A Man out of Time; A Magician with no Assistant; A Deal with the worst kind of Demon; John Constantine is back in Sandman Universe Presents Hellblazer Special #1, out this week from DC Comics. Fantasy writer extraordinaire Simon Spurrier re-introduces the popular, Adult only, occult character back into the DC universe with a flourish and an apocalyptic tale that has the highest stakes possible from the outset.
Constantine must rescue his friends, stop an all consuming war, save the world, but most importantly, he needs to find somewhere to get a kebab, an ‘orrible one.
Bringing Back The Magic
John Constantine was introduced to the world in the pages of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, created by Alan Moore for artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben simply because they like the look of The Police front man Sting. He was a working class warlock, cynical and often appeared heartless. Through the years the character has evolved but he has never strayed too far from his roots,
In Spurrier’s new vision, Constantine embodies all of these earlier attributes and the story itself is linked closely with past versions of the character. If you are a long time follower of the character you will recognise the opening apocalyptic battle as it references Neil Gaiman and John Bolton’s The Books of Magic mini series from 1990. In fact this Special leaps from that springboard into a ‘What John Did Next’ story while at the same time bringing him into the modern day in a similar vein to the Julian Sands helmed movie Warlock.
Spurrier references the larger DC and Sandman Universes constantly throughout the 38 pages but at the same time creates a world that is very much Hellblazer. The attitude and darker edge that is associated with the character is evident on every page, through the art and the script. Spurrier drags the script across the streets of London picking up a host of English vernaculars and abusive language. It is safe to say that easily offended readers should give this a wide berth as the humour is as blue as the language at times.
The Color (and Letters) Of Magic
As the story progresses, Constantine comes into contact with a number of characters, old and new, with confrontation following confrontation. Not only does this help to establish the central character, and the negative influence he has on those around him, but it also allows Marcio Takara to show off a wide range of artistic skills. Leaping from the surreal magical war of the future to the cold, clinical streets of modern day London provides an array of visual contrasts which are successfully depicted by Takara.
The differences between the future and the present are not just physical but also represent ideologies within the text. Who was John and who can he become? The transitional moods of Spurrier’s story is set by the art work.
The coloring plays a massive part in establishing the scenes and the ideas within John’s new world. The shifting of time frames, mixing of memories with present day, and even the magical elements contrasted against the ‘real’ world, all are accentuated through the coloring styles of Cris Peter. A quick glance at any of the pages allows the reader to instantly separate the different aspects of the story, making the reading experiences more fluid and satisfying,
This is purely down to the different approaches Peter uses in his coloring. A mix of vivid block colors indicates the modern day while a single, watercolor-esq painted approach signifies a flood of memories. The magical war is a blend of garish colors while a more subdued look is adopted for John’s stroll around London.
One of the more satisfying elements of the comic is Adityar Bidikar’s lettering. With a comic like Hellblazer it is imperative that a contrast is made between different realms. In this special, it is the job of Peter’s colors and Bidikar’s lettering. He has produced a number of different fonts to use to represent different aspects or characters within the comic but it is also his approach to the text that makes it so outstanding. Shifts in font size, the use of bold text, and the changing shape of speech balloons are just a few of the techniques that he uses throughout the 38 pages.
Reading the range of lettering on show is almost pleasurable enough without the characters, art or story. This is a master class in visual storytelling with the lettering standing out in a good way. Take away the images and you still get a well paced, emotionally driven story. The words give the reader details but the lettering here gives it feeling.
And the impressiveness doesn’t stop at the Art. Spurrier’s story has a number of levels to it to please any fan. The surface story is fascinating and exciting enough to keep new readers entertained without feeling left out. However, a deeper level of continuity based storytelling is bubbling just under the surface, referencing the 34 year history of the central character. And then, there is another, metaphysical level commenting on the world of Comics and it’s fandom. At one point John’s inner monologue tries to rationalise his reality hopping situation:
“It’s not about neat and tidy. Owes more to story and meaning than cause and bloody effect. You’d go mad – well madder – trying to decide what counts and what doesn’t, what’s real and what’s not. When the only question worth asking is: What matters right now.”
An insight into John Constantine but also an analysis on fans obsession with continuity. Spurrier is shaking things up in the Hellblazer world and he’s telling the readers not to try to tie it all up to the past but concentrate on this new story. He acknowledges his creative forebears but this is the new Hellblazer, with a new and improved Constantine.
Sandman Universe Presents have produced some excellent new takes on the magical characters from the DC Universe and with the disappearance of the Vertigo Imprint it’s good to see that the characters can live on. Spurrier achievement in this Hellblazer Special is to prove that the characters do not have to be watered down to exist in the modern age. Unlike some of the television interpretations of these characters, whose edges have been smoothed to make them more appealing for T.V audiences, in comics Constantine is still an English Bastard and the very definition of Anti-hero.
The artwork is superb and the story accessible to everyone, with the possible exception of those offended by bad language. With this Hellblazer Special, DC Comics continue to do the old Vertigo crowd justice with yet another brilliant Sandman Universe comic.