By El Sandifer
Where does one start? The title, I suppose, which is unequivocally one of the strangest names ever put out by the publisher of Dark Nights: Death Metal: War of the Multiverses. Almost every part of The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer is faintly alarming. Sure, “The Sandman Universe” had been around for a year by this point but that did not make the abrupt collapse of Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic series into a Metal spinoff with equivalent ontological status to the Arrowverse or the 90 Day Fiancé Universe any less unsettling.
But before we can even reconcile ourselves to the sad reality that the tattered copy of Season of Mists that cute mall goth gave us in 2003 is not, as we’d previously assumed, simply an artifact of a mildly alt adolescence to file away next to our copy of Vampire: The Masquerade but rather a foundational text in the creation of a fictional universe the blows keep coming. The word “presents” gestures at the curious line in the credits noting that the issue was “curated for The Sandman Universe by Neil Gaiman,” an imprimatur apparently meant to distinguish the Sandman Universe from the now decanonized Vertigo series The Dreaming (written primarily by Caitlín R. Kiernan, one of the first trans writers in American comics), for which Gaiman was a *checks notes* “consultant.”
OK. So Gaiman is
consulting on curating Hellblazer, a book whose connection with The Sandman consists of Gaiman cannily using John Constantine as a guest star in his third issue and a background detail crossover in A Doll’s House. The iconic Vertigo book, which predated Sandman—the actual first time DC just had Karen Berger hire a random British guy Alan Moore recommended and give him a series—gets reduced to a spinoff of a sub-label of DC Black Label, a Vertigo replacement that, instead of being known for housing epochal works from some of the top creators of the 90s and 00s, is mostly known for publishing that comic with Batman’s todger. How the mighty have fallen.
The thing is, while this is all hopelessly oversignified in all the worst ways possible, it actually makes an awful sort of sense for the contents of this bewildering effort. Working from an idea contributed by Gaiman, the comic springs off of a single scene from The Books of Magic #4 (published in 1991, over thirty years ago) in which Timothy Hunter, taken on a tour of the future by Mr. E, sees himself turned evil and trying to destroy the world, during which he encounters a dying Constantine. Gaiman’s idea, as explained by Spurrier, was that “what this particular potential version of John Constantine represents is the same John Constantine that was in all those amazing Hellblazer issues. A little bit older and going through some stuff which sidesteps all continuity, if we just take that character, pick him up, and pop him back into our world.”
This is, of course, an astonishingly baroque way to accomplish an admittedly badly needed Constantine reboot that could just as easily have been accomplished by, say, publishing a halfway decent book starring John Constantine instead of the hollow and pointless efforts to integrate him into the DC Universe that had been going on since Brightest Day. Far from clarifying Constantine with a nice accessible jumping on point, it saddles the book with an almost completely incomprehensible premise that requires starting in media res on an apocalypse whose only explanation is two and a half-pages that are lifted from a thirty year old comic the reader is broadly expected to just recognize on sight, a move that seems to exist mostly to gratuitously flatter the line’s
creative consultant curator.
I recognize that I’m harping on this a bit, but it’s important, I think, to have the entire insane paratextual edifice of this thing in your head before you try to grapple with the actual issue. The fact that this comic is simultaneously presenting itself as a return to the good old days of the 90s when random writers with a couple of 2000 AD credits could be given a decades forgotten title like Shade the Changing Man or Kid Eternity and simply be left to do whatever they wanted with it with no expectation that it would make even a shred of sense in terms of the original and as an elaborate exercise in brand management is key to the entire story of Spurrier’s run because, bluntly, it explains why this was completely fucked from day one.
Which is a pity, because on the other side of the ledger what we have is quite promising: Simon Spurrier, the latest up and coming British writer, getting a spin on the character with which multiple generations of up and coming British writers (and one prominent Irishman) had made or broken themselves. This was deeply promising. It’s not, after all, like there was anything wrong with Constantine as a character. He was still compelling, still a character you could easily come up with ideas for. The basic goal here—stop trying to shoehorn him into a DCU where he didn’t really belong and just do some fucking Hellblazer comics again—was entirely sound.
