Comic fans are reeling in shock, Twitter is on fire with the news, and all around the world you can hear the swearing of angry fans. ‘Hellblazer’, one of the most intelligently written, beautifully drawn and longest running comic series ever, has become the latest victim of the badly structured and universally deplored DC New52 reboot. Hellblazer will end in February with issue 300.
If you don’t know Hellblazer, it tells the story of magician, con-man, thief, punk rocker and dangerous friend, the wonderful Anti-Hero; John Constantine. Throughout the 300 issues (plus many more appearances in other titles, annuals and one-shots), we have seen his life from every angle. We’ve seen him fight to survive whilst still in the womb, seen him tormented by demons both literal and self-inflicted. He’s faced up against the Devil himself and survived to flick the finger as he sucked down a cigarette. We’ve seen him lose loves, the dramatic fallout of that, and recently even seen him get married. He’s faced evil gangsters, terminal lung cancer, fallen angels, fascists, thugs and police. And he’s done it all with a smirk, a witty put-down, a moral flexibility, a pint in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other.
But oh, how tortured he was. He didn’t always win, and when he lost, he lost big. His friends died all around him, his very soul was under constant threat and torment. Every time that John found happiness, it was usually ripped away from him in dramatic, epic fashion.
And that’s just the character. Let’s look at some of the writers who have written him. Alan Moore created the character by accident. He was writing Swamp Thing at the time, and noticed that the artist was always drawing a similar character in the background. Moore, genius that he is, took that background figure and created the best, most wonderfully multi-faceted character in comic book history. Moore created Constantine, Jamie Delano gave him a conscience, but it took another writer, Garth Ennis to give him heart.
“You’re a rake at the gates of Hell John. You’ll be in Heaven a beat before the Devil knows you’re dead.”
Although Delano’s run on Hellblazer are stories that read as well today as they did on release, it was Ennis who took John to the next level. In his first issue, John discovered that he had terminal lung cancer. His desperate scramble to find a magical cure is one of Ennis’ finest tales, and certainly an excellent place to start reading if you’re new to the character. Called ‘Dangerous Habits’, it introduced a number of elements that have become Hellblazer staples; the core group of friends, the Devil, John’s inability to give in, and certainly his loathing of authority. This is John at his rawest, as the ageing punk with a hatred of the established order, swearing down the heavens as he scrambles and tricks his way to victory.
Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Ian Rankin and China Miéville, the list of those that have written John’s stories reads like a who’s who of literary genius.
The world of Constantine is one that has leant itself to many different styles of tale. There are detective tales, superhero stories and all-out adventure tales. He’s been portrayed as environmental activist and total scumbag. The genius of the character is that he managed to remain all of these things. And now it’s all going to end.
Although not quite.
The reason that DC are discontinuing the run, is that they want to start a new one, calling it Constantine and setting it in their new continuity. This comic will be aimed more at the PG-13 market.
It’s not going to work.
Oh, it’ll try. It’ll make bold claims about keeping the essence of the character. There will be those that trot out the old excuse of not needing sex, drugs and violence to tell a good story. And that’s true. But Hellblazer, thanks to its writers, the editorial guidance of Karen Berger and the strong stomachs of the readers, managed to not only push the boundaries of acceptability, it did it all with a sense of mischief and magnificent glory. The art was occasionally gritty, sometimes crisp and elegant. Sometimes the art didn’t work. Some of the stories fell a little flat, sometimes a writer didn’t quite get who Constantine was. But when it worked, which it did for at least 270 of those issues, it was the best monthly comic that DC has ever produced.
I was there when John became an alcoholic tramp, was with him when he celebrated his 40th birthday. I laughed alongside him when he helped kill a KIng. I saw him tortured by his inability to save everybody, and his equal inability to punish everybody.
Losing this character is like losing an old friend. It feels as if I’ve been reading him my whole life, and we’ve been together every step of the way.
Here’s to you John. I’m going to miss you.