My column on all things Hellblazer is going to start in the middle. Why? Because beginnings reek of convention, something that strikes me as anathema to John Constantine. So I’m going to skip over scores of brilliant writers and artists, some of whom are my favourite in the field, and go straight for Mike Carey, who took the reins of Hellblazer from Brian Azzarello in 2002. He starts with a dead man.
John is dead, or, rather, people think he’s dead. Having faked his death during a nightmarish phantasmagoria in the American prison system, everyone thinks our snide, sarcastic, chain-smoking protagonist has shuffled off this mortal coil. That is, until, he shows up back home in Liverpool. Unsurprisingly, his family and friend (yes, singular – friend) are less than impressed.
And so begins Mike Carey’s run on Hellblazer, arguably the most important writer on the series since Garth Ennis started with Dangerous Habits. The three volumes that collect issues 175 to 193 (Red Sepulchre, Black Flowers, and Staring at the Wall) comprise probably the most brilliant, epic, intricate, interwoven story that Hellblazer has ever seen. Beautifully plotted and thematically rich, the story is nothing short of brilliant.
I’m purposely being vague about exact details, but the story is best described through a single word: seed. I’ve read the three books several times, it was only when I sat down to write this column that I realized the entire story is based on the idea of planting seeds. Seeds in the earth; seeds in characters; seeds in demons; seeds in people. Sometimes these seeds are quite literally seeds, but sometimes they’re Inception-like ideas that twist the way the characters think and ultimately act.
This isn’t immediately apparent. The first volume, Red Sepulchre, is fine by itself, but it’s only when considered as part of the whole does it truly shine. The seeds planted in the first volume grow and bloom into the second (it’s no coincidence that the second volume and the story that forms its central narrative are called “Black Flowers”) only to run rampant and jungle-like in the third. The story starts with dying grass and ends in blood-soaked apocalypse. John is taken in the world’s biggest cosmic con (you can’t con an honest John), but it’s so subtle due to its slow growth from unripened bud to chaotic overgrowth that it shocks both the reader and, more importantly, Constantine.
Starting with a dead man, a set of prophecies, and a missing niece (Gemma Constantine, by the way, really comes into her own in the story) the story quickly goes global, spanning continents and shared mythologies. Multiple Devils (I never have had the proper grasp on Vertigo and DC’s Devil – there seem to be about eighteen of them!) Witches, demons, nuns, priests, the living dead, the dead-dead, astral and physical projections, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, cigarettes, and alcohol – this is the John Constantine story.