A week ago, DC Comics announced the cancellation of Hellblazer.
Bullshit was my first thought.
There are certain instances where, in comics, because you’ve read a particular title for so long, because you’ve enjoyed the stories so much, you grow an affinity for a character as if they were, well, a friend. That’s how I felt about John Constantine, the English protagonist of the series. And there are many other Hellblazer comic book readers out there that feel the same way.
Hellblazer – nay, John Constantine: Hellblazer, the publication’s true, long-form title – is currently the longest running, uninterrupted, monthly series from either of the big two comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Indeed, it’s the longest running title from Vertigo Comics, DC’s mature imprint, in the history of that offshoot. That’s something the company, the editors, and the various writers and artists on the series, should be quite proud about. And in many ways, it’s not damn well surprising.
John Constantine: the occult antihero, created within the pages of Swamp Thing in 1985 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben. John Constantine: the con man, the bastard mage, the working class magician. John Constantine: the mate at the pub. John Constantine: the popular character with the solo series in 1988.
John Constantine: Hellblazer. Cancelled. It’s like learning a long time friend had just passed. Bullshit.
Constantine, when he first appeared within the pages of Swamp Thing, was a mysterious character possessing knowledge of the arcane arts. To read back on those issues, he was a character that appeared fully formed. Alan Moore wrote him as a secretive manipulator, a supernatural advisor and a rogue with his own agenda, a charismatic know-it-all warlock wearing a suit and blazer and bearing the likeness of Sting from the rock band, The Police. Interesting, so incredibly real was the Constantine character, that Moore has previously stated that he actually met the man in a bar. Twice. Once from afar, locking eyes and smiling at the acclaimed writer and once stepping out from shadows whispering to Moore, “I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.” A now famous phrase, to be sure. Strange machinations, indeed, but that was John Constantine.
Of course, there have been many iterations of the character over the years. Jamie Delano, the first writer on the Hellblazer solo monthly series wrote the character in tune with British 1980’s politics and the Thatcher era. Here, Constantine battled Threadneedle Street demons, cults and his own history come back to haunt him. Under writer Garth Ennis, he grew a little more ragged, a little more tired and dirty. Even though it was always there, Ennis was the writer that made the trench coat such an integral part of Constantine’s character, as he battled the machinations (and revenge) of the devil himself! Brian Azzarello took the mage to America and Mike Carey brought him back to London. Denise Mina took him to World Cup footie matches and Andy Diggle brought back the suit and blazer. Peter Milligan gave him a scar, lost him a thumb but also found him a wife. Yes, Constantine is the everyman because he’s been every man – and all writers who took him on used him to say something about the world as they saw it. I’d argue that John Constantine might just be the one of the greatest fictional creations in the last three decades. His stories are timeless and they could go on and on, shedding light on some dark aspect of humanity for years to come. But the truth is, every fan of the character, every reader of the book, knew that the cancellation of John Constantine: Hellblazer was coming. It was only a matter of time.
With DC Comics’ New 52 publishing initiative, and the company taking a stronger hand in decisions made by Vertigo Comics, changes were bound to occur. Vertigo, for a number of reasons, publishes great, acclaimed books of sequential storytelling with sales that aren’t generally as healthy as those from comics published by DC. Some of the Vertigo characters have already been reabsorbed into DC Universe continuity. Although John Constantine was originally born in that continuity, he’d pretty much lived within his own, superhero-less world, for the entire duration of his monthly series.
Now, with the cancellation of his book at issue #300 in February next year, we’re told that Constantine himself will be brought back under the wing of the in-continuity DC Universe, starring in a new monthly series called, appropriately enough, Constantine. It’s an attempt to capitalize on the possibilities of film and television, to be sure.
A version of the character is already appearing in the monthly Justice League Dark series, not to mention appearances in Sword of Sorcery, Swamp Thing, Animal Man and, from a few years ago, Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing. I shudder at the thought of that last one. You see, the character appearing in these other titles is not the same character from Hellblazer. He’s visually younger, for starters. But, more importantly, the voice, the personality, is not the same. Not at all. Sure, it’s fun watching him magick his way out of the traps of the evil wizard Felix Faust, but my Constantine, the real Constantine, wouldn’t be involved with extra dimensional shenanigans. He’d be busy in fog-lit streets with screams in the dark and the evil that resides in all men. He’d be down the pub having a pint, occasionally trying to prevent the denizens of hell from seeping into our world.
If you’ve read any John Constantine: Hellblazer, you know what I mean: English horror. Gothic. Dark. Wet. “Riveting, spine-chilling stuff,” as Alan Moore’s introduction called it in that very first monthly issue in 1988.
If you haven’t read any of the real Constantine, you should. Abandon hope, then, all ye who enter, for this here is your absolutely essential and glorious John Constantine Hellblazer Recommended Reading Guide:
Written by Jamie Delano with scratchy, foreboding art by John Ridgeway, the trade paperback collection called Original Sins compiles the first nine issues of the monthly series. Here, Constantine travels to New York, enlisting the help of voodoo priest Papa Midnight to battle a hunger demon named Mnemoth. Some of this story would find it’s way into the Constantine film starring Keanu Reeves.
The Devil You Know
This compilation is written by Delano and featuring artwork by Richard Piers Raynor. Not only does it continue plot threads from the previous collection, but it also contains the legendary Newcastle story from Constantine’s past – his first encounter with the demon known as Nergal. Recent publications also include the two part mini series simply called The Horrorist – brilliantly illustrated by David Lloyd (V for Vendetta). These are stories to read late at night. As a bonus, The Devil You Know includes the music video of “Venus of the Hardsell” by late 1970’s punk band Mucous Membrane – a band our John Constantine was lead signer of. The video is serialized by Canadian writer/artist Dean Motter.
There are many that feel this particular compilation to be Hellblazer’s finest. Written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Will Simpson, the story details Constantine’s attempt to save himself from terminal cancer. This plot was used as the basis for the Constantine film. Here, John is a harder personality, but Dangerous Habits also introduces us to the one true love of his life, Kit Ryan, who although loving him back, deserves none of the insanity that follows the protagonist. It’s doom, right from the start.
Rake at the Gates of Hell
Once again written by Ennis with art by Steve Dillon, this compilation ties up all of the loose ends started in Dangerous Habits, including a final confrontation with the prince of darkness himself!
Jamie Delano returns to the character he helped create, this time with artist extraordinaire, Jock. Released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Constantine character, Pandemonium sees the magical rogue on the front lines of the Iraqi war. It’s demons and politics here – and what better setting is there than amongst bullets, motor shells, tanks, intelligence agencies and a harsh climate?
Writer Andy Diggle was able to breath a sense of freshness back into a tired and worn out Constantine, returning him to his conniving, manipulator roots, battling barristers and tribal warlords. Along with illustrator Leonardo Manco, who truly brought a sense of darkness to the art, Diggle writes a Constantine who has lost his mojo but actively attempts to retrieve it. The blazer is back – as is the Hellblazer from those early issues.