I really can’t understate how influential Wizard was to me as a budding comics fan. I’d been going to the comic shop for a few years by the time I discovered the mag at a mall book store. I started out reading Superman and Batman comics and added other DC comics because I knew about them from the house ads, but it wasn’t until Wizard that I really began to learn more about comics as a whole. I’ve always been pretty risk-averse and budget conscious, so it took an extra push to spend my limited funds on something new. With Wizard, I found a group of writers who opened up my world to all sorts of new books I’d never heard of including, but not limited to Hellblazer and The Goon, both of which I’m writing about here today!
John Constantine, Hellblazer, Vol. 1: Original Sins (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano with Rick Veitch, drawn by John Ridgway, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy, Veitch & Tom Mandrake
Collects Hellblazer #1-9, Swamp Thing #76, 77
At the beginning of October I had two ideas that turned out to be pretty good ones: first, I should read some of the Hellblazer volumes I had sitting around and, second, I should see if anyone wanted to pay me money in conjunction with the first idea. As it turned out, I came up with an idea to run down John Constantine’s most dastardly moments from the early days of his solo series and it ran over on Topless Robot. It worked out well because of the premiere of Constantine on NBC, though I haven’t actually watched more than a few minutes of the show.
What I soon remembered after diving in to these books is something I noted when I reviewed Jamie Delano’s “The Fear Machine” arc as well as the more recent graphic novel Pandemonium and that is just how rich, robust and literary Delano’s text boxes are. Comics just don’t have that quality anymore and it took me a little while to adjust, but once I did, I realized I was reading something dark and special. As my list notes, Constantine makes some very difficult and awful decisions, but the more you read of him, the more you understand that no one else will make those choices and they weigh heavily on him.
Specifically speaking, this first batch of issues might seem like a series of one-offs, but they’re building off of themselves and each other leading towards the larger story coming to light in the next volume. The first two issues deal with an old friend accidentally unleashing a hunger god that leads John to NYC where he visits franchise stalwart Papa Midnite. From there you get a Yuppie-loving fart demon, a child murderer, a town that gets its boys back from Vietnam in a very unexpected way, a multi-armed soccer hooligan, a cyber mage, a deal with a demon, a terrible 35th birthday and a crossover with that other Vertigo mainstay Swamp Thing where the title character borrows John’s body to have sex with his lady Abby.
This volume is the perfect example of what Hellblazer was in its early days and not just because it’s the first. You get the sense of humor Delano instilled in the character as well as his intrinsically tragic nature. Plus, while you might not see them on the first read, there are a lot of seeds being planted that grow and bloom as the series progresses. I should note here that I haven’t read Constatine’s first appearances in Swamp Thing yet, so I’m sure some of that came from Alan Moore, but I credit Delano with creating something truly wonderful here in these issues.
Hellblazer, Vol. 2: The Devil You Know (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano, drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Dean Motter & David Lloyd
Collects Hellblazer #10-13, Hellblazer Annual #1, The Horrorist #1-2
After all the build-up in the previous volume, issues #10, 11 and 12 hit like an atom bomb. #10 features an issue-long astral plane trip while Swamp Thing’s using John’s body. #11 explains why Constantine’s been having such a rough time in one of the most disturbing comics I’ve ever read. By #12, everything comes to a head, characters come crashing together and Constantine comes up with a particularly devious way of dealing with his nemesis.
The last regular issue of this collection is one of the craziest, dream sequence things I’ve ever experienced in any medium. Set against the looming threat of atomic mishaps, John deals with everything he’s caused and gone through leading up to this point. It’s not the easiest thing to understand, but then again, neither is the annual which switches time between John looking for a tape of his band Mucus Membrane and a past/future version of himself intertwined with Arthurian legend. It’s a lot to take in. The book closes out with the mid-90s two issue mini The Horrorist which finds Constantine drawn to a woman from a photograph who is wreaking havoc across the country.
Altogether these first two volumes don’t just set up the groundwork for a series that would go on to last 300 issues, continue on in a different form in the New 52 and make the jump to the big and small screens. One of the things that surprised me most about these two books is that Constantine doesn’t use magic in the way you might expect having seen things like Harry Potter films. He knows all about demons and monsters and angels, but instead of casting spells, the action is far more physical and more in line with a detective story. I like that take because it grounds the supernatural elements which can be off-putting at times.
Before closing out I want to say a few things about covers. First off, the ones for these trades are amazing. Getting Jim Lee and John Cassaday to do these covers is ingenious because they might help bring in new readers, but also because the original series covers are pretty insane. I mean, just look at them. These might be the most surreal, difficult-to-describe covers I’ve ever seen. It’s actually kind of shocking that they were used to try and sell a book back in the day.
