[9 December 2010]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It gets better after “India”.
It is this four-part storyarc that is the first to see John Constantine, the titular Hellblazer, leave the familiar shores of his native England since the 2008 filler “Mortification of the Flesh” took him to a secret chamber in the Vatican. Drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli (who features as a key artist on current writer Peter Milligan’s run), “Mortification of the Flesh” was an example of a recurrent feature in the kind of storytelling Hellblazer had developed over its 21-year run. Constantine would always be given a breather just before a major confrontation, and he would always find himself in complete control.
“Mortification” appeared just after the onslaught of African War-mage Mako, it read as a repose, a small retreat before the major battle looming on the horizon. A battle that would play out in “Roots of Coincidence”, then series-runner Andy Diggle’s final storyarc. At the time Camuncoli’s artwork gave a radical reframing of the Constantine character and his impending struggle against occult profiteer Lord Calvin Burnham, African War-mage Mako and a third, unseen enemy with the power to alter destiny itself. Camuncoli’s more iconic style of artwork, contrasted sharply with that of series-regular artist Leonardo Manco’s sharper, more terse realism. With Camuncoli, it was easy to buy into the idea that Constantine was at the top of his game. Even if readers knew he must have been faking after the harrowing he had just been put through.
Also drawn by Camuncoli, “India”, nearly a year later, serves a very different kind of function. “India” is not the welcome break between battles, “India” is not Constantine cocky as ever and super self-assured. “India” represents a major chunk of Milligan’s character arc for Constantine. Its events play out with Constantine at a unique low.
The storyarc wraps more-or-less Milligan’s first year on Hellblazer. It already felt like time and a half. Constantine had just buried Phoebe, his most-recent girlfriend. He’d just run afoul of law enforcement (framed for Phoebe’s murder), the gangster father of a trendy East End alchemist (his daughter, Epiphany, deserves better than falling in with Constantine) immigration (fake passports raised flags even before 911), his “best mate” Chas (Constantine’s burning down of Chas’ wife’s childhood home might yet again have irreparably damaged Chas’ marriage), and of course a millennia-old Babylonian high-priest posing as a private-school student.
Constantine is in India to achieve purity, the one thing he needs to effectively perform the spell of resurrection Epiphany has offered him, albeit unwillingly. But “India” is also the point where Milligan’s vision of Constantine seems to take shape.
Every writer does it, every writer jousts with Constantine, frames the character in a unique way, allowing themselves a unique imprint on the character’s legacy. Perhaps disappointingly for fans, Brian Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer saw Constantine more as a master-criminal than a master-mage, returning the character to his con-artist roots. More successfully, Garth Ennis evolved a story of Constantine as waging an ongoing war with established power (“All I ever wanted was the world to be free of your kind whether you were in parliament, in senate, junta, hell or heaven”, Ennis writes for Constantine in Dangerous Habits), a dangerous risk-taker who usually is able to convince his friends to fall on his sword rather than meet his own comeuppance. Paul Jenkins told tales of the uniquely British supernatural realms, everything from Camelot to Faeries. And Mike Carey carved out an entire rereading of the character’s publication history.
With “India”, Milligan really rolls up his sleeves, tapping that same kind of Hellblazer-as-meditation on the political zeitgeist that first series lead writer Jamie Delano so powerfully evoked during the 1988 launch.
“India” is a comment on the rise of actress Frida Pinto in the wake of unexpected success from motion picture Slumdog Millionaire. But it is also the active disengagement with 2008 US election (a development embraced by Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” megaevent slogan, ‘embrace change’), and a disavowal of Constantine’s heritage of Indian misadventures most notably through his maternal ancestor, Alyossious Quinn. This is a Constantine story, and one built for 2009.
So by the time Constantine has wound his way through 2010, through a marriage proposal to Epiphany in the closing pages of “Sectioned”, through meeting up with another DC/Vertigo from Back Then, Shade the Changing Man, through cannibalizing his punk past in ‘“No Future” as well as disrupting (or failing to disrupt) the then topical British general election, the current storyarc feels smooth, solid, certain.
Also, the genius of bringing together series lead artist Camuncoli, and regular fill-in Simon Bisley (whose lush painted work gives a vision of 70s London that is both savage and decadent) in a single issue is an amazing feat of storytelling. In the latest installment of “Bloody Incarnations”, ‘Squaring the Circle’, there is a very powerful reason for having two artists. And the slightly-less-than-chance encounter at the very end explains everything.
Hellblazer #273 is a rare treat. It is Milligan in top form, and also, it is the culmination of a storyarc that makes a creative statement about how Milligan has chosen to craft his version of the character.