When Hellblazer hit the shelves back in the late 80s, it was a comic book like no other. Although mainstream titles like Batman were getting darker and more psychological, Hellblazer showed them they still had an awfully long way to go.
Created by Alan Moore, Hellblazer is rather difficult to someone totally unfamiliar with it. Its main character is John Constantine; a hard-boiled cynical, chain-smoking Brit. Constantine is sort of a modern day noir detective, as cynical and black as they come. To further complicate matters, Constantine suffers psychic powers and is haunted by Demons from Hell who want him to further the cause of Hell in the eternal war against Heaven. Oh, and just to cheer things up a little bit, Constantine has lung cancer.
Like I said, not your average comic book hero. There's no spandex, secret hideouts or gadgets in sight and no costumed villains each with their own crime theme. As he did with The Watchmen, Moore has created a bitter, cynical anti-hero that many people will loathe. In every sense of the word, Constantine is an anti-hero; someone to hate, rather than to cheer for.
In this volume, the forces of Good and Evil are each trying to bring a new Messiah into the world to help secure them dominant influence over the Earth. Constantine has been infected with the blood of the demon Nergal who is looking to use him to father a child with the new Virgin Mary. Constantine's old nemesis Swamp Thing is also looking to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend and needs Constantine' help to do it.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to repeat that this is not your usual comic book stuff and won't be to everyone's taste. As you might expect, the Hellblazer comics are a lot more complex than your standard "solve the crime, beat up the bad guy" storylines you get elsewhere. Yet, that's exactly what makes it so compelling. Whilst Constantine contains plenty of metaphysical and religious elements that make the story deeper and more complex, it never fails to tell an interesting story that will grip you... if you give it a chance.
Hellblazer works so well because of the characters, and in particular Constantine himself. He may be unpleasant, arrogant, rude and self-pitying, but at the same time, he is also deeply vulnerable and troubled; a man who tries to pretend he needs no-one, but is secretly always on the lookout for a friend or an ally. This is one of the reasons why Constantine engages and fascinates us. For all he plays up to his anti-hero status, at heart he is one of the most human characters in comic books anywhere - a slightly tragic figure, forced to be alone through circumstance and with no-one to turn to, frightened for both his life and his soul. To disguise this vulnerability, he is infused with a jet-black sense of humour more bitter and cynical than any noir detective ever dared to be. You can't help but like and sympathise with someone so bleak!
Sadly, the Brit aspect of the character doesn't always work. When the comic was penned by Alan Moore, Constantine's cockney slang worked reasonably well. In this volume, it sounds artificial, written in a way that reflects how Americans think Brits speak, rather than necessarily being based in any linguistic reality. Constantine uses the word "mate" far too much and there's also an over-reliance on "ennit" (isn't it) at the end of sentences. It's not quite Dick Van Dyke, but it's not that far removed.
The stories in this collection are slightly odd from a chronological point of view and it's a little tricky to get your head round how they all fit together. Stories one and two come together reasonably well, whilst tales 3 and 4 slot somewhere into the tales you have already read; in one case coming between stories 1 and 2, in other coming part way through one! Thankfully, this is all explained in the foreword (I knew there was a reason why I always read these!) Armed with that basic information, it's easy to see how the stories fit together, and everything becomes clear. Viewed as a whole, they make a lot of sense and provide one complete story, but unless you were a regular Hellblazer reader, you could find them confusing without that foreword!
Artwork in Hellblazer is uniformly of very high quality. The first thing that strikes you is that all the images are drawn in black and white with not a hint of colour anywhere in the entire volume. This gives them a slightly old-fashioned look which perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the narrative and the bleak style of the book. It also gives it a much more striking look and feel. Indeed, the use of colour would probably have spoiled the strong, stark lines of the artwork, which underline the darker themes of the book itself.
Just occasionally, there are issues with the layout. Most of the panels run in traditional comic book format (three panels in a row, read across, then down the page). There are, however, a couple of places where (for no obvious narrative or artistic reason), the layout changes and rather than running across a single page, a double-page spread is adopted so you have read all the way across two pages, then back to the next row on the first page. There were a few times when this caught me out and I read down the page in the usual way, only to realise that what I was reading didn't make a lot of sense!
If your only experience of John Constantine is the abomination of a movie starring Keanu Reeves, then try reading some Hellblazer. A word of caution, thought: I wouldn't start with this volume - track down volume 1 and start there (otherwise you're jumping in mid-tale and may struggle to catch up). If you want a more adult comic book that dares to be different, though Hellblazer could well be the answer to your prayers.
Price-wise, it shouldn't set you back an arm and a leg. Some chancer is selling a new copy on Amazon for £98 (!), but if you're prepared to accept a second hand copy, you can pick it up for a couple of quid (I got mine for 50p).
Hellblazer Volume 3
Joe Delano, John Ridgway, Rick Veitch
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011