By Matt Sibley
What’s in a first impression? It’s a statement to your prospective audience; a chance to bring them into a world, set the mood and establish characters. It allows a creative team to either cement a beginning or disrupt said foundation to throw readers off balance, and subvert their understanding somewhere down the line. In either case, it’s the initial step of a journey they’re asking you to follow them on.
And in the case of John Constantine: Hellblazer, you hear him before you see him.
Now I suppose this is where I should make a confession. When I say first impression, that’s because until this tragically short-lived volume featuring the character, I hadn’t read any of his solo stories, though I knew of him by reputation. Since his creation in 1985 as part of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run – the writer asked artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben for input and they both responded with the idea of creating a character modelled on Sting – he’s almost always been around in some form or another. Whether it’s the three-hundred issue Hellblazer which ran from 1988 to 2013 and stands as the longest continuously published Vertigo title, or the character’s appearances in other media; John Constantine has always been a fixture. He’s part of British culture now. All of which leads me to a street corner in London…
In front of me, there’s a pub. And even though I’m stood out in the cold, I can hear an off-colour joke about the Royals being told within. You’ve probably heard a variation on it before and, due to the lengthy set-up, can likely guess the punchline before the speaker gets to it. A beat passes. No one seems to find it amusing. And out onto the street comes John Constantine, the chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing, expletive-hurling Liverpudlian himself – though not by choice, and he’s none too pleased about it. In just a few pages, he’ll come into contact with a man he hasn’t seen in years and, complete with an ear-to-ear grin, call him “a manky bollock”.
And to be honest, I’m of two minds about him. When this issue came out, I was a bartender. Returning to it for the purposes of this piece, I’ve recently left the profession, but the knowledge hasn’t left me. When I’m out, my ears still manage to tune into the sounds of the trade. Clinking plates. A ticket printer whirring. The laughter of regulars who are in jollier spirits than most would be at 5pm on a Tuesday. A glass hitting the ground halfway across the room.
It’s a noisy profession, and I worked more than enough live events to know that. But what you hear loudest is the silence. The kind that comes as the mood turns and threatens to get worse. Someone who’s said something they shouldn’t. Worse: someone who’s done that and hasn’t realised it was a mistake. Worst: someone who’s doing it on purpose.
Now, The Long Lugs might not be a name that outright clarifies this is a royalist drinking establishment, but most people have the good sense to at least feel out a place, its people and its vibe in order to work out where the line is. Constantine doesn’t adhere to this hesitancy. His way of finding it out is to start speaking and see when someone stops him. If he walked into the pub while I was working, I’d be on edge from the moment he stepped in, waiting for something to kick off.
But on the other hand, my first instinct when the news broke on the 8th of September was to start firing off tweets about ol’ Liz never getting to see her Fantastic 4 fancast come true and how it was a mistake for her to try the McDonalds’ spicy nugs. So, I also have to respect him for being able to speak his mind whilst amongst a nation of people who constantly hedge our opinions in public in the hopes of maintaining decorum even as those in power drag us through decline and face no consequence.
The character was originally created in Thatcher’s Britain, and he returned here in the midst of another seemingly never-ending Conservative rule. The 27th of November 2019 might as well be an age ago all things considered since, but when John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 landed on shelves on that day, the Tories were approaching a decade in power. Brexit still hadn’t happened. Boris Johnson had somehow made it to the highest position in office despite displaying levels of incompetence and insensitivity that showed no bounds.
Less than a year later, I bit my tongue in public as people said they pitied him for almost dying of COVID even as he’d refused to attend COBRA meetings in the early stages of the pandemic and was far too resistant to enforce any masking rules in public spaces. Instead, I didn’t have the time to talk; the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had us rammed from the second we opened the doors for breakfast to the moment the kitchen closed thirteen hours later. I wouldn’t have minded if John was there to speak his mind then. He wouldn’t have been there for long, sure, but his words would have left a lingering mark.
This particular run with John belongs to The Sandman Universe imprint, started to celebrate both Vertigo as a whole and the original run of The Sandman… another series that I haven’t yet gotten around to. Given that I’ve never read anything with the character before, you’re probably asking what drew me to start here? Well, I’ve got a two-word answer for you: Si Spurrier. Spurrier’s a British writer, following in a long tradition of those to tackle the character – Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan to name just three – and across his already established bibliography that encompasses 2000AD, multiple X-Men titles, Star Wars and various independent work, he’s demonstrated a keen ear for language. Up until now, the communication of the issue has been one-sided – though his dexterity for dialogue is established in sharp fashion just as soon as Constantine picks himself up from the ground, as he strikes up a conversation with Nat, the very woman who just kicked him out of The Long Lugs.
You’d probably expect some further hostility: most people who get physically ejected from an establishment aren’t normally of a clear enough mind to accept this and head off elsewhere. However, the air out here is calm while he smokes and she vapes, perhaps because the nature of her habit means that she’s been banished outside too. A smoking area might as well be the ground on which to build a makeshift community for those who partake, and between the two trails wafting into the night-time air comes a moment of connection between these two souls.
