Like Sam Smith Covering David Bowie: The Hellblazer #20

by Richard Bruton

Mostly, I review things I’ve looked at and know I’m going to enjoy. Because life is short and there’s not enough time left to spend it on the terrible. But every so often, I go into a comic shop and just pick up a comic because it’s there. Sometimes it gives me something wonderfully new, other times I get something utterly awful.

Have a wild guess where this review is going.

I was there in 1988 when Hellblazer started its 300-issue run at DC, with Jamie Delano and John Ridgway telling the modern horror tales of a Scouse con-man magician in 80s Britain, all wrapped up in Dave McKean’s unique cover imagery. It ushered forth the Vertigo era of DC Comics, where smart storytelling, fantastic art, and boundary-pushing themes became the norm. Hell, I was there in 1985 when Alan Moore and Steve Bissette introduced John Constantine for the very first time.

Constantine was such a great character. A chancer playing at being a magician, or maybe the greatest magus of the age, the trick was always never really to let on which it was. But bloody hell, in trying to work out which one he was, we had some incredible comics.

After Jamie Delano, we had Garth Ennis’ run on the character, possibly his finest hour. And through his long history, John Constantine has had many of the greatest names in comics writing and drawing his exploits. Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis, Campbell, and many more have all given us their Constantine.

Which brings me to The Hellblazer issue #20. I bought the comic on a whim. Yes, I knew DC had decided to bring this most adult of comic creations into the DC Comics superhero-verse a while back, but it was there, and I thought what the hell, let’s see what old John’s up to now. Christ, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d just left the comic there on the shelf.

It all comes about thanks to the events of last issue, the first part of this “The Good Old Days” storyline. Oh my, there’s an ironic storyline title if ever there was one. Because if ever there was a comic that really pointed out just how good those old days of Hellblazer were, it’s this.

John Constantine’s always been a character that good writers fill with depth and intrigue, and poor writers fill with bland horror-by-the numbers stuff. Hellblazer #20 isn’t even a terrible comic, it’s just boring and bland. Everything is written in beige.

The plot is simply a collection of cliches thrown in to get character A to connect to character B. A character that was once full of invention, complexities, and wonderfully written flaws is simply here as a distillation of stereotypes. So we get a virtual checklist of Constantine doing Constantine-y things; doom-laden voice over, sarcasm, smoking, bedding women and ruining their lives, calling up a demon for a chat. You could actually play a nice game of Constantine cliche bingo here. As for the dialogue, well it’s again a collection of cliches innit? A trawl through the Internet by Seeley for some London-isms. Well hench. Or something like that.

As for the actual story, it’s all revolving around a plot to resurrect a couple of East End gangster types (tick the Kray Twins box) by their younger brother. Said younger brother, Adam Day, who was the good one, went off to be a priest and luckily knows just how to do the deed to bring the bad brothers Day back. No idea why he wants to actually do it, but hey, motivation is way too much characterization.

Up pops Margaret Ames, ideal for the younger Burke Day to possess. And wouldn’t you know it, Margaret once had a thing with our boy Johnny? An ex-girlfriend of Constantine whose life he ruined? Tick another box in the Constantine cliche bingo. So Constantine calls up a demon (tick another box), who tells him what he needs to know. The possessed Margaret Ames and the priest go searching for a body for the older brother to jump into. Cue a by-the-numbers London gang with dialogue straight from Urban Dictionary’s “101 things young London kids say”. Oh, and whilst we’re just almost randomly joining the dots here, the self-same demon Johnny was chatting with has been whispering in the Catholic Church’s ear about all this. So hey presto, time to get the Huntress involved. For no real reason I can think of.

Like I said, it’s not a terrible comic. It’s just a really bland, by-the-numbers comic. And Hellblazer has such a magnificent history of great storytelling that bland is possibly the worst thing I could have read.

As for the art, well that’s not doing it for me either. It’s decent enough, sure, and there are at least the basics ticked, with the artwork flowing ok. But the figure work is at best a little ropey, and Constantine is somehow looking more like cartoon version Constantine than what he should be like. I know art’s always in the eye of the beholder, but when you consider that the years have already given us versions of Constantine from Bissette, Ridgway, Piers-Raynor, Phillips, et al, putting someone whose art would look perfectly at home on a third-rate superhero book just doesn’t cut it.

Oh, and finally, don’t be that comic that shows us a cover image that happens on page 17 of a 20-page comic.

Yes, I know this isn’t my John Constantine. I know I’m reading the second part of a story. But bloody hell, this one’s so generic and bland that he really shouldn’t be anyone’s John Constantine. It’s a perfect example of taking a character and doing what you think he was all about, without actually having any idea of what made the character so enduring in the first place.

This version of old Johnny, The Hellblazer is the equivalent of Sam Smith doing a tribute album to Bowie. The words and music might be the same, but oh my God, it misses the point by miles.

Luckily you can still get the adventures of John Constantine, The Hellblazer, in graphic novel form. There’s brilliance from Delano and Ridgway, Ennis and Dillon to enjoy. Now let’s all pretend this aberration doesn’t exist. We’ll all feel better that way.

The Hellblazer is published by DC Comics, written by Tim Selley, drawn by David Fabbri and Christian Dalla Vecchia, with colors by Carrie Strachan, and letters by Sal Cipriano. The variant cover by Sean Phillips is the best thing about it.