John Constantine has had a rough go of it of late (but what else is new). His celebrated and pioneering horror comic, Hellblazer, published under DC’s Vertigo imprint, was cancelled two years ago after an astounding 300 issues. His namesake television show Constantine, starring Matt Ryan of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior renown was recently cancelled after one season. And since his transition back from the adult-themed Vertigo to the mainstream DC Universe, he’s had a hard time finding his place. He was awkwardly placed into a leadership position in the supernatural series Justice League Dark despite the character being anything but a team player, and the follow-up comic Constantine, despite a return to the character’s roots in horror, struggled to find its footing.
It’s an unfortunate fate for one of the best characters the comics medium has ever produced (Empire Magazine rated him #3 on a list of the 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters of all time behind Batman and Superman). An English, chain-smoking, iconoclastic con man and magician, Constantine has influenced such famous horror and fantasy series as The Dresden Files, Hellboy, and Supernatural (Castiel’s attire is a direct homage to Constantine’s famous trench coat and tie), as well as inspired horror comics for years to come. Part of Constantine’s enduring appeal is that despite his often fantastical and surreal settings, he’s one of the most realistic characters in comics: a man who literally walks through Hell and tells off demons but is ultimately most vulnerable to his own failings and flaws.
Returning the “Hellblazer” moniker to Constantine, this new series definitely has some big shoes to fill. Thankfully, this first issue is at least a step in the right direction.
The issue opens with Constantine in New York City, naked and covered in (animal) blood in a clothing shop. Because why not start off a New York day with a tall glass of WTF.
Constantine manages to hypnotize the rightfully terrified counterwoman into believing that he’s a finely-dressed man through the sheer power of monologue. Constantine famously narrates like a 1940s private eye, and this issue effectively restores that trait to him. As Constantine then rummages through the shop for new clothes, we’re reintroduced to another staple of his stories: his ghosts. Throughout Hellblazer, Constantine had a long history of throwing friends under the bus to pursue his supposedly righteous goals and defeat whatever Hell threw at him. Every time a friend of his died, he had another ghost added to the posse that followed him around (which Constantine prosaically refers to here as “polter-gits”). It’s served as a powerful representation of a man literally haunted by his past.
Despite the content restrictions of mainstream DC books, it’s the little details carried over through the old series that compliment this new representation. For every swear word that’s obscured, there’s a scene of John having sex with a demon woman in the back room of a nightclub (arguably a worse habit). It shows a dedication to making this representation as faithful to the character’s classic depictions as possible. One lesser-addressed detail of the old comics that is brought to the forefront here is John’s bisexuality. Whereas beforeit was mentioned he had been with a few men in the past, here we see a scene of him openly flirting with a burly restaurant owner. Maintaining John’s reputation as a notorious flirt and cavort while exploring his diversity is a very nice touch.
After the aforementioned nightclub encounter, said demon woman, named Blythe, asks John for help in exorcising her club from an imp infestation. She explains she can’t do it herself at the risk being dragged herself into Hell for a hundred years. John agrees to help, and what follows is the issue’s most visually impressive scene: an inverted, two-page spread illustrating John and Blythe’s descent through the nine floors of Blythe’s club,referencing Dante’s nine circles of Hell. It’s a colorful and inventive sequence that provides a detailed look at what could be an interesting new locale in DC’s new world of Constantine.
Arriving in the bottom circle, John and Blythe enter an office where they encounter Blythe’s business partner, a demon named Haluk. John then realizes that Blythe has actually brought him there to exorcise Haluk, giving her full control of the club, which is actually a front for a soul-harvesting business. The bureaucratic setup of the demons is a clever scenario, and one that foils John’s anti-establishment mentality, whether the establishment be human or demon. When an outraged Haluk transforms out into a monstrous brute, John is forced to begin an exorcism on him. However, John pretends to forget the incantation halfway through, forcing Blythe to finish it. John then reveals the card up his sleeve: because she said the words, Blythe too is going into the pit. It thereby proves entirely fitting that the final circle of Dante’s Inferno is Treachery. It’s a clear reminder that whatever good intentions he may have, and whether concerning friend or foe, John Constantine is a regular perpetrator of man’s greatest sin.
Unfortunately, the most problematic aspect of this first issue is the artwork. Which is not to say that it’s bad: Riley Rossmo is a very talented artist whose work has done wonders in books such as Cowboy Ninja Viking and the short-lived Green Wake, varying in style from more light-hearted, cartoonish tones to outright unsettling shades and outlines. As it stands, the artwork here is more towards the former, and it simply doesn’t fit for a character like John Constantine. Perhaps as the series progresses and comes into its own, the artwork will transition more towards the traditional horror style Constantine is known for.
Constantine the Hellblazer #1 hits all the right notes concerning John Constantine’s character, and is an encouraging return to form. Once it begins to change its look, it could be a worthy successor of, if not replacement for, the Hellblazer of old.