safe enough, but it’s where a lot of people buy smack, so it’s kinda weird.

  18. @Sonia: Thanks for the advice. Always good to get some local knowledge.

  19. @reg5000 Like I said, I find it to be a comparitively safe city, but it _is_ a city, not a village, so it’s important to be aware of one’s surroundings. Whenever I visit a new city for the first time I’ve used a "Rough Guide" book, or a "Time Out" guide book, I find them to be pretty accurate in terms of honesty about what the places I’m going are like. Personally I love the non-tourist parts of San Francisco, but even the touristy things are still fun for me. (For example, have probably been on the Alcatraz tour 4 times over the years, walked over the Golden Gate Bridge 3 times, and I still like taking cable cars to get around.) I hope you have a wonderful trip, and don’t forget to pay a visit to the Isotope comic lounge when you’re here 🙂

  20. I think it’s way past time I started reading Hellblazer Sonia.  What are some of the best trades to get started with?  

  21. @Kimbo Yay! He’s really one of my favorite characters. Have liked him ever since he first appeared in Swamp Thing. So you can just plow through ever single book of his, someone made a list on amazon, but I’ve been reading them since #1, and I’m not that into the super early ones. The furthest back I like to go when I’m rereading, is Garth Ennis’ Dangerous Habits. That’s got scenes that they used for the completely unconnected movie "Constantine" (which I’d say is only inspired by the actual character, but in fact has bugger all to do with him). That story gives some good background on how he deals with his problems, and how he relates to people and deities. My absolute favorite stories are a short series of one shots by Warren Ellis and a collection of talented artists, Setting Sun. These stories really capture the quintessential nature of John, why he’s such a bastard, and how he makes that work for him. They’re funny, bitter, and damning. Ellis really understands John’s connection to London, and it’s history, and it’s a very enjoyable read.

  22. @Sonia- good deal thanks!  My only familiarity with the character so far is through Swamp Thing so I’m excited to read writers like Ennis tackle him.  Thanks again.  

  23. @Sonia: I scheduled my whole trip to SF around going to Isotope on a Wednesday. I’m actually coming over from Australia to go visit a friend and go with her to Comic-Con in San Diego but there was no way I was gonna come to the west coast and not go to Isotope.

    We’re also planning on dressing up on the Saturday. I got the inspiration from reading your article about your brother dressing up. Not sure what we’re going as yet.

  24. @reg5000 That’s fantastic! Guess I’ll see you at Comic-Con then. And my bro says he’s going to dress up on Saturday too, so you guys can look out for each other.

  25. @Sonia: Not if I see you first. What’s your brother dressing as this time? I was gonna go as the Flash but then I saw what some of the rental costumes looked like. No thank you. My friend is going as Batgirl so i’m trying to stay DC with it. Running out of time to make a decision too. Might try and find a Cyclops movie costume.

  26. @reg5000: Since it took Sam six months of online research to find the best original Spidey costume, he’s probably going to keep wearing that until it falls off him. Good luck with your costume.