… and no, not the new, younger, hipper, watered-down DC Universe Constantine title that debuted this week (more of that on the next podcast), nor the inevitable emotionally-and-narratively unsatisfying final issue of Hellblazer. But, rather, the fact that DC and Comixology have rather marvellously – in just about the only good thing DC have done in the last couple of weeks – put every single issue of Hellblazer on sale, for 99c (around 69p) each, until next Thursday.
Now, you could just go and buy every single one of the 300 issues right now – but who has £200 or so to spend on comics in one go, especially when a fair chunk of them are a bit rubbish? With that in mind, then, if you’ve always wanted to start reading the misdaventures of John Constantine but have no idea where to start, let me offer a few suggestions as to which issues and storylines stand out from the various writers’ runs…
Jamie Delano Era (#1-40)
Obviously, given that the first issue is free, you should definitely start there. Early Hellblazer under Delano is a mostly pretty unsettling horror comic, but if that late-80s-British-urban-horror thing is your bag, then you should give the first handful of issues a go and see what you think. Issue #11 is notable for telling about the Newcastle event, a pretty major moment in Constantine’s backstory. To be honest, though, although they’re important in establishing the character (and moving him away from his roots in Swamp Thing), I’m not the biggest fan of Delano’s issues overall. They’re worth dipping into, but they’re far from the most definitive take.
As Delano’s run goes on, a few big-name creators pop in for fill-in issues. The results are mixed, however. Grant Morrison and David Lloyd’s two-parter, issues #25 and #26, is a bit disappointing given their pedigree – worth picking up if you’re a fan of either creator, though. Rather significantly better is issue #27, an utterly wonderful done-in-one by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean called “Hold Me”. I’ve talked about it on here before, but basically, if I were to recommend one individual issue of Hellblazer (as opposed to an arc), this would be it.
Garth Ennis Era (#41-83)
Look, I can’t stress this enough – Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer is one of the best runs by any creator in comics ever, and if you’re thinking about laying down a wodge of cash on this sale, then the very first thing you should do is buy every one of these issues.
If you want specifics, mind, then I’d say that Dangerous Habits (#41-46), Tainted Love (#68-71) and the hugely and depressingly epic finale Rake at the Gates of Hell (#78-83) are the standouts. There are also some lovely single issues here and there – #63 (Constantine’s 40th birthday) and #76 (drinking with Brendan’s ghost) among them. But really, in much the same way as you wouldn’t necessarily pick out single arcs of Preacher or Sandman, because they’re specifically long-form layered narratives that develop their characters throughout, the same is true here. Start with Dangerous Habits, and read the whole damned lot. Seriously. Go. Do it now.
Paul Jenkins Era (#84-128)
This is probably the largest chunk of Hellblazer stories that I’ve barely read any of – probably because it’s the one DC have pretty much wilfully refused to put in trade. From what I have seen of it, it’s a bit flat and inessential – although it couldn’t really be anything else, following Ennis – so I can only really recommend dipping in if you’re a completist who’s going after the entire lot.
This “era” actually starts with a one-shot by Delano, followed by a couple of issues by Eddie Campbell, but neither are particularly essential either.
Warren Ellis Era (#129-143)
An odd grouping on Comixology’s part, given that the first six issues are actually Garth Ennis’ brief comeback story, Son of Man (#129-133). Much more light-hearted than Ennis’ original run – while still ridiculously unpleasant at times – it’s worth a look if you like seeing Ennis and artist John Higgins at their most excessive.
As for Ellis, his run was of course truncated due to the furore over “Shoot” (which, if published, would almost certainly have been his best issue on the title). I’m not massively keen on his initial arc, Haunted, though it has its fans. I think he really comes into his own with the four single-issue stories that follow – with his final issue, Telling Tales (#143) the best of the lot. Still, there are so few issues that picking up his entire run hardly breaks the bank, and it is Ellis.
Brian Azzarello Era (#144-174)
There are people who may tell you the Azzarello era of Hellblazer is great. These people are wrong. If you must investigate for yourself, then give his first arc, Hard Time (#146-150) a go. It’s about as good as it gets – as the run goes on, it really does fall to utterly catastrophic pieces. Don’t bother with the two Darko Macan issues that precede Azzarello, either.
Mike Carey Era (#175-215)
I really like the first two issues (#175-176) of Carey’s run, which return him briefly to Liverpool (Carey’s home town as well as Constantine’s), have art by Steve Dillon, and introduce the excellent Angie Spatchcock. After that, though, I find the run a bit patchy. The first arc proper, Red Sepulchre, which follows on from the introductory two-parter, is quite decent – but the run later gets bogged down in stuff with Swamp Thing that, while perhaps harking back to the roots of the character, feels a bit out of place. The celebratory Issue #200 is worth checking in on, though, featuring as it does guest appearances from artists and characters of Hellblazer past.
Denise Mina Era (#216-229)
An underrated run, this. Although ostensibly split into shorter arcs, it’s another longer-form story line, predominantly set in and around Mina’s native Glasgow. Try the first part, Empathy is the Enemy (#216-222) and if you like what it’s doing, the second half is worth sticking with as well.
Andy Diggle Era (#230-249)
Truncated by Diggle’s sudden move to a Marvel exclusive contract, this run consists of a number of shorter storylines and shows a really strong grasp on the character. In at the Deep End (#230-231) and Joyride (#234-237) are both pretty great. There’s also a break for a good two-parter, Newcastle Calling (#245-246) set back in Constantine’s punk days by Jason Aaron, with art by the great Sean Murphy. With his closing three-part arc, The Roots of Coincidence (#247-249), Diggle starts to set in motion a move back towards the slicker, more confident John Constantine of the early (even pre-Delano) days – but with his departure, it stops short in preparation for the next run…
Peter Milligan Era (#250-300)
Still more recent in the memory, Milligan’s run is pretty up and down in nature, and is perhaps coloured now by the knowledge that everything in it heads towards the character’s final ending – even though it never began with that intent. Scab (#251-253) is quite good, as is Hooked (#256-258). The Long Crap Friday (#260), meanwhile, is the better of two one-shots that both feature utterly amazing pencil-based art from Simon Bisley. But after that, things falter somewhat – India (#261-264) is a bit dull, although the punk-based No Future (#265-266) is quite fun, with the return of Bisley to boot.
By this point, at least, you’ll probably have an idea of whether you want to carry on with the really quite drawn-out final few storylines (I didn’t, to be honest) – particularly when Shade the Changing Man gets involved. If you like Milligan’s style, there’s still stuff to enjoy, but otherwise (and with a brief stopoff for John and Epiphany’s wedding in #275) you might just be best skipping on to Death and Cigarettes (#298-300) just to see how it all ends…