By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
Do you think there has ever been a harder assignment in comics history than: “alright, Pete, so Hellblazer’s getting cancelled. Can you wrap it all up in three issues for us, cheers”?
Written by almost every white British guy with a mystical following of rapt admirers, Hellblazer’s first issue came out in 1988, a few days after I was born. After being created by Alan Moore and Stephen R. Bissette during their time on Saga of the Swamp Thing, John Constantine proved such an irresistible concept that a solo run was guaranteed for him. I don’t think anybody could have guessed that the team of Jamie Delano and John Ridgway would ever get more than a short run with John – and certainly could anyone have predicted that the character would ever live long enough to hit issue #300, twenty-five years later.
And yet Constantine managed to cheat death for decades, always ending up that one half-step ahead of whatever demons or spirits were out to get him for good. Over that time he fell into the hands of creators like Garth Ennis, Eddie Campbell, Steve Dillon, Jock, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean and Mike Carey, for a groundbreaking run of politically and socially-charged stories about the consequences of magic and bargaining. It was only natural that Peter Milligan, one of Vertigo’s home talents, would eventually take on the character, and his run saw him paired primarily with artist Giuseppe Camuncoli.
Their run, as is ever the case with Milligan, was hit-and-miss. They did seem to have pretty long-term plans for the character, though, marrying him off and introducing some slow-burn plotting into their Hellblazer stories. When the series was cancelled, it feels like it was just as much of a surprise for them as it was for everybody else. Hellblazer was a foundational series for Vertigo as an imprint – could it even exist without John?
Well, uh, no, I guess. Hellblazer ended and Vertigo was gone not too long afterwards, so I guess DC got what they wanted on that one. But with the announcement came that question: how the hell do you actually end something like Hellblazer? The series had followed John into death several times, and he’d scrabbled his way out of various hells and apocalypses during his trauma-filled lifespans. Readers had seen the series as a gritty and dirty kitchen sink, and they’d seen it as a mystical and magical font of the most confusing and arcane weirdness ever committed to the pages of mainstream comics. John always had an escape route planned: if the most grotesque of demons couldn’t find a way to put the Scouser six feet under, how could any mere comic creator hope to do it?
Issue #300 of Hellblazer decides to try a different approach, because “a different approach” was really the only option available to it. John actually dies a few issues before, shot at the door by a random kid who wants to impress the crime boss he works for. The final arc of the series sees everybody dealing with the fact John has already died, even as the suggestion comes through that, once again, he’s going to be coming back somehow. By the time we reach issue #300 it’s clear that even though the other characters are already moving on to life post-John, Milligan’s still got something in mind for the character. One ghostly apparition later, and John Constantine is back, smoking a cigarette made of his own ashes in exchange for a corporeal body once more.
Because that’s the thing about Constantine: he’s always walking one step further than anyone else is willing to go. Of course he’s prepared for this latest version of death which comes for him, and of course he’s got ideas for how he can get out of it. The creative team are really careful on this, though: they make John’s thought process really ***ing vague, so we don’t really know what’s going on with him. There’s a suggestion that his latest life is merely “borrowed” and he’s on a temporary contract, but there’s also a suggestion that while he was dead, he watched the people around him move on – and realised that perhaps it was now time for people to have a bit of life without him in it.
Whatever the reason is – and I think it’s incredibly smart of Milligan in particular to refuse to explain what’s going on here – John ends up in front of the worst of his loose ends: his niece, Gemma. She’d been around since issue #4, and she’s had one of the worst times any character has ever had in a comic book series over those subsequent 296 issues. She hates John, mainly accurately, and so when John hands her a weapon which could kill him permanently, she barely hesitates in using it on him. According to his plan? Erm, maybe? Or maybe not.
Camuncoli depicts the moment as a white page, with the poisoned dart flying off into the far right side, off-panel. We don’t know if it hits the target, misses, or does whatever else. It’s again kept intentionally as vague and frustrating and possible, just to make sure readers can never definitely decide on what’s going on. We might be seeing this through Constantine’s eyes, or we could be seeing it from that same outsider perspective the rest of the issue has played out through. It’s honestly incredibly frustrating to read, whilst at the same time feeling like this immense and perfect encapsulation of everything which is John Constantine, frustrating bastard.
Milligan is often a writer who chooses to leave chunks of character motivation out of his stories, which when played to excess is a nightmare and chore to read. But when it pairs up in just the right way, as it does with this final issue, it leaves these tantalising gaps of imagination where you can picture any kind of narrative you prefer fitting into the missing spaces in the story. Is Constantine playing us the same way he’s played everyone else he’s come across over 300+ issues of existence? Or is he caught off guard just like we’re caught off guard throughout this last issue? In the end, it’s all a matter of perception, really. This is the last thing we see:
And I’ve spent almost a decade looking at this sodding thing.
What the hell is any of it meant to mean? There’s a million arguments online about what happens to Constantine, and whether he ends up in purgatory, the past, the future, or if he just gets magically teleported to a nice pub so he can spend his days drinking pints whilst the ghosts of his creators surround him, trapped perfectly in glass forever. Ooh, but it feels so clever in the way it timelessly captures John in some kind of conclusive form, but forces the reader to interpret what they think any of it’s all about.
You know what’s even more frustrating? Hellblazer came back with Si Spurrier and Aaron Campbell recently, and there’s an older version of Constantine wandering around in the background of the series, causing trouble. Is that meant to be the Constantine we see on this last page, or…? Gaaahhh!!
Victory for the creative team. You did it! You created an impenetrable end to Hellblazer’s twenty-five year history. It grows ever-more labyrinthine as you stare into those final few pages, and in turn creates the most apt finale for John Constantine there could’ve been. I’d suggest that Peter Milligan, Giuseppi Camuncoli, Stefano Landini and co were dropped into the nightmare scenario back in 2013: having to end a beloved and complicated property they hadn’t created. I don’t know if they could’ve done anything to be more in-keeping with John Constantine’s stubborn, awkward, exceptional bastardry than to give us all the pieces of a complete conclusion for the character… but present it in the most underexplained way imaginable. The debate will last forever, just like John’s rictus expression as he stares out at us.
I know you’re all going to be in the comments, explaining how elementary and simple the ending is. But here’s the thing: you’re wrong. There is no single explanation for what happened to John Constantine. We have to subjectively interpret the words and images in front of us to create whatever version of reality we think should exist… and that’s magic, innit?
Hellblazer #300 “Death and Cigarettes: Ash”
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artists: Giuseppi Camuncoli and Stefano Landini
Colors: Brian Buccellato
Letters: Sal Cipriano
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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Yeah, but what the hell actually happened to him?