Review: Constantine: The Hellblazer Vol. 1: Going Down trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The "DC You" Constantine series is likely closer to what ardent Hellblazer fans are looking for, but my sense is the series still has a ways to go to achieve that Vertigo tone. Ming Doyle and James Tynion's Constantine: The Hellblazer Vol. 1: Going Down is mature and clever, but also meandering and perhaps a tad too hip. It comes off for me like John Constantine by way of Batgirl of Burnside, which admittedly might have been exactly the tone this book was going for, but the complexity isn't sufficient to stand up to those halcyon days of DC's in-universe "Mature Readers" titles.

[Review contains spoilers]

Going Down is ostensibly about a demon shadowing John Constantine and his travels from New York to London to try to get rid of it, over five of the book's six issues. But of those five issues, about a sum total of one issue is spent on flashbacks to Constantine's early life (perhaps not entirely unexpected), one is spent on Constantine tricked into the middle of a supernatural business dispute, and one spends an extended sequence on a tour of haunted New York. That's all before the last issue, a series of one-panel sight gags while Constantine plays exorcist-for-hire. I made the Batgirl comparison, but a comparison to DC's Harley Quinn series is also apt; given the choice of moving forward by plot or fiat of character, Constantine: The Hellblazer seems to choose the latter every time.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Doyle and Tynion write a charming Constantine, and Riley Rossmo and the book's other rapidly-changing (but all tonally similar) artists keep Constantine stylish and his foes interestingly twisty and slimy. But it's notable that the threat here by and large is that the demon (Constantine's disembodied ex-girlfriend Veronica) is killing off Constantine's ghost-entourage and mostly not threatening Constantine himself; certainly what the last issue demonstrates is how much danger Constantine is not in and really that he's got these supernatural problems under control. The ending cliffhanger suggests this is the calm before the storm, but for the most part despite the trademark Constantine angst here about how he's done his friends wrong, there's not much suspense or real danger in the book. (Notably, as "dark" as the book gets, which isn't very, the crooked panels are almost always framed in bright white and not ominous black.)

It's in this that I think Constantine: The Hellblazer still falls short of Hellblazer before it. The villains here are all demons straightaway, and most have at least some element of comedy to them, whether the double-crossed demon club owner or the incubus who really wants to be a musician. There's no political or cultural satire here, and nothing beyond average (even tame) comic book violence and no real gore. Constantine's bisexuality is overt, and there's one mildly explicit sex scene (that's maybe a smidgen more blue than your average DC Comics, though probably less so than that scene in Catwoman Vol. 1: The Game), but while what Doyle and Tynion are trying to do is a step in the right direction, the book's somewhat tittering approach to sex does not maturity make. Again, like Harley Quinn, Going Down's main thrust seems to be fun with John Constantine, which is fine but does not make this a horror book.

To its credit, Going Down does check a couple of important John Constantine boxes. As someone admittedly mostly brought to John Constantine through the television show and New 52 series, I can say the appearance by Gary Lester immediately grabbed my attention, though unfortunately it doesn't seem "Gaz" will be a mainstay in the book; I hold out hope we might see Chaz in the next volume. There's also the requisite nod to Newcastle, though it doesn't seem to hold the resonance for Constantine that it has elsewhere. The story also includes the required theme of Constantine's guilt over betraying his friends and their having died for him, taken to the extreme with Constantine's entourage of dead ghost-friends. But whereas we expect this last item from Constantine stories, here the angst comes off half-hearted amidst all the nicety, suggesting maybe these are stories played out too many times already.

Again, however, the John Constantine that Ming Doyle and James Tynion set out in Constantine: The Hellblazer Vol. 1: Going Down is fun, indeed the Constantine you'd want to go get a pint with and regret it later. Insofar as the writers move Constantine a little bit closer to his Vertigo roots, all the better. Though love-interest Oliver looked markedly strange in his sweatshirt and jeans next to Constantine's trenchcoat, I did actually root for their improbable relationship in the end; it's mainly seeing the resolution of that cliffhanger that'll bring me back for the next volume (and the fact that it's the last DC You volume, so why not).

[Includes original and variant covers, sketches and artist Riley Rossmo commentary]
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