Simon Oliver (writer), Moritat (illustrator), Andre Szymanowicz and Moritat (colorists), Sal Cipriano (letterer)
Disclaimer: This review is based on an advance review copy from DC Comics.
The latest character that DC’s Rebirth has brought back from an all-too-brief spell (no pun intended) in publication limbo is John Constantine — or as this comic calls him, The Hellblazer.
Whether or not this was intentional, the name brings to mind the Constantine parody, “The Hero Called The Hellblazer,” from Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol. Unlike the scruffy trenchcoat-clad John Constantine of early Hellblazer comics, Doom Patrol’s Hellblazer spoke in a Dick Van Dyke-esque fake Cockney accent (“Stroike a light!”) and wore a bright red and blue costume with a pitchfork insignia. It was glorious.
Perhaps this isn’t an entirely serendipitous thought; in The Hellblazer #1, Oliver and Moritat’s Constantine sometimes feels like a man doing an impression of John Constantine based on a secondhand description. “He’s Cockney or Liverpudlian or something, and he fights demons, and smokes, and he wears a trenchcoat, and, uh…does magic…and that’s it, right?”
That’s not it by any means. Over the course of 300 issues of the original Hellblazer comic from Vertigo, as well as his appearances in the New 52’s Justice League Dark and his short-lived DC You solo comic Constantine: The Hellblazer, Constantine has literally been to Hell and back more times than he can count. He’s bargained away his soul and won it again on multiple occasions. He betrays friends and loved ones out of self-interest, which is why he’s ultimately always alone. His demon-fighter role isn’t due to a purity of heart, but rather to the fact that he’s the only good guy corrupted enough to face down a prince of Hell. Sure, there’s cheekiness and snappy banter, but it masks the hollowness inside him that he’s come to loathe.
In light of all this, The Hellblazer #1 seems too…fun. The colors are pleasantly vivid; swear words are blocked out with cute little skulls; there’s a cheeky fourth-wall-breaking moment that feels remarkably out of character; he refers to this issue’s demon nemesis, who basically dresses like Captain Hook without the big hat, as “Laughing Boy.”(And why does the visual representation of the demon’s curse look like Arabic script? That’s super questionable.) A few superheroes from the main DC universe show up too, which takes the comic even further from the character’s roots.
I like fun comics as much as the next person — okay, maybe not quite as much as the next person — but Constantine’s world makes the most impact when it’s a nightmarish politically allegorized hellscape. Moritat’s art is okay in and of itself, but I can’t help thinking it would fit better with a 2000AD space-steampunk adventure than with a comic about demons in neo-Thatcherite Britain.
That said, The Hellblazer #1 isn’t a bad jumping-on point for newbies. Although it does reference events from the early Vertigo issues, you won’t be lost if you haven’t read them; I had to go back and check who some of these people were, and it didn’t negatively affect the narrative. There’s also a great crowd scene early on that captures the jam-packed, unapologetically multicultural sense of London’s gathering places. It helps as well that writer Simon Oliver is from the UK, so readers will be spared the pain of fake Cockney or whatever else might be going on with Constantine’s accent from month to month. However, I hope Constantine gets to shine on his own in the next issues. It’s his comic, after all; let him make the most of it.