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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits” by Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, William Simpson, Sean Philips, Steve Pugh, & Dave McKean

Title: Dangerous Habits
Writers: Jamie Delano & Garth Ennis
Artists: William Simpson, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dave McKean, Mark Pennington, Tom Sutton, Malcolm Jones III, Mark McKenna, Kim DeMulder, & Stan Woch
Series:  John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume V, Issues #34-46)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

I’d kind of prefer to review this one as two separate volumes, because midway through the book the entire production team changed. This is tied into a single collection largely for convenience, but its pretty much two separate stories. I was less a fan of the first half, which is where it lost a star, but the second half was probably the best bit of the series I’ve read to date. Remember the Constantine film with Keanu Reeves? Yeah, I know, you were trying not to. Sorry. Anyway, they pulled a significant number of the subplots for the film from this volume–specifically, Constantine’s fatal lung cancer. It was resolved a bit differently though….

We start the book with Jamie Delano firmly in the seat as writer, with a  rotating roster of artists. Following on after the events of The Family Man, Constantine’s in a rough place emotionally–he’s just killed a man, which is never easy, and to top it off his estranged father was one of the casualties. Catching up with Marj and Mercury, he tries to lose himself in their nomadic lifestyle, but only manages to pull Mercury into his nightmare flashback to his childhood. I wasn’t a huge fan of this three-issue arc, drawn by Sean Phillips. That wasn’t really Phillips’ fault, mind you, though I wasn’t a huge fan of his art either. It was more about the dark and depressing tone. I know, I know, it’s a horror book, what do I expect? I just didn’t like it. Sue me. Steve Pugh then takes over the pencil as we meet Martin, a sensitive young vegetarian, and his sadistic butcher of a father. Of course their paths are bound to cross with our protagonists, though this particular two-issue arc is more focused on Mercury than it is on Constantine. Again, not a huge fan of either the story or the art, at least a little because I wasn’t all that engaged. Martin was kind of pathetic, literally, and I happen to be pretty disdainful of the vegetarian propaganda that was most of this tale. Also, I’m pretty sure that the butcher in the tale needs to be arrested for a whole multitude of crimes, from domestic abuse to health code violations. Pugh continues to draw the first half of the next arc as Constantine attempts to explore his missing half, the Golden Boy, his twin brother who died with their mother in childbirth. The second issue, drawn by Dave McKean, gives us an alternate universe where the other twin lived. Far more successful than the John Constantine we know, he has managed to come out ahead in several of the same conflicts that our John only barely survived, even saving some of his friends along the way. Now he leads a pagan commune, their wise and beloved Magus, but even still he is haunted by the spirit of his lesser, sickly brother who died in the womb. The art of Dave McKean is a bit of an acquired taste, since it is so weird, and I’m not really a fan. I do have to admit that it fits the series well, however, and this tale seems to have achieved a legendary status among fans of the series.

Immediately following on (and with no real transition from that really strange ending) Garth Ennis takes over the writing chair, with Will Simpson picking up the pencil. So what do you do when you’ve just been handed the lead writing position on a well-revered title? Well, if you’re Garth Ennis you promptly try and kill the main character….Those thirty silk-cut cigarettes a day have finally caught up with our favorite anti-hero. He’s dying of lung cancer, and there’s not a thing he can do about it. Not a one of his magical tricks can save him. It’s far beyond his power, and there are very few beings he can turn to for help. Even fewer who would be willing to do anything…. This arc is hands-down my favorite so far. The first issue as Constantine tries to wrap his head around his own impending mortality is incredibly poignant, and the consistency of having a single artist (and a good one at that!) really helps the series in my opinion. I think my favorite bit was the second issue of the arc, though, as Constantine visits an old friend in Ireland and ends up having an ill-fated meeting with one of Hell’s rulers, the First of the Fallen. (I presume this is Satan, though I’m not sure how that jives with Lucifer from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, which are supposedly in the same universe.) There should be no surprise that Constantine manages to wiggle out of his predicament–the series ran until just a couple years ago, after all–but knowing that doesn’t detract at all from the impact of this story. I look forward to seeing what happens next as Ennis adjusts to his new job….