Other writers will get to unpack how most of that actually went, in the comics where Spurrier was allowed to do that. Here, under the stifling weight of the Sandman Universe’s presentation, Spurrier can only find scattered moments in which to breathe and actually offer some sort of point of view on the character.
The tragic thing is, these moments generally sing. Constantine arguing his way out of Ravenscar in a scene where the dialogue is replaced with summaries of his manipulations? Lovely. Constantine reacting with horrified disgust to the cleanliness of 2019 London? Note perfect. Chas dying of lung cancer because of the secondhand smoke from John in his cab, berating him for the endless cashing in of a single favor? Great stuff.
Similarly, the moral point Spurrier is getting at is tremendously compelling. Constantine gets out of Ravenscar and is immediately confronted by a sign for the Brexit party. A panel later, a sign flagging the distance to London has been defaced to read “Londonistan.” The next page, a newspaper headline reads “PM: No Rise in Racism.” This is, in other words, a genuinely contemporary Britain—the Brexit Britain of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and, these days, the self-conscious Thatcher throwback of Liz Truss. There’s a clear sense of horror here, especially with the beat about the cleanliness of London—a sense of revulsion at Britain’s increasingly fascist turn that feels like the proper heir to Delano and Ennis.
And then, of course, there’s the premise—Constantine selling his soul to an older, alternate version of himself—one untroubled by his guilt and recriminations, which is pleasantly unsettling in its implications. Who can possibly outmaneuver the master manipulator John Constantine? Who else but John Constantine himself. It’s a great move. Sure, it’s blatantly been nicked from Alan Moore’s old Twilight of the Superheroes proposal, but the only people who are going to know that are… well, the sorts of die-hard fans who can identify specific scenes out of minor Gaiman works from thirty years ago.
And that’s the problem. The irony is that for all Spurrier has his sights set on the depraved nostalgia of Brexit Britain, he’s trapped in a structure that’s every bit as nostalgic for the Thatcher era as Liz Truss is. There are some great ideas here, but they’re lost among a comic that seems at times to be an elaborate lampooning of the idea of a great jumping on point—that’s focused entirely on shoehorning in “how do you baffle a vegetable” and background images of Keanu Reeves and references to Kit and other easter eggs for people whose bookshelves are sagging under the weight of their decade old Hellblazer and Swamp Thing trades. Not that anyone has thought about how to get those fans back into shops. Not that anyone has bothered to ask what a new reader might think of all this. No, no. If you make the continuity references and steal an old Alan Moore plot, apparently they will come.
Except, shocker of shockers, they didn’t, the book got cancelled after twelve issues, and absolutely nobody learned anything whatsoever.
Still. Spurrier was a good choice.
The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Marcio Takara
Colour Artist: Cris Peter
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Elizabeth Sandifer is a writer, editor, and critic. She is currently writing ‘Last War in Albion’, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, along with the comic Britain a Prophecy, a fresh take on the 90s Vertigo style.You can support Elizabeth on Patreon here, and find just about everything she’s currently working on by clicking here!
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Thanks for writing about this book! Thought it was much more enjoyable / much less weighted down by historical bloat myself. Then again, I’m the fan with the sagging shelves, metaphorically, literally. Just disagree that one has to let nods to history be taken as imperatively important to enjoyment or understanding of the story being told. Same as any other comics with this level of longevity, really.
You should definitely check out Spurrier’s new book Damn Them All with Charlie Adlard for a similar but entirely new take on this kind of story.
Thanks Linus! This is the first part of a thirteen part series – with the next part coming out on Wednesday! We’ll have thirteen different perspectives on the story overall, so hope you’ll enjoy reading along with them each month!