It seems as though DC Comics has been chasing the spectre of Hellblazer even before they announced the original series would be ending in 2013. John Constantine has been reworked with some regularity across the past decade and some, pushed into hardcover crime imprints, reimagined for screens big and small, and shoved into the unworkable mold of a superhero more times than I care to count. Throughout all of these variations there has been an effort to capture the charm which made the original supporting character in Saga of the Swamp Thing big enough to demand his own series, one capable of pulling best efforts from some of the industry’s best creators from the late 1980s until the early 2000s. It is far too early to say that John Constantine: Hellblazer represents that long sought return to form, but it captures a sufficient feeling that it could be in the tone of its debut issue (ignoring the oddly-named one shot from October). That’s nothing to scoff at considering how many prior efforts have fallen entirely flat.
Perhaps the most notable factor in this issue’s success is that it doesn’t openly imitate what came before. It’s possible to say this feels like Hellblazer, but not Delano’s, or Ennis’, or Ellis’, or Azzarello’s Hellblazer. This reads like a story that might have fallen in the middle years some time after Constantine was imprisoned in America (and not just because this issue makes reference to that). It embraces a style of art that appreciates loose lines, keeps its focus small even when big things are involved, and prefers to define its characters through mundane actions over magical flair. Even with antagonists that read like things and people out of a Stephen King novel, Hellblazer #1 manages to keep at least one foot in a world that feels a bit more like our own, often terrifying, version of Earth than more fare published by DC Comics.
The villains of this piece are where the comic stumbles, relying too heavily on superhero tropes and spectacle at the cost of what works. What emerges from the realm of the supernatural reads like a supervillain and, revealed entirely near the start of the issue, contrast against the shadowy style set up throughout the rest of the issue. Both sequences in which they appear read as much like something from Supernatural as any narrative that might be capable of inducing fear. Here the issue leans too heavily on shouting out why readers should be concerned, rather than allowing an iota of discrimination or ambiguity to build fears not dismissed as an artist’s rendering of the impossible. Similar problems plague Constantine’s newly found gangland foes as well, a cartoonishly evil squadron.
Even with such lackluster early confrontations, the charms present in Hellblazer #1 are undeniable. The London evoked by Aaron Campbell feels appropriately updated for 2019, still cast in darkest corners but in an undeniably different city where the bright lights seem to leak everywhere. Constantine himself feels at home in this modernized take on the metropolis, albeit undeniably older amongst his usual crowd. A long back-and-forth with a bouncer casts his worldview against one that is a bit more evolved, showing how flexible the hero can be and how his charisma often gets the best of those around them by tugging at their worst instincts. It’s a great deal of fun to read, especially as a longtime reader of the original Hellblazer series. Constantine maintains that recognizable blend of walking the razor’s edge and dispatching pitch black humor wherever he wanders in this issue, providing a glean of enjoyment to even the most lackluster moments.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 is the closest a new series featuring the character has come to recapturing what made the original series work in quite some time. That function comes from both recognizing the tone and character that made the original click, and a willingness to update the setting and circumstances for a very different decade. In spite of antagonists that speak to nothing but a fascination with body horror, the issue still feels capable of dialoguing with the present moment in much the same way that its best iterations from the past have. There may be some life left in Constantine yet, and this debut suggests it’s likely the best bet any fans could make.
Published by DC Comics
On November 27, 2019
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Aaron Campbell
Colors by Jordie Bellaire0comments
Letters by Aditya Bidikar
Cover by John Paul Leon