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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Bloodlines” by Garth Ennis, John Smith, William Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, & Mike Hoffman

Title: Bloodlines
Writers: Garth Ennis & John Smith
Artists: Will Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, Mike Hoffman, Mike Barreiro, Kim DeMulder, & Stan Woch
Series:  John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume VI, Issues #47-61)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

Ummm….yeah, I have no idea what’s up with that cover. It appears to be Constantine standing over a demon he’s beaten to death with a crucifix. Just so we’re clear, that never happened here. Which is kind of a shame, now that I think about it….This is mostly a patchwork anthology, one-offs and shorter story arcs. Most of them were good, a couple not so much.

When last we left our antiheroic mage, he’d just conned the three princes of Hell into healing his fatal lung cancer lest they be forced to go to war over his soul. Needless to say, they’re not too happy about being outwitted by a mortal…. Constantine’s going to have to get back in the saddle pretty quickly, though, as the magical catastrophes aren’t taking a break. First up, its stopping a pair of poltergeists after an insurance scam turns deadly. Will Simpson’s art is great in part one (The Pub Where I Was Born), but I wasn’t a fan of Mike Hoffman’s in the second half (Love Kills). Next Constantine explores the “real” meaning of Christmas (i.e. getting hammered and laid, possibly but not necessarily in that order) in Lord Of The Dance. It is alleged that the titular song (“Dance, then, wherever you may be….”) was not originally about Christ but about a pagan spirit of revelry, who was in effect neutered by the coming of Christianity to the British Isles. Steve Dillon’s art was good, and I managed to be (mostly) unoffended by the slurs against my own worldview. It’s par for the course when reading certain series…. A couple days later in Remarkable Lives, Constantine is summoned in the middle of the night to a darkened park where he finds none other than the King of the Vampires trying to recruit him. Obviously, that goes real well…. Will Simpson once again handles the art, and does an excellent job of it for the most part. This is followed by the only story in the book that I actually disliked, Counting To Ten. John Smith serves as guest writer, while Sean Phillips handles the pencils. Honestly, I’m not sure I get this story even on a second read-through. Something with a dead woman who isn’t dead, and a friend of Constantine’s in need of an exorcism. There’s no tie-in to anything else, no payoff or fallout from the events therein described. I’m gonna try and pretend it never happened…. Next up we get the closest thing to a main story this volume offers, the four-part arc Royal Blood. In London, the Caligula Club caters to the every twisted, perverted whim of the rich and famous, from bloody cocktails to catfights all the way to matters of the occult. Last night they summoned up the demon responsible for the Ripper killings, and it possessed the heir to the throne. Now  they’re loose on the streets of London, and the body count is rising….Will Simpson’s art is excellent, if morbid, and I have to wonder if Ennis consulted Alan Moore about using the plot of From Hell as backstory. This Is The Diary Of Danny Drake was a particularly disturbing tale, drawn by the legendary David Lloyd, featuring a man being haunted by his diary. Yeah, you read that right. It makes sense in the story, kind of. Mortal Clay/Body And Soul features Steve Dillon back on the artwork, this time exploring a shady munitions testing firm that’s graverobbing to help provide test corpses. Problem is, they’ve made off with the corpse of Chas’s uncle, and that’s got Constantine after them…. The two-part tale Guys And Dolls sees the First Of The Fallen put in place the first elements of his latest scheme to lay low our favorite antihero, this time using a young succubus of Constantine’s acquaintance. Trouble is, Chantinelle has no interest in revealing just how she met Constantine, as that conversation would go very poorly for all involved. Seems she’d fallen in love with an angel a few years back, and Constantine managed to save her skin. But can he do it again? Find out in She’s Buying A Stairway To Heaven! I look forward to seeing what happens next as Constantine readies for war with Hell once more….

CONTENT: PG-13 grade profanity, missing R-rated by the strategic placement of word bubbles. Some moderately explicit sexual content and nudity, including a shot of Constantine’s ass as he uses a urinal. We all needed to see that…. Strong, gory violence, frequently disturbing. Strong occult content, par for the course in this series.

