Unsurprisingly, four issues into John Constantine: Hellblazer, our titular protagonist doesn’t seem to be taking the directive to be the best version of himself very seriously.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #4
Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Matías Bergara (Artist) Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Simon Spurrier (Writer)
February 26, 2020
Of course, his “best self” could be any number of things. A kinder, gentler John, or at least one who doesn’t live and breathe even a handful of the traits Noah, who is now rescued from the Ri-Boys and serving as Chas’ replacement, called out in previous issues. Constantine is a coward, a bystander, a “complete and utter bastard.” To be something other than that would be, if not his “best self,” at least a better one.
But no. He just changes into his old outfit — the blue suit of “Hunger” with some truly heinous white gloves — and calls that good enough. His best self, he seems to think, is a return to his roots; a rehashing, or perhaps a redoing, of his past. Put the old suit on, go out to save the day, maybe give not getting everyone you have a friendly relationship with killed a try.
Not only does the Vestibulan—the formerly neutral angel, now demon, trapped inside of Constantine’s smartphone — give him a well-deserved roasting for the absurdity of this outfit, but the moment he steps outside, an elemental that seems to be made of literal shit explodes on him.
The explosion is courtesy of one Tommy Willowtree, a yoga-practicing, pun-slinging, granola-ass magician who’s not only familiar with Constantine, but has followed his misadventures closely enough that’s he’s become, unfortunately, something of an idol. Constantine hates this a lot, which is a joy to watch unfold, but Willowtree makes it clear that this isn’t a social visit. The same nationalism-driven magical forces we saw in the last arc are at work all over the city, according to Willowtree, and they’re exclusively targeting “foreigners.”
“Foreigners” is clearly a loaded word. Willowtree cites an Urdu-speaking family, a Jewish man, and attendants of a mosque, as well as the people attacked at Peckham Rye as examples of victims. But none of those people are necessarily foreigners — language, religion, and addiction does not equate to being “foreign.” Who’s making these judgments? Is it whoever or whatever is behind the magical attacks going on throughout London, or is it Willowtree himself?
Willowtree is a compelling counterpoint to Constantine, his antithesis in almost every conceivable way. He’s charming, friendly, open, easy to like — Noah and even the Vestibulan make positive statements about him, even if the latter’s is intended more to rankle Constantine than anything else. Matías Bergara’s artwork is in on the comparisons, too — while Constantine is drawn with sharp angles, bold wrinkles, and heavy shadows emphasized by Jordie Bellaire’s colors, Willowtree is soft and rounded, with his clothing giving him the appearance of being comfortable and organic.
Much like the suit in the issue’s opening, Willowtree is another version of Constantine, despite the intensity of their differences. Is this magician, who attends “anti-privilege retreats” and drinks beer with ethically harvested hops, a better version of the Constantine who constantly fucks things up?
It’s possible that a more socially conscious character like Willowtree is a positive alternative to Constantine’s crass and sometimes outright ignorant and offensive behavior. But even so, there’s something… disingenuous about Willowtree. What kind of person casually drops that they attended an anti-privilege retreat into casual conversation? What kind of person won’t stop talking about their intense spiritual yoga practice despite being a white guy? What kind of person flirts with a woman by prefacing the flirtation with the word “respectfully?” And who, more importantly, refers to victims of bigoted attacks as “foreigners” without any indication that they are?
Aditya Bidikar’s lettering one again adds wonderful flavor to the reading experience, especially the moments when Willowtree gets particularly emphatic about magic. Bidikar uses gloriously ostentatious fonts, drawing attention to the language the magician uses as over-the-top and even silly. This could be because magic is a bit silly, particularly when the words feel ripped from a trashy paperback fantasy novel. It could also be because Constantine thinks he’s a goofy try-hard. Or it could be because Willowtree’s appearance—that of a well-meaning, infuriatingly likable white dude who tosses out way too many Eastern religious phrases as if he owns them — is much an intentional affectation as Bidikar’s lettering.
Or maybe I just don’t trust Willowtree because he goes out of his way to let us know he’s progressive, thoughtful, “woke.” Constantine is an asshole and makes no secret of it, nor, as of yet, much effort to change. That these questions come up is what I love about this new take on the Hellblazer franchise. It’s a series deeply ridden with cynicism, dark and gross and seedy. For cynicism to be a useful method of engaging with the world rather than an excuse to surrender to apathy, there must also be a belief that things can be different, and an understanding that “different” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better.”
Willowtree’s social consciousness may very well be genuine, his appropriation misinformed rather than malicious, his “respectful” flirting awkward but not deceitful. Or maybe it is malicious —maybe he is precisely the kind of guy that makes us suspicious of men who introduce themselves as feminists. The question issue #4 raises is whether a veneer of progressiveness, the acknowledgment of privilege while still performing actions of appropriation, objectification, and othering, is preferable to an asshole who fucks up constantly but does real, tangible good in the world — even if Constantine does manage to get an awful lot of people killed.
I suspect we’ll find out.