Ming Doyle, James Tyrion IV, Riley Rossmo, Chris Visions, Scott Kowalchuk, Ivan Plascencia and Lee Loughridge
A brief history first. John Constantine was created during Moore, Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing run in 1985 and soon got his own ongoing series- Hellblazer- which ran for 300 issues. This was a fan favourite and has been critically acclaimed throughout most of its run.
However, following the New 52 relaunch, Constantine joined the new team book Justice League Dark. Whilst Hellblazer continued, initially DC made the decision to cancel the sub-10k order book in 2013 and launch a new story with the New 52 Constantine. Whilst initially successful there was a lot of backlash and sales figures quickly tumbled to similar levels to Hellblazer, meaning it was cancelled just 2 years later. At the same time, the shortlived Constantine TV series had increased some public curiosity in the character so simply putting him on the shelf would have been an illogical choice.
So Tyrion and Doyle’s new book Constantine: The Hellblazer had to try to both bring it back closer to the style of the old Hellblazer days and draw in the interest of the TV crowd. How far do they succeed?
One of the biggest criticisms of the Constantine title is that it all looked too bright and John was far too nice. The opening preview issues attempts to instantly dispel that he lets a young woman get torn apart by demons as a result of deal she made and declares that he’s not a superhero. However, with the exception of the opening and closing issues (which are more of a loose setup of concept) the story is largely about Constantine’s own past catching up to him. So as the story goes on he is not the total bastard either, being torn up by regret and wanting to right the wrongs he has caused. This creates a halfway house which I personally find interesting enough but it does little to distinguish him from a lot of other broody superheroes.
The story also injects copious amounts of violence and sex but whilst I think it would be going too far to declare this juvenile, their introduction seems to be more set-dressing than providing us with a real advancement of Constantine’s character or the mystery. In fact I feel you could easily have ejected all the panels of John naked and it would not have seemed significantly different.
The artwork itself is a much more successful overhaul of tone with all of them giving John’s world a murky and unreal sense. The feeling is like when you pull up a rock and an army of insects run out from under a rock, only this time under the cities unspeakable horrors lurk. The layout is also constantly changing and messy, with many panels intentionally overlaying others, further unnerving us and continuing the promotion of his world as more unknowable and chaotic.
I do have a couple of criticism of the art choices however. Firstly, Rossmo’s facial expressions look too posed for my liking, in many scenes they look less like people are more like dolls in a stock motion film. Whilst this could be argued this creates a sense of the uncanny, to me it just made them seem inanimate and would take me outside of the story flow. As a positive aside the story flow is magnificent throughout and full props to everyone for using the layout, art and storytelling to create a strong pace.
My second criticism is the inconsistency of the art. Now I know this is not to be helped as artist often need to change and doing so in the transition of scene does help to make this interesting. However, my real issue is with Constantine’s proportions. In issues 1-2 and 5-6 John is a complete stick and this fits his character well. However, in issues 3-4 he is as built like a weightlifter and it genuinely confused me who I was looking at first.
On to the final question, how much of a good jumping on piece is this for TV fans? Well it may just be because the TV version was the last time I encountered him but he seems to me to inhabit Ryan’s persona much more than the last two comic book variations. It also provides a good deal of background to the character so you will not be lost at the amount of flashbacks that are taking place. But yet few of trappings are there that a fan might hope to encounter, we get one reference to Papa Midnight and some short scenes of Gaz’s ghosts but otherwise we have a new supporting cast of Oliver, Veronica Delacroix and Georgina Snow. As of these first few issues none of them particularly stand out and are largely confined to stand tropes of supporting comic book cast everywhere.
For me, this is not a series I will need to start rushing out to buy in single issues but will happily check out a new trade every once in a while. But will it succeed in surviving for another 300 issues? Hell only knows.