My journey this fall through the weird worlds of Vertigo has taken me to some strange corners of the comics world and I couldn’t be happier about it. This time around I tackled another volume in the proto-Vertigo post-Grant Morrison Animal Man saga and also made my way through a series based on Scottish mythology that was fun and bloody.
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.
Wow, that is one heck of a title, isn’t it? Seems to me you could either ditch “DC Comics Presents” or “100-Page Spectacular” or possibly both. Also, does it really need a #1 on the cover? Anyway, it seems to me this tiny, cheaper collection format was designed to put out random Batman storyarcs from the two core Bat-books, Shadow of the Bat, Legends of the Dark Knight and the myriad minis starring our hero. I would imagine that, for the most part, many of them will land with me how this one did: just alright. It’s a clever tale that features the Riddler finding some old Gothamite cultist’s journal and getting possessed by a demon. Demon Riddler puts Batman through this series of paces that SPOILER winds up putting him through the motions to prepare him for a dark ritual.Well played Eddie.
As you can imagine, the book is pretty dark, darker than I thought for some reason even though this was well into the grim and gritty period. Seeing Batman stab a dog with a knife is pretty intense. Anyway, the story was a little slow and felt familiar to this long-time Bat-reader, though I can’t pinpoint why. The Riddler reveal is pretty interesting, but it’s kind of like watching a movie you’re not that absorbed by with an interesting twist. Oh okay, cool. What’s next?
Meanwhile, the Detective Comics issue which was also written by Milligan with Tom Mandrake art was just the opposite for me: an interesting story about Bruce Wayne trying to figure out why he wasn’t Batman/where the Batcave had gone, but with an ending that made me not care about what I had just read. This collection’s biggest fault, to me, though is not reprinting the Mike Mignola covers between issues. For the record, there are 88 pages of story in this book, some ads, a 4 page The Search For Swamp Thing preview and a DC Nation column which means there was plenty of room to run the covers. But, if you maybe haven’t read a ton of Batman comics and want to read a darker tale that actually does something interesting with the Riddler, you probably will be okay spending $8 on these four issues.
Since I complained about the overly-long Dark Knight, Dark City title, I’ll take a moment to complain about this title as well. I actually think this one should have had an additional subtitle, like Legion Of The Damned. I’m guessing that would not fit on the spine, though. Again, not a big deal, just something that popped into my head.
I moved this mini-trade to the top of my “to-read” pile after reading the first adventures of this incarnation of the Legion. I completely forgot to mention this collection in that post, which was funny because I was literally staring at it while I wrote the post. As it turns out, this bad boy practically ends both the regular LoSH book and Legionnaires. There’s one more issue of each book which leads into the epic and well-received Legion Lost (anyone know if those last two issues are collected in the Legion Lost hardcover?).
Okay, enough about the book itself, how about the content? I really dug this story and it makes me want to keep an eye out for single issues of the previous books and the DnA-written Legion book that followed at cons. I have no idea what went on before this, but the first issue opens with Earth being overrun by the Blight a kind of organic Borg that has overrun the planet and even possessed most of the Legionnaires. Just when Chameleon thinks he’s the last of the bunch, Cosmic Boy, Brainiac 5, Monstress and Apparition return from a wild trip in space that kept them out of this mess as it was going on. Now it’s up to them and a few others–who I won’t spoil, but are on the cover, so I guess it’s not spoiling–to defeat the Blight and save the day. It’s a pretty fun, tight story that really screwed up the Earth and Metropolis, something you don’t really see in comics much without some kind of loophole or get-out. By the end of this book, the Blight have been defeated, but it’s not like Earth and Metropolis are back to normal.
It should also be said, that I wasn’t too confused by what was going on, even though there was a pretty huge gap between my reading of this series. Sure, there’s some characters I didn’t know (Monstress) but it’s not hard to jump into the story because the good guys and bad guys are pretty well defined, so even if I don’t know which Legionnaire Monstress has a crush on or whatever, I know she’s a hero fighting the villains. Nuff said. I was also impressed with Coipel’s artwork. It might not be what you think of when you think of him now because it’s a little sketchier and looser, but still really detailed and stylized. I also appreciated how he drew some of the Legionnaires as if they were actual teenagers. I never for a minute thought that any of the kids in the first trade were younger than 17, so it was good to get the feeling some of them actually looked like their younger age. All in all, this was a great book, definitely worth the price of admission for me and a great precursor to get me excited about the Legion Lost collection.
I mentioned this when I talked about Finals, but I really appreciate that DC has created this new format for collecting their comic books. Purists might not refer to them as trades because they have ads and issue numbers on the cover, but I don’t care about that stuff. In fact, it might be kind of fun to look back and see what was being advertised back in the day. Finals is sitting on my trade shelf between Fallen Angel and The Five Fists Of Science, sure there’s a few more inches of gobbledegook than need be on the spine, but that’s no big deal. My only real complaint (that title stuff is mostly grousing) is that they’re not including the covers in these things. I hope DC keeps doing these even with the relaunch.