John Constantine, Hellblazer vol 1: Marks of Woe
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artists: Marcio Takara, Aaron Campbell, Matias Bergara
Colorists: Cris Peter, Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Aditya Bidikar
Si Spurrier’s year-plus run on Constantine is coming to a shocking end. But what’s maybe most shocking of all is just how good that run has been.
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For now, let’s skip the part where I tell you what a fan I am of the character and how important our John is to me. I’ve already done that. Kinda thoroughly, even. We’ll recap that a little at the end, when we see where Spurrier is seated at the magician’s table. For now, let’s dig into the trade starting with the one-shot.
The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1 | “The Best Version of You” (one-shot)
We begin with the classic problem faced by all reboots: how to introduce the characters, the conflicts, and the world to fans both new and old. That’s seldomly an easy task, but it gets worse for the team the longer the character’s been around.
To make this issue, much less any resulting series succeed, the entire creative team had to do three crucial tasks:
- Decisively and pointedly kill the poorly-received New 52 version of the John Constantine character.
- Invoke the long-gone Delano & Ridgway version from the original 40 issues of the legendary Vertigo run.
- And from these two corpses, Spurrier and team had to fashion a brand new John Constantine.
We open to a battle already in progress, where reality is being destroyed by an ultra-powerful magical being. The scenario feels big and colorful, like something from at least a Justice League book if not an event. But the story never truly explodes as one might expect. It keeps collapsing back to Constantine, who’s sort of mucking about with a solution to the cataclysm, half-assing salvation as only he can. I greatly appreciate how the team never loses sight of what scale they’re actually on.
Spurrier makes for a fast and effective reversal on the character which he cheekily explains in a surreal explosion of meta-narrative. But the effect is that he acknowledges the recent problems, dashes them by bringing back the old character, and transitions the whole world focus from “conjuring” back to “conman” along the way. That’s a huge transition, and Spurrier makes some huge choices to get things back to this starting point.
Takara and Peter are a phenomenal pairing on this book. Their artwork is more Murphy’s City of Demons than Simon’s Dangerous Habits, but I honestly think it’s a welcome departure from the gritty work that came before. Takara and Peter just provide a better match for the tone and story, capturing the awesome surrealism of an all-out magic war without losing Constantine inside of it. (That said, this issue does have an homage to Aja’s Hawkeye. It works great as a fun gag and is completely workable, but its cartoony nature is a really weird fit for not only Hellblazer in general, but the next three issues in particular.)
John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-3 | “A Green And Pleasant Land” (3-parter)
The story finds Constantine back in the real world, which is as far from Armageddon as it ever really gets for him. At this point, the youthful and overpowered version last seen in Justice League Dark is well and truly gone, with the older man from Milligan’s Vertigo finale classic returned.
And he’s done so just in time to help a drug kingpin and vivisectionist by the name of K-Mag get to the bottom of a mystery: why are angels murdering people close to street deals?
Spurrier takes a tilt towards the serious, but not too serious. This story feels like a throwback to the early 2000s era, with its focus on blood magic, crime, and scene culture. And, even more true to form, there’s enough black humor to keep things from becoming oppressive, along with the introduction of a few new characters. Most notably:
- Noah, a mute young man who sees no way out of K-Mag’s gang
- Nat, a Glaswegian bouncer with a decided post-punk look and, let’s say, a “traditionally Scottish way” about her.
These kinds of stories exist to show what Constantine is truly up against, and where his morals actually lie, making this a brilliant way to start. Plus it allowed Spurrier a chance to continue flexing his knack for the dialects of Great Britain.
Granted, Nat’s leathery Glaswegian accent can slow the proceedings a bit. And occasionally, reading K-Mag’s heavy creole can remind one of some of Chris Claremont’s worst habits. (See also: how Rogue and Gambit’s starcrossed love meant their speech bubbles appeared alone together frequently, and how their talking made me despise both characters. Pretty soon, I’d just skip past any page they were on.) But in terms of choices, these are hardly so bad.
