‘I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.’
So said John Constantine on his debut in Swamp Thing #37. He said it again on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. And he states this once more in this special from DC’s new Black Label imprint, and the callback couldn’t be more appropriate.
Because this is John going back to his roots, escaping the ‘swarm of glittering arseholes’ he’s mixed with since he was thrown into the heart of the DC Universe in 2011. The New 52 line is long gone, replaced by DC Rebirth, and this is John’s rebirth, as he segues from ‘the flashy shit’ to a world that feels more authentic to his original character.
Whether or not he likes where he’s landed, that’s to be seen in his upcoming new series…
This issue opens with Constantine setting the scene. He’s on the ground, in the streets, as a Magic War rages above. All hell has broken loose.
John saves the day, but not without a sacrifice, one that will likely prove heartbreaking to longtime fans of the character. Amidst the melee, John is fatally injured, but a stranger appears and offers John the usual deal – renewal in exchange for his soul.
John wakes up in familiar surroundings – Ravenscar, the psychiatric hospital to which he was committed decades ago, after the infamous Newcastle incident. Needless to say, he’s soon out of there, and back in London, where his mind tries to make sense of the realities he’s known.
And John’s first order of business? Find best mate Chas…
The devil’s in the detail with this story from writer Si Spurrier, artist Marcio Takara, colourist Cris Peter and letterer Aditya Bidikar. So many devils, so much brilliant detail. John sounds like himself for the first time in years, and while by the end he looks a little younger, less timeworn, there’s no doubt this is the authentic Hellblazer. The John Constantine originated by Alan Moore and developed by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, not the superhero in street duds, but the backstreet warlock who tangled with the big guys only occasionally.
This issue is rated 17+ and I’m not surprised, as the F-word isn’t the strongest of the language. It all suits the story, though… actually, the use of the C-word seems almost restrained, given the circumstances, and it’s in a pretty funny line. The vulgar language is sprinkled throughout the issue but Spurrier makes the crudeness sing as he captures John’s cadences. And if you’re a fan of ye olde English insults, has Spurrier got a yaldson for you.
That panel, above, with John trying to sort out reality in his head, seems to be Spurrier saying bollocks to continuity, let’s just get John away from the throng. That’s not to say the DC Universe books definitely won’t have ‘their’ John still around – this issue leaves room for that – but for anyone who wants a cleaner Constantine, one not involved with massive crossovers, there’s a safe space over in the Sandman Universe Presents… corner of DC Comics.
Spurrier impresses with his grasp of Constantine’s history, both in his fenced-off Vertigo days and more recent mainstream DCU period, finding a way to make both fit. And I love when he gets experimental, during John’s session with a psychiatrist.
As for Marcio Takara’s contribution, it’s huge, his imaginative visuals spanning everything from a massive supernatural battle to the backstreets of Austerity Britain. I like his classic characterisation of John; cocky on the outside, a bag of self-loathing inside, and his demons and ghosts are to die for. Cris Peters’ colours are spectacular, bright and bold at the start, when John’s in full-on DCU mode, more subdued as the tale returns to a more traditional Hellblazer tone. And Peters confirms that, yes, Comics John – like Matt Ryan’s excellent TV version – dyes his hair. (I think I spotted Ryan in a multiverse montage, along with big-screen Hellblazer Keanu Reeves.) Aditya Bidikar, a new name to me, does a tremendous job of keeping the lettering spooky, with a roomful of ghouls giving him a great excuse to dazzle with his bag of fonts.
Bilquis Evely and Mat Lopes contribute a cover with a Doorway to Nightmare feel, and it works rather well. I love the detail of John setting a particular tarot card on fire with his mighty fag. And a big hand, too, to editors Chris Conroy and Maggie Howell, for sitting in whatever horrible pentagram it took to get so much talent together.
Drama, humour, sadness, pig-head magic…. so far as this old John Constantine fan is concerned, this one has it all. It’s one of the best comics I’ve read this year. Bring on the monthly!