John Constantine has fought world-shattering demonic entities on alternate planes of reality, stared down abyssal horrors that would strike the sanity from ordinary men, and saved the lives of countless innocents during his decades-long career. Yet you’d be far more likely to find the eponymous anti-hero of Hellblazer getting stone drunk at the local boozer than performing feats of derring-do.
If you’re lucky, he might sketch out a few arcane symbols in the beer of a spilled pint before disappearing into the shadows.
Though the character was invented by Alan Moore during the legendary author’s run on Swamp Thing, it was writer Jamie Delano who expanded upon Moore’s prototype and made Constantine into the iconic figure we know today. Three years after his first appearance on the page, the chain-smoking trickster was granted his own series in 1988. First published by DC Comics, and then continuing under their Vertigo imprint from 1993, Hellblazer was one of the most successful and long running series of the DC subsidiary. Vertigo were well recognised as purveyors of the most cerebral and daring comics in mainstream circulation. This reputation was largely established by Delano’s early run on Hellblazer, his acerbic writing accompanied by John Ridgeway’s hellish depictions and bound in Dave McKean’s surrealist covers.
Equal parts supernatural thriller, noir crime fiction, and horror, the stories centered on Constantine’s confrontations with otherworldly threats, his battlegrounds comprising dark alleyways, crowded pubs, grotty bathrooms, and dreary council estates. The series featured truly disturbing visuals, as tumourous demons and rogue sorcerers wreaked gore-drenched havoc on wicked and innocent alike. Equal to the carnage dispensed by these beings were the works of enemies more mundane; John often confronted the worst of humanity, with some of the most haunting adventures firmly rooted in reality.
What elevated Hellblazer from other comics featuring gruesome monsters and swaggering detectives, what makes it still so cherished, was its scathing social commentary. It was bluntly satirical, a cigarette snubbed out in the face of the gutter politics and destructive policies of Britain’s past, from the days of Empire to New Labour. While most political commentators working in the visual medium are confined to the allegorical, in the world of Hellblazer, politicians and social issues could become literal demons plaguing the public. Gentrification unleashing a plague pit that kills the poor, the revenants of our imperial past rising up to massacre the residents of former colonies, union members who cross picket lines cursed with body-enveloping scabs… the messages were ham-fisted at times, but rarely to the detriment of good story-telling. The series wore the politics of its writers on its sleeve, and was perhaps the first by a mainstream publisher to do so with a proud sneer and a blatantly raised middle-finger.
John Constantine has been depicted by a wide range of writers and artists over the years, written by some of the biggest names in modern British comics: Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Neil Gaiman among them. They’ve all made their individual marks on the anti-hero, but some characteristics have stuck. He is consistently a smirking, conniving, and downright selfish man, with far more of the ‘anti’ in him than other popular DC comic heroes. While there are certainly good intentions at the heart of the grizzled magus, lives are ruined as often as they are saved by his lies, cons, and double-crosses. No pristine capes here; just a trenchcoat reeking of Silk-Cut. But what makes The Constant One a cut-rate paragon is also the reason for his lasting appeal: his essential and immediately resonant humanity.
Over his long and varied life, he’s managed to get his nicotine-stained fingers into all manner of occult practices, vices, and schemes. And with such fantastic creative talent and so extensive a catalogue, it can be hard to pick favourites. But in honour of the museum’s recent acquisition of a new Hellblazer page (by an anonymous donor via the V&A), here are 5 essential Constantine collections. Together these explore the mythology, the motivations, and various aspects of The Rake At The Gates Of Hell.
Issues 1 – 9, 1988
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch,
Most of Hellblazer can be enjoyed as one-off tales without delving too far into the past. However, for those wanting to get well acquainted with the series, looking to the start is essential. Delano laid the groundwork for Constantine’s background, hinting at various aspects of his past and creating characters and events that would often be referred to or expanded upon by other writers. His long-suffering semi-sidekick Chas, recurrent nemesis Nergal, and love interest Zed are all introduced here as well.
The collected issues have John appearing in America and Britain, attempting to stop both delusional Vietnam veterans and a pestilential hunger-god, and all saturated with inner monologues worthy of 1930’s noir. While the pace of the adventures is relentless, the last issue is the most poignant, focusing on Constantine’s 35th birthday and his musings as he approaches his middle years. Unlike many other characters, John ages throughout the series in real-time.
Fear & Loathing
Issues 47 – 50, 52 – 55, and 59 – 61
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
Constantine has always walked the line in terms of good and evil. The series draws most of its antagonists from Christian mythology, and the trickster-mage’s primary motive for making enemies of both angels and demons is his humanism. Much like Preacher (later created by the writer and artist duo working here), Heaven and Hell are not separated by good and evil; they are two sides of the same coin, dedicated to controlling humanity. And John, a punk to the end, is decidedly against that.
The issues here follow two storylines, with Constantine enlisting the fallen succubus Ellie to seduce the angel Gabriel, and a dangerous encounter with the footsoldiers of the BNP. The narrative of this arc also focuses on Kit, John’s most stable and believable romantic interest. She acts as an emotional lightning rod, grounding John (however temporarily) and making him confront the human cost of his schemes.
With Garth Ennis’s brilliant dialogue, even the supernatural beings on both ends of the spectrum are rendered flawed and human, given empathic life here by Steve Dillon’s art. The expressions are nuanced and soulful, the panels often drawn in close to concentrate on the intimacy and complexity of interactions.