Campbell and Bellaire’s artwork in this issue feels like peak Hellblazer, with hints of some of the best artists to ever work on the series… and a few who should have. There’s Dave McKean in some of the photo-reference faces (and when they’re not McKean, they’re Bradstreet.) Manco shows up in the viscera and dark shadow (as is right and proper.) There’s some Bill Sienkiewicz in the blurred motion and halo lighting along the roadways.
Actually, their use of light is remarkable in general.
This is one of the best looking Hellblazer mini-series in recent memory, and it does a fantastic job of bringing the disturbing world to life.
John Constantine, Hellblazer #4-5 | “Scrubbing Up” (2-parter)
Here, we snap back towards funny, with a mostly comedic premise. Mostly.
John must help the impossibly millennial magician Tommy Willowtree as he tries to come to a non-confrontational compromise with the forces of darkness using yoga, wheatgrass, and now John’s bitterness.
Spurrier does a fantastic job finding a balance on this issue, keeping it mostly lighthearted while hinting at something worse. Something inhuman that is coming towards the Laughing Magician and is already chewing through his friends. Additionally, Spurrier’s ending to this story is especially clever and charming. As with the one-shot, it’s a bit cartoony, but with the undercurrents and implications, I think it works. Especially as a way of kicking conflict into gear without being hyperbolic about it.
Though speaking of that word I said, maybe the Union Jack being magically “burned” onto a child’s face was a bit much…
That said, the birds. Oh my sweet, unleavened Christ, the birds and John’s answer to them. I don’t think I’ve cackled that hard at a Hellblazer comic since Denise Mina’s top-shelf misanthropy.
Bergara and Bellaire’s work is a great surprise on this one. The two really drive home the modern-day fairytale aspects of the story, feeling in line with genre-similar artists like Juanjo Guarnido‘s work on Blacksad and Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth.
Reviewing Marks of Woe | Taking the Entire Package Into Account
The Good—The Creative Team
Simon Spurrier is a great author. And he does what I think a great author should do: he picks topics he finds personally meaningful, and he cares about the craft and the creative team that goes into bringing these subjects to life. Pick up Coda, buy Godshaper, dust off your copy of The Spire. The evidence is all around you.
And Spurrier’s choices with regards to where the canon needed a shake-up and where fresh blood would do best goes a long, long way to show that. Turning Hellblazer back into a political book wasn’t just accurate to its roots, but it was also the right thing to do. Our John came up as a working man of magic during Thatcher’s England, he fought for the little guy and his weapons were the slurs leveled at every public schooled, blue-collared, most likely immigrant person stuck under Tatcher’s boot.
(Incidentally and by total irony, the Iron Lady left office hours after Delano turned in his final script. A fact that even today feels like two fingers in the air. This feels especially important right now.)
So the shots at Boris Johnson, the out of control nationalism, the hatred, and fear of immigrants. These things are hallmarks of the series. And the bit with DS Dole, the marvelously intimidating (by many definitions of that word) officer and his whimsical torment of Constantine? A brilliant inversion of Ellis’ DCI “Watford,” respun in the wake of global concerns of racism in the police.
So yes, I’m furious this is canceled. We deserved this book, and it deserves Spurrier. I just don’t think DC deserved any of those things.
The Disappointing—DC’s Editorial Dumbassery
No matter how you cut it, John Constantine simply does not fit into the larger DC Universe. Not at all.
It’s not that his corner of the universe is too dark and bleak. That plays fine for Batman. Nor is it too filled with tobacco, profanity, and mature situations to ever translate into the all-ages world of capes. His lying alone would probably drive Superman to suicide, but if DC wanted him there then that’d be that.
Constantine ages in real-time, which presents problems as the rest of DC’s heroes do not. That’s the first problem. You can’t have John going from 45-50 while Bruce Wayne goes from “maybe early 40s” to “what about early 30s again?”
