So this hasn’t come up much in recent years, but one of our all-time favorite funnybooks is Hellblazer. There’s still over 100 issues of it in the nerd farm collection, from a variety of creative teams, and that’s a rarity at this point. But it’s had so much strong work done on it, so many great runs and memorable stories, from some of the best writers in comics: Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Pete Milligan… Even runs I didn’t personally care for, like Brian Azzarello’s, were at least solid work. There are very few long-running comics series that can claim as good a run as Hellblazer.
But all good things must come to an end, of course, and eventually the book’s corporate parent did manage to screw it up. An effort to reinsert lead character John Constantine back into the “DC Universe” also lead to a massive dip in quality, as editorial control of the title fell out of the hands of people used to dealing in adult horror fiction, and into the hands of people who think that Geoff Johns is actually a good writer.
That just slipped out.
Rather, I should say that the character came under the editorial umbrella of DC’s mainstream super hero line, and the book immediately became a pale imitation of the original series. It lacked the nuance, mystery, and general humanity that made Hellblazer such a great read for so long. The book’s history of dealing with complicated morality and social issues gave way to bog-standard second-rate supernatural hero stuff, and the careful balancing act required to keep Constantine on the narrow path between hero and bastard completely fell apart.
After a few years of continual failure, though, they’ve now moved Constantine over to their “Black Label” line of funnybooks for grown-ups and plugged him into their flagging new line of Sandman-related titles. Has it made any difference? Let’s take a look…
by Simon Spurrier, Marcio Takara and Chris Peter
Right from the front cover (nice as the illustration is), I felt like something was off about this book. That’s more a Sandman cover than a Hellblazer cover, I think. It’s a little too frou-frou, a little too mystical magical bullshit. The pose, the attitude, the focus on the handsome face, the Tarot cards (even when you’re lighting one on fire with a cigarette)… It’s just wrong. There’s no horror. No grit. No creeping sense of dread. There’s not even any black humor to it. And you need some combination of those things for a proper Hellblazer cover, I think. This is a cover that does not fill me with a great sense of optimism about the reading experience inside.
But I tend to like Simon Spurrier’s stuff okay, and Hellblazer is sort of the horror equivalent of Fantastic Four for me: I love it so much that if the creative team’s even halfway decent, I’ll give it a shot. So I bought it in spite of my reservations. Hope springs eternal, right?
But this opening did little to win me over. It places John in the middle of a big dumb super-fight, and even if he keeps talking about how that’s “not his scene,” it doesn’t change the fact that this is not something I really want to read.
I was further turned off by the way Spurrier writes long-time Hellblazer supporting character Chas like a comedic lunk-head instead of a real human being. And when John knowingly sends Chas to his death with a pig’s head turned into a fake magical item… I just about threw the book across the room. The John / Chas friendship is one of the core Hellblazer relationships, and even if John will use Chas for rides and special favors, Chas might also be the one person on Earth John wouldn’t sacrifice. Not even to save the world. I mean, he might be tempted, sure. But the sad con he runs here on his only real friend is so far out of character that… well. Like I said…
I almost chucked the book at the far wall.
But I didn’t. I kept reading. Maybe out of blind dumb optimism, or maybe just to see how much further wrong it would go. And I’m glad I did. Because that’s also the point where the story turns. Constantine suffers a fatal injury in the destruction of Chas’ cab, and is approached by his own future self, to whom he sells his soul in return for magical healing. He slips off into unconsciousness then, after which he wakes up in an insane asylum in what appears to be real-world 2019. It’s a world where Chas wasn’t killed by super-demons or whatever the hell we just saw happen to him, but is instead a vegetable in the cancer ward, put there by second-hand smoke from John’s own beloved silk cuts, and haunted by a gaggle of demons who’ve camped out in his head waiting for John to show up.
Now, that sounds more like a proper Hellblazer story.
So what it looks like to me is that Spurrier’s pointing out the shallowness of crappy new DCU Constantine in comparison to the good old Vertigo version (I mean, of course I’d read it like that, but bear with me). Young John sells his soul a little too easily, and seems a tad self-deluding about it in a way that Original John never really was. That character had plenty of faults, but he was painfully aware of them. This one… Not as much. He seems more like the facade Original John showed the world, without the messy hidden depths. But now he’s been plunged into a world with plenty of messy depths, and he’s trying to get by on style rather than substance. Whether that works for him remains to be seen. But I hope not.
There’s also some gobbledygook in here about multiple Earths, and Old John not actually being the future version of Young John, and the world this John finds himself in not being the same one he came from, all of which feels a bit like Spurrier’s trying too hard to explain how we’re going from the most recent Constantine appearances to this new series. There’s even one neat trick to the whole thing: Future John here looks an awful lot like Old Man John, as we saw him in the final issue of OG Hellblazer:
And here he is in this new comic:
It’s a nice enough nod, I suppose, but to be honest, I don’t need that kind of continuity porn bullshit in this book. I’d be far happier if Spurrier started telling more old school stories about a more old school Constantine, and just got on with it. And if that is supposed to be the same John, it really cheapens Milligan’s ending for the original series, which left Original John in a kind of living hell limbo, hollowed out by his own soul-crushing awfulness. That’s a real ending. The kind you can’t tell more stories about without ruining it utterly. And if that’s what Spurrier’s doing here, I’m not going to be very happy about it. JUST TELL GOOD STORIES, DAMMIT!
And, holy crap, if it turns out that Dr. Manhattan had a single fucking thing to do with any of this, I really will throw the book across the room. Because, UGH.
So let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
As you can probably tell, I’m not 100% sold on this new Hellblazer book. I really want it to be good, but there’s so many things going against it that I’m almost afraid to hope. I will be reading the next issue, however, and keeping my fingers crossed.
Because I’m dumb like that.