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It’s been three years and change since DC canceled Hellblazer and brought con-man/magician/Sting lookalike, John Constantine, into the New 52 mainline universe. Three hundred issues of sprawling lore and expert character building from some of the greatest writers in the medium chucked in the bin so Constantine could inhabit the same universe as a man dressed like a bat and the king of the fish men.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. At its best, Hellblazer was always a snarling satire of modern Britain. At his best, John Constantine was more than a bloke in a fancy coat who could do a bit of magic, he was an avatar of the politically-minded Briton.
So when he started hopping through dimensions and shooting magic out of his hands in the rebooted Constantine, super-heated jets of steaming piss started escaping from behind my eyeballs. It was quite a sight to behold. Except I couldn’t really behold it. Because of the aforementioned urine vapor.
Despite being terrible, Constantine limped on for twenty-three issues. New 52 tie-ins and the Constantine TV-show (also bad, but not disastrously so) kept sales at a reasonable level, but it was a critical flop. Then, like everything else in the New 52 lineup, it was rebooted. Again.
Constantine: The Hellblazer, as the title might imply, tries to emulate the tone of the original Vertigo series, and to be fair, it does a half-decent job. To the point where I actually feel kind of cruel for hating it. Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV are clearly doing their best with stricter content guidelines (as a Veritgo title, Hellblazer was afforded seemingly infinite levels of edginess). It helps that Riley Rossmo’s art is an absolute treat, even if seeing Constantine with a side cut makes me want to retch.
Still, at it’s core, Constantine: The Hellblazer suffers from the same problem as Constantine. And despite what long-term fans might scream at you through your letterbox, it isn’t that they threw out all the lore, or that John is young now, or that he does too much magic, or that he can’t swear without a bunch of asterisks piling up in his speech bubbles like there’s some kind of punctuation orgy going on. No, it’s because both comics are deliberately “non-political.”
And that’s the thing. All the best Hellblazer stories, with the notable exception of Azzarello’s excellent “…Freezes Over” (a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster run), are set in England and they’re all blisteringly political.
John Constantine was created by Alan Moore during his run on Swamp Thing, a series with an obvious environmentalist angle, but it was Jamie Delano, the first writer of Hellblazer who cemented the character as a rakish, anti-authoritarian figure. Delano also made Constantine a former punk rocker, which was a stroke of genius. By the time Hellblazer #1 hit shelves in 1988, Punk as a movement was long since dead. Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been in power for nearly a decade and her policies were everything punk had rallied against: Nationalism, Social Authoritarianism, Victorian Family Values and free market libertarianism. Her policies are credited with revitalizing the British economy, but at the cost of massive unemployment, the decimation of dozens of heavy industry communities in the north of England and a widening gap between social classes.
Jamie Delano hated Margaret Thatcher with a passion and his disdain for her predatory view of Britain dripped from every page of the comic he wrote. His run was was characterized by brutal satire of both the political state of the nation and its class divides. There were bankers as literal demons, aristocrats hunting the poor on horseback and a long run in which Free Masons try to collect people’s fear and use it to resurrect a Lovecraftian god.
Just as Thatcher gave way to John Major, Delano gave way to Garth Ennis, who penned what many argue is the de-facto Constantine story, Dangerous Habits. Ennis also penned “Rough Trade”, which was highly critical of the Tory party’s seeming indifference to poverty and the then-unchecked HIV epidemic ravaging the nations’ gay communities. His final arc, “Rake at the Gates of Hell” sees Constantine locked in a battle with a vengeful Satan during a race riot (based on actual riots that took place in London in the early 90’s).
Ennis was followed by Paul Jenkins, who mixed Arthurian legend with anarchist subculture, who was in turn followed by Warren Ellis, hot off his work on Transmetropolitan. During this period, the left wasn’t safe from Constantine’s ire, either. The soft-authoritarianism of Tony Blair’s nanny state was no more palatable to Warren Ellis than Thatcher or Major’s. Ellis used his all too brief run on the comic to savage the crushing disappointment that was New Labour and it was glorious, if painful.
Ellis was meant to become a full-time writer for the series, but he left after DC refused to publish “Shoot,” a Constantine story about high school shootings written just months before the Columbine High School massacre.
I think I’ve probably made my point by now: Hellblazer as a series is inherently political even when it’s at its weirdest and most trippy. Strip that element away and you’re left with a vaguely interesting, sarcastic wizard who calls people “mate.”
So why do it? At first I thought it was just another case of a publisher caving to the cadre of idiots on the internet who vent their spleens all over Reddit every time their malformed, Cro-Magnon senses detect something they dimly recognize as “politics” in fiction. But that’s not it. Fables is political as fuck, and it ran for 150 issues to much critical and public acclaim. It’s not just DC playing it safe, either. I mean, say what you like about DKIII: The Maser Race (and I will: It’s shite), Miller and Azzarello (who wrote a Hellblazer story in which Constantine fucked a thinly veiled analogue of Bruce Wayne) are allowed to get deeply, brutally political, with one of the publishers biggest cash cows no less. But with Constantine? Nah, let’s keep it PG, lads.
The worst part is we need that critical voice more than ever. The Tories are back and this time it’s personal. We have a prime minister who has (allegedly) stuck his dick in a dead pig’s head to join a secret society. Far right nationalists are gaining ground, spurred on by an ailing economy and Islamic fundamentalism both real and imagined. A cartoon dog is mayor of London. The BBC may have covered up years of systemic child abuse by television stars, and the government is prosecuting people for making jokes on the internet. This stuff is ripe for horror satire in the pages of something like Hellblazer. So I ask again.
Where’s John Constantine when we need him?
Grey Carter doesn’t read comics or graphic novels. He reads artisan-made sequential art narratives, because he is better than you.
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