There are some people that can happily read any iteration of a character and simply move on with their lives if that character isn’t done right. I’m not one of those people, which is why I’ve become intensely skeptical of every new iteration of John Constantine since my first attempt to read an ongoing series: Justice League Dark. In my esteemed expert opinion, John Constantine is not good at things. He makes bad jokes and stews in self-loathing while bumbling his way through thinly (if at all) veiled political allegories. Few modern Hellblazer series are willing to give me that.
Thankfully, Simon Spurrier, Marcio Takara, Aditya Bidikar, and Cris Peter seem to if not entirely agree with me, at least get the gist. Skeptical as I am of every new Hellblazer series, I consulted a preview for The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1 before committing to the full issue.
The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1
Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Cris Peter (Colorist), Simon Spurrier (Writer), Marcio Takara (Artist)
October 30, 2019
I had no idea what the fuck was going on. I haven’t been following the Sandman universe and I’ve never read Books of Magic. Thankfully, Constantine doesn’t particularly seem to know what’s going on, either—the issue begins with him narrating the events in a typically distanced style, remarking, with a supremely blasé attitude, on Zatanna fighting a creature made of baby fingers while six goblins masturbate on a car. So far, so good.
On the next page, a two-page spread gorgeously (and disgustingly) drawn by Takara with colors by Peter, things get even better by virtue of getting worse. The world’s been thrown into chaos; everything is garish pinks and yellows, creatures of unfathomable size and uncountable teeth snarling at one another while a decidedly more drab Constantine walks toward the camera, a cigarette in his teeth. “Something ate the sun half an hour ago,” he narrates, before writing the word “Fuck” and some occult symbols all over pig’s head and sending a longtime friend to their grisly death.
Honestly, this was enough to sway me firmly toward giving the new series a try. But it was a quote from Spurrier that really kicked me over the edge:
“They asked me for a quote about how great John Constantine is and how honored I am to write him. Bollocks. He’s given me a stomach ulcer and I haven’t slept in weeks. Just read the bloody comic so he leaves me alone.”
All right. Okay. If Spurrier, Takara, and Peters’ Constantine is enough of a pain that he’s giving Spurrier a stomach ulcer, I’m in. I went into my comic shop and asked them to add The Sandman Presents and the upcoming Hellblazer series to my pull list.
Having now read the whole issue, I’m still not certain what exactly is going on in the broader Sandman universe—Tim Hunter is there, both young and older, and he has seemingly done something bad? Or is doing something good? Something is going on, anyway, but let’s skip to the good stuff because Constantine gets a bit of Chas’ taxi cab embedded in his side and slowly bleeds out for about a third of the issue before being offered a third or fifth or dozenth chance at life.
If Constantine wants to live and maybe stop the world from becoming the terrible place it is in his current timeline—masturbating goblins, narwhals fighting archangels, and all of Takara and Peters’ imaginative horrors rioting and devouring one another in the sky—he must face the greatest challenge of his life.
He must go back in time and not be an absolute shithead.
This is, of course, a delightful premise. We’ve seen Constantine battle all kinds of baddies, flip the Devil the bird, et cetera, et cetera. But here, he’s not told to kill the demon or make a dodgy exchange or not touch the magical artifact or whatever—he is told, quite literally, “All you got to do, John—is be the best version of you.”
The best version of Constantine begins in 2019. After “convincing” a psychiatrist he no longer belongs in Ravenscar, he stands in front of a pro-Brexit sign that’s been graffitied to read, “Delivering the will of the racist blame junkies + actual f***ing Nazis.” I could have cheered; this lack of subtlety, this directness, is what I love about the older Hellblazer comics. It is, to quote Constantine, “20-bastard-19,” and the time to be subtle and cagey about politics is long dead, if there ever was such a time at all.
As a consequence of being in Ravenscar, 2019 Constantine is once again, regrettably, without hair. An older woman tells him he looks like a Nazi, which is true and she should say it. By this point, a mere seven and a half pages into what appears to be the core story of the upcoming Hellblazer series, I have decided I am over 100 percent on board.
Spurrier’s story is delightfully antagonistic toward Constantine, an attitude I have missed from many modern takes on the character. He’s sunk so deep into self-loathing that to extend him a forgiving hand—even a narrative one—is begging to be pulled down into the swamp with him.
This story isn’t about worshipping an extremely cool and disaffected magician, as many modern takes on the character have done, but rather pointing out that everything he does and has done in the name of that persona, including chain-smoking, has a detrimental effect on everyone around him. Constantine knows this—it’s been part of his character since the beginning—but this first issue points a glaring spotlight on how it’s not the magic, it’s not the mistakes, it’s him, deep down, that is the problem.
It’s a theme that’s echoed in Takara’s bold, heavily textured lines and Peter’s colors. It hearkens back to the early days of Hellblazer in the best ways, with a mixture of dreary colors for the city of London and bright, almost psychedelic pops of color. Takara’s artwork is detailed and gritty, capturing every grisly detail, just as it should. It’s a comic about uncomfortable truths, in some senses, and capturing every gash, bit of stubble, and fleck of spit renders this abrasive honesty clearly on the page.
It’s a good comic. It’s a good take on the character. Though the art team is changing for the ongoing series, I’m eager to see where it goes, what happens next, whether Constantine can actually figure out how to not be the literal goddamn worst.