By Alex Boney
Most of us have friends with whom we don’t talk nearly as often as we’d like. In most cases, we’ve known these friends for years and, for one reason or another, we’ve fallen out of contact for long stretches of time. But it’s always good to give these friends a call or pay them a visit, even if it’s only every year or so. They add something to our lives, and we’re always reminded of this when we talk. For me, Hellblazer is one of these friends. I’ve been buying an issue of Hellblazer every month for the last 15 years. It’s the only periodical comic book I’ve been buying continuously for this long, and by now I’m determined that I’ll never stop following the book. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t read Hellblazer every month; rather, I’ll stockpile a stack of them over the course of a year (or two) and then, in one day, catch up on what’s been going on. I’m seldom disappointed with what I find. In fact, the only real disappointment I’ve ever had with this book was last year, when I read all 13 issues (#216-228) of novelist Denise Mina’s run in one sitting. After that letdown, I wasn’t exactly inspired to start reading the book monthly again. But recently, I read through the entire 13-issue run of Andy Diggle’s most recent run on the title. And I was pleased to find that my old friend is fully back to form.
After 244 monthly issues (not counting the dozen or so miniseries, spin-offs, annuals, and specials), it still amazes me that the editors and creators of Hellblazer have anything new to say about the book’s protagonist, John Constantine (whose last name is pronounced “con-stan-tyne” for the yanks among us). But nearly every time a new creative team takes over the reins of the book, they add something new—not just to my understanding of the John Constantine, but also to the character’s understanding of himself. The alumni list of past Hellblazer writers reads like a veritable Who’s Who list of today’s top-tier comic book writers. Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Paul Jenkins, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Eddie Campbell have all put their stamp on this book at one time or another. But as much as these creators have added to the Constantine mythos (I started reading regularly during Garth Ennis’ run, which is widely considered the most definitive Hellblazer arc in the history of the book), I still have the most admiration—not just nostalgia, but true admiration and respect—for the book’s initial 40-issue run. Jamie Delano has only been writing comic books sporadically for the last 20 years, but his work on Hellblazer should be considered the book’s highest creative achievement. Alan Moore may have given John Constantine his first words in Swamp Thing, but Delano actually defined the character more than anyone had before or has since. Maybe this is why Andy Diggle’s recent run has pulled me in so quickly and so completely. To set up the direction of his story, Diggle has reached far back into John Constantine’s past—as far as the title’s very first issue—to give relevance and meaning to the character’s frightening present.
At its core, Hellblazer is a horror title. The book was originally supposed to be called Hellraiser, but DC had to scramble at the last minute to rename the book when Clive Barker’s first Hellraiser film debuted at roughly the same time the John Constantine comic book was about to go to press. The two projects diverge in media and thematics, but they share both genre and resonance. I’ve long thought that the slogan used for an early Sandman house advertisement (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” cribbed from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) should have been redirected to house ads for Hellblazer. The primal horror of Hellblazer has swelled and waned over the years, but its current incarnation provides one of the most frightening and disturbing books I’ve read since Delano’s initial stint. When Delano first started writing Hellblazer, he made no secret of the fact that he was trying to expose the real-life horrors of life in England under Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, Andy Diggle is currently reaching into today’s headlines, international politics, and current events to expose the horrors of life at the beginning of the 21st century. In the last year alone, Diggle has fictionalized the often-inhumane tactics of real-estate developers, the very personal tragedy of genocide in Sudan, and the internal turmoil of the Catholic church.
Hellblazer hasn’t simply become a book about socially-conscious grievances, though. This would be hard to pull off with a protagonist whose defining characteristic is that he has no real conscience. Diggle’s story is still essentially driven by John Constantine—a man who can’t escape his past no matter how many times (and places) he tries to bury it. Constantine is the modern embodiment of the best literature of the British Romantic Age. He isn’t just a Byronic hero in the mold of Victor Frankenstein and Heathcliff; he is the Byronic hero re-imagined for the modern age. George Gordon, Lord Byron is a 19th-century British poet best known for his long works Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818) and Don Juan (posthumous). But Byron’s strongest and most important work is Manfred (1817), a closet drama in which the title protagonist, having unwittingly damned a lover to an eternal afterlife in Hell, refuses to align himself with any of the factions and forces of terrestrial life or the afterlife. Manfred refuses to be courted by Heaven and Hell alike, and his final declaration of self-determined autonomy (for better and for worse) echoes throughout the entire series of Hellblazer—most notably when Constantine gives The First of the Fallen the finger at the end of issue #45.
Diggle seems to be aware of his character’s Byronic legacy. In the second story in his current run, Diggle has Constantine revisit an asylum he had recovered in years earlier, exorcise all the ghosts that haunt him, direct them into a physical manifestation of his guilty conscience, and toss the fetus-like form from a cliff into the sea. In that moment, Constantine frees himself from many of the burdens that have weighed him down for the last 20 years. It’s a clever move for a writer seeking to forge a new direction for a character so familiar and well-drawn. And while it’s an interesting realignment, readers familiar with the character type will find it more interesting seeing how Constantine gravitates back toward the guilt and ghosts that have always simultaneously girded and guided him. Diggle has created two horrifying antagonists, each of whom seeks to lay claim to Constantine’s soul. And the dramatic tension has been raised to such a level that Hellblazer has become the book I’m most looking forward to next month.
Of all the high-profile Vertigo books that have been published over the last 15 years (Sandman, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, etc.), Hellblazer strikes me as the title least likely to survive this long. But it’s precisely this duration that creates one of the book’s largest burdens. One of the major difficulties with recommending Hellblazer to potential readers is that, despite its consistent and enduring quality, it has been running for so long that it would be hard for completely new readers to jump on and understand exactly what’s going on. Newcastle, Nergal, Ravenscar, Chas, Ellie, Astra, and Kit—these names all are integral to understanding the full scope of Constantine, but some or all of these names are unfamiliar to a reader picking up a new issue for the first time. Vertigo hasn’t helped matters much with its reprinting of the series in trade paperback form. Runs from writers with the biggest names (Ennis, Ellis, Azzarello, and Carey) have been collected in their entirety, but these volumes carry no clear reading-order numeration or chronology. Paul Jenkins’ excellent—if tonally unique—run (#89-128) has been completely ignored, while Jamie Delano’s stint has earned only two collections to date.
But despite my reservations, I still find myself lending bits and pieces of my collection to friends looking for a quality comic book experience. A good place for the uninitiated to start is with Hellblazer: Original Sins, a book that reprints the first eight issues of the series. Then comes Garth Ennis’ Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits—the definitive single story arc from the series that also served as the primary inspiration for the 2005 Constantine film starring Keanu Reeves. (The film was good. It wasn’t a Hellblazer movie, but it was a good film that adequately captured the feel of a Vertigo comic book.) After this, I would continue to lend or recommend the book in chronological order. But I would absolutely try to catch the reader up as quickly as possible to Diggle’s current run. After two decades of continuous publication, Hellblazer has emerged as the best, most relevant and entertaining book in the Vertigo stable. And after catching up this time, I intend to stay in more frequent contact with my long-time friend.