CBR's Guide to Free Comic Book Day 2016
After all these years together, I didn’t know that Hellblazer could still surprise me, but damn… This week I just about fell in love all over again. I’ve been reading Hellblazer for so long, it started just in time to mesh with my own grouchy rebellion, and over the years it feels like it’s grown with me. It’s been so long that I can see now that I began to take it for granted, didn’t really see it anymore, just assumed it would always be there every month, doggedly faithful and always available. Somehow this week, it turned around and did something entirely surprising, and reminded me why I love it.
It wasn’t the kind of happiness that I get from the easy dalliances I have with sweet, limited series or perfectly self-contained graphic novels. That is the stuff of instant gratification. They are the reading equivalent of short, exciting, passionate affairs, where the excitement and allure can be easily maintained over a quick 12 or 24 issue runs. Monthly, ongoing comic book series’ are different, and nothing has stuck around with the reliability of my monthly fix of Hellblazer. Taking it for granted as a book that can deliver something basically satisfying was so easy that I never appreciated it until it turned around and delighted me this month.
It’s been easy to assume that Hellblazer will always be there, plodding away gently, reliable and decent, (if not incredible or truly exciting anymore.) About 10 years ago I wondered why it hadn’t been canceled, and even went as far as to stop buying it for a few months. If I’m honest, something ugly was depicted, something crass and pointless and I tried to walk away. Of course I couldn’t stay angry, not after 12 good years, and when Hellblazer caught my eye again, I had to spend a fair amount of time looking through back issues to find the issues I’d missed. There are still a couple of gaps, and those one or two missing issues remind me not to be so hasty next time, to remember the history I’ve enjoyed, to see the big picture.
So I’m committed to the comic book, just as I am to the medium, but inexplicably to this comic book in particular. Inexplicably because it really isn’t my type, or at least I thought so anyway. At the beginning maybe, when I was an angry teenager and here Constantine was – the first British comic book hero created by my favorite British comic book writer. Flawed, confused, directionless, sneaky… at the time that all appealed to me, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d outgrown it a little. Obviously not enough to break it off, but enough to drift away, to pay less attention, to expect a lot less. Then Milligan and Bisley started working on Hellblazer, and I felt a gradual building of something good. I couldn’t put my finger on what they were moving towards, but it felt right and good. This week they hit the bloody nail on the head.
Milligan and Bisley have fun. They basically characterize the Tory government as a demon infestation, using classic slogans and the trappings of zombies and Nazis. Fetid and decrepit, we’re encouraged to see these as the dying old guard, hanging on to the world with their fingernails while the spirit of anarchic punk fights against subversion and abuse.
Bisley draws us an incredibly beautiful young woman, with her perfectly round ass packed into vinyl pants, pawing at the contrast of a wrinkled, monolithic, middle-aged John Constantine. Despite his resplendent green mohawk, his girth and weariness betray a man long past the ineffectual teenage rebellion of his punk days. Bisley lets us see the way these trappings weigh on him, the pain he feels while acting out the tragedy of his past. It’s sexy and cruel and even if it’s an exhausting part of the job, it’s also something John needs to do, to remember why he doesn’t fight the system this way anymore.
These are the moments I read comic books for. Remembering the spirit of punk was a gift. Anarchy and rebellion are an act of love, or rather, hate is just the flip side of love. Why else put so much effort into the fight? The timing of this issue couldn’t have been any better. Here we are, still shaken by the death of Malcolm Mclaren, and here’s John, diving into his punk past with both eyes open. Mclaren might be dead, but with Hellblazer this month, Milligan and Bisley remind us that the fires of play and chaos still burn within us. The ability to truly shock and surprise was one of the bywords of the punk movement at it’s inception, and the fact that it’s all surface and gloss now has helped us forget that. But once upon a time punk was obscenely shocking, and Milligan uses John’s memories to take us back to that time, and feel the raw pain of his 1979 self as Thatcher gripped the throat of Britain so tightly. Watching John delve into his past in order to exorcise his (and the worlds) literal and metaphorical demons is a delight. Simon Bisley does an incredible job of visually contrasting the pretty young version of Constantine with the imposing man he has become. Time and misadventure have scarred and hardened John, and the man he has become has the strength and will to transform his environment by channeling the anger that pained him so much as a young, fresh-faced, suicidal punk kid.
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