The experience hasn’t caused John to rethink his approach, as he tries cracking jokes of a similar blue nature to her. He can’t help himself. She guesses the punchline to one, cuts him off before he gets too far into another and responds with a joke of her own. In most circumstances where I saw someone get kicked out, I never felt at ease until they’d walked away (and even then, spent the rest of the night steeling myself in case of their return hours later), but Nat’s the bouncer and she can clearly give as good as she gets. Though you could read John’s reaction as one of genuine respect for this compared to her employer, it strikes me moreso as an attempt to play it cool and hold onto the remainder of his pride. A crowd might be bigger, but it’s also easier to ascribe anonymity to them, to treat them as faceless. One on one, the reaction of the person opposite you is always going to be clearer.
But Spurrier isn’t just passing the time idly here, as this casual small-talk takes a sharp turn into Nat’s opinion of him. She diagnoses him as a collector of people, a guy who draws people in just so he can say he’s got a circle, and as much as John pushes back on this classification, his inability to offer a full-throated rebuttal might as well be confirmation on his part. As difficult as it might be to see someone this set on alienating those around him as being capable of keeping them in his orbit, no one wants to smoke alone. This is potentially a moment to start peeling away layers of the character and begin to examine him – first issues are windows into a world, and as windows work two ways, can also allow us to see how said world sees them — but I don’t think he’s ready for that just yet, which is why he relishes the appearance of the aforementioned “manky bollock”.
Turns out that Constantine is responsible for this physical effect, and the guy it happened to is none too pleased that it’s never gone away. Here, his past catches up with him, yet he can’t help but laugh about it… right in their grotesque face. Again, a matter of pride, he doesn’t offer sympathy for the condition – though the guy had it coming considering he was trafficking women – and across these three interactions, there’s a theatricality to how he carries himself. He’s putting on a show, in search of the right audience which can be tricky in a new world. Through our window, we can begin to see through the performance and see the person. That off-hand line that reveals why Constantine did it is the first instance in which he becomes viable as a protagonist with which to align ourselves rather than thinking it better to keep our distance from the drunk Scouser. To think that he might not just be a foul-mouthed and abrasive cynic; but that there’s some part of him that looks to do good, even if it might not be carried out in the most altruistic fashion.
The dark comedy of the moment fades in the transition to the next scene. John’s left the warm glow of the pub’s lighting and is traipsing down a darkened road where the streetlights are few and far between. Someone appears to be following him, though he’s aware of this. Coming off the previous scrap with Barry the Bollock, we’re primed to think he’ll be on top of this situation with the extra time to consider his options, and so is he. Slipping down a side-alley, he prepares to turn the tables on his pursuer, but he’s too pleased with himself to take account of the fact that this is not his territory. He doesn’t plan for there being more than one person behind him. He doesn’t even think to turn around and check. This ambush is the catalyst for Constantine getting involved in something bigger.
You see, there are angels in Peckham. And they’re flaying people.
The park happens to be where a gang called the Ri-Boys peddle their drugs and the Heavenly Presence is getting in the way of commerce. Tied to a chair, Constantine comes to and finds himself face to face with their leader. He’s clearly in the position of least power in the room, but he’s unwilling to concede that, continuing to shoot off snark and resistance… until given an ultimatum: help or one of the young runners gets one in the head.
So, he heads down to the park. While there’s no sign of angels just yet, there is a man sitting on a bench: surely he’ll have some information that can be of use. Constantine engages him in conversation with the same aloof, jovial sense we heard him strike up with Nat earlier on, and he even cracks a joke about holy men. Their talk doesn’t stay at this tenor though as the guy reveals just how racist he is by ranting about who he perceives to be the “unclean” of society. And to make matters worse, it’s this point where the angels show up to claim their latest victim. In an instant, Constantine realises just how deep an issue he’s managed to get himself into. This is not going to be a walk in the park.
It’s been a night of continually misjudging situations, of choosing not to take a step back and reconsider, of sticking to his guns and this is the moment that finally worries him. We’ve seen how little he’s been phased by the other altercations, but here he puts an arm on Noah, the young Ri-Boy who’s had a gun put to his head tonight, and pulls him back out of danger. “You can’t help him. Can’t fight somethin’ if you don’t know fuck-all-about-it.” He’s out of his depth and he knows it.
It’s the first thing he’s gotten right all evening.
But even then, he doesn’t know the full extent of how true that is. The final scene of the issue transports us across London. In a dark and dank underground location, we catch the end of a conversation that raises more questions than it answers. As one of the participants runs off, a slither of light provides a moment to see who they are. I’ve already said their name earlier in the piece, though the bird’s nest of unkempt blonde hair makes it clear enough, they didn’t necessarily need to say the words “Prime Minister” on the page.
Some writers might choose to end their first issue on a more conclusive note, to provide a succinct first impression from start-to-end. But as we’ve seen throughout, first impressions don’t always mean as much as we assume them to in the moment. And so, Spurrier and company leave us in such a way that ensures we carry on thinking over what we’ve read until next time. Two questions rise to the top of the pile.
How can a man who can’t help himself help others?
And what can he do against someone who can only help themselves?
John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 “A Green and Pleasant Land Part One”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Aaron Campbell
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Matt Sibley is a writer, critic and podcaster who is most commonly found writing for Newsarama as part of their “Best Shots” reviews team. You can find him on twitter here!
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