After the semi-soft reboot of The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1, John Constantine is back in London, 2019. He’s tasked with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: the key to saving the future is to not be such a garbage bag of a person.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #1
Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Aaron Campbell (Artist), Simon Spurrier (Writer)
November 27. 2019
The issue opens not with Constantine’s cynical narration, but with someone else’s. We see a haruspex who digs through intestines with the severed hand of a dead boy. The haruspex watches two drug dealers—his drug dealers, we’re told—be torn apart by gangly, glowing creatures he calls angels. He instructs a group of young men in the next room to bring him a “serious player.”
At this point, we cut to Constantine being thrown out of a hipster bar for telling an extremely off-color joke. Things are different in 2019, it seems. The bar’s bouncer, Nat (a delightful new character with bawdy jokes who reads Constantine to filth in the first minutes of meeting him), suggests he get with the times before, unfortunately, being left behind as the story really begins. Based on her last line in the issue, she’ll likely return. I eagerly await that moment.
What the John Constantine: Hellblazer team does exceptionally well in these early pages is set up a vision of London that will drive the rest of the series. Hellblazer has always been as much about place as it is about Constantine; the early Delano issues wouldn’t work without setting details, and the same is true of this issue. In theory, this could take place anywhere—swap Peckham Rye Common with another park, tweak the language, et cetera. But you can’t just tweak things, because the problems, magical or real, are inextricable from the social setting.
You see, the problem in this issue of Hellblazer is that the haruspex—K-Mag—wants whatever “angels” reside in Peckham Rye Commons to stop flaying his customers and gang members. Not out of the kindness of his heart (whatever touching story about helping disadvantaged youth he might give to Constantine), but because angels are bad for business.
The story is classic “rock-and-a-hard-place” Hellblazer fare. On the one hand, K-Mag is blatantly exploiting disadvantaged youth—poor young men of color, in particular—for his own gains. On the other, as Constantine points out:
Constantine has to help K-Mag to keep anything bad from happening to the boys. But helping K-Mag to save the boys is allowing his system of exploitation to continue, something that will likely factor into upcoming issues. Because K-Mag, the angels, the racist old man in Peckham Rye, they’re all symptoms of a deeper corruption. There’s something more evil by far at the heart of this little adventure, hinted at in the issue’s final disturbing pages.
Where this comic succeeds most definitively is how it hearkens back to classic Hellblazer without trying to be classic Hellblazer. Aaron Campbell’s artwork is scratchy and shadowy, cloaking many of the scenes in darkness while revealing what’s necessary. Even the scenes with the angels, which are bright to the point of discomfort, strike this balance; their faces are detailed with more linework, while their bodies are more smooth, with Jordie Bellaire’s colors shading them where appropriate. The result is uncomfortable, jarring in a thematically appropriate way—they make you feel a little sick to look at, as any proper angel should.
Though the story and artwork evoke the classic feel of the series, it is definitively 2019. Not just because that’s the year Constantine has traveled back to, nor because of the references to Brexit, nor the issue’s ending, which clearly points to a particular real-world political figure as singularly evil and depraved.
The issue demonstrates that there is a boundary between ignorance and bigotry. Constantine is and has always been an off-color bastard. The first scene involves him being thrown out of a bar for a raunchy and offensive joke. When he is genuinely offensive, as he is toward Noah, who is mute, other characters point it out, Constantine apologizes, and Noah rightfully calls him a prick.
Instead of channeling the things that made the character an off-color bastard in the past, things that may have been acceptable to say in the ’80s and ’90s but are no longer, Si Spurrier’s writing establishes him as an off-color bastard of the present. He speaks before he thinks, he says things that are offensive, but he doesn’t get away with it. He’s a fish out of water, a disaffected, time-displaced asshole in 2019 who nonetheless manages to correct his ignorant jokes, because harkening back to a series born in the 1980s doesn’t mean replicating the exact same edginess that characterized the era.
It’s been a while since I actively looked for release dates rather than just picking up comic issues as they filter into my box. It’s that mixture of referencing the older series and bringing it forward to 2019 (and now, 2020), not by making smartphones tools of the devil or, I don’t know, having self-driving cars piloted by demons, but by plucking a character born of the social upheaval of the 80s and plunking him down today and letting him grow that does it for me. I honestly, truly, cannot wait to see what happens next.