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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: The Family Man” by Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Ron Tiner, & Sean Philips

Title: The Family Man
Writers: Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman & Dick Foreman
Artists: Ron Tiner, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dean Motter, Kevin Walker, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, & Tim Bradstreet
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume IV, Issues #23-33)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

This volume of the ongoing Hellblazer comic series proved to be a mixed bag, not in terms of quality but in terms of subject matter. Much like the first volume, but in this case it was all tied together by a larger narrative. It was, I think, my favorite volume so far….which is a bit chilling, since this was undoubtedly the most messed up volume yet as well. At any rate, I’m finally seeing what everyone raves about with this series.

John Constantine knows how to handle a supernatural threat. Usually, that’s run like hell, but still. He faces down the things that go bump in the night on a regular basis, has stared into Hell and had Hell stare back. He bears the scars of these encounters, both physical and mental. But now? Now Constantine is up against his most unnerving enemy yet–a strictly vanilla human serial killer who specializes in slaughtering entire families. Fresh from the near-apocalypse caused by the government’s runaway “fear machine,” and needing a place to lay low, Constantine drops in on an old friend and finds himself in the middle of a mind-bending meta-fictional romp. A few weeks later, a mysterious figure shows up at the door in search of Constantine’s missing friend. This encounter will plunge Constantine into a deadly game of chess for his very soul…. In between the moves of that deadly game, we get some guest appearances. First off, Grant Morrison and David Lloyd spin a tale of nuclear horror as a town and the new missile base just up the road both fall victim to a sinister experiment. Then Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean take an issue to explore the human need for affection and just simply being noticed. Later, Dick Foreman spins a yarn about a madman’s dream to take over the world using an unlikely vehicle for his ambitions.

Like I said, this volume mostly holds together pretty well. We segue in from the previous volume, then move on to set up the chance meeting between Constantine and the Family Man. From there, Constantine tries to ignore the fact that he alone knows the killer’s identity, having a couple side adventures that allow for some guest teams and (I presume) Delano to catch up his schedule before the main showdown and cleanup. It meanders a bit at the end, perhaps, but that mostly serves to allow the next volume to start on cue instead of rambling about first. I’m fine with that. Random Neil Gaiman appearances are always appreciated, and Dave McKean’s style complemented the story being told quite well. I wasn’t quite as fond of the Morrison/Lloyd tale, but that may have been a byproduct of its very obvious political leanings, and I found the Dick Foreman story pretty forgettable, possibly because the art rubbed me the wrong way. At any rate, I’m sticking with the series for a while longer. I see we change lead writers for the next volume, so that will be interesting….

CONTENT: Some strong language, PG-13 grade. Some semi-explicit sexual content, including implied molestation, incest and rape as a city gives in to all of its suppressed desires. Strong violence, very gory in a couple places. Very little occult content this volume though, considering the series as a whole.

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Review: “Tales Of The Vampires” by Joss Whedon et al.

Title: Tales Of The Vampires
Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard, Jane Espenson, Brett Matthews, Ben Edlund, & Sam Loeb
Artists: Alex Sanchez, Paul Lee, Cameron Stewart, Scott Morse, Vatche Mavlian, Jason Alexander, Ben Stenbeck, Jeff Parker, Ben Edlund, Tim Sale, Cliff Richards & Sean Phillips
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Miniseries)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2004

I’ve mentioned my fondness for anthologies before, right? Good, no need to retread that. I mentioned that I like how they free writers to explore background characters and the worlds created by popular franchises? Ok, no need to say that again either. Did I mention how I enjoy the wide variety of artistic styles in a comic anthology? I did? Oh. Well, looks like this introduction is almost entirely redundant then….In that case, without further ado, let me introduce Tales Of The Vampires. As with the previously-reviewed Tales Of The Slayers, the writers of the show Buffy The Vampire Slayer team up to tell a wide variety of tales from the Buffyverse. This time, instead of focusing on the Slayer end of things, we are treated to a slate of tales about particularly interesting vampires throughout history. Some are familiar, like Spike & Drusilla or Angel. Others we have never met before now, but are destined to leave their mark on the Buffyverse nevertheless.

