There’s quite a few ways that one could describe John Constantine: Belligerent, magical, a bit of a pain in everyone’s ass. The character, first appearing in the pages of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, has achieved quite the popularity in the past decade. From countless appearances in DC’s Animated Universe films (with one of the latest entries, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, featuring him as one of the leads), to a short-lived Constantine live-action TV show, which led to actor Matt Ryan’s character becoming an ongoing cast member of the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow. All this to say, there’s no better time than the present to cash in on the character’s popularity with a new Hellblazer comic, and DC did….but Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell, Matias Bergara, et. al’s John Constantine: Hellblazer, isn’t what this article is about.
The caveat in discussing and reviewing Hellblazer: Rise and Fall, written by Tom Taylor, illustrated by Darick Robertson and Diego Rodriguez, and lettered by Deron Bennett, is the lingering miasma of the recently-canceled John Constantine: Hellblazer. For those that connected to the latter book, the former might feel like it’s hogging the latter’s oxygen, but that’s an unfair assumption to make. In reviewing Hellblazer: Rise and Fall, it should be seen as a standalone work and judged on its own merit.
So how does Hellblazer: Rise and Fall hold up on its own? Just fine, I suppose. The hardcover collects three chapters, with each chapter roughly 48 pages long. At over twice the length of the average direct market single issue, there’s ample space for Taylor and Robertson to tell their three-arc story. It’s done in a very clean manner too, with a clear throughline across all three issues encompassing the overarching story, while letting each chapter tell their own story.
Robertson’s art, in my opinion, is the book’s strong suit. Robertson brings a needed ruggedness to the story’s characters and settings. His rendition of Hell, while brief, still has a menacing feel to it. Robertson’s art is also rendered very well by colorist Diego Rodriguez. Rodriguez brings a depth and warmth, but also ruggedness to Robertson’s lines. All in all, Hellblazer: Rise and Fall looks good.
But the story is unfortunately the weakest part of this book. This isn’t even to say that the story is bad, because it’s really not, but the book leaves much to be desired, both for those that are familiar with the character from the comics, and for those who seek even a bit of depth out of a Hellblazer comic.
John Constantine has always had deep roots in British counter-culture. Be it Ennis, Delano, Carey, or even Spurrier, there’s always a personal touch to the way that Constantine is written. Tom Taylor is at what one might consider his career prime right now, having brought DC monumental successes with DCeased, Injustice, and Nightwing, and he’s set to start a run on DC’s flagship Superman title soon. It’s understandable why DC would choose Taylor to helm a prestige Black Label Hellblazer miniseries, given the sheer level of popularity and success Taylor carries with him. But Taylor isn’t British (he’s Australian, for those wondering), and the lack of that personal touch really shows in the way that he writes Constantine. Constantine sounds British enough that it never comes across as a flanderization of the character’s nationality, but the way he speaks and interacts with others feels heavily sanitized.
As a premature recommendation in this review, this book works best for those who aren’t familiar with the character. There’s no previous lore or continuity that this book references, and the content is extremely approachable in many aspects. This book was manufactured to be a prime recommendation for those looking to get into reading about John Constantine’s adventures, and it succeeds on that front. However, in reading the story, it certainly does feel as though something is lacking, and that might be what coloured my reading experience in particular.
The story feels as though it’s been engineered to get as much enjoyment out of the reader as possible. The comedic beats are very strategically placed, the emotional hits are timed near-perfectly, and there are share-worthy panels a-plenty throughout the book. But this goes back to what I said before about the personal touch behind Hellblazer books of yore. There isn’t much at all throughout the entirety of this story that feels personal to Taylor himself (unless you count his signature viral-tweet-bearing humor). There’s so much thought put into making the book as refined an entry point as possible, but it comes at the cost of feeling inorganic.
The story also tends to play fast-and-loose with its messaging. It clearly wants to make a salient commentary about billionaires and why they’re a scourge to humanity, but never fully commits to showing why that is. At most, we get them dying gruesome deaths, or the occasional remark from Constantine himself about how he hates billionaires, but it all feels rather toothless. The story gives us an easy resolution with the mountainload of money from recently-deceased billionaires being redistributed to everyone in the British Isles (and only the British Isles) without actually addressing the system that allowed those billionaires to acquire their money, status and power. The messaging seems prime for an eighties’ saturday morning cartoon, but feels dated in the current cultural and socioeconomic climate.
The way the book treats Constantine’s bisexuality also feels rather regressive and monotone. It’s frequently the butt of jokes, from poking fun at Constantine sleeping with the husbands and boyfriends of his friends, to him sleeping with the Devil. They all come across like cheap shots that one might find in an early 2000s comedy film, yet with even less substance. Not to mention, treating the act of sleeping with the Devil as though it’s some scandalous act doesn’t hit as hard when the music video for Lil Nas X’s MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) has been out for over a month now.
But unlike Taylor’s other books, known for their hard emotional hits, Hellblazer: Rise and Fall seems to lack a coherent sense of emotionality to it. For instance, there’s a scene where Constantine consoles the spirit of someone who was recently killed, which feels like it could be a great moment for Taylor to work his usual emotional magic, but instead comes across rather flat and distanced. The core conflict of the story is built around a mistake Constantine made as a child, but the gravitas of that mistake is only felt in the physical cost of having a demon run amok in the UK (as can be seen if you tune into BBC nowadays), rather than the emotional toll that it incurs upon Constantine.
As I said before though, all this doesn’t result in a product that is bad; Hellblazer: Rise and Fall is a book that I would classify as just fine, one that I would recommend to anyone who’s looking for a quick John Constantine read that doesn’t require any prerequisite knowledge. But that’s just the thing: it feels manufactured for success. The quirky quips, the fast-paced action, the epic highs and lows of dealing with demons and their ilk; these are all components that make for a great Hellblazer story, but rather than feeling like they’ve been weaved together into a narrative tapestry, they feel assembled together, like ticking boxes off a checklist. This assembly-line feel is hard to shake off, and plays into that impersonal feel that permeates this story.
The other question that arises from this is how Hellblazer: Rise and Fall fits alongside its contemporaries in DC’s Prestige (with a capital P, because DC doesn’t want you to forget how premium and top-shelf it is) Black Label imprint? Truthfully, the messy nature of DC’s Black Label imprint makes it hard to say whether Hellblazer: Rise and Fall is a good fit for its roster. This speaks more to a lack of communication and firm acknowledgement of what the Black Label imprint is, and as a result, even a book that doesn’t feel as creatively daring as something like Harleen can quietly slide into the imprint’s deepening roster.
Every creator involved in this book has mastered their respective craft, and it shows; but the looming artificiality of this book holds it back. If you’re an avid Hellblazer reader, or like your stories more pensive and cerebral, then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you just want a quick foray into the world of John Constantine without too much investment, then this is just the book for you.