Aging Along With John: 20 Years of Hellblazer, Part 2
By David DelGrosso
Warren Ellis: A Turn Through Darkest London, Interrupted (H. #134-143, 1999)
After Jenkins, Garth Ennis returns for one last Constantine story, "The Son of Man" (H. #129-133), with artist John Higgins and returning cover artist Glenn Fabry. John and Chas face a demon that John recklessly cast into the body of a mob boss's dying son years ago. Cheeky and high-action, it is a much less serious story than those of the prior Ennis era, and it provides an entertaining fill-in before the beginning of the next era.
When Essex-born British writer Warren Ellis takes over Hellblazer in the beginning of 1999, it is announced as the next major era of the title, a run expected to last the next three or four years. Where prior Hellblazer writers were largely introducing themselves to American readers, Ellis had already established himself with consistent work for Marvel Comics on titles like Excalibur, Hellstorm, and Doom 2099, and DV8 and Stormwatch at WildStorm. Most prominently, he had launched his own series, Transmetropolitan, in 1997 as part of DC Comics Helix, a short-lived science-fiction imprint. The title was later folded into Vertigo, helping to make him even more of a known name to Hellblazer readers. Expectations were very high when Ellis began his run. This era also adds new cover artist Tim Bradstreet, an American, whose photorealistic, painted covers portray a worn-looking Constantine who is showing his middle-age. The gritty, urban backdrop to Bradstreet's portrait images of John Constantine is apt for this dark new era of Hellblazer.
It is clear from Ellis' first story, "Haunted" (H. #134-139), that he is taking the title in a sharply different direction from Jenkins. The fantasy and mythical locations of the prior era are replaced by the grisly reality of a crime scene. John learns that Isabel, an old girlfriend, has been brutally murdered. He investigates her death, all the while seeing her spirit in the place they first met, and eventually he takes revenge.
This six-part story is underscored by generous amounts of narration. In prosaic monologues John reflects on his city of London and the things he has witnessed by looking into the darkest corners the city. In one issue (H. #137), John recalls a litany of horrors and then comes to this thought: "I've seen Hell blaze through these streets. I don't have the usual map of London in my head, not the one everyone else has. London's got a different geography for me. Drying blood and the last shit before dying mark it all out, dark wet borders. And I see no one giving a toss about it, no one at all." Ellis’ London feels darker and colder than it has ever been in Hellblazer, and this world-weary Constantine reads like the hardboiled detectives of film noir.
John succeeds in finding and punishing Isabel’s killer, but there is only so much satisfaction that may be taken in this revenge, no matter how inspired the means. Isabel is still dead, though now, at least, her spirit is at rest. The end of "Haunted" is not as flashy as many of the Hellblazer conclusions that have come before. There is very little magic involved, no demonic bargain or daring bluff. Ellis, in an almost metatextual moment, seems to acknowledge that he is subverting the expectations of his readers, as John reflects, "Sometimes, this is just the way it happens. No last twists of the tail, no one sticking their hand out of the grave to grope your ankle, no funny-looking bastard popping out of the woodwork to laugh like Orson Welles and say, 'Well, Mister Constantine, you might think you've won but actually your left testicle is now possessed by Azaroth, Demon King of Dodgy Pension Policies...." At the end of this soliloquy, John admits that he, too, has been a bad influence on Isabel's wasted life. That she would have been better off if she never met him. But, he concludes, "My name's John Constantine. I'm not the nicest bloke you've ever met. But I do me best."
With this first story, Ellis establishes the tone for his era--grim situations, often with a crime fiction edge, and John getting involved in the attempt to do his best. In the stories that follow, John is sometimes summoned, like a Sherlock Holmes figure, to dark places when the police are out of their depth. John enters these places because he knows that no one else is coming. That no one else "gives a toss." These are rooms where terrible things have happened, where men have done monstrous things because of magic, madness, or something that lies in-between.
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