But this is Hellblazer, and while there is beauty, Dillon also shows us the ugliest side of humanity, with some of the grisliest art in the series. We’re still drawn in close though, made to get intimate with acts of violence. Hellblazer might focus on its human relationships (usually fuelled by alcohol and cigarettes), but this arc typifies one of the series’ greatest themes: that we will never need the help of demons to accomplish evil.
Issues 261 – 266
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, Simon Bisley
It might seem strange to look at a late run of issues to typify the social commentary of the series, but this collection contains two masterful tales often overlooked by fans of the earlier issues. In the first, John travels to India, where he becomes entangled with a sleazy casting agent and a rising body-count of Bollywood hopefuls. The second tale is firmly set in Britain and John’s punk past. To say too much about the plot would be to risk spoiling it, but it does contain a possessed statue of Sid Vicious.
Setting an adventure in India allows Milligan to open Hellblazer up to a new mythology, as he extrapolates a demonic figure from Hindu folklore and the British Raj to terrorise the residents of Mumbai. It’s a fast-paced murder-mystery with unexpected twists and turns, and perhaps the best from Hellblazer’s final writer. Camuncoli’s pages are composed of controlled, simple inks, Landini filling the wide spaces between bold linework with vivid blocks of colour. It’s a far remove from the muted palettes and cloying shadows of earlier tales, and a welcome breath of fresh air.
In contrast, the second story ‘No Future’ relishes in the origins of the series, seizing on the bleak settings and outright contempt of earlier issues, and exaggerating them even further. Illustrated by the masterful Simon Bisley, his work seems made for Hellblazer; scratching darkness vies with smirking, bruised faces in a world where light is permanently obfuscated by grit and decay. Indeed, it was a poster that Simon Bisley drew featuring Sid Vicious that inspired the plot of ‘No Future.’ This is a quintessential Constantine tale, featuring the protagonist at his most angry, tired, cynical, and true to his punk roots. A must for newcomers and old fans alike.
Issues 41 – 46
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: William Simpson
There is not much else that can be said here that hasn’t been said before. Dangerous Habits appears in virtually every recommended reading list for Hellblazer, and with good reason. The beginning of Garth Ennis’s run started with a bang: John Constantine has lung cancer, and it’s terminal. These issues received renewed interest with the release of the film adaptation Constantine in 2003, which drew heavily on this plotline.
The artwork isn’t of the standard seen earlier or later in the series, but thankfully doesn’t detract from the narrative. Rather, it gracefully takes a backseat to the text. In contrast to the bloody exploits of other adventures, there’s little action to draw the eye along until the final chapter, the story forgoing the fantastic in favour of the mundane. The colouring reflects this slowed pace, many pages given little more than a single tone underneath layers of dialogue and thought.
This is the story of a slayer of the supernatural finally encountering an enemy he cannot best by guile, trickery, or sheer magical force. John’s inner monologue goes from the sarcastic and wry to the melancholic and reflective. In summary: ‘It can’t end like this.’ With a tight focus on the unavoidably mortal, John reconnects with old friends across the country, while making new ones on the cancer ward during hospital visits. One particular scene involving pints of magic stout contains some of the most tragic, hilarious, and moving moments in the entire series. This collection is not only an exemplar within the context of Hellblazer, but a vital example of excellence in comic story-telling as a whole.
Empathy is the Enemy
Issues: 216 – 222
Writer: Denise Mina
Artist: Leonardo Manco
Hellblazer is often at its best when set in a British city: the writing is knowing, the commentary is informed, the horror made all the more claustrophobic by its proximity. Previous noteworthy adventures have been set in Newcastle, Birmingham, and the character’s native Liverpool, blending the occult with each one’s unique history. Here that’s literal, as John discovers the very architecture of Glasgow is designed to supplement a ritual of immense power.
Empathy is the Enemy places Constantine in Mina’s native Scotland, and as the title suggests, her tale features the character at his most selfish. He moves cynically from one confrontation to the next, trying to escape a curse that makes him feel concern for his fellow man. The other characters that populate his quest are either rivals or people looking for help rather than close friends or confidantes. It’s a depressing world of hidden motives and double dealings, brought to life by Leonardo Manco’s deep shadows and dirty textures.
The supernatural may be the driving force here, but its portrayal is understated compared to previous depictions, confined largely to emotions, visions, and hallucinations.This has much to do with the author herself; a writer of crime fiction novels grounded in reality, the figure of John Constantine is treated as an intruder and outsider, a demonic force in his own right. The tale even begins with a Faustian plea, as an ordinary man whose first foray into magic caused multiple deaths pleads with a chain-smoking and detached Constantine, calmly ruminating on the sins of the supplicant before him.
It’s a great and natural take on an established figure: there are moments when he looks positively bored while dispatching demons and hearing about yet another spell-gone-wrong. Which is understandable when approaching the end of his nearly 300 issue series. Constantine has seen it all, and Empathy is the Enemy reinforces another of the jaded mage’s observations: the very best of intentions, from grand housing projects to muttered spells, can lead to the very worst outcomes.
The character has since been revived as part of DC’s ‘New 52,’ a much younger version who appears
alongside other popular heroes. But the cover of the 300th and final issue of Hellblazer featured John
walking into the distance, a stubbed-out cigarette in the foreground. As Simon Bisley the cover artist
said of it, the message was clear: ‘I’m out. See ya later. Bye. Had a good time, but never again.’
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