Joss Whedon and Alex Sanchez start us out this time with the frame story for the anthology, Tales Of The Vampiresabout a group of young Watcher trainees being taught not to underestimate their foes by listening to a captive vampire tell tales of his fellows. This tale is told in starts and stops in between the other tales of the miniseries. We then travel to Prague in The Problem With Vampires by Drew Goddard and Paul Lee to discover just what happened to Drusilla prior to her arrival with Spike in Sunnydale at the beginning of Buffy Season 2. Whedon then teams up with Cameron Stewart to tell the story of Stacy, a young girl who is attacked by a vampire only to find everything she ever wanted in the darkness. Jane Espenson and Scott Morse bring us Spot The Vampire, a fun little rhyming puzzler in the classic seek-and-find genre. Brett Matthews and Vatche Mavlian take us to 1888 Whitechapel, as a detective with a secret attempts to track down the infamous Jack the Ripper. Jane Espenson then teams up with Jason Alexander to tell the tale of a young man raised by his vampire Father. Drew Goddard and Ben Stenbeck then take us to just before the start of the Buffy Season 8 comic series, as Buffy confronts the legendary Dracula in an attempt to reclaim Xander from his entranced servitude in Antique. Jane Espenson and Jeff Parker transport us to 1933 Kansas, at the start of the Dust Bowl, for the tale of a young farmboy trying to figure out the rules of his new condition. Ben Edlund handles both writing and artistic duties for Taking Care Of Business, chronicling the meeting of a vampiric ex-Inquisitor priest who believes he’s still doing God’s work with a pudgy young man claiming to be God himself! Sam Loeb and Tim Sale then give us Some Like It Hot, about a vampire who finds a way to walk once more in the sunlight. Brett Matthews and Cliff Richards then take us back to flesh out the Buffy Season 3 episode Amends as Angel battles his personal demons in Numb.  I’m also including here a story from the Dark Horse one-shot Drawing On Your Nightmares, because there’s really nowhere else it fits. Not sure where you can find it reprinted, honestly. Dames is written by Brett Matthews and drawn by Sean Phillips, and tells the noirish tale of a gambling vampire and his encounter with a damsel in distress.

From a writing perspective, I enjoyed Joss Whedon’s frame story Tales Of The Vampires even if it happened long before all but like two of the stories it was supposedly framing. I admit the ending too me somewhat by surprise, too. The Problem With Vampires deserves mention both for Drew Goddard’s writing, which was excellent enough that I could actually hear Spike and Drusilla saying their lines, and for the art. But I’ll get to that in a minute. He also actually made me feel sorry for Dracula in Antique, which was an unexpected bonus. I also very much liked Stacy (again by Whedon) and identified strongly with the character as a confirmed sci-fi/fantasy geek myself. At least, you know, until she turned vampire….The pseudo-children’s poem Spot The Vampire was very well done, so kudos to Jane Espenson. Speaking of Espenson, both her other tales here were stellar. Father was poignant, and Dust Bowl was a great story of a young vampire figuring out the rules of his new existence without any help from anyone else. Brett Matthews failed to surprise me with Jack, but I have a stubborn weakness for Jack The Ripper stories for some reason. Only, I thought Jack the Ripper was supposed to have been Lothos, the Big Bad from the movie/The Origin? Merrick definitely implied as much. His writing on the Angel-centric story Numb was spot-on though, and I enjoyed Dames as well. Ben Edlund’s Taking Care Of Business proved to be a delightfully quirky tale, one I greatly enjoyed. Artistically, Paul Lee’s work on The Problem With Vampires deserves mention for managing to capture Spike and Drusilla so perfectly. The style Vatche Mavlian adopts for Jack isn’t exactly my favorite, but I must say that it fit the tale perfectly. Cliff Richards perfectly captured Angel for Numb, which isn’t to be taken for granted.

CONTENT: Violence, as you would expect from this series. Vampires drink from victims, sometimes with graphically-depicted results. Others are turned. Some are staked, which isn’t as gory given their tendency to crumble to dust. Mild profanity. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing too explicit. You can decide for yourself whether Buffyverse vampires are occultic, but you shouldn’t be surprised that they show up here. They’re in the bloody title, after all….

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