Best Shots Review: JOHN CONSTANTINE - HELLBLAZER #1 'a Return to Form' (10/10)

John Constantine: Hellblazer #1
Credit: DC/Black Label
Credit: DC/Black Label

John Constantine: Hellblazer #1
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Aaron Campbell and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Aditya Bidikar
Published by DC/Black Label
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Credit: DC/Black Label

Vertigo Comics’ prodigal son returns in the wickedly good John Constantine: Hellblazer #1. Given a keenly funny, macabre voice by writer Simon Spurrier and gorgeously harrowing artwork by the pairing of Aaron Campbell and Jordie Bellaire, this return of the classic title finds the trickster magician back on his home turf after years “abroad.” Basically ignoring his brief tenure as a mainstream DCU character, Spurrier quickly gets John mucking about in the thick of British occult culture, carefully laying out the new cast of this new volume and the hook of the first arc; wherein John is kidnapped by a group of magically infused Council Estate drug dealers who seem to be locked in battle with...literal angels.

While Spurrier evokes the feeling of classic Ennis and Ellis era Hellblazer on the script level, artists Aaron Campbell and Jordie Bellaire inject a stony, Tim Bradstreet-like look into the interior art. Led by Campbell’s pitch-perfect John Constantine, the pages in this debut consistently impress, either with sparkling character-based interaction or truly terrifying occult displays like the angels’ attack or the design of the Haruspex, a garishly tattooed conjurer/gang warlord who sees the future stirring through organs with a dead man’s arm. If you have been pining for the days of “Dangerous Habits” and “All His Engines,” then the return of John Constantine: Hellblazer is the return to form you have been waiting for.

Credit: DC/Black Label

Right from the jump, John Constantine: Hellblazer proves it’s not going to be another faux-superhero tale. Calling back the sudden and shocking violence of the Vertigo era, as well as the thoughtful narration of the title, Simon Spurrier drops us in the middle of a magical war. The Haruspex’s runners are attempting to sell their wares, but just like the many groups before them, holy hosts descend upon them and “lovingly skin” their prey. And the creative team shows us every gory detail, scaffolded with acerbic narration from Spurrier and Campbell’s gory panel borders visually representing the Haruspex’s fleshy oracle. The scene culminates in a fresco-like splash page from Campell and Jordie Bellaire, as the angels radiate clean light while they literally vivisect the unfortunate gang members.

From there, the title starts to establish its wonderful take on John Constantine and the rest of the characters. Constantine is back in England, but the world has moved beyond his “cheeky” ribald former charms. As we see him immediately ejected from a nearby pub, John starts to realize that he might be old hat. This is given further voice by the introduction of Nat, a Glaswegan bouncer who John attempts to flirt with - echoing shades of former co-star Kit Ryan, Nat absolutely has Constantine’s number and is set up very nicely to be a welcome foil for Constantine in further issues. John is also given a fun Chas stand-in in the form of Noah, a mute member of the Haruspex’s gang who is assigned as his “body man” upon entering Peckham Rye Park. Even without dialogue, Noah functions much more as the audience surrogate, bridging the gap between the crime-dominated “real world” and the occult plane, but it is nice all the same to see Spurrier building out a cast this early.

Credit: DC/Black Label

But while it sounds like Spurrier might be taking the piss with Constantine, actively poking fun as his older, slightly stale “edgy” persona, it actually makes him all the more charming as he navigates this opening story. Instead of bucking against it or even lashing out, Spurrier’s Constantine is world-weary and occasionally problematic, while also being affable. He grumbles “fair point” at Nat calling him out for sexism and, in the comic’s funniest gag, is appropriately contrite when called “ableist” for not recognizing Noah’s deafness. It is really satisfying knowing that characters, when handled properly, can still be messy while also evolving.

Hellblazer also does readers the courtesy of looking tremendous as well, thanks to Infidel alum Aaron Campbell and in-demand colorist Jordie Bellaire. Evoking the classic grime and grit of the Vertigo era along with richly expressive character models, both Campbell and Bellaire excel here. The more violent, horror-inspired scenes will be the watercooler moments of this issue, particularly when the angels sprout miniature clone people from their victim’s wounds. But the character interactions really shine here as well, especially in the scene between John and Nat wherein both characters look, pose, and emote just like real actors on a stage, highlighted by Bellaire’s rich lighting and highlighting tones. Horror always looks better when it looks real, and Aaron Campbell and Jordie Bellaire make it look easy here.

Vertigo may be shuttered, but the spirit of one of its icons is alive and well in the pages of John Constantine: Hellblazer. Armed with timely humor, engaging characters, and impressive production values, it’s like Constantine never left for the “big leagues.” He’s back to doing what he does best, which is conning his way through shocking tales of British horror.

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