Constantine: Hellblazer; Vol. 1, "Original Sins"
While I was gone, the medium of comics changed, in a variety of ways. The collector’s market peaked, then collapsed. The creative focus shifted from artists to writers. And somewhere along the way, the comic book industry started creating work of real literary merit on a regular basis. At least, so it seems to me now, looking back over everything that happened in the 15 to 20 years I was gone. It seems somewhat strange to say that a 70-plus year old narrative medium has only been in the habit of producing work with real literary merit in the last decade or so, especially when I was so hooked on the medium 20 years ago, a decade before this increase in quality that I mention. And it is strange, but stranger (and more unwelcome) is the realization that most of the stuff I loved as a 10 year old seems cringeworthy to me now. Granted, there are some gems that stand out—Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and Batman, which blew my mind as a child, is still some of the best comic writing I’ve ever read, and although I don’t love his art, the work he produced with artist David Mazzuchelli is as outstanding visually as it is narratively. And of course, anything Alan Moore ever turned his hand to is gold, as far as I can tell, no matter how far back in his creative history that you go. I will forever regret the loss (to shifting adolescent interest and the desire to make a quick buck that could be turned around into used LP purchases) of my copy of Miracleman #2, an Eclipse reprint of several stories Moore wrote in 1982 for a British title called Marvelman. That one comic shines in my memory as a long-lost cherished favorite, even though I barely remember any of the story; it’s probably a lot of the reason that, to this day, I reach for comics with Moore’s name on them without a second’s hesitation. Even Larry Hama, whose work as long-running author of the toy tie-in comic G.I. Joe was better than it had any right to be, produced some pretty amazing stuff. But for the most part, I have to admit that the stuff I loved back then is pretty crappy. Tom De Falco and Ron Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man in the mid 80s captivated me at the time, but now seems ham-fisted. Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars story, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, and the many writers and artists that worked on Captain America during the years in which I subscribed to the title, all fare even worse in my unflinching adult eye.
So what changed between then and now? What’s different about today’s comics that allows me to love them, even though I turn up my nose, for the most part, at the work I loved as a kid? Well, I don’t know enough about what happened in the interim between periods in which I was paying attention, but I have a few guesses. First of all, the writing style changed. The turgid, pulp-influenced style of guys like Stan Lee was perfect for a sort of overcaffeinated, campy rush that would captivate a prepubescent audience, but its ability to translate to adult readers was limited at best, requiring a fair bit of nose-holding in order to get past the cheesy scripting and enjoy the good ideas that were often there, under the surface. However, I think a point must have arrived sometime in the 90s where the medium realized as a whole that its audience was adult rather than adolescent, for the most part, and that, where said audience was concerned, writing of the Alan Moore/Frank Miller style was much preferable to the Stan Lee standard. Ham-fisted narrative captions with frequent winking references to things the reader almost certainly already knew, along with thought balloons that telegraphed the motivations of characters through completely unbelievable inner dialogue, were thrown out the window, and a new technique called “decompression” was introduced. Although, I must admit, I don’t like putting it that way. I’ve read “compressed” comics and “decompressed” comics, and as far as I can tell, the difference is that “decompression” includes room for character developments and subplots that reveal themselves at a realistic pace. Instead of every issue of a comic book seeming to exist solely for the purpose of a dramatic battle scene that takes up a third of the issue, story arcs stretch out over several issues and include a lot more plot and character development than they ever used to. I started to realize how welcome and potentially brilliant this method of storytelling could be when I read a 6-issue story arc from Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. The arc supposedly revolved around Doctor Octopus, but by halfway through the fifth issue, Spider-Man had dealt with the villain satisfactorily. The last one and a half issues were focused entirely on Peter Parker’s struggles to deal with the fallout his actions as Spider-Man had caused in his personal life. I was hooked. This is the kind of storytelling I like, no matter what the medium. And the more I looked around, the more I discovered that this sort of storytelling was now commonplace. Thank God.
It wasn’t just the narrative form that changed, though. Although it is a bit appalling that comics cost fully 5 times as much as they cost when I first started collecting ($3 as compared to 60 cents), this price increase has been accompanied by a dramatic improvement in printing technology. I never really noticed that the comics I was reading in the 80s looked crappy, any more than I noticed that they almost always featured cheesy writing. But these days, it seems obvious. Comics produced before 1992 or so generally feature lurid, unappealing colors and smudgy lines, which can make even the best art from the time comparatively hard to look at. I hasten to add that the art teams on these older comics were not responsible for this problem—some of it appears to have been the fault of the cheaper paper used for printing at the time, while other aspects seem more likely to have been the fault of now-outdated technology. However, these unfortunate aspects are generally preserved even in modern graphic novel reprints of earlier series. I’ve come to associate these artistic shortcomings with the narrative shortcomings I see as common in older comics, and therefore, I often cringe when I pick up a graphic novel collection and discover the telltale signs of an era I consider subpar. As I’ve said before, I realize that not everything published before a decade or so is crap, and therefore I’m willing to give things a chance most of the time. After all, my copy of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen looks like absolute crap, and yet it’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read (although I think it’s a bit overrated in Moore’s oeuvre—if you ask me, “Promethea” is his true masterpiece. More on that in a future installment). For the most part, though, I go into these older graphic novels with the expectation of doing some slogging. I always hope for enjoyment, but I generally feel like I’ve lucked out if they’re merely mediocre and don’t suck out loud, as a lot of 80s era comics do.
