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by Garth Ennis and William Simpson, DC Comics. Reviewed by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#10, 1992

Oh Christ.
Shit creek again.
          John Constantine

Hey, you want to know something funny? I read one of the world's great comics recently, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, and I didn't like it. Sure it was brilliantly written and beautifully drawn, but I also found it pretentious, annoying and uninteresting. Maybe it was something to do with the politics, maybe I'm just over-exposed to all-powerful characters who waltz round in silly costumes quoting Shakespeare. But a good story has to be more than art or, like most poetry (and, I might add, Paul Cornell's briliantly-written but boring book Timewyrm: Revelation), it is imagery without justification.

I doubt John Constantine knows a great deal of Shakespeare, though he is, is certain respects, a well-read man. When he was young he was lead singer in a band called the Mucous Membranes, releasing a single called Venus of the Hardsell (actually written by Moore himself). Even younger, and he was sacrificing cats in a ritual to cripple his father (before going in and watching Doctor Who).

And somewhere in his early twenties he tried to perform an exorcism in Newcastle, something that went spectacularly wrong, killing most of the team and sending John mad.

But he's better now, sort of.

The King of the Vampires regards John as one of the most intelligent, able and daring occult figures that's ever lived, and John disagrees.

He walked onto a 747 once, unprepared, knowing it was going to crash. And he walked off it, the only survivor.

Personally, I'm rather fond of Mr Constantine (or JC, as we call him). I went to a 'hero' fancy dress party once -- trench-coat on, white shirt and blue tie, hair slicked back, permanent cigarette in hand (unlit, I'm afraid). It was a pretty good likeness. At last year's Necronomicon one of the teams was called John ConstanTeam, and I was impressed. I have recently been trying to track down all the issues he's been in, a rather difficult task, but rewarding. He is my favourite character in comics, over Death and Dream and Batman.

But if you don't know a lot about him, a little history might be in order.

Back around 1985 Alan Moore was writing Swamp Thing, and wanted to inject more adult themes and concepts into the comic. To do this he created John, a mystery man who came out of nowhere and declared himself as Swamp Thing's new 'manager'. He always knew more than he should have, and even then he was going on about Newcastle and the deaths of friends. A semi-regular character from issue 38 onwards, John finally scored his own comic book in early 1988, written by Jamie Delano and drawn by John Ridgeway (of DW: Voyager fame). The comic was Hellblazer (initially called Hellraiser, but Clive Barker beat them to it).

Some people thought that John would loose his hard, mysterious edge, become a hero, in the new series. But considering he had to literally sacrifice an old friend (I suddenly remember Gaz's mum... She never did like me. Bad influence, she said. People should listen to their mothers) to stop a Hunger Spirit from devouring New York they shouldn't have worried.

The artists changed round a bit, but Delano stayed on till issue 40, when Garth Ennis took over as regular writer, starting off with a brilliant six-part story about terminal lung-cancer and the ultimate sting.

Neil Gaiman's had a go at him, in Sandman#3 and the slightly disappointing Books of Magic, as well as Grant Morrison and (alas) Nancy Collins, and there is a fair amount .of history behind John's ancestors (particularly Lady Joanna Constantine) in various places.

These days John is a little less mysterious, a little more tragic. But he is still a character about whom you can never decide what he knows, or how powerful he really is. He certainly knows some magic, but most of it's bluff. He is, above all things, a con-artist.

He is even one of the good guys, though it's a hard persona to catch, and there are some convincing arguments to the contrary. And while he now wants nothing but peace, considering what he has just done to the Unholy Triumvirate, that may not be easy.

Hellblazer is a horror comic, pure and simple. It has no pretensions to art. It wallows in blood and sex and drugs and irreverent religious imagery. But it is well-written, thought-provoking (sorry, it had to be said), often truly disturbing, sometimes poetic, and on occasion very, very funny.

The best issues of the series I've read are numbers 1-5, and I desperately want to find 6-12 to finish the first story-line (past that I'm only missing 14 and 27). But if you don't want to go on a major hunt through the comic-shops try 41-46, or just the latest one on the stands.

JC isn't a hero, he's just an ordinary guy who often gets in over his head, and talks his way out again anyway. A guy who hates both the Angels and the Devils, because it's good enough to be human. Maybe.

I recommend you try and work that one out for yourself.


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