by Matthew Peckham
After twenty-five issues of hard-boiled horror-noir, current series writer Mike Carey celebrates magician-quipster
John Constantine's 200th birthday --- issue #200, that is, and it's a three-part expanded length forty-page whopper of a
shift in direction for this acerbic occult serial. If you've been reading the series and thought you'd seen it all,
guess again -- Carey drops a bomb that if nurtured properly, could rock the series for years to come.
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After twenty-five issues of hard-boiled horror-noir, current series writer Mike Carey celebrates magician-quipster John Constantine's 200th birthday -- issue #200, that is, and it's a three-part expanded length forty-page whopper of a shift in direction for this acerbic occult serial. If you've been reading the series and thought you'd seen it all, guess again -- Carey drops a bomb that if nurtured properly, could rock the series for years to come.
Hellblazer is the tale of a British magician, a nomadic ne'er-do-well with a sense of nobility glazed over an intermittently tortured, selfish, and compulsive interior, a modern day punk-magus synthesis of Cagliostro and Faust, John Dee and Sting, Simon Magus and Rutger Hauer. Six issues past, Constantine lost his memory in a battle with a supernatural entity known as the Beast (a sort of literal translation of the devil on steroids). Constantine reappears in a shell-shocked London, dazed and stalked by his past. Manipulated by a demon who appears to him as a young girl named Rose, Constantine is nearly killed several times; at the end of issue #199, Rose (full name Rosacarnis -- note Latin carnis, "flesh" or "meat") offers a Faustian bargain: to save Constantine from certain death by fire as well as the restoration of his memories, in return for one day in her service.
Issue #200 is the denouement of a ball that has been in play for dozens of issues. Using a familiar temporal displacement technique pioneered by writers like Ambrose Bierce and popularized in the final episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, Constantine is unwittingly guided through three separate lives, three interconnected lifetimes in which he raises three unique children of varying genders and ages. Each "life" resurrects old (and more recent) loves and marries them off to Constantine, who appears in one as a flabby middle-aged family man with a gambling problem and another as a grizzled retiree and mediocre magician. Each tale turns benignly on its axle until reader and protagonist alike come to the same gruesome recognition of "wrongness," before the narrative once more resets. The main difficulty with this sort of experiment is scope: "three lives" can feel a bit crammed in a single issue, but each tale is tightly articulated (Carey's greatest strength is arguably a near-perfect sense of both economy and timing) and wrapped with a twist, resembling in many ways Vertigo's horror anthology title Flinch, an International Horror Guild award winner that ran three short horror tales per issue (unfortunately canned early on).
Carey's been building to this moment for dozens of issues, deftly maneuvering Constantine through self-contained story arcs, but crafting larger puzzle pieces one by one that hook into the series' roots and offer glimpses at the fuller form these stories are unearthing. Issue #200 will resonate with new readers for its self-sustained polish, but bring to a point the intricacies incorporated for longtime mainstays. Stepping back from the first half of Carey's run, the assiduously crafted story arcs add up to a pointed indictment of John's psyche, a way of creating a dialogue with the past that says "these are the consequences of lugging around this sort of baggage, the price of living recklessly and, to a degree, ignorantly." While Constantine is essentially a force for good, or trying to be, his compulsive personality may ultimately undermine his roughshod chivalry.
Under Jamie Delano's tenure (and taking the ball from Alan Moore, who created the character in Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 in June 1985), Hellblazer started life as a horror title under the DC banner, one that quickly defined much of the tone of DC's spinoff Vertigo imprint (DC's "mature" series banner). Over the years various writers and artists have played John Constantine through multiple postmodern roles, more recently drawing back the supernatural element to produce subtler story lines, including a battle with lung cancer (John is a chain-smoking fiend), alcoholism, and poverty. Carey returns the series to its roots, restoring as he puts it the "whiff of brimstone" but without losing the crucially proportionate human element writers like Garth Ennis (Preacher), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary) and Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) notably developed.
Vet and legend Steve Dillon (Preacher) returns to the series to handle the first portion, his long-faced and full-lipped characters smiling benignly or looking wide-eyed and heavy-lidded as the atrocities aggregate; no one draws "desperation" as a facial expression quite like Dillon. Marcelo Frusin has been the series artist for most of Carey's run, and handles the second tale in this issue no less proficiently. Frusin's art lends itself well to horror-fantasy environs, his characters tending to leer or sulk from under dark-shaded brows and Lee Loughridge's colors (Loughridge colors all three artists) seem to work more synergistically with Frusin's nightmare vistas. Frusin is still my personal favorite, a perfect match for Carey's blend of British gothic and supernatural dread. Leonardo Manco takes over as series regular artist with issue #201, and does a fine job with the third and final tale here. Manco's art is highly detailed and often panels will look as if someone has rubbed a bit of sandpaper around to kick up the grit. As noted in my review of issue #194, Manco's anatomical style tends to scrunch faces a bit much, making John look thick-necked and round-faced in close-ups, otherwise Manco brings a consistent quality to each panel that should serve the title nicely going into the second half of Carey's run.
Issue #200 is precisely what an anniversary issue ought to be: it pays tribute to the efforts of over a decade of collaborative efforts by the idiom's leading creators by lifting myth elements from earlier writers and weaving them into a daring paradigm shift, and it strikes just the right balance of fantasy and horror-noir and gritty urban realism, three of the series' strongest elements. John Constantine is a contemporary shaman, a modern-day magus channeling everyday life through evocative dark fantasy, and what Carey has produced so far -- culminating in this 200th issue -- does an admirable job of honoring those traditions.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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