Which brings me to “Original Sins”, a graphic novel collecting the first 9 issues of the Constantine: Hellblazer series. While the character was created by Alan Moore during his work on Swamp Thing, he never wrote for John Constantine’s own series, and “Original Sins” is written by Jamie Delano, a name I’m unfamiliar with. I do enjoy the character of Constantine, but I first encountered him in a storyline that takes place long after his character had been established—Neil Gaiman’s introductory volume to the “Books Of Magic” series. The idea of this snarky, foul-tempered British lout, who chain-smoked and binge-drank and called himself a magician but often appeared to weild no real power at all, was mindblowing to me. I didn’t necessarily seek out his other adventures, but when I came across them, as written by Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis, I enjoyed them quite a bit. In fact, nearly every name I associated with A-list quality in modern comics had written at least one or two Constantine stories in their time. All of which left Jamie Delano with quite a lot to measure up to. And when I opened “Original Sins” and saw that telltale smudgy art and lurid coloring, I had to wonder. Perhaps it was the later work by Ennis or someone like him that made Constantine into the awesome character that I saw him as. Maybe the Delano stories would compare to the Ennis stories in the same way that De Falco’s Spider-Man stories from the 80s compare to Bendis’s of today—flat and lifeless, with one-dimensional characters.
For the first third of the volume, it seemed to be shaping up as exactly what I was afraid of. The double-sized first issue began a storyline that finished up in the second issue, one that reminded me of my recent explorations into Doug Moench’s 80s run on Moon Knight. I was really excited about Charlie Huston’s recent Moon Knight revival, and decided to check out some of the original series. What I found was interesting, and would no doubt have blown me away at the time, but by today’s standards, the writing was tame, and hewed too closely to earlier conventions of comic book writing that drag down the narrative flow. I was feeling the same way about the first two issues of Constantine: Hellblazer, especially when I saw that the storyline ended after only two issues. While some of the more overt horror elements showed potential, I was less than excited about most of what I was discovering, and ended up putting the book down for several days before reading the other 7 issues that made up the graphic novel.
When I eventually picked it back up, I was prepared for a slog. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by issue 3, a tale in which John Constantine attempted to disrupt the activities of a gambling demon by tricking him into thinking that Margaret Thatcher would lose the 1987 election for British Prime Minister. Now this was the Constantine that drew me to the book in the first place! While I was disappointed that said storyline was over after one issue (someone like Garth Ennis could have made an entire graphic novel out of this premise), I found my enthusiasm for the remaining issues renewed. And things got even better after that. Perhaps it just took Delano a couple of issues to find his feet.
The narrative style that Delano uses for the later issues in the volume, while still not quite on a par with the best of today’s graphic novel writers, is much improved over most 80s comic book writing. Each issue tells a self-contained story, but also contains links to the other issues in the series. In fact, even the storyline of Mnemoth the hunger demon from the first two issues, which seemed so self-contained at the time I was reading it, comes up again in later issues. The reference points are at times minor and subtle, and for most of the volume, it’s hard to tell where the whole thing is leading. While the main storyline of each issue is wrapped up by the end, there are often elements left unresolved, and Constantine is left wondering what their significance might be, with no way to determine such a thing. However, these elements all reappear by the end of the volume, and mingle with other plot details that were seemingly unimportant and unconnected at the time of their introduction to create a much more significant overall picture. This type of writing works well as a graphic novel, once you get used to it, but it seems to be designed for the episodic nature of monthly comics, in a way that comics today often aren’t. Each issue is a self-contained narrative, but also enhances a larger story arc, thereby keeping the reader’s interest for future issues, while also satisfying the casual customer who only picks up an issue every now and again. In fact, while I tend to like the currently popular storytelling method quite a bit, there is something to be said for the idea that modern comic writers could take a few cues from Delano’s approach on this volume.
The art of John Ridgway also stands out at various points in “Original Sins.” While the smudged, lurid look of 80s pages is impossible to avoid reproducing, Ridgway’s unconventional page structures, which often incorporate overlapping panels, manage to look good despite these limitations. His use of double-page spreads, an uncommon technique at the time, is also quite creative, as on pages 58 and 59, or pages 172 and 173.
By far my favorite art in this volume, though, is Dave McKean’s covers for each issue. He uses collage art to mix illustrations with photography and even cut-up letters and numbers, for a psychedelic effect that both suits and enhances the dark, foreboding feel of John Constantine’s world. I actually would have been happier seeing his art fill the entire book, instead of being reserved for covers, but I’m sure the techniques he used to create these covers were too time-consuming to allow for 25 or so pages being produced every month.
In the end, while this isn’t the best work I’ve read in the Constantine: Hellblazer series, I’m glad I took a chance it despite the less-than-perfect reproduction techniques. It’s made me interested to see what Jamie Delano is doing these days, although from checking around the web, it doesn’t seem that he’s doing that much. That’s a shame; anyone able to produce something better than standard hackwork back in the 1980s deserves to be a household name by now.