John Constantine is one of those comic characters a lot of people have written, but relatively few have really gotten right, like Wolverine or Paste Pot Pete. Originally cooked up by our old friend Alan Moore for his seminal (which is to say, bloody insane) run on “Swamp Thing”, Constantine is easily described as an “urban magus” but more accurately described as “a burned out, hard boiled ex punk-rocker in a trench coat that couldn’t be more dirty if it had been dragged through every major conflict in world history, who messes about with magic and gets in over his head 99% of the time and has to squirm his way out of it, usually getting people he cares about hurt or killed in the process”.
Or just “Bastard” as his friends might say.
Constantine’s been through the hands of numerous talented writers over the years, including Warren Ellis, and currently Peter Milligan, since passing from the hands of the Great Bearded Weirdo himself. But no writer seems to have defined the character more than Irish writer Garth Ennis.
More than any other writer before him, Ennis stressed the human side of Constantine, the tired, emotionally ruined wreck of a human being that lurks behind the trench coat and quips. From the very first storyarc, which sees Constantine diagnosed with terminal cancer (like you do when you smoke enough to bring London’s smog index up every time you go out to the corner store) and racing to find a way to cure himself, the frightened, desperate Constantine seems more in the driver’s seat than the suave man of mystery he presents to the world. But of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t times for our hero to live up to his reputation as being tougher than Sgt. Rock’s old boot and willing to do incredibly cool yet stupid things that will inevitably come back to haunt him.
Ennis manages to bring the same tone he would bring to his run on Marvel’s “Punisher” series years later. Some times, it can be rife pitch black comedy, like the “Damnation’s Flame” storyline, which sees Constantine wandering a metaphysical America with the spirit of JFK (Who speaks only in campaign speeches and is constantly holding together his own shattered skull). But just as often Ennis will switch gears into seriousville, like with the heart wrenching “Homeland”, the final issue of the run, which dispenses with supernatural shenanigans and even Constantine himself to tell a story of a broken family in war-torn Belfast. Ennis manages to walk that razor-thin tightrope between making a book fun and enjoyable, but also emotionally draining, like a weekend of Nicolas Winding-Refn movies where someone occasionally kicks Satan in the junk.
Art wise, the two talents most responsible for making Ennis’ turn on “Hellblazer” a visual treat are William Simpson, who worked on the first two volumes, and Ennis’ future “Preacher” collaborator Steve Dillon. Of the two, Simpson has what could probably be called more of a “classic Vertigo” look, often using monochromatic panels and simple compositions. Dillon, by contrast, tends to go for more detail, using a wider colour pallet and a greater emphasis on detail. Which one you prefer is really an apples and oranges deal.
If you’re looking to bust into the wide, scary world of classic Vertigo comics, Garth Ennis’ Hellblazer is about as good a place to start as any. Just imagine a movie where Guy Ritchie teams up with Neil Jordan with Clive Barker whispering horrible things in their ears from the shadows, then split that up into a six volume comic. And then take a mild hallucinogen or two, might as well do this thing right.