Hellblazer: Original Sins by Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch & Tom Mandrake (graphic novel review).
John Constantine is the everyman’s hero. In fact, part of his charm comes from the fact he’s a comicbook hero without the over-blown super prefix. Truth be told, he’s actually a total bastard, but then again, that is the crux of his charm.
Constantine is a contemporary wizard, sorcerer, mage, whatever title you want to give him, who manipulates his way through the underworlds of London, the USA and the many literal and figurative Hells in between. Set firmly in the modern day, since his inception Constantine has aged in real time. None of this confusing sliding timeline crap here, Constantine is human.
Of course, he’s no ordinary human, but he’s not quite Batman or Superman. No, he’s more down to earth. That’s part of the great pull of the ‘Hellblazer’ comics, they may be set loosely (very loosely!) in the DC Universe but you need no knowledge of the ins and outs of the DCU. The book, which does allude to other heroes, namely in the two issues of ‘Swamp Thing’ included here, is firmly planted in a world that has super-heroes but they are pretty much someone else’s problem.
This collection, the first of the newly re-issued and renumbered Vertigo Paperbacks, starts off at issue one and, within its pages, houses eleven issues, nine of which are ‘Hellblazer’ and two are a very abrupt cross-over with ‘Swamp Thing’.
The book starts off with Constantine returning to London to find his flat infested with bugs, the source of which is his old friend, Lester, who whilst in Africa, unleashed an evil hunger spirit.
The nine issues of ‘Hellblazer’ included are a fantastic introduction to the character and the world he inhabits. The magic, whilst vague, is interesting enough to hook you in and the various types are imaginative and well-written. The other selling point, which at first seems a tad jarring, is the demonic presence. Over-blown and grotesque, the demons are a fantastic foil to Constantine’s no nonsense approach.
The other great part of this collection is that, straight off the bat, you realise Constantine really isn’t that nice a guy nor, in theory, is he even all that likeable. However, he wins you over.
The writing helps, with some witty contemporary allusions. A highlight is when Constantine walks into a public toilet splattered with blood and remarks, ‘it looks like a bloody Ralph Steadman drawing.’ Issue three is the collections high point, drawing a parallel between the Conservatives being re-elected, demon bankers and how obvious it is that a Tory government is a dystopia hungry machine that has no regard for anyone below it. The books best scene features Constantine strung upside down, being forced to watch the British election of 1987, which was won by the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, after he’s just had a pub full of demons massacred. It’s messed up but its good messed up.
The satirical tone of Constantine, whilst a little hackneyed in this opening volume, is clear and would become a driving force behind the book. The Damnation Army, a kind of anti-Salvation Army is a good touch, as are the references to Oxfam, and it really brings the comicbook into the realms of brilliance with its fantastic social commentary.
The low point of the collection is probably issue four, which takes Constantine back to America to deal with and I got a little lost here, a ghost platoon of American soldiers who were still fighting the Vietnamese war in rural Iowa. This issue feels like editorial influence feeling that the series needed some American grounding for an American audience. On saying that, this issue has a character scene for Constantine that is both harrowing and indicative of who he is.
The art in this book is visceral and psychedelic. The page layouts are spread and somewhat confusing but it helps add to the world that Jamie Delano and John Ridgeway are conjuring. Whilst in later issues, outside of this volume, Constantine gets darker, in terms of content and art, this style is evocative and welcoming. It does have an eighties vibe to it, but unlike super-hero comics, this doesn’t hurt the story as the character moves in real time.
This book is extremely violent, messed up, and disconcerting but, despite the few narrative flaws and the sometimes vague plots, the first collection of ‘Hellblazer’ is a fantastic introduction to a character who is unabashedly British. Plus, it’s a sizeable read and considering the steep pricing of graphic novels, this is actually value for money. This is American comics at their best, no super-heroics in sight and it sits up there with the other great offerings from Vertigo such as ‘Transmetropolitan’ or ‘Sandman’. Whilst it has now come to an end with the recent issue 300, these re-issues are a great way to appreciate the complete saga of a quintessential British comicbook hero.