Until this week, John Constantine: Hellblazer was the longest running comic currently published by DC Entertainment. When Action Comics and Detective Comics rebooted, Hellblazer stood alone. Fans had a feeling (some dreaded) that Constantine would soon join Swamp Thing and Animal Man in the DC Universe proper instead of continuing to be the foundation on which Vertigo was built. For decades Hellblazer had been the proving grounds for great comic minds. Alan Moore in the pages of Swamp Thing, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Brian Azzarello, Warren Ellis, Peter Milligan, Andy Diggle, and many more guided the trials of John Constantine while Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and Y: The Last Man came and went. Unfortunately, in recent years, sales, which were never that solid on the monthlies, diminished.
Hellblazer fans were passionate, they were just dwindling. When it was announced that DC was moving its resident con-man/magician to the DC Universe and canceling the long running Vertigo staple, fan reaction ranged from wary to indignation. Jeff Lemire, the brilliantly original voice of Sweet Tooth, was announced as co-writer and continued the long standing tradition of a new and hot Vertigo writer taking over Constantine’s tale. Two, the transition into the DCU for Constantine took place in the pages of Justice League Dark, a critically acclaimed book that showed that DC creators had respect for Constantine’s horror roots and didn’t wish to water down the character’s edge.
The DCU Constantine is, in fact, not in any way a watered down version. In fact, the new title isn’t in any way inferior to any proceeding tales; it’s just very, very different. It IS Constantine in a superhero universe. There are no allusions to Lovecraft or any treatises about post-Thatcher England. There are no flashbacks to the punk scene in 1960s England, or any literary references to Faust or historical allegories to John Dee. The subtlety and historical depth of the original Hellblazer is gone, replaced by one heck of an original story about a magical con man existing in a super-hero universe.
The Vertigo book specialized in noir-ish portrayals of horrors both subtle and overbearing. It featured a man at the crossroads of morality, a wizard forced to consume and use everyone close to him in order to protect the world from unspeakable darkness. It was more literary than adventurous and, in being so, Hellblazer invited experimentation from its writers. The new Constantine book seems to be defined by convention. There are certain rules that any character used as a thread in the grand tapestry of a superhero universe must abide by, and traditionally, John Constantine, as a man and as a character, does not confine well to rules. This book is a hard sell and an even harder execution, but Fawkes and Lemire pull it off admirably.
There are aspects of Constantine’s world that will be greatly missed, but Fawkes and Lemire shouldn’t be judged by those. They get to try and do something none of the other great Hellblazer writers got to try, they have to seamlessly connect Constantine to a larger narrative world. In doing so, they have to subtly shift some of his more beguiling character traits and story motifs. The DCU probably wouldn’t be the right local for a story on, let’s say, tantric sex cults, where that sort of thing would have been right at home in the pages of his Vertigo series. Fawkes and Lemire have places they just can’t go, but what they can do, and began to do in this issue is make John Constantine the modern DC Universe’s primary explorer of the supernatural and unknown. Like Justice League Dark, Constantine can be a doorway into which classic DC magical characters can return.
The mission statement of this book seems to be that magic is an unknown quantity, one that is a mystery and a closed door to people like Superman and Green Lantern. As such, the world needs an individual that understands the dangers and unrealities of the magical realm. Most importantly, Constantine is recognizably Constantine. He is brash, confident, world weary, and seemingly untouchable. He is not heroic, but he knows he is the guardian between this realm and the realm of chaos, and the responsibility weighs on him. He is not a selfless person, and Fawkes and Lemire characterize him as a man who will accept this duty, but he will smoke, drink, curse, and womanize his way through his mission.
Throughout his history, those who are closest to Constantine bear the brunt of his existence. This issue continues that dark tradition, as Constantine is forced to sacrifice an individual that trusts him in order to defeat Sargon, the Sorcerer. This is not the tuxedo wearing turban headed Sargon from the Golden Age, this is a fishnet clad gothic femme fatale nightmare of sex and anger, as this title seems to be forgoing subtlety for diesel fueled magical conflicts. The idea of sacrifice and the loss of friends is the one thread that has followed Constantine from Vertigo, and has cast an ominous shadow for Constantine in the first issue.
Constantine #1 kicks off with a maguffin hunt, something that is a little predictable and beneath the usual complexities of John Constantine. Instead of personal attacks and insular horrors that have become so familiar to readers of Hellblazer, Sargon hurls cars at the title character. I’m pretty sure no cars were tossed in the almost three hundred issue run of Hellblazer, but as Fawkes and Lemire establish, this is a whole new world of action horror, one that could be a great ride if readers let it.
It’s worth noting that Marvel has run concurrent mature and PG Punisher series for the better part of a decade now. I can’t help but wonder why DC cannot explore both the “in-continuity” John Constantine and the classically horrific Hellblazer over at Vertigo, but that’s not a decision Lemire and Fawkes should be judged for. The new era of John Constantine starts out on a solid foundation thanks to some smart creators
“The Spark and the Flame Part 1: The Price We Pay”
Writers: Ray Fawkes & Jeff Lemire
Artist & Variant Cover: Renato Guedes