CONTENT: Some grotesque and gory violence. Some strong profanity, especially of the British variety. This time the sexual content was largely implied as opposed to explicit, but it was there nevertheless. Obviously there is quite a bit of occult content, as you would expect from this title.

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Original Sins” by Jamie Delano & John Ridgeway

Title: Original Sins
Writers: Jamie Delano & Rick Veitch
Artists: John Ridgeway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, & Jim McCarthy
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume I, Issues #1-9 + Swamp Thing #76-78)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2011

I’m ashamed to say that my first real encounter with the character of John Constantine was the decidedly mediocre 2005 film. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the movie, but I was unaware at the time (the time being years later when I actually saw it, not when it came out) that it had very little to do with the actual character it was based on. Constantine is blonde and British, not brown-haired and living in LA. That’s Angel. I say my first real encounter, because he did feature in one of the early issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I had no idea who he was at the time. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try this series for a while, so when I found the first volume at the library, I checked it out.

I can’t so much describe the plot to this collection, because there’s not much of an overarching plot to describe. The events described are loosely tied together, but at least for this first volume there’s no real resolution. (The library bought the first two volumes, so I’m hoping the overarching plot is resolved in the second one.) This is mostly about establishing the character and the world he inhabits. John Constantine is a powerful magician, but he doesn’t take much enjoyment in the fact. Magic and his own mistakes have cost him too many friends and loved ones, faces that literally haunt him both waking and sleeping. He’s a bit of a jerk–actually, more than a bit, and you could use stronger language if you wanted to–and has few moral qualms. About the only temptation he’s good at resisting is the temptation to walk away from a losing fight. Amateur magicians, the forces of Hell, the forces of Heaven, they all have a way of causing trouble. And Constantine just can’t help trying to stop them, whether it’s in defense of a friend or out of sheer curiosity. We’ve got a hunger demon, finance demons, a pedophiliac necromancer, time-slipped soldiers from the ‘Nam, the struggle between the Resurrection Crusade and the Damnation Army (the loose overarching plot that takes over halfway through), and a strange interlude featuring the Swamp Thing that I’m not really sure should have been included here. Constantine will take his licks and deal out some in return, even if it kills him. Or, more likely, even if it kills everyone he’s ever known….

I…had some issues with this. Some of these issues are clearly taste, while others are situational. Most frustrating for me, given my slight OCD over getting the whole story, is that this feels like you’re coming into the middle of the story despite it being the first volume. John Constantine was created as part of the Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing, and this spins out of that with Constantine reeling from the events of a particularly casualty-heavy story arc over there that is never really explained here. Also frustrating for me is the rather cynical view implicit to the events here that the forces of Heaven are no better than the forces of Hell. In fact, I would almost say that the Resurrection Crusade is more sinister than the Damnation Army! At least the forces of Hell are upfront about it–they’re demon’s! What do you expect? Look, I get that some televangelists are/were money-hungry frauds that give the rest of us Christians a bad name. That doesn’t mean you have to have to feature only the worst of the lot. Now, I do admit that it was not Heaven itself that was portrayed as sinister, but rather some of their earthly human agents, who don’t necessarily represent the will of God. It just rubbed me the wrong way, I suppose. I’m hoping this is handled better in the future. We’ll see. I could also do without the gratuitous commentary on ’80s British politics and social issues. I get it, there wasn’t a single British comic writer that approved of Margaret Thatcher! Can you stop slapping me in the face with it?

CONTENT: Quite a bit of language. No uses of the “F-Bomb” that I can recall/find, but everything else is used, including a heap of British profanity and slang. Harsh violence, occasionally torturous. Strong sexual content, including a rape and the implication of pedophilia (portrayed as horrific in both cases, not glorified), semi-explicit without going so far as outright nudity. Strong occult content, which should be obvious. Demons, spells, necromancy….it’s all here.

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