Heckblazer: Constantine #1 Review

constantine_1_cover_2013Editor’s Note: I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the spoilers.

Let’s start by talking about that cover. It is terrible.

It’s not terrible in a visual sense; it is a perfectly serviceable Ivan Reis cover with a sense of dynamism, and enough flashy lights to attract the casual browser’s eye as he or she wanders through the comic store. So from a pure advertising standpoint, the cover does its job. The problem with the cover is that, for a Hellblazer fan trying Constantine #1 in the hopes that this new title will deliver something even close to what they loved for about a quarter century in the earlier series, it delivers the worst message in the world.

Hellblazer’s John Constantine was a dude who worked in the shadows, mostly by reputation, braggadocio and ruthless cynicism, who used the traditional magics of sigils and binding when he needed to use it at all. The cover to Constantine #1 advertises Constantine as a refugee magic user from Diablo III, chucking force bolts around like there’s some pimply teenager driving him with a joystick while mashing the A button.

The cover promises John Constantine as fantasy action hero, throwing around “magic” ways that Gandalf would find ostentatious and flamboyant. It hints at the polar opposite of what Hellblazer fans like, and it gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach… particularly since I know that it wasn’t the first cover planned for the book. The original cover featured Constantine in a graveyard surrounded by monsters, before it was replaced by this monstrosity… and even then, someone made the decision to airbrush the cigarette out of Constantine’s mouth, further emasculating the character. Hell, based on that carefully-placed force bolt, for all I know they actually took John’s balls as well.

This was the wrong cover if anyone at DC editorial wanted to attract Hellblazer readers in the wake of that book’s cancellation. It is the equivalent of a bar pulling all the single malt scotch off their shelves and replacing it with Four Loco; sure, scotch isn’t a taste for everybody, but you ain’t attracting Islay aficionados with cans of Teenager-Punches-Cops juice.

And finally, this cover is a huge misfire because it commits the cardinal sin of comic covers: it in no way reflects what’s happening in the actual comic book. Constantine #1 has no force bolt slinging action hero in it. Sure, there’s some more straight-up action in the book than you’d find in Hellblazer, including more ostentatious magic of the force bolt variety than you’d find in the original title. But none of it comes from John Constantine, who writers Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes seem to have a pretty decent handle on.

My point is, for an old Hellblazer fan, there is enough good character stuff in this book to make it worth checking out, despite that Godawful “Pew! Pew! Pew!” cover.

Meet John Constantine (yeah, I know Alan Moore fans: that sentence grates on the nervous system. Stick with me.), a magician living in New York City (yes, I know guys, just settle down.) who understands the basic rule of magic: it is a dangerous cheat on the system of the world, and it always comes with a price. So apparently this new guy Constantine (put down the pitchforks, gentlemen…) has seen ABC’s Once Upon a Time, but I digress. Anyway, Constantine has taken it upon himself to act as the world’s Magic Cop, removing dangerous items and players from the board before anyone else can use them to fuck everything up. Constantine is intercepted by Chris, a young man with an innate and uncontrolled magical ability that causes him great pain, but allows him to draw the location of magic items on a map. In this case, it’s Croyden’s Compass, a magical item that will allow Joe Blow to find other magical items, making it a version of Chris himself, but one that sweats and whimpers less. Constantine and Chris follow the lead to Norway, with a small attempted assassination by a group called The Cold Flame along the way, only to find Sargon The Sourceress on the scene, slinging magic around and presenting John with a choice: hand over the piece of the compass he found, or watch Chris die.

I’ll dispense with the petty stuff up front: there are going to be Constantine fans who go berserk over the fact that Constantine lives in New York, but I am not one of them. Yes, it is somewhat of a betrayal of John’s innate Englishness, but the fact of the matter is that, if DC is going to be involved in the greater goings-on of the DC Universe, he needs to be in America, where the action is. Besides, this is not an utter betrayal of the character in the way casting Keanu Reeves was; John is still English, and considering the first thing he does is jet off to Europe, it’s not like it really matters where he gets his porno magazines delivered. Sure, putting John in New York limits the ability to use some of Constantine’s most popular supporting characters like Chaz, but the reality is that, if you really wanted Constantine in London with Chaz? More of you should have been buying Hellblazer in the first place.

