Trying To Find Constantine In The Hellblazer #17

by CJ Stephens

The Hellblazer #17 sounds a bit like the old John Constantine, but the visual aesthetic is just not dark and sketchy enough.

There will be spoilers…

Caveat: I love John Constantine, but I really miss the Vertigo days. The character works so much better outside of the regular DC continuity, and while his interactions with Batman in Injustice were comic genius, for the most part I don’t like superheroes in my Constantine stories. And what’s up with the addition of “The” in the title? It sounds like the sort of pretentious crap Constantine would despise. So while I was a huge fan of the Vertigo Constantine, I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to him since New 52. There’s a certain darkness that’s missing, and while there’s nothing wrong with the story or art in The Hellblazer #17, it’s just not my John Constantine.

The Hellblazer #17 presents us with a fairly standard Constantine trope: Someone close to him has died and everyone blames him for it. The so-called Thank You killer has been murdering mages, including John’s friends Cats Malloy and Pirate Jenny. The Bay Area Grand Dawn Coven, of which Jenny was a member, think John is the killer. Richard Kadrey‘s dialogue feels like old school Constantine. He’s the perfect smartass, arrogant and flip, and always seemingly in control, even when being mugged by a demon-possessed junkie or mystically interrogated under threat of strangulation. Nobody scoffs at optimistic ideals and deeply-held religious beliefs like John Constantine, and that scorn and cynicism is on full display here. And then John curses, and it all falls apart.

I gotta say, I cannot stand the censorship of adult language using cutesy Hot Topic looking emoticons of pentagrams and skulls. I think I’d almost rather have Constantine not curse at all than this. As soon as I start to get comfortable with this version of Constantine, he drops the F-bomb and it’s like watching an R-rated movie on regular TV, with bleeps and blurred nudity. It’s jarring. I get that this is a Teen Plus rated title, so none of George Carlin’s seven dirty words are going to be printed within, but it just reinforces my belief that Constantine belongs in Vertigo, rather than the standard DCU.

In addition, the art by David FabbriJosé Marzán Jr., and Carrie Strachan is just too bright and cartoonish. There’s very little shadow, dirt, or visual grittiness, and the colors pop just a bit too much. It’s not bad art. It would work well in a more standard four color superhero story, but it doesn’t feel like a good fit for this character and his world at all. The cover, however, by Jesús Merino and Carrie Strachan, is nice. It’s reminiscent of the covers from the end of the Vertigo run of Hellblazer, although again just a bit too heroic looking. Visually, the whole issue feels like Hellblazer-lite.

The story wraps up with yet another person dead (or at least critically injured) due to proximity to Constantine, and possibly John as well. It’s a cliffhanger that ends with Constantine in the Bardo realm, the Tibetan state of existence between death and reincarnation. But it’s hard for me to feel too worried, and honestly? I blame those pentagram emoticons. They don’t allow full immersion into the narrative. The characterization is solid, but the story’s honestly pretty confusing, and the art and the language censorship don’t work for me at all. Constantine fan that I am, I’m not sure I’ll be back for the next installment.

The Hellblazer #17, published 12/27/17 by DC Comics, features writing by Richard Kadrey, letters by Sal Cipriano, and art by David Fabbri, José Marzán Jr., Carrie Strachan, and Jesús Merino.

CJ Stephens

I read. I watch TV. I play video games and tabletop RPGs. Sometimes I go to the movies. I’m addicted to the internet. Once I wrestled a mountain lion while tripping balls on Robitussin. And won. Now we’re best friends. True story.