Some Endings and Beginnings

John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 5: Dangerous Habits: written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; illustrated by Will Simpson, Steve Pugh, Sean Phillips, Dave McKean, and others (1991; collected 2013): Brit Jamie Delano was the first full-time writer for occult detective/punk mage John Constantine, a character created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch over in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980’s. Constantine got his own adult-oriented book in the late 1980’s, with Delano tapped to write it.

Delano wrote 40 issues and a few annuals and miniseries entries before passing the baton to the up-and-coming Irish comics writer Garth Ennis. This volume collects Delano’s last handful of regular Constantine issues and Ennis’s first six-issue arc.

Constantine, hardest of the occult hardasses, is in something of a downward spiral in Delano’s final issues. The psychic cost of fighting evil — and inevitably getting one’s friends and lovers killed during the battle — has taken its toll. Delano probes Constantine’s childhood in a striking horror tale, “Dead Boy’s Heart,” before turning to the incandescent wrap-up to ‘his’ Constantine.

What a wrap-up! Issue 40 of Hellblazer contained rare interior artwork by Dave McKean (probably still best-known today for his covers for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). I think it’s one of the artistic highpoints for nominally mainstream comic books during the 1980’s, dense and detailed to go along with a dense, detailed prose look at Constantine’s life and works. This could have served as a fitting end to the series had it been cancelled, but Ennis came aboard with issue 41.

Under the circumstances, Ennis wisely went with the tactic of briefly mentioning the events of issue 40 and then never, ever mentioning them again. DC’s decision to put Ennis on the book was something of a stroke of genius. He and Delano are both gifted horror writers, but of almost completely different stylistic modes. Where Delano is baroque and intellectual, Ennis is visceral and bleakly comic in a punk sort of way. To some extent, splatterpunk had come to Hellblazer.

Delano did benefit from some lovely, horrifying artwork at the end of his run, other than McKean. Steve Pugh’s grotesques worked perfectly for the Grand Guignol two-parter he illustrated, while the cooler Sean Phillips meshed perfectly with Delano’s writing on their issues together. Ennis wasn’t quite so lucky early on — Will Simpson, who pencils Ennis’s first six issues, is not a gifted artist when it comes to horror, though he rises to the occasion at points.

Anyway, the first five volumes of the re-edited and re-compiled Hellblazer are marvelous, though why this series didn’t get the hardcover treatment the second time around is a puzzle. Unless DC is about to scrap this reprint series and start another one in hardcover. Which, given the mercurial nature of DC’s publishing habits these days, is entirely possible. Hidey ho! Highly recommended.


 

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross and a host of others (2013): Brilliant companion piece to the equally brilliant, ongoing comic-book series The Unwritten delves deeper into the backstory of the series while also offering the reader a dead-on pastiche of Young Adult fantasy novels.

Indeed, the world Carey, Gross, and other artists conjure up for the first volume of the imaginary Tommy Taylor series is filled with more wonder and interest in 60 pages or so than the entire Harry Potter series. And it comments on the sinister implications of a separate race of magic users walking among the powerless mundane. A great work on its own, and a great and rich expansion of the series, which has about 12 issues left to run in its storyline. Highly recommended.

 

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