‘Listen: Madness is the only constant. That’s what I’ve learned about magic’ – John Constantine
Constantine is back to his comic book roots.
For 300 issues John Constantine served as one of DC’s most popular characters in the acclaimed comic book series, Hellblazer. After the series’ conclusion in 2013 Constantine was brought into the DC mainstream continuity, which seen a much more pasteurized version of the character. Now, for the first time in a while, the old version of Constantine is back, as Hellblazer officially joined The Sandman Universe.
Last year seen DC Comics set up The Sandman Universe, which is overseen by Sandman author, Neil Gaiman. The series is set up under the DC Black Label and is set to be a line of four comics that will further explore the Sandman Universe. As of October the series has featured the return of John Constantine which was kicked of with a one-shot special titled, The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer, from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Marcio Takara. For long time fans this has seen the return of John Constantine as they remember him; He’s a nasty piece of work who is good at magic, and he is still screwing over his friends.
Let me state right up front by saying that I am fairly new to the Hellblazer universe, after only being gifted with the whole series by a good friend early last year. Don’t get me wrong, I of course knew who the character of John Constantine was and I knew Hellblazer was a big deal. However, after reading all of the series I sort of fell in love. I mention this because, after doing a lot more reading and researching, I got to understand the history of this character a lot more, and this shifty magician has had quite a shifty history himself.
Originally appearing as a recurring character in Alan Moore’s ‘Saga of the Swamp Thing’, Constantine was first seen as an ominous magician for hire whose background was fairly mysterious. It wasn’t until January 1988 that he would go on to get his own solo spin-off and readers would become more acquainted with who Constantine was and his troubled backstory. When Hellblazer first arrived on stands it was one of the first modern occult detective stories that has now influenced the genre, and it became known for it’s political and social commentary. Despite being one of Vertigo’s longest running series, Hellblazer officially closed with it’s 300th issue, and was then integrated into mainstream DC with the new 52 reboot, which unfortunately dialed back on a lot of what made Constantine….well, Constantine. He isn’t particularly nice. He is a smart-mouthed, self-destructive, working class warlock, and anyone who gets close to him winds up dead.
This new series by Spurrier aims to bring this old version of Constantine back, and for the most part, he manages to succeed. We meet this version of John in an expanded scene from Neil Gaiman’s ‘Books of Magic’ mini series. After getting tangled up in a magical war that is portrayed stunningly on page, John is murdered by the evil, once boy-wizard, Timothy Hunter. As the battle winds down John is approached by a curious spectator who offers him a deal that even he can’t refuse; A return to health for the teeny tiny price of his soul. What could possibly go wrong? The revelation of the identity of this spectator is truly something, as it is revealed that it is an older and wiser version of Constantine himself. Which makes his offer wholly astonishing.
Awakening in London in 2019, John will come to realize what making this deal has cost him, as he marvels at the state of his once beloved city. Spurrier really shows of his enthusiasm for the character, as the reader is taking on a trip of some of John’s greatest hits. There is Ravenscar Hospital and his old friend Chas, who met his untimely end in the alternate reality due to Constantine’s scheming. Like I said, the old Constantine seems to be back, and he starts this new series of doing what he does best, screwing over his old friends while he slinks of back into the shadows.
This long one-shot works solidly as a character piece, as John has to ask himself what he of all people has done to deserve a second chance. Spurrier highlights his inner and outer demons to show what a mangled mess he has become. As John himself states, ‘I am, in short, a bit fucking mental’. He is guilt – ridden, alone, and he needs to try and be the best version of himself and potentially seek out retirement. In the end, our anti-hero decides to smash in a shop window, grab a trench-coat, and get right back down to business because retirement isn’t ‘his scene’. Going back on a deal has never turned out well before, but going back on deal you made with yourself is certainly asking for something, as John may very well have made an adversary that he might find quite difficult to take down in the future.
The only downside to this one-shot is that, despite being fairly short, the plot can seem a little bloated at times. While fans of both Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman will notice the little nods to their respective wider universes, new readers might find this all to be quite confusing. As I mentioned before, I read the whole series fairly recently, so a lot of it was quite fresh in my memory.
While Spurrier’s writing is amazing, the story is also accompanied by some jaw-droppingly beautiful artwork by Takara. In the opening pages you are treated to the most beautiful looking apocalypse ever as the skies burn in neon bright, with Lovecraftian monsters creeping around the edges of the pages. This coupled with Peter Cris’ colours bring to life the gritty madness that follows Constantine everywhere he goes. In short, every darn page of this comic is horrific and beautiful at the same time. It’s like walking into a beautiful nightmare.
As someone who is admittedly new to the Hellblazer franchise, I feel this oversized one-shot has served as a decent re-introduction to the John Constantine that long-term fans had once come to know and love. Spurrier’s version of the character feels like a sort of homecoming, with references to some of Hellblazer’s greatest moments, and feels like a solid start for a new journey featuring everyone’s favourite con-man.