Global Frequency (Wildstorm/Vertigo/DC)
Written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Garry Leach, Glenn Fabry, Liam Sharp, Roy Allan Martinez, Jon J. Muth, David Lloyd, Simon Bisley, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Lee Bermejo, Tomm Coker, Jason Pearson & Gene Ha
Collects Global Frequency #1-12
I don’t often read Warren Ellis comics. Aside from Planetary and his Stormwatch-into–Authority stuff, I just haven’t been able to plug into his work and enjoyed myself on a regular basis. In my mind he’s similar to a writer like Garth Ennis where he really likes to work within a certain type of story with a group of familiar characters. With Ennis, the broad idea seems to be crazy people overcoming their craziness to defeat far more evil people, most often with copious amounts of violence. Meanwhile, Ellis seems to feature people who might be evil doing good things for reasons we don’t quite know or understand, often (in my experience) because they think they know better than other people. There’s a cynicism and negativity to a lot of his characters that I can’t always get into.
Even so, I’m always interested in proving my pre-conceived notions wrong (well, almost always, there’s a writer or two and a small group of artists who I don’t spend my time on anymore) and decided to give Global Frequency a read. Though the cover of the collection claims this as a Vertigo series, it was originally published by WildStorm. Each of the dozen issues features a story written by Ellis with a different artist focuses on a case handled by Global Frequency, a citizen-run organization that consists of a network of experts who can help out in various kinds of crises. When you’re in the club, you get a special phone (basically a smart phone by today’s standards) and can get called up and expected to serve either in the field or by supplying information at the ring of a cell.
While I like the one-off nature of the series, I was left wanting by most of these stories. Sure, it’s cool to see people who are really good at their jobs solving mysteries and saving people, but it didn’t feel like there was much else to grab onto. Though it was more well-constructed, it had kind of a procedural feeling which is a kind of story I’m growing less and less in like with.
That’s not to say these are bad stories. In fact, there’s some incredibly creative stuff going on in here. I still don’t fully understand the one about the town that seemed to experience the same hallucination all at the same time, but I dug it. There’s definitely enough interesting details, impressive action scenes and varying degrees of artistic genius in here which I enjoyed, but I like a little more personal stuff in there. To be fair, Ellis was working with 22 pages per issue with new characters in each issue. It’s not like the characters are flat, you’re just left with more of what they can do than who they are or why they do what they do.
While reading, I remember thinking that this would make a really great television series. A few days later I was looking up a particular actress for something over on Spinoff only to discover that it had a pilot a few years back. Sounds kinda like it could have been a precursor for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had it gone to series.
On the other hand, I was completely able to latch onto Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe The Barbarian. As you might expect from a Morrison comic, the concept isn’t super simple to explain. A kid named Joe who has low blood sugar is in his three story house alone when he starts experiencing both this world and another more fantastical one populated with his pet rat, talking versions of his action figures, all kinds of interesting characters and even a few analogs for people in his real life. Joe walks in both worlds, trying to reach his goals simultaneously (getting some soda in the real world and helping defeat King Death in the other). As he goes we learn more about Joe as he learns more about himself as he interacts with the fantasy characters around him and grows as a hero.
Story-wise, this one hits a lot of the same buttons for me as something like The Goonies or The Return Of King Doug. It’s about a young man finding his heroic side when faced with mountains of adversity. I think that’s the type of tale I’ll always be able to get behind, especially when there are so many extra elements wrapped around the basic package.
Speaking of which, a huge aspect of my enjoyment of this book comes thanks to Murphy’s artwork. He’s got a style that seems loose and yet doesn’t lose definition. Everything from the normal house setting to the flying manta rays feel cut from the same cloth even when two different realities are shown within panels or pages of each other. Plus, he and Morrison filled this world with so many familiar faces and characters who show up in the other world looking like action figures, something I absolutely love. You’ve got actual Superman, Batman, Robin and Lobo hanging out with characters that look an awful lot like Transformers, G.I. Joes, U.S.S. Enterprise personnel and plenty of other guys who might remember from your childhood toybox. Mind you, those aren’t the main characters of the book, those are just background folks who show up in huge action scenes, each one of which is wallpaper and poster-worthy in my opinion.
Even though I clearly enjoyed one of these books more than the other and will be keeping one in my collection while passing the other on to someone else, I love that both of these kinds of comics exist. Neither are what you’d expect form corporate superhero comics even though both Ellis and Morrison do plenty of that as well. These are stories these creators had a burning desire to tell and made happen. I give them both a lot of credit for that. Sure, it’s easier when you’re both pretty huge names in the industry, but it would be just as easy to forget about creator owned stuff and keep working within the corporate superhero system. Kudos, gents.