In the last decade, trench coat aficionado John Constantine and his ironclad lungs have found their way onto the big screen (2005’s Constantine), the slightly smaller screen (2014’s “Constantine” on NBC), and helmed a pair of comic book series (Hellblazer wrapped its insane twenty-five year run in early 2013, with the “surprisingly titled” Constantine kicking off the following month). And sure, if you want to count Justice League Dark, be my guest. Yet if one takes the time to ask Hellblazer fans which of its adaptations truly captured the essence of the source material, the typical answer is “none of them.”

For what it's worth, NBC's show really did nail the look of John.

For what it’s worth, NBC’s show really did nail the look of John.

As far as mass appeal goes, the television show won’t be getting a second season, both “New 52” comic book iterations were canceled leading into “Convergence,” and while the film version was a legitimate box office hit, it arguably strayed the furthest from its origin. So it should come as no surprise that the Hellblazer franchise (if such a term can be used) to date is a pop culture paradox. After all, few other franchises have enjoyed lukewarm reception after lukewarm reception, only to be asked to dust off the trench coat, and give it another go.

Admittedly, I’ve been pretty burned out by the recent exploits of Liverpool’s resident magician; I only made it through two or three episodes of Constantine, and barely crossed into the double digits of the comic that bore the same name. By the end of the pilot, the show had set forth a painfully literal roadmap for future episodes, a cross-country trip whose stops would embrace the “monster of the week” mentality that had served its lead-in program Grimm so well. The second episode only served to reinforce these shortcomings, not to mention, presented a John Constantine whose magical abilities were of a flourish-y and colorful variety that’ll make excellent trailer fodder, regardless of how untrue to character they were. And the comic? Just as action driven, and just as focused on a visual style of magic.

Yet, when DC Comics announced their new titles they’d be launching after “Convergence,” I found myself begrudgingly subscribing to what I was worried would be this year’s flailing attempt to simultaneously appeal to newer readers desirous for DC’s answer to Dr. Strange (which…he’s not…) and weary Hellblazer fans only slightly convinced that this’ll be the time DC “does right” by the character’s Vertigo roots. Against all odds, the sheer fact that DC, for the first time, actually put “Hellblazer” in the book’s title…that did not go unnoticed by me. If you’re going to go and invoke the namesake property fans have demanded, then you’d better deliver something equal bits moody, unsettling, and morbidly comical…and not an overdose of snark and colloquialisms that you think Brits use with frequency.

It's not that I don't like Renato Guedes' pencils, I just don't think they were a good fit for Constantine.

It’s not that I don’t like Renato Guedes’ pencils, I just don’t think they were a good fit for Constantine.

Armed with the title “Constantine the Hellblazer,” DC was apparently more than willing to, as the Taoist proverb goes, “talk the talk.” Which is something DC is wont to do, on the rare occasions their (anthropomorphized) mouth isn’t chock full of foot. I kid, I kid…somewhat. Thankfully, this announcement was accompanied by a tidbit slightly more substantive; even though this would be penciler Ming Doyle’s writing debut, she’d be co-writing with Scott Snyder’s right-hand man, James Tynion IV.

Anybody who read his work on Talon, a regrettably underrated title that spun out of Snyder’s “Court of Owls” arc, knows that Tynion’s not only got a knack for penning stomach-wrenching terror and bona fide baddies (“independently-minded ” Talon, The Butcher, for example) but he’s also got a firm handle on characters that are better versed in getting out of trouble than they are at proactively avoiding it in the first place.

Man, oh, man.  If you're looking for a great bat-book that was sadly overlooked, try Tynion's Talon.  Guillem March's pencils absolutely killed.

Man, oh, man. If you’re looking for a great bat-book that was sadly overlooked, try Tynion’s Talon. Guillem March’s pencils absolutely killed.

My cynicism reserves now hovering at frighteningly low levels, a mere quarter tank above “taciturn optimism,” I honed in on the penciler solicit: Riley Rossmo. Despite only having experienced Rossmo’s work on the Image Comics series Bedlam…well, considering I had to take several minutes to decompress between reading issues of sadist Madder Red’s unadulterated exploits of terror, I knew he was more than up to the task.

So what of its execution? Well, Constantine the Hellblazer #1 opens in media res with John standing in the middle of a clothing store buck naked, save for several coats of blood, remarking to the shirt-folding cashier that “it’s not what it looks like.” Narrating, Constantine remarks that, “it’s exactly what it ****ing looks like. But that’s the trick. That’s always the trick.” And that’s absolutely quintessential John behavior. He’s not going to vanish in a massive cloud of smoke or pluck a pair of khakis out of thin air; or anything that’d inadvertently attract attention to himself. Not that he’d wear khakis anyway.

I absolutely love Tom Napolitano's lettering, especially when it comes to his creative "bleeping" of profanities.

I absolutely love Tom Napolitano’s lettering, especially when it comes to his creative “bleeping” of profanities.

