Building A Hellblazer For Today— a review of John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 1: Marks of Woe

Art by Aaron Campbell

John Constantine walks between worlds. That has always been his gift and his curse but it’s also been a burden placed on the fictional character, especially when you just take a moment to think that he had a peripheral role in Crisis on Infinite Earths before Vertigo was a twinkle in anyone’s eyes. That’s just a weird thing that is a part of this character’s history. And then he was a Vertigo mainstay for nearly 30 years and now has fit uneasily into the current DCU, fulfilling the role of that universe’s foolish mage for a while now, a role that the character himself has never felt that comfortable with as he rubs shoulders with Superman and Wonder Woman. Sure, his roots go back to existing side by side with Swamp Thing and Batman but in the Vertigo years, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, and so many other writers and artists worked to divorce Constantine from those roots, allowing the character to stand on his own. So seeing him pal around with the Justice League just feels wrong, like he’s living his own worst nightmares.

In John Constantine: Hellblazer Volume 1: Marks of Woe, writer Simon Spurrier’s John Constantine continues to walk between the various worlds. But rather than trying to reject one meta-narrative or another, Spurrier synthesizes the many roles of John Constantine, turning that bridging of worlds into a part of the character, almost like one of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champions. Why shouldn’t Constantine be a multiversal figure, fighting alongside Detective Chimp one day and then trying to soothe a troubled soul in a London hospital the next? In the opening chapters of this book that tie into DC’s attempt to wring a few more dollars out of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and related properties, among them Vertigo and Constantine himself, Spurrier finds that bridge for this character. Call it a superpower or call it a “sensorially” disassociation” as they do in the psychiatric hospital that he wakes up in after the most strange of mystical encounters, it’s probably all the same thing in the end.

Art by Aaron Campbell

The worlds that Constantine travels through are full of all kinds of things that live in the shadows. Powerful evil mages, angels that prey on junkies looking for a fix, shit sprites, and ghosts that walk through hospital corridors, these are just things that go bump in the night. Once this book moves past the rigamarole of re-orienting the character in a post-Vertigo/New 52 world, Spurrier and artists Aaron Campbell and Matías Bergara embrace those shadows and dark things. Like the best Hellblazer creators of the past, they guide us to these corners of the world that the civilized folk don’t like to talk about, let alone acknowledge exist. It’s that punk characteristics behind the character, that anger at the world as it is, that is so dangerous.

So this version of Hellblazer embraces the title’s original roots set by Jamie Delano and John Ridgway, creating urban noir horror with Constantine filling the role as a reluctant detective. Spurrier’s Constantine lives this life not because he chooses to or that he feels it’s his duty to but because it’s the only thing he’s ever known. He’s been missing from this London for a bit, whether it’s because of the whole multiverse thing or because he’s been in the hospital (probably a bit of both,) but he slides back into his life a bit too comfortably for what it is. Before too long, he’s pulled into a mystery about drug dealers who imagine themselves as some kind of mystical shaman, deadly angels, William Blake, and a Brexit-era London. Spurrier and Campbell bring Constantine into an all-too-real world where you believe that these kinds of horrors could exist. It’s easy to acknowledge the ugliness of souls that look at people from other backgrounds as lesser beings so why not believe in the angels and demons that exist at night.

Art by Matías Bergara

But Constantine is not some kind of creature only of the night so it’s fun to see how Aaron Campbell and Matías Bergara play off of each. Campbell draws the chapters where the night appears to hold many secrets while Bergara depicts the daytime when Constantine can attempt to wear a proper suit and blend in with the normal people as much as he can (that is until the shit sprites show up.) There is almost nothing stylistically that ties these two artists together as even colorist Jordie Bellaire adapts different methods of applying her hues over their work. Campbell calls back to those original Ridgway stories from the earliest Hellblazer comics, with his dark and moody art that hides much more than it shows. Bergara is much more open and broad in his drawings, capturing a psychological drama as opposed to Campbell’s horror that’s pulled out of the environment. They are so different but Spurrier gives both artists stories that allow them to craft their own kind of shadows and horrors.

Those horrors come together in the background as Spurrier, Campbell, and Bergara lay the groundwork for the big bad of this story. As Constantine has already made deals with devils and demons, there’s only one creature left that he shouldn’t trust but has to barter his soul with to save his life. Telling anymore of that creature's identity would be giving too much of it away but let’s just say that it plays around a bit with the idea of Constantine being a multiversal constant in this chaotic existence. For a rogue like Constantine, he now has to deal with someone who knows all of his tricks and schemes, setting him always a few steps behind his enemy. It’s a puzzle Spurrier sets up, a meta riddle that envelops these other narrative riddles happening in London.

The best John Constantine stories are a reflection of their times and that’s a challenge that Spurrier takes on. There are three levels to these stories that should send shivers down your spine. On the surface, there’s the obvious horror, again those things that go bump in the night. These are the more obvious (but no less terrifying) frights that make you look under your bed at night or throw salt over your shoulder to stave off the monsters. Then there’s Constantine himself, a man you maybe could picture sharing a pint with but don’t let him get you into a situation where he needs to use you. Good things don’t happen to the people that Constantine uses. Seeing the fates (yes, plural) of Chas, his longtime friend and driver, are painful reminders of the ways that Constantine uses people without regard for them. He may raise a glass to you afterward but there will be reasons that you’re not there to share them with him.

And then there are the ways that Spurrier sneaks in these ugly reminders of the hatred that exists in people that lead them to do terrible things. These things hide behind and drive the monsters and demons. Confronting this real-world bigotry, racism, and hatred has Constantine fighting a different kind of evil. It’s an evil that exists in mankind that fancy magic and parlor tricks are powerless against. There’s always been that kind of tension in Hellblazer, finding a balance between the corruption of reality and the corruption of the human condition playing off of contemporary events. Spurrier recontextualizes that conflict to reflect current racial and national tensions. It sets up these stories against a background that resonates with what we’re dealing with in the here and now.

John Constantine: Hellblazer Volume One- Marks of Woe
Written by Simon Spurrier (with Kat Howard
Drawn by Aaron Campbell, Matías Bergara, Marcia Takara, Tom Fowler, Craig Taillefer
Colored by Jordie Bellaire, Cris Peter, Jordan Boyd
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar, Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics Black Label