This Wednesday, DC will usher its magic bastard extraordinaire John Constantine to a brand new title and number one issue, relaunching a character who supported 300 issues of history and talent in the seminal Hellblazer comic. First introduced in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing after artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben requested to draw a character who resembled Police frontman Sting, Constantine is known more for making terrible decisions and pissing off malicious deities than plucking bass strings. And even though a boozing, womanizing conman might not sound revolutionary in passing, Hellblazer elevated the fledgling mature readers market of the 80s to new heights, enabling DC’s Vertigo imprint to publish some of the most important stories in the medium from some of the most provocative writers in England and beyond.
More importantly, Constantine gave us a new breed of humanist antihero.
Garth Ennis explained it best in the introduction to his “Dangerous Habits” storyline, calling Hellblazer “a comic without some loathsome morality at its core, but instead with a character who broke his own rules as he staggered through life, and could only face the consequences of his actions with the same frail, human defenses that are available to you or me.” Indeed, the character made us, the anonymous un-super reader, feel empowered as we surrounded ourselves with tales of invulnerable aliens, robots, and gods. If there’s a not-so-subtle subtext to Constantine’s misadventures, it’s that authority — be it social, supernatural, or Margaret Thatcher — is something to be abhorred and rejected upon contact. Like a plague. As an aging street sorcerer, Constantine found himself at odds with both heaven and hell, manipulating both sides to escape the increasingly dire situations that he created. Populist pulp at its finest, reading Hellblazer was like wearing a broken-in thrift store coat. It just fit without pretension, even if it did smell faintly of cheap tobacco and well liquor. There’s innate comfort in a character whose problems far exceed our own, and he transcends them with a middle finger pointed toward the unstoppable forces who make the rules he routinely breaks.
The new Constantine series probably won’t sink to the gutsy depths of its predecessor; this title takes place in a DCU proper occupied by all-age readers and spandex superheroes. Luckily, DC is reprinting every Hellblazer issue in consecutive trades (Volume 5, Dangerous Habits, releases in May) and the series has aged incredibly well. Paste decided to comb over the comic’s 25-year history to share our favorite arcs. Note that we’re only ranking the best Hellblazer stories, so while we loved his cameos in Planetary, Swamp Thing, and Sandman, we’re solely celebrating the title he called home. So pour yourself a glass of gin on ice, fire up a Silk Cut (actually, don’t), and put on your favorite Mucous Membrane track. Tell us your personal favorites in the comments.
Issue 27, 1990
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Aside from an educational insert about AIDS and a cameo in the first Sandman arc, John Constantine only fell under Neil Gaiman’s pen once in this bittersweet standalone story about a very cold ghost. Hold Me is a simple, touching tale that lets Constantine veer from his selfish bastard holding pattern while keeping in line with his cockney everyman charisma. The mix of supernatural folklore and sociopolitical reflection is such a fantastic fit for Gaiman that it’s a shame he didn’t produce more Hellblazer material, but you can’t blame him for tending his multimedia empire instead. Speaking of multimedia, Dave McKean works past his haunting cover work to pencil the interior pages, illustrating some truly stunning panels in monochrome, punctuated by splashes of brown and pink. Also: if that ghost isn’t Alan Moore, than he at least takes extensive fashion tips from him. Hold Me is one of Gaiman’s favorite pieces of his early work, and while the individual issue is incredibly hard to find, it appears in Gaiman’s odds-and-ends collection Midnight Days and the recent reprint of The Family Man trade paperback.
Issue 11, 1988
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artist: Richard Piers Rayner
Ever wonder why John Constantine spent three years in a mental hospital? Or why there’s a constant greek chorus of bad guys reminding him about that time he accidentally sent a possessed child to hell? Some folks just won’t let go. Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come is the first step in a reckless journey of failure and suffering for Constantine, and an early chapter that produced characters and events that echo throughout the entire series. In this flashback issue, an inexperienced Constantine and group of friendly mystics trip on a young sex-abuse victim named Astra who summons a giant baboon dog to eviscerate her pedophile father and his sleazeball friends. A brash Constantine takes his first step into the baby pool of demon conjuring, thinking he can combat the hell beast with a subservient devil. He fails epically instead. Newcastle isn’t a perfect issue by any means, with some unclear storytelling and odd logic gaps (did we mention that convenient baboon dog?), but it stands as a powerful thesis of the innate flaws that makes Constantine such a compelling character. After all, Astra is one of the first souls in a graveyard of collateral damage that follows in the character’s destructive wake.
Issues 68 – 69, 1993
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
What sucks more, a malicious vampire god or an apathetic society that allows its impoverished members to starve on the street? Garth Ennis tackles this weighty topic in a 2-part story arc (previously collected in the Tainted Love collective) that pits an alcoholic, homeless Constantine against the first bloodsucker in history. The script is especially confrontational in its depiction of the homeless, walking the reader through the substance abuse, prostitution, and sheer indifference shown to the poor throughout everyday life. Introduced in Issue #50, the King of Vampires is a planet-hopping parasite who drained the first man before taking on Constantine’s ancestors in the World War I trenches. And though he bares a striking resemblance to James Dean, this vampire definitely doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight. Constantine doesn’t put up much of a fight, wallowing in despair and booze after losing the love of his life in the previous arc, but the dual still ends on an incredible note that takes full advantage of Hellblazer’s dense continuity.
Issues 200, 202 – 205; 2004
Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Leonardo Manco, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Steve Dillon, Marcelo Frusin
Nobody would argue that parenthood is easy. The responsibility of rearing infant humans under your direct responsibility is one of life’s most sacred and difficult challenges. That challenge becomes significantly more complicated when your children are destructive demon spawn reared under the illusion of domestic bliss. No, we’re not talking about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but this corrupt arc that features the she-demon Rosacarnis wrecking Constantine’s life with three bundles of joy sired from him in a fake reality. This baby-making scandal is by far the most extensive con ever played on our favorite conman, and it stings Constantine to his cynical core. The storyline begins on a particular high note with issue #200, which shows the three illusory timelines where the new Constantine progeny drive Dad nuts by torturing Swamp Thing and stabbing homeless folks. The arc also progresses in interesting directions, with the children targeting Constantine’s friends and family to isolate their patriarch before attempting to destroy him. Reasons to Be Cheerful also sports the best cameo of Shockheaded Peter since his 1845 debut in the morbid German nursery book Der Struwwelpeter.
Issues 170 – 174, 2002
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Marcelo Frusin
This is a controversial one among fans. Brian Azzarello wraps his Constantine-in-America saga with a provocative love story that took turns absolutely nobody expected. And we mean nobody. The grand orchestrator of Constantine’s imprisonment turns out to be a media mogul named Stanley Manor, who bears more than a passing resemblance to an orphaned crime fighter, except this one feeds orphans to vampire bats instead of dressing up like one. Manor holds an unwavering grudge against the Hellblazer due to an elaborate con pulled on him when they were both teenagers, but the billionaire’s animosity peaks after Constantine hosts a seance between Manor and his murdered parents that goes depressingly awry. Manor burns Constantine alive, and for all but flashbacks and two end panels, the titular mage is a ghost for all five issues of the arc. The real twist arrives with the revelation that Manor and Constantine were actually gay lovers at a seedy S&M Club until the latter’s grisly death, and it’s no illusion. The real question is whether Constantine finally found a true soul mate after dating a china shop of fragile young women who eventually died or went mad, or if he just swapped teams as part of another elaborate con. Probably both. With his divisive final chapter, Azzarello showed that he could still veer Vertigo’s marquee title in directions that both challenged and expanded its foundation.