Thankfully, Tynion and Doyle “get” that the majority of Constantine’s magic is deftly executed parlor tricks, and what little of it is of the “bippidi-bobbidi-boo” variety usually comes across as nothing out of the ordinary to the casual observer. So instead of turning her into a frog, a pile of ash, or a marble statue (or some unhealthy combination of the three), he hypnotizes her, psychically convinces her that his scrap of paper with “CREDIT CARD” crudely scrawled on it is legit, and walks out minutes later, having donned his ill-gotten gains. Thievery, deception, and a flagrant disregard for how the consequences of his actions will assuredly affect others. Constantine in a nutshell.

While pulling the wool over the eyes of your everyday mortal is hardly a tall order for our miserly Merlin, his actions don’t escape the notice of spectral beings…especially those that weren’t able to walk through walls or float inches off the ground until they met John. Once again, our writers understand that making an enemy of John is ill-advised, but befriending him…that’s a death certificate signed in triplicate. Perhaps, with this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the first ethereal being we’re introduced to in Constantine the Hellblazer is Gary Lester. See, Mr. Lester happens to be the first close friend of John’s that we encounter being unceremoniously “offed” within the pages of the original Vertigo series (John was using poor Gary as demon bait…not that that makes it acceptable on any level).

Thanks to folks like Gary Lester, John's never truly alone.

Thanks to folks like Gary Lester, John’s never truly alone.

Yes, while most people have their demons, John has his own “precious ghostly entourage,” as he calls it. Junkie Gary might be the most prominent (and notable) of the bunch, but the rest fall in as our puffing protagonist ambles about New York City, several of which might stand out to the casual Hellblazer fan. It’s an odd juxtaposition to be sure, the inclusion of characters from the original series alongside a Constantine that clearly found his way “across the pond,” not unlike his “New 52″ incarnation. It begs the question of just how much of Hellblazer is canon, as well as if this series acknowledges the Constantine series or not. I realize we’ve arrived in a “post 52” realm, freed from the shackles of canon and continuity…but that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions.

Normally, this is usually the point in your standard “Big 2” book where writers are encouraged to quit dicking around, and point their protagonist(s) in the general direction of whatever evildoer is in need of a drubbing, or send them off on a globetrotting quest for somewhere between two and five MacGuffins. Yet Tynion and Doyle understand that much of Hellblazer’s appeal stemmed from its unwillingness to shoehorn John into a perpetually moving plot. They allow him to walk the streets, with nothing but his thoughts, the wafting smoke of his menthol cigarettes, and the surprisingly robust ghost population only visible to him. A man on a mission, John Constantine is not. For John, the burning question on his mind is not one about Heaven or Hell, Angels and Demons, or anything else featured prominently in a Dan Brown novel. Instead, he’s mulling where to grab dinner with the cash he’d pickpocketed earlier that afternoon.

Of course, that’s not to say that between flirting with his server and washing down his fish and chips with a pint, trouble won’t find him. And it does, in the form of delightfully colorful demon named Blythe. As far as demons go, Blythe looks more like she stepped out of a Cirque du Soleil performance, than one of those cheesecake pin-ups you’ll find on pickup trucks, the sort one shouldn’t park next to at sparsely populated rest stops. That doesn’t stop John from getting down with the Devil…or at the very least, one of Satan’s expatriated associates who just so happens to be running an “immersive theatrical interpretation” of Dante’s Inferno in Chelsea. It’s a vision of Hell that is made up of ten levels instead of the usual nine (one has to count the vestibule, after all), and ironically enough, has a fire code, much to the chagrin of John’s carcinogenic hobby.

Sometimes, all you really need in life is a plate of overpriced comfort food, and an opportunity to hit on the owner of the restaurant.

Sometimes, all you really need in life is a plate of overpriced comfort food, and an opportunity to hit on the owner of the restaurant.

Merely a congenially guided nightclub tour, this ain’t. Blythe’s true intent for Mr. Constantine falls much more on the “unwitting entanglement in matters best left between consenting servants of the Dark Lord” end of the spectrum. And while I feel redundant in mentioning this once more, Tynion and Doyle have taken the masterclass on Hellblazer. Namely, asking John for help is a poor idea; the man’s got enough baggage to stuff the overhead compartments of a 747. However, tricking him into fighting your battles? While John might be a bit of a bumbling combatant, his quick thinking and resourcefulness make it near impossible to out-con this conman.

The overall structure and tone of this introductory issue is strongly episodic, and that’s something I can live with. Hellblazer frequently gave me the feeling that Constantine’s greatest ambition was to live a carefree life, far off of anybody’s radar, be they pearly gates or smoldering fires. He’s going to do whatever he can to appear as a normal bloke, doing normal things. If he can accomplish said tasks on someone else’s dime, and seduce a few people along the way, ever more the better. In the same vein, Tynion and Doyle close the issue on a “cliffhanger-lite” ending, one that the issue itself only slightly builds towards, and doesn’t come across as possessing Earth-shattering repercussions. Whether or not DC Editorial allows this book to continue largely as an ambulatory and introspective title…time will tell.

