Unlucky Thirteen, and Thirty More: “Hellblazer #294”

One look at Camuncoli’s Constantine and that’s the game. It’s the years and years of old and ugly that have weighed me down, weighed us all down, the years of reading Hellblazer. And these years now etched into the face of Hellblazer lead, John Constantine, laid in with every line drawn by series regular artist Giuseppe Camuncoli.

I remember Camuncoli’s first Hellblazers well. 2003, 2004? Somewhere thereabouts. Camuncoli drew back-to-back issues (Hellblazer #168 and Hellblazer #169, now that I check, cover-date Jan and Feb 2002) as guest artist. This was at a point when crime writer Brian Azzarello’s two-and-a-half-year-long odyssey writing the character on his spree across America. “A Fresh Coat of Red Paint” followed by “Chasing Demons”. I remember how young and optimistic Constantine had looked, drawn by Camuncoli’s hand. It was such a keen counterpoint to the jaded dissonance of (back then) series regular artist Marcelo Frusin and industry legend Richard Corben who had drawn “Hard Time” the opening storyarc in the Azzarello era.

There seemed something fresh about Camuncoli himself, something bright and European, but not innocuous or without its complexity. And now, years after, we see Camuncoli undone by time, we see him draw a John Constantine simply bedraggled by the years. We see every line and every detail etched into Constantine’s craggy face. And it’s all there in Camuncoli’s magnificent linework–the years have pulled us all under; drawing Constantine, reading Constantine, but particularly writing Constantine.

Hellblazer #294 marks series regular writer Peter Milligan’s 43rd consecutive issue at the helm of the long-running DC book. This places Peter at the top of long-running writers list. Close seconds are writers Garth Ennis and Mike Carey, both of whom clock in at 42 consecutive issues (although Ennis did return to do a five-issue arc subsequent to his original 90s run, and Carey did do a standalone issue just prior to Andy Diggle commencing his run). What Camuncoli achieves visually by reversing the masking effect, Milligan achieved conceptually over the course of these long 43 issues.

The mechanics of the masking effect is simple–add in more detail to promote the reader’s emotional disengagement from the object being drawn. The effect can be seen in clearly in Herge’s Tintin books. Tintin himself and other characters are iconic, drawn with clean lines and minimal detail. The world Tintin interfaces with however, is composed of weighty lines. There’s heavier inking, and much, much greater detail. The lack of detail in the characters, as Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, actually works to push readers into themselves “animating” the characters. Similarly, it makes no sense to have the readers “animate” the material world of the characters, hence the preponderance of detail.

Camuncoli simply inverted the paradigm. What if, the world of Hellblazer John Constantine felt like a storybook version of our own world? What if just by looking at the surface of it, we felt like we could intuitively understand large sections of the way it worked? What if, consequently, it’s the characters themselves we found emotionally distasteful, and wanted to disassociate from? What Constantine felt more and more like a necessary object in the world, and less like a person?

This idea of Constantine as a kind of necessary evil has been at the core of Milligan’s handling of the character, ever since his short story in Hellblazer #250. Hellblazer, as a title, has been something of a quiet achievement these past twentysomething years. The series spun out of the Alan Moore’s creation of the character of John Constantine first debuted in the pages of Swamp Thing. Since the first issue of the monthly series (cover-dated Dec 1987), John Constantine and the book itself have remained resolute, and resolutely of the moment.

With early storyarcs like “Scabbed” involving a British labor strike, and “Regeneration” which centered on the urban renewal of London ahead of the Olympic Games, it seemed as if Milligan was returning us to the social criticism that was core to title during Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis’ landmark runs (and by extension, core to the character itself, subsequently). But Milligan’s gift lay in leveraging that history of the character to explore the idea of Constantine, and the idea of a Hellblazer book.

What we’ve seen from Milligan is a provide and heady autopsy of the character. This has been a great and creative time to be reading Hellblazer–we’ve seen the character expand, almost as much as we’ve seen a deep and profound meditation on the precepts of the character. And there’s probably no better story to underline this, than with Constantine himself, his wife in tow, traipsing into Ireland to find his dead sister’s long-ago-abandoned offspring.

There’s an anger and an edge to Constantine, muted not only by his own growing number of years, but one muted by the idea of Constantine himself being fictive. This has been the true focus of Milligan’s run, and what allows Milligan’s contribution to stand out. Must there be a Constantine? Years ago, Elliot S! Maggin asked the same about Superman, and now, one generation on from the character’s inception, Milligan asks this about Constantine.

The answer is always less interesting than the framing of the question. Constantine’s own blasted personal life, his marriage, his parlay with his younger self, his reintegration into DC mainstream continuity, and above all, the continuation of the original series numbering for Hellblazer, despite the publisher-wide reboot to #1 points to a deeply successful alchemy Milligan has found in continually tempering and refining the idea of John Constantine.

With issue #294, Constantine continues to track down a serial killer with unique ties to Irish magic and the poetry of WB Yeats. A killer who may or may not be his own nephew, long ago abandoned by his then teen-mother. But there’s another magic at work here. The deeper magic of finding new places to go with a grand old character like Constantine.

RATING 6 / 10