In John Constantine: Hellblazer, Missteps Set the Series Up for Something Greater

John Constantine: Hellblazer #2 opens with Noah, the mute boy from the previous issue, proclaiming his dislike for the titular magician. He’s right, but nobody is listening. The room of Ri-Boys and Constantine don’t understand sign language, and despite the absolute truth of what he’s saying and the necessity of these characters hearing it, it’s not addressed other than Constantine’s flippant dismissal.

John Constantine: Hellblazer #2

Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Aaron Campbell (Artist), Simon Spurrier (Writer)
DC Comics
December 18, 2020

The cover of John Constantine: Hellblazer #2, showing a demonic figure rising out of John Contantines head.

There’s a particular kind of a delight to be found in watching characters do exactly the right thing, and another to be found in stories where characters only do the wrong thing. Hellblazer is often a mix of both, but right now it’s the latter. We know that Constantine’s single mission is to be his best self, and he is failing miserably. He can’t understand Noah, but he could certainly try—the boy’s message, that Constantine is a coward who stands back and watches disaster happen rather than helping, is fundamental to the necessary character growth.

This opening scene where Noah’s words are ignored is followed by a scene in which we see, in no uncertain terms, that gang leader K-Mag uses his Ri-Boys up and says it’s for their own good. There’s a mirror held up here to Constantine’s own actions throughout the series’ history and in this current run—every relationship each character has is grist for the mill of some other purpose, ostensibly for the greater “good.” Haruspicy and well-intended self-hatred are two very different practices, but the outcome of K-Mag and Constantine’s actions is often the same: dead bodies.

Aaron Campbell, Jordie Bellaire, Aditya Bidikar, DC Comics, 2019, John Constantine: Hellblazer #1

But this is a lesson Constantine isn’t yet ready to learn. We leave Noah and the Ri-Boys for some plot development and then a scene change to the bar where Nat—the bouncer from the previous issue—works. She has some of my favorite dialog in the series thus far; her words are tightly written, wonderfully ribald, and an absolute delight to read. I’ve never been a particular fan of dialect-heavy dialog, but Spurrier pulls it off. There’s a music to the dropped sounds and unfamiliar slang that really works for me, even if it means reading lines multiple times because these are not accents I hear on an everyday basis.

Aditya Bidikar’s skillful lettering is of great help, here. Spurrier’s dialog is packed with asides, vocalized pauses, and phrases spoken at different volumes. Bidikar’s lettering makes these quirks easier to follow, leading the reader with smaller text, drawn-out consonants and vowels, italics, and other visual cues when necessary. Reading this script as pure prose would likely be far more difficult than reading it as Bidikar renders it, the punctuation and styling guiding even readers as unaccustomed as I am to the slang and dialects of the region through the conversations with clarity.

Aaron Campbell, Jordie Bellaire, Aditya Bidikar, DC Comics, 2019, John Constantine: Hellblazer #1
Bidikar’s lettering guides the reader through dialect- and voice-heavy dialog.

Where this issue begins to stumble a bit for me is in the next scene. Constantine meets a Sikh detective in a bathroom, and greets him with yet another off-color joke, this time making a play on words about the detective’s religion. Later in the issue, a character clearly written as—and called, in no uncertain terms, in the issue—racist, says a racial slur. I understand why the joke and the slur are there. Constantine is at the beginning of his journey and hasn’t yet internalized the lesson that he needs to learn. The racist character is a villain we hate not because he is magical and does bad things with that magic, but because he’s racist.

But, as with so many comics that shoot for gritty realism, this can backfire. The politics of the issue are things I agree with—racism is bad, there aren’t enough social safety nets for vulnerable youth, people exploit the poor in the guise of protection. I’m certain that tossing in a racial slur is not meant to alienate readers who may have had that very slur thrown at them in real life, but there is potential for that to happen.

The problem is that it isn’t really necessary for us to know this character uses slurs. We know by the character’s actions that he’s racist. The slur is a signal so clear that it can’t be missed. It’s notable that it’s said to Constantine, a fellow white man who the racist character no doubt believes to be on his side. That’s an angle I hope to see explored, particularly given Constantine’s proclivity toward offensive jokes and the lip service he pays toward understanding Noah in the first issue versus his dismissal of even trying to understand him in issue #2.

I’m not writing the series off because of these scenes, though I think they’re worth noting. Racism doesn’t consist of just slurs and physical violence toward marginalized people, and that’s something that the series thus far seems to understand. I’d like to see those other angles explored in future issues, particularly since Constantine is far from done growing. Halfheartedly pointing to another white man’s prejudices is barely a challenge; I hope we’ll see him challenge the real-world forces of evil with the same urgency he does the supernatural ones (in a one step forward, two steps backward kind of approach—as much as I love a happy ending and character growth, I like Hellblazer as a series of ongoing growth and eternal challenges without a “he’s cured of being a dick!” endpoint).

Where the issue’s grittiness entirely succeeds is in Aaron Campbell’s wonderfully textured art and Jordie Bellaire’s excellent muted colors. Campbell’s artwork is detailed in a way that doesn’t always appeal to me—I’m generally drawn more toward very clean, light lines—but works extremely well for this series. Something this intentionally dark and infused with the nasty parts of reality, such as racism, bigotry, and poverty, needs the heavy blacks, textural intensity, and almost too detailed faces to keep it feeling grounded. The art is practically grittiness visualized, with the details making everything look a little dingy, a little scuffed-up.

Though Bellaire’s colors are muted and tend toward desaturated tones with the occasional pop of color—Noah’s red hood, swirling visions of angels and tigers—that doesn’t mean they aren’t impactful. Far from it, in fact. The largely gray shades of London echo not only the drizzly weather and overall somber tone, but also fold back into that concept of grittiness. Life sucks in Constantine’s 2019. It’s not a friendly or warm place to be; the single community we see is the one where a haruspex uses marginalized young men to gain power, combing their innards to find more secrets to exploit. In fact, those innards are another of the places we see bright, vibrant color in this world.

Though I have some reservations about how issues like racism are represented, John Constantine: Hellblazer #2 is still a well-crafted and impactful issue. I hope that in future issues we’ll see a little more pushing at the space Constantine occupies in white supremacy (disagrees with out-and-out racism, still okay with telling bigoted jokes), and, given the ground that’s been laid already, I do believe that the series can pull it off. Here’s hoping we’ll see some of that in issue #3.

Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast. She has an affinity for cats, cooking, gardening, and investing copious hours of her life in fictional worlds of all kinds.