Hellblazer: Rise and Fall #1 feels a bit like if I was eating a delicious Thanksgiving dinner only to have it swept away and replaced with a ham sandwich.
Hellblazer: Rise and Fall #1
Deron Bennet (Letterer), Darick Robertson (Artist), Diego Rodriguez (Colorist), Tom Taylor (Writer)
September 1, 2020
To be clear, that’s not entirely the issue’s fault — it released just a week after it was announced that John Constantine: Hellblazer, one of the best runs of the series in recent memory and maybe ever, would end with its twelfth issue. In another world, Hellblazer: Rise and Fall #1 would land as exactly what it is: an acceptable, if not necessarily good, entry in the Hellblazer series.
This first issue of a new series, also under DC Black Label (but not Sandman Universe Presents), opens with a brief origin story for John Constantine before launching into the main plot — billionaires are falling from the sky with wings of indeterminate origin fused to their backs. It works as an introduction to the Constantine character, with his mother’s death shortly following childbirth and the drowning of a young friend after a spell gone wrong informing his trademark haunting guilt. It gets the job done. A new reader could conceivably hop on and this point and find a slick little introduction, a plot hook, and a reason to keep reading.
But… why? Rise and Fall isn’t bad, per se, but releasing it alongside John Constantine: Hellblazer, particularly after the latter’s lack of renewal, does both series a disservice. It’s impossible to not compare the two, and John Constantine: Hellblazer does everything Rise and Fall does, but better. Rise and Fall features the necessary societal critique — we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with the billionaires, dead or no — but it lacks the grit and teeth that make the series interesting.
It’s safe; of course we can critique billionaires. But most comic readers are not billionaires; there’s no challenge to it, just the agreeable notion that yeah, billionaires are bad. This isn’t the time for a Hellblazer series — known for being political since its debut in the ’80s — to be easy, especially with increasing awareness and conversations about inequality, racism, and xenophobia. The horror in Tom Taylor, Darick Robertson, Diego Rodriguez, and Deron Bennet’s Rise and Fall is not what these falling billionaires represent, but rather the return of a literal old ghost. Maybe there’s a metaphor to be explored in later issues, but issue #1 feels like a largely unremarkable horror comic. It’s a large step backward, as it situates the source of the horror in the realm of magic and does nothing to push readers outside of their comfort zone. Again, it’s safe.
Tom Taylor’s writing of Constantine is — it’s fine. Really. There’s nothing about it (other than a Harry Potter reference that feels woefully out of touch) that’s wrong, but there’s little about it that’s right, either. It gets the job done. A Hellblazer story is told. Constantine has some PG-13 level dialog, he cracks wise, he makes references to guilt and bisexuality. All the right pieces are there, slotted in where they ought to go, but there’s nothing memorable about it.
Darick Robertson’s art is much the same. Robertson has a knack for expressions ranging from smarmy smirks to terrifying, horror-movie smiles. But other than those expressions, there’s not a lot that sticks with you after reading. It’s not that it’s bad so much as it feels safe and easily digestible. It’s not that every issue needs really horrific visuals to stand out, but the almost cartoony look of Robertson’s faces, along with Rodriguez’s perfectly acceptable (but not particularly inspiring) colors, make this feel like any average comic you might pick up on a whim. It could be anything, if you took out the gratuitous blood and Constantine himself; like this is a comic that happens to feature Constantine rather than a series built around Hellblazer thematically.
The real problem here is not so much Taylor, Robertson, Rodriguez, or Bennet so much as it is DC’s unfathomable decision to release this not just while John Constantine: Hellblazer is still going, but shortly after it was announced as non-renewed. This year has thrown a wrench into just about everything, so it’s hard to place too much blame on the poor timing, but nevertheless, I legitimately feel bad for this team. The other series is a tough act to follow, and while I don’t love any single piece of this comic enough to call it “good,” if I were hungrier for Hellblazer I would have at least felt satisfied by it. Instead, it’s annoying — a reminder that the comics industry is content to throw away good things for not being profitable enough (in part because John Constantine: Hellblazer will be without a trade until late this month) in favor of churning out mediocre series after mediocre series.
Will I keep reading Hellblazer: Rise and Fall? Ehh. Maybe once John Constantine: Hellblazer wraps up and I finish my slow journey through the back catalog, I’ll pick it up. Maybe sometime in the future, when I’m starved for a new Hellblazer series and less bitter about the loss of a genuinely great one, I’ll settle for something safe and palatable. For now, I’ll leave this ham sandwich of a comic for someone else to savor.