The entire point of the Hellblazer title is to make hard, moral, societal, and cosmological decisions. DC can’t bring itself to say that this version or that version of Heaven exists, or even that Satan is a going concern.
All of this was a problem even before 2013 and Hellblazer #300. Now that DC is attempting to roll all its Universes into one, the problems seem more impossible than ever. And no, putting them in the Sandman Universe doesn’t fix that either; turn back to Sandman #3: Dream a Little Dream of Me and how Shakespeare and Sid Viscious don’t really mix. (It’s still so strange there was a time Sandman needed a Hellblazer cameo for a leg up.)
So when Spurrier announced on his blog that DC had been giving the book hell, I can’t really say I was surprised.
“Wasn’t time. Isn’t time. Covid-19 arrived and set our funny, fragile little industry on fire. The margins shifted. The risk/reward relationship changed. Someone, somewhere, decided that, trade sales be damned, it’s last orders at the bar. No lock-ins. No takeouts. Bones were cast, presumably an algorithm was consulted; that’s that.”
— Simon Spurrier, on the cancelation of Hellblazer
The Impact Felt in this Series
Let’s go back to “A Green And Pleasant Land” (issues #1-3).
The ideas that this book presents are solid. The mirroring between time-displaced John Constantine and the final antagonist is clever. Both characters are on the older side and unsure of their real past. Both have hurt people they love, and been so haunted by it that they turn to magic. And most importantly, they have been through a hell of fire and blood, and now try to better the world for ultimately selfish reasons.
As characterization and plot outline go, that’s fantastic. But something is very wrong with the plotting/pacing. Namely, I’ve virtually positive it was meant to be 5-6 issues and was cut to three at some very late date.
Let’s start with Nat, who’s a case study in this. Here are her establishing character beats.
- Nat literally throws John Constantine out of a bar
- The two are instantly friends. As in, before he even gets off the ground.
- A horribly disfigured man says something about “exorcism” and tries to run John through. (England has a historic fear of knife crime, by the by)
- Nat knocks the mutant out like nothing about that was strange.
- She then asks the creepy villain about “exorcism”
- When next she sees John, Nat confronts him about being a wizard.
- This means three very important things must be true:
a.) Nat now suddenly believes capital-m Magic is real
b.) she does so based on the testimony of a mangled, knife-wielding sex trafficker
c.) she believes John, the guy she just physically threw out of a bar to no reprisal, is such a magician and her belief is so strong she’s willing to risk her job and public standing on this idea
Yes, yes, “it’s a comic book,” I hear you. But tell me, if these characters are all so self-saving, so unimpressed with Constantine, how is the audience supposed to feel?
That had to be two issues worth of build-up that was cut down to less than half of one. This only seems more obvious when you realize that Nat knocks someone out in every single issue. In fact, that’s how she solves one of the story’s big problems. She also solves the other one by inexplicably knowing every relevant piece of esoterica about said problem.
About that plot
In the first issue, the horror takes a pretty important turn. To this point, the book has been happy to make continuity references as a means of establishing what’s still the same and what’s changed since John’s mysterious “return.” So when a full-page appears and makes attention-grabbing use of blowflies, I imagine that many fans would take that as a clear reference to Hellblazer #1 (1988) and Mnemoth, the demon of hunger. Glaringly, however, not only isn’t it a reference, but the big twist of that entire page never comes back up.
In issue two, Nat punches the plot wide open by merely happening to know an extremely specific piece of esoterica that applies to this and only this situation.
The final two issues rely on a number of twists, each seemingly trying to outdo the last. Honestly, I’d intended to count but it’s too tangled.
Those multiple coincidences, deus with ex’s, and leaps to conclusions would be the kind of thing written by a first-time author. I simply cannot imagine Spurrier would make mistake. Even if he could, I can’t believe that would make it through all stages of editorial.
No, these scream “slashed page count.”
