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Back to Hell on 12/17: Jog shouldn’t have sworn an oath with his final breath

Joe McCulloch

Hellblazer #250

(art and color by Rafael Grampá & Marcus Penna; there’s also captions in the actual comic)

John Constantine, how long has it been? Just over 20 years since this thing started up? Almost 25 since The Saga of the Swamp Thing? That’s a lot of Silk Cuts, a lot of magic. A lot of politics – there was once a whole goddamned issue (#3) on the Conservative election victory of 1987. But there’s some enduring character to this Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette & John Totleben creation too; I often wind up thinking of Eddie Campbell’s parody version in Bacchus, who had the poor barmaid climb all the way to the top shelf, only to make her climb back down bottom to fetch the same label. “It’s ‘cos I’m a vicious bastard, ennit.” Soon thereafter he burned his own head off lighting a smoke, fortuitously before his lawyer could arrive.

Campbell wrote a handful of proper Hellblazer comics too (#85-88), and he’s now returned for this 48-page, $3.99 anniversary special. So has the artist from his run, Sean Phillips (now of Criminal and others). So has the fellow who wrote the 1987 election episode, Jamie Delano. It’s not often you see an old-and-new-faces ‘landmark’ issue for a series like this; it’s really a superhero thing. Often a tedious, self-congratulatory superhero thing at that. But just as Hellblazer started out as something among the superheroes, yet different, its #250 uses its commemorative status as a means of exploring different aspects of John Constantine, whose many adventures have indeed seen various sides of him emphasized.

The results aren’t all good, but it makes for a decently-paced package. I’d have liked to see a far stronger opening story, though; aside from writer Dave Gibbons’ amusing decision to cast the piece as a sequel to his last Constantine tale, an illustrated prose story from nine years ago (in Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #3), there’s almost nothing that seems particularly attuned to the strength of Hellblazer. It’s just John Constantine chasing after a bad guy who’s stolen a magical sharp thing to slaughter a baby and become immortal.

And sure, Constantine interrupts some rich people having a party, and he saves the day by kicking someone in the balls and a pretty girl shows up and a cork pops off a champagne bottle in a suggestive manner in the final panel, but that’s all fairly generic low-down supernatural action hero stuff; it does work for Hellblazer — it’s not inappropriate — but it doesn’t offer anything striking for the curious reader, save for the visuals of the aforementioned Sean Phillips (with frequent colorist Val Staples). Those are as crisply-laid and glowingly dingy as ever, although I wonder that large, distracting white space on his first page was supposed to hold the credits at some point.

A better two-fisted Constantine story is later in the issue, from veteran writer Brian Azzarello and Rafael Grampá (he of Mesmo Delivery), one of the better two-fisted action artists to get attention lately. That’s one of Grampá’s panels up top (printed noticeably darker on the page, mind you), and I think it nicely summarizes his utterly gleeful approach to the project, loading his pages with nimbly caricatured faces and funny details, even as handles the moment-by-moment of Azzarello’s barfight-with-a-demon scenario with fine precision. Even the coloring (from Mesmo cohort Marcus Penna) comes off as a very broad take on the stereotypical Vertigo palette, all rusty and muddy browns and blood soaking into white and grey.

It mixes nicely with Azzarello’s script, actually a poem presented via captions, chronicling Constantine’s trip to Chicago to lift the Curse of the Billy Goat from the Cubs. Of course, Our Man can easily summon a demon, but it’s up to the people to eventually take responsibility for their own shortcomings, so “our battered dreams and hope” might bloom better in the spring. Feel free to look for metaphors where applicable!

(art & color by David Lloyd)

Other stories are quieter. Jamie Delano & David Lloyd (of The Horrorist) offer Constantine the Observer, divining the sad histories of combatants in a holiday poker match. An element of human exploitation is present, as it often is with Delano, but he remains as sure in the compassion of regret as Lloyd is with his effortlessly lovely art, the present lit as if from a maze of roaring, off-panel fireplaces, and the sad past getting more icy and blue as things slide closer to hell.

Meanwhile, debuting series writer Peter Milligan has Constantine encounter ghosts and politics in a low-key investigation that ties a personal haunting to Our Man’s own troubled past, if not in a melodramatic way or anything. It seems abrupt at only six pages, wherein the stewing emotions of the piece’s focus don’t have a lot of time to cook. Campbell provides the visuals here, and while he draws a wonderfully aged and worn and tired Constantine, his work doesn’t gel much with Dominic Regan’s shiny digital colors, which add a distracting sort of body to Campbell’s characters, trampling whole sequences with gloss. Oddly, two of Campbell’s panels are presented beneath the book’s table of contents in a black, white and blue style, which I thought was more effective.

But then, Jamie Grant (of All Star Superman) is also a very shiny colorist, and his work mixes better with Giuseppe Camuncoli (breakdowns) & Stefano Landini (finishes) in the book’s fifth and final story, maybe because the duo have a rounder, sleek style going – their Constantine carries a whiff of manga along with the tobacco. Prose novelist China Miéville seemed like a good fit to write the material when announced, and he proves to be as adept as expected with a vivid, funny social justice adventure, playing up the series’ tendency to mix social ills with droll supernatural society. Hell, he even pulls out the demonic yuppie, hell-as-corporation idea born in the ’87 election issue – this really is a journey through the years!

It’s the last thing in the book, and probably the most broadly entertaining. A company spits poison dust into the streets, where children play. Their work is literally evil — as in, they’re trying to manufacture it — and Constantine is retained by demons pissed that perdition’s exclusivity is in danger. Phantoms rise and angels act in less than beatific ways. John Constantine, ahead of them all, urges tomorrow’s adults to wage supernatural war on the sins of salt mines and cocaine plants. Not a bad way to leave him after a GOOD enough party; he might be making crazy wishes, but reaching issue #250 seems a little crazy on its own, yet here we are.

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