On Friday, NBC premieres Constantine, a supernatural drama based on Hellblazer, a long-lived but relatively niche DC Comics title about a Liverpudlian punk-rocker-turned-sorcerer with suspect decision-making skills. Given the post-Whedon ubiquity of wisecracking antiheroes battling literal and figurative demons, those unfamiliar with the character can hardly be blamed for rolling their eyes at the prospect of another addition to the ghostbusting pantheon. And yet, if the showrunners do their jobs right, John Constantine has the potential to eclipse the trenchcoat brigade of paranormal investigators that preceded him to the small screen. He springs fully-formed from 25 years of paradigm-shifting comics that hit consistent high notes in terms of literary and artistic ambition, propelled by the (yes, I’ll say it!) auteurist idiosyncrasies allowed to flourish under DC’s once-hallowed Vertigo imprint.
Constantine was one of the few story protagonists in monthly comics to age in real time as his book progressed. The result was an appearance by that most elusive of entities in mainstream comics: an honest-to-goodness character arc that is coherent, linear and (for the most part) satisfying. Created in 1985 by Alan Moore, John Totleben and Steve Bissette as a supporting character for their Saga of the Swamp Thing, Constantine received his own title three years later with Hellblazer, which sees him kicking around England (and, occasionally, beyond) as a brash and narcissistic 33-year-old with a predilection for short cons, cigarettes and playing God. By the time he limped into the title’s final issue (#300) last year, he was a used up senior citizen with a psychic scar to match every physical one, trailed by a coterie of sad eyed ghosts and the toxic shadow of his own flailing machismo.
The intervening decades of supernatural encounters and doomed relationships were scripted by an impressive collection of creative legends, many of whom were part of the “British Invasion” of talent that transformed the American comics industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Each writer brought a different set of preoccupations to the overarching high concept: Jamie Delano’s metaphysical dissection of Thatcherite England using the rusty scalpel of the urban horror genre; Garth Ennis’ boozy and ruefully sentimental look at male psychosocial complexes as they relate to family, romance, cultural identity; Warren Ellis’ scarlet map of London psychogeography; Mike Carey’s intricately plotted dark fantasy. The series also boasted a number of accomplished artists — John Ridgway, Sean Phillips, Steve Dillon and Dave McKean among many others — intrepid cinematographers to the writers’ bleak visions.
For all the muscular storytelling and outré antagonists, the best Hellblazer stories manage to remain intimate without ever sacrificing their sense of place or social context. They effectively cross-pollinate horror, fantasy, and crime thriller tropes, mining supernatural elements for metaphorical potential as well as narrative punch, overlaying allegory across the haunted landscape of a distinctly post-lapsarian England. If portals to Hell are opening up around the country, it’s the result of economic collapse and governmental ineptitude as much as the result of Constantine drunkenly mumbling the wrong incantation. And speaking of our hero, he squats obscenely at the heart of it all, causing potentially apocalyptic disasters just as often as he resolves them. Hellblazer is a protracted character study that’s punishingly critical of its subject while clinging on to enough humanity (and humanism) to prevent it from coming across like nihilist posturing.
Lest my navel gazing alienate the uninitiated, it ought to be mentioned that Hellblazer is a comic book that rarely forgets to be fun. It successfully avoids the self-consciously po-faced approach that trips up many a “mature readers” title, maintaining artistic and intellectual bona fides without becoming irritatingly oblique, preachy or, worst of all, boring. This is art-pulp of the headiest kind, its tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Thankfully, due to the title’s linear progression, there are several stories that serve as ideal jumping-on points or simply as strong standalone introductions to the concept. Here are five examples, listed in the order of their publication. Given Hellblazer’s epic sweep, this list is far from a comprehensive catalogue of its highlights. The stories it contains are, however, quintessential Constantine, showcasing what the right writer-artist pairing could do with this mercurial trickster and his ever-shifting supporting cast of gods, monsters, and mouthy Englishmen.
Original Sins (Hellblazer #1-9)
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artist: John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala et al.
The beginning: probably a good place to start. A collection of the first few stories to kick off the series in 1988, Original Sins compensates for a rambling structure with its complex, contradictory version of Constantine and dizzying levels of conceptual audacity. Insectile hunger deities and yuppie demons, pagans and right-wing nationalists, digital ghosts and flesh golems stitched together from skinheads; all divergent elements that coalesce into writer Jamie Delano’s batty but persuasive take on the ills of British society. Faintly post-apocalyptic in look and feel, heavy on the metaphysics, and populated with numerous shambling representations of social corruption, his work in Original Sins (and after) represent Hellblazer at its most ambitious, laying a psychological foundation for conflicts and obsessions to come.