Gaiman Gets His, Too
Without spoiling anything, the first arc relies on a big swing to drive its runners home. It’s one of those perfectly English answers, both marvelously cultured and wretchedly “queen and country.” That it’s a literature answer to boot puts it, essentially, the most Neil Gaiman answer to the problem possible. Honestly, short of John being recast as a pale, lanky, drama nerd in a plot about falling in love with a girl who’s half Joan Cusack, half Joan Jett, Spurrier’s solution is peak… ugh… “Scary Trousers.”
This makes it perfect for the book’s new position as a part of the Sandman universe. This is also everything that’s wrong with it.
I can forgive how our hero was lead to the information. I can even forgive the wildly condensed final act he was in. But I can’t forgive that John Constantine, England’s finest bastard, did use that answer on the villain the way the disfigured assailant had wanted to use the knife outside the bar.
I’m tiptoeing around spoilers here, but I can say this. Like all characters, Constantine can adapt to the times and their changing message. Add to that he’s a trickster and a professional liar, toss in the remnants of his synchronicity highway, and there’s not much concrete about the man.
But I can’t think of a single story in which, when faced with a zealot, John did not stick it in or break it off.
Spurrier got it right that Constantine will use a person’s beliefs against them. Turn their faith upside-down, and nail them to it like St. Peter to the cross. But he does not hold back. There is mercy and there is mutilation and no clean ground between.
Again, without spoiling things, there were parts specifically lined up to do exactly that. The book goes out of its way to point them out, but does not say why they were not used. Instead, it opts for one of those endings that sounds like an unauthorized Smiths cover “experience.”
Again, I have to wonder what happened.
Final Thoughts—Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand
I’ll let you in on a secret: This was never going to be “my John Constantine.”
I don’t say this to hedge my bets or qualify my statements, but because it wasn’t mine. Delano, Morrison, Ennis, and Carey gave my generation a hero to love for decades, and when Milligan closed it off, it was the first time I’d realized that my generation can’t hold onto it all.
I enjoyed this book. I think Spurrier and his team did something for which they should be proud. And when this Hellblazer didn’t work for me, it was largely because the book had grown beyond me.
This is what we should hope for the things we love. And that DC has only sought to carve chunks from the story until it fits in the space beneath the Universe in front of you should tell you precisely everything you need to know.
Making a blockbuster version of this book is not the point. Its readers have always been misfits and punks, by any other name. People that feel they live beneath the superheroes. The ones down here on their own. This, this right here was what was missing from the previous version. It wasn’t that DC insisted he become an all-powerful wizard, it’s that they made him go to JLA:D headquarters instead of the nearest public house.
And DC couldn’t see it.
“And on the street tonight
An old man plays with newspaper cuttings of his glory days”
That Spurrier and his team made that their fight, focusing on class, alienation, and how the liminal class finds justice instead of raising Constantine’s power level so he could sit more comfortably next to Aquaman, should stand as witness to their integrity as creators, their care for their audience, and their standing as human beings.
John Constantine—the Laughing Magician, the Constant One—is no stranger to the powers that be kicking him in his teeth. Of lying and cheating his way out of one problem, knowing he’ll have to pay full price on someone else’s behalf for the next. I have no doubt that a character like that will win in the end. We’ll get a good Hellblazer book again if only because you cannot keep a good punk down.
But it will not be Spurrier’s version. And by cutting bait early on him, by not sticking it out and going through Hell for what they believed, I have to wonder how DC ever hopes to understand their own character. Or anyone who would write him.
“Because it’s 2020 and the bastards are in charge and the world’s on fire and goddam it we’ve tried — haven’t we? — giving the heroes a chance to stand up and lead the way and show us how it’s done”
— Simon Spurrier
Ser das Trevas says
But John Constantine even from Vertigo has always been part of the DC universe. He cited other characters like Superman, Etrigan, etc. It just didn’t interact much. The problem is making his stories “light”.
Ser das Trevas says
About John Constantine of the comics aging in “real time” just say that Nergal’s blood in him makes him aging slowly.