And there are going to be plenty of people who are pissed off that Constantine is in the DC Universe to start with, or that he’s messing around with DC’s magic users, or that he’s not standing up / falling down shitfaced and screaming, “Cunt!” at some stranger, but those matters are secondary and personal. What should really matter to Hellblazer fans is John’s character in the book, and whether or not it is even remotely true to what has come before. The rest is frippery and window dressing… and Lemire and Fawkes get the things that matter right.

Constantine is, in fact, a bastard. Every step of his and Chris’s journey to Norway shows John utterly using Chris, with perfectly reasonable-sounding explanations for passing things off to Chris every step of the way. Chris is in pain and needs help? Well, John will find a way to help, but first he needs Chris’s help. Chris has to pay for the cab? John’ll get it on the way back. Chris is paying for the hotel? Well, Chris has better credit, that’s all. These are little character beats, but they add up to something important: John Constantine is a selfish, manipulative asshole. Just like he was in Hellblazer. This is a good thing.

The key moment that tells readers whether we are dealing with a potentially worthy successor to Hellblazer or not is in the climax where Sargon has Chris in her thrall and gives Constantine the choice to give over the compass or watch Chris die. And yes, this scene features the successor to an old DC Universe character, and it shows big old glowing force bolts flying around (From Sargon’s hand, not John’s – this is important, at least to me), but it also provides a clear line in the sand for the direction of the book: is Constantine’s John Constantine a DC superhero, or is he John Constantine? Does he protect the innocent, or do what he needs to? Does he protect his friends, or believe that there are simply people he can charm who have something he needs? Well kids: this is no DC superhero. Fawkes and Lemire make it very clear that, at least for now, despite the presence of Green Lanterns and lack of scenes of John commenting how pissing outside always seems to take forever, they intend to write John Constantine – our John Constantine – just in the DC Universe.

Renato Guedes’s interior art is actually a pretty good match to a Constantine story. He works in a fine line (based on the credits, he also inks his own pencils here), but it has a somewhat… strange look. The ink lines almost look like he did a rough sketch, and inked a bunch of the flyaway lines, giving things a more sketchy look than a lot of similar art. In addition, while his figures are generally realistic, there are times where things look just a little off: legs seem too long, hands too big, feet placed weird when characters are walking or running, and other similar just lightly off-kilter images. The effect puts the reader just a bit out of ease, which is a good effect for a magic / horror book. In addition, colorist Marcelo Maiolo gives most panels a painted look which gives things a classic, almost aged look, and in some panels he makes light sources really pop, which helps sell the shadowing from the pencils and inks. Is it Simon Bisley, classic Hellblazer art? No, but it’s good-looking stuff.

Constantine #1 is not Hellblazer. There is no sex, there is no on-page drinking, there is no profanity, and the gore all takes place off-screen. But that shit’s all window dressing – window dressing that we Hellblazer fans have grown to expect and love, but affectations all the same. What Constantine #1 does have is John Constantine: a man who bullshits his way through situations, lives by his wits, and will walk over anyone who gets in his way, whether they trust John or not. Did anyone want to see John Constantine in a world where Green Lantern flies around? Maybe not, but at least it seems that, under this creative team, it will be John Constantine who we are seeing in that world. I was expecting to hate this book, particularly based on that wrong-headed cover. Instead, it gives me a good deal of hope for the character, and the book. If you’re a Hellblazer fan, give Constantine a shot.

…what’s that? *sigh*

Yes, Constantine smokes. And check out page five; on the chair on the right? That’s even a pack of Silk Cuts. Some of your priorities, man, I just don’t know.