John Constantine has one of the more unusual pedigrees of any character in popular fiction. Created by Alan Moore as a supporting character for his legendary run on Swamp Thing, the character was modeled on Sting–the lead singer for The Police. “John Con” proved popular enough to inspire his own solo series–Hellblazer–which was originally meant to be called Hellraiser but couldn’t be named that because of a then-upcoming horror movie by Clive Barker.
The series proved to be a big hit for DC Comics and became one of the vanguard titles for the adults-only Vertigo imprint several years later. When the series came to an end with its three-hundredth monthly issue, it was–at that time–the longest running monthly comic in the world. During that time, it featured a list of writers and artists that reads like a Who’s Who of English, Irish, and Scottish comic book superstars. Even Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean of The Sandman created an issue together.
These days, John Constantine doesn’t seem like anything special to the uninitiated. Supernatural detectives are a dime a dozen and the trench coat-wearing, modern day Merlin has become a cliché. But John Taylor, Cal McDonald, and even Harry Dresden all owe John Constantine a nod for clearing the way, if not serving as a direct inspiration.
In 2011, Vertigo elected to start collecting the entirety of the Hellblazer series in trade paperback form. This first volume, Original Sins, is noteworthy in being an enhancement of the first Hellblazer TPB collection, which was also titled Original Sins. That edition closed with a cliff-hanger of John meeting up with The Swamp Thing before going off on a crossover adventure in the then-monthly Swamp Thing comic and opened with an apologetic foreword by writer, Jamie Delano, explaining the abrupt ending. This new edition collects the same first nine issues of Hellblazer from the original TPB as well as the related Swamp Thing stories.
It is ironic that this story collection should find itself beset by such confusion over continuity when most of the stories within it do a fine job of standing on their own terms. The collection opens with John returning home from the USA, only to find his junkie exorcist friend Gary having a bad trip in the bathtub… except there really ARE thousands of bugs crawling all over his skin! It turns out that Gary botched the exorcism of a gluttony demon and bad things will happen to the world at large if John doesn’t help him set things straight. The collections’ other stories see John playing against a demonic NASDAQ where souls are traded like stocks, rescuing his niece from a child-molester and getting caught in the war between a gang of devil worshippers and a Christian cult trying to bring about The Second Coming.
Despite some references to Thatcherism, yuppies, and the 1980s “greed is good” mentality, these stories still hold up today. Jamie Delano did a masterful job building upon what Alan Moore created while adding his own unique twist on the formula, mixing modern politics and horror to great effect. Delano also established two of the great reoccurring themes of Hellblazer–that the forces of Heaven and Hell are two sides of a very dark coin and that humanity is capable of inflicting far greater horrors on itself than the supernatural denizens of the universe.
The artwork by Brett Ewins, John Ridgway, and Rick Veitch is suitably horrific. There is little of the innovation or exaggeration common place to later Vertigo works. Yet, that only serves to make the horror of each story more effective, as we see what should be a fairly standard superhero comic book degenerate into something truly alien and terrifying.
Given that this is a Vertigo publication, it should go without saying that this volume–and indeed all Hellblazer volumes–are Adults Only. There are depictions of violence, nudity, and a good deal of adult situations and general unpleasantness that make this book unsuitable for younger audiences, as well as the emotionally sensitive. But what else would you expect from a comic called Hellblazer?
Hellblazer, vol. #: Original Sins
by Jamie Delano and Rick Veitch
Art by Brett Ewins, John Ridgway, Rick Veitch
Vertigo Comics, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: Adult