Gore-drenched and ever charming, Rossmo's Constantine is a joy to behold.

Gore-drenched and ever charming, Rossmo’s Constantine is a joy to behold.

Artistically, Riley Rossmo is exactly the penciler Constantine the Hellblazer needed. His work just exudes that “rough around the edges” style that Hellblazer frequently embraced; one that Constantine passed over in favor of a more conventional style befitting “capes and tights.” Aesthetically, there’s a “punk rock” hard angular roughness that Rossmo gives to John’s features, from his chin all the way up to his blocky hair. That visual grit manifests itself in other aspects of the book, from the Ben-Day dots that Rossmo regularly uses to cast shadows or imbue texture, to his inking, which has a loose and freehand quality to it.

In a way, the approach to Constantine the Hellblazer’s art bears more than a passing resemblance to DC Comics’ flagship title, Batman. Namely, given the subject material, DC could have easily gone with “real world” aesthetics, or a color palette riddled with browns, blues and blacks. Instead, they opted for stylized visuals, and bright neon hues to offset the usual suspects of the horror genre. Did I mention that Constantine the Hellblazer’s colorist, Ivan Plascencia, shares his surname with Batman’s colorist, FCO Plascencia? Of course, there will be those who desire a “look” closer to that of Steve Dillon or Sean Phillips’ respective runs on Hellblazer, those who might label this new series as “kiddy” or “cartoonish.” To those individuals, take a look at Rossmo’s work on Bedlam or Rasputin (which also featured Ivan on colors) and you’ll understand that he’s more than capable of some fairly twisted content. This art team is a breath of fresh air, well-suited to the source material, and possess a track record that speaks for itself. I absolutely love Rossmo’s rendering of Constantine, one that is simultaneously confident and calculating, ready to handle whatever comes his way…even though he won’t be seeking it out.

If the first issue of Constantine the Hellblazer leaves you wondering if the title will embrace its horror roots, take a glance at Rossmo's work on Bedlam.  Provided he sticks around.  Sooo...we'll see.

If the first issue of Constantine the Hellblazer leaves you wondering if the title will embrace its horror roots, take a glance at Rossmo’s work on Bedlam. Provided he sticks around. Sooo…we’ll see.

In the end, Constantine the Hellblazer is never going to be that perfect carbon copy of Hellblazer that so many of us desire. The sheer fact that it’s not a Vertigo title, cannot sport a “MATURE” label, and dwells within the confines of DC’s “not-as-much-anymore-but-still-largely-integrated” universe practically ensures this. Yet, given the lackluster success DC’s had at adapting anything even remotely John Constantine related (at the time of writing this, Guillermo del Toro recently vacated the director’s chair on the Justice League Dark movie), it’s hard to fathom how downright odd it is that DC would take another crack at it.   Maybe this decision was made while the fate of NBC’s Constantine was less…pronounced? Or perhaps DC feels a need to maintain some token presence in the sparsely populated “Dark Universe” of titles it has largely shuttered in the past year, if only to ward off critics.

Regardless of just however we ended up getting Constantine the Hellblazer, I’m pleased to report that this recent effort from the team of Ming Doyle, James Tynion IV, and Riley Rossmo exceeds all expectations I had for the title. The book respects and acknowledges the source material, remains true to the character of John Constantine, and understands that this means pushing the proverbial envelope as far as the “TEEN PLUS” rating will permit (which, if you’ve read Animal Man, you know it’s quite a bit). It’s a witty and fun romp of an issue that hints at the darker undercurrents of Constantine’s past, but doesn’t mull over them long enough to shift the tone of the book. Perhaps the only thing slightly concerning is the passing of the torch from Rossmo to fellow penciler Vanesa Del Rey for issues three, four, and the foreseeable future. Del Rey’s no slouch, and her work on BOOM’s series HIT is formidable, but it still bears mentioning that Rossmo might be gone after two issues.

Overall Score
96 %

Writers James Tynion IV and Ming Doyle, and artist Riley Rossmo have done what nobody could since the inception of the New 52: deliver a solid Constantine narrative. It's fresh, true to its roots, and skirts the line with what a DC book can get away with on all fronts.

Writing 95%
Pencils 97%
Colors 95%

About The Author

Growing up, Nick White dreamed of a career with the Chicago Bulls. This is because he was young and stupid, and his parents were of the "you can do ANYTHING" mentality.

When he was older, and probably not a whole lot smarter, Nick purchased Alan Moore's From Hell on a whim (that in itself probably says a lot). He was astounded to find that comics were as bizarre and twisted as his beloved Twin Peaks. After that he bought Batman: The Black Mirror strictly on the cover's aesthetics (Who the hell is Scott Snyder?" he said) and hasn't looked back since. Except, of course, in situations that necessitate such.

When he's not "busy" playing Castlevania or harassing Zander about what he ought to be reading, Nick continues to work on his makeshift shrine to Jeff Lemire.

Comments are closed.