John Constantine: Hellblazer #9, like the previous issues, is a story about ideas. All stories are to some extent about ideas, but this run of Hellblazer goes a step further, pushing at the boundaries of truth, concepts, and abstracts until all three blur together.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #9
Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Matías Bergara (Artist), Aditya Bidikar (Letterer), Simon Spurrier (Writer)
August 25, 2020
In Hellblazer — both the series as a whole and this specific iteration — magic is a lens through which to look at the world. Applying magic to our existing world reveals where things accepted as fundamental truths are mere constructions. Here, in this series, magic exposes the baked-in nationalism, racism, and exploitation hardwired into symbols of national pride — William Blake, the Tower of London, or the royal family, for example. It’s the royal family that’s the target of this issue, positioned against the unicorn that makes up part of the royal coat of arms.
The issue opens with a first-person view of a journalist or tabloid writer interviewing John Constantine. The viewpoint — unusual for this series, and for comics as a medium — implicates the reader to some degree. We’re not just outside observers; we’re complicit in the narrative. The narrative, in this case, being the strange circumstances of a duke with a bad reputation, desperately in need of bringing goodwill to the monarchy. What better way to do that than to stoke national pride by introducing a symbol of the royal family to the real world?
Issue #9 hammers home many of the themes the series has been playing with. The man in the flat cap — whose identity is becoming increasingly clear to the reader, if not Constantine himself — hands off a magical, um, item to the needy party, and the magical item becomes a representation of some ideological force. Here, it’s purity; purity that has no place in the real world, and certainly not in the presence of the royal family.
Matías Bergara’s artwork is impeccable in this issue. Where the previous arc was grisly and sad, this one is… still grisly, but lighter in tone. We hear the story narrated by Constantine himself, who, through Simon Spurrier’s snappy dialog, tosses out crude euphemisms as if they were candy at the world’s most disgusting parade. That lighter, more distant tone is the perfect match for Bergara’s exaggerated expressions and less detailed linework.
The switching artists might be disorienting in a different series, but Hellblazer has always straddled the line between horror and comedy, deftly mixing gruesome violence with Moby Dick puns. This series is much the same; when life is this dark, sometimes all you can hope to do is laugh a little at it. Bergaras’ artwork and Spurrier’s dialog allow us to do just that.
But just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t also horrific. Jordie Bellaire’s colors do incredible work in reminding the reader that, unicorn aside, reality is a scary and dark place. Bellaire opts for warm yellows and beiges in the interior of Nat’s pub, where Constantine and the interviewer have their conversation, switching between and mixing cool blues and bright reds to evoke different moods as needed. Blue might reflect a depressing realization, but, combined with red, it evokes feelings of violence and even despair.
There are fewer fun sound effects in this issue than in some of the previous ones, but, like Bellaire’s coloring, Aditya Bidikar’s lettering adds a much-needed dimension to the story. A lightning sound effect shatters into pieces, mimicking the sounds of thunder by seamlessly integrating into the art. An empty speech bubble stands in for a question left unheard. And a nasty “RIP” sound effect is all sharp edges and gritty texture, echoing the horror taking place on the page.
You can tell, at this point in the series, that this team is building to a climax. The arc is becoming clear — there are enough hints about the man in the flat cap’s identity to get a sense for where the story is going, the recurring characters like Tommy (who I still refuse to trust) and Nat (who I would trust with my life) are adding wonderful texture and fun to the interactions, and the story is constantly pressing on the boundaries between magic and belief and the systems that govern our world.
Naturally, it was shortly before issue #9 was released that it was revealed that issue #12 would be the series’ last. Though the team had more story planned, DC opted not to renew the comic past the 12-issue run. Such is the nature of comics, despite the series being one of the industry’s top-reviewed — according to Spurrier, it simply didn’t make enough money, no doubt in part because the collected trade won’t come out until the end of this month.
Allow me to be a little dramatic, as Hellblazer is my favorite comic series and this is a particularly wonderful run of it (without hyperbole, I would rank it up with my favorite Jamie Delano arcs) — not renewing this series is a tragedy. Spurrier, Bergara, Campbell, Bellaire, and Bidikar really get what makes John Constantine and Hellblazer tick: it’s not just violence or demons or swearing or self-loathing. It’s an ugly, bloody, and anatomically correct beating heart at the center, an understanding that the world is often terrible and that making it better is a never-ending, demoralizing, horrific, and yet utterly essential pursuit.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #9 is a great entry in a great series. I look forward to seeing what the team will accomplish throughout the rest of the arc, even if it means I grow increasingly frustrated by knowing that this is the standard by which modern Hellblazer should be judged, and it’s ending sooner than it should.