Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Devil You Know” by Jamie Delano, David Lloyd, & Richard Piers Rayner

Title: The Devil You Know
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: David Lloyd, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Mike Hoffman, & Dean Motter
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume II, Issues 10-13 + Annual #1 + The Horrorist miniseries)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

Alright, if you’ve been paying attention you know I reviewed the first collection of this comic series earlier this month. I wasn’t too overly impressed with the first volume for a number of reasons, but figured I’d give it another chance—if only to watch certain plot threads finish unraveling. I’m still not overly impressed, but I’m not giving up on the series yet either.

Last volume I mentioned that there was no resolution to the overarching plot of the previous volume, and as expected that plotline finds its resolution here. Most of Constantine’s brokenness stretches back to one disastrous night in Newcastle that is often referenced but has never been explicitly described…until now. The demon lord Nergal has been jerking Constantine around like a rebellious puppet for months, manipulating him into several disastrous courses of action, but now Constantine has managed to bloody his nose a bit. (Still not too sure what that was about—I think I need more info from the Swamp Thing book.) What Constantine has failed to realize thus far is that Nergal is in fact the previously-unidentified demon he encountered all those years ago in Newcastle, the night Constantine’s arrogance and amateur demonology got his sanity smashed to bits along with the lives of most of his friends. Now Nergal has alerted Constantine to their longstanding connection in an attempt to goad him into the open where he can be dealt with…but this may be the largest tactical mistake he could have made. Following the final reckoning between Nergal and Constantine, we’re treated to one of Constantine’s always-horrifying nightmares. This time it comes in the form of a thinly-veiled rant against nuclear power, closing out the regular-series entries in this volume. What comes next is the first ever Hellblazer annual, which carries us back to 1982. Britain’s forces are shipping out for the Falklands, it’s been four years since Newcastle, and Constantine is back out of Ravenscar Mental Hospital. At least for the moment, anyway. Now he’s back in London, next thing to suicidal until he meets a snow-white beauty who seems to know untold eldritch secrets. Or did he just hallucinate her? Either way, we’re treated to an extended nightmare sequence detailing a long-ago conversation between Merlin’s undead head and the mage-king Kon-Sten-Tyn in the age of old. I don’t put much stock in the dream being “true” (according to the series lore) given the grave differences between it and the historical record, but I could be proved wrong in future volumes. Rounding out the collection is the two-issue miniseries The Horrorist. Here we meet Angel, a young woman forged in the fires of Mozambique’s civil war and witness to countless horrific war crimes. As a result of her childhood experiences, Angel has become a Horrorist, one who redistributes the pain and suffering of the world to those isolated from its effects. Constantine is going through one of his numb phases where he feels completely isolated from the rest of humanity, but he’s drawn to a picture of Angel and grows determined to track her down. It’s not hard if you know what to look for: just follow the bodies. I’m not sure when this is supposed to be set chronologically—presumably soon after his showdown with Nergal, given its inclusion here—though the isolation Constantine is feeling at the beginning was nowhere in evidence during the regular series issues that precede it in the collection. Oh well.

Here’s the thing: I don’t much like this series so far. I like the character, John Constantine, but not the series. Constantine has that cynical, sarcastic antihero thing going for him, and I can’t stop reading his lines with the voice of Spike in my head. I enjoy his character, and will keep reading this for the potential to become something truly awesome that its reputation suggests will someday be achieved. The series so far, however, has been very bleak with little in the way of hope. I like to be uplifted a bit to balance out the horrors, if only just a little. You won’t often find that here. I also am not really one for nightmare sequences and the unreality of dreams (outside of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, where such things are expected) or madness. I’m just not a fan. So this volume’s three nightmare/vision/astral journey tales? Not really digging them. There’s definitely a taste element going on there though, so take that as you will. The strident political commentary was still featured strongly, which also turned me off a bit. On the plus side, we evil Christians weren’t the villains this time around. I mean, it wasn’t a complete turnaround, but an improvement. Constantine thinks angels are scary, which I’m sure is probably true (Why else would their first words in every biblical appearance be something to the effect of “Don’t be afraid?”) and Angel (the girl, not the celestial beings) was adopted by a couple of missionaries. Constantine makes a snide comment about the wisdom of bringing a girl from war-torn Africa to Suburbia, but concludes that they probably meant well. Then there’s the vision/nightmare featuring Constantine’s….ancestor? Previous reincarnation? Whatever. In that segment the Church is at first the enemy and later a duped ally, thinking Kon-Sten-Tyn has converted when he’s simply paying their God lip service and subverting all their efforts to serve the elder gods. So we’ve gone from being represented as evil (the Resurrection Army from the first volume) to being well-meaning dupes. I guess it’s a start….

Most of the art is just run-of-the-mill 80s DC Comics fare, but David Lloyd’s work on The Horrorist was pretty good. Very subdued coloration along with Lloyd’s signature style, which I’m honestly not sure how to describe. It’s not traditional pencils, but too precise to be watercolors…anyway, it’s pretty distinctive. I’m not artistically hip enough to say more than that, and add my opinion that it worked incredibly well for the Hellblazer universe.

CONTENT: Again, no “f-bombs” that I can recall, but just about every other profanity to be found on either side of the pond. Strong sexual content, including brief nudity. Strong violence, occasionally horrific. Angels and demons are characters, and the protagonist is a magician/wizard/sorcerer/whatever. I’d say that counts as occult content, even if he doesn’t do much magic this time around.

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