It was a tiny shop down a sidestreet in Wrexham where I first met John Constantine1.

It was 1989 or thereabouts, I was 18, and my comic reading had solely been restricted to the funnies, like Buster and The Dandy, Victor comic (favourite character – Joe Bones, the Human Fly!), the relaunched Eagle (Doomlord, natch), 2000AD once I had the pocket money to buy it for myself (John Cassavetes is Dead haunts me to this day), and a scattering of oversize Marvel books I scavenged here and there.

I’d encountered Alan Moore and Steve Dillon already, through their early work in the backup strip on Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly, but Warrior or even Captain Britain hadn’t really reached my little local newsagent in darkest Shropshire. And I had no idea of the incredible stuff coming out of DC’s Vertigo imprint.

So when I walked into that shop in Wrexham, I was mostly looking for old issues of DWW to complete my collection. The woman who ran it had loads, so it became a regular trip each time I felt flush. But oh, what wonders she had lined up on her shelves. Superheroes didn’t hugely interest me, but I vividly remember seeing a cover that drew me like a magnet…

Conjob, for those who don’t know, is a working class, chain smoking, hard drinking, bisexual scouse magician. He’s nasty and kind and venal and compassionate and selfish and clever and deadly. If you know him, or worse, love him, chances are you’ll end up dying horribly and being consigned to one of the nastier corners of hell for all eternity.

Created by Alan Moore during his seminal Swamp Thing run, he soon got his own monthly title – Hellblazer – and over the course of 300 visceral issues morphed from a dapper Sting clone to a hippy seeker to a ruthless trickster to a punk to a broken down old chancer via all points in between.

The best Hellblazer runs were those written by people from this side of the Atlantic, and it was a deeply political book. That’s what swung it for me – of course I loved Sandman, Books of Magic and all the rest, but there was something about the unleashed seething rage at Thatcher’s toxic legacy that lifted Hellblazer above the rest. This book was fucking furious and that anger was righteous and vengeful and I was 100% there for it.

When I briefly tried to break into comic writing about 5 years later (that’s a story for another time), I had a surreal afternoon where I visited the DC office in New York to pitch a Hellblazer file story to the editor, but he was unimpressed. I can’t say I blame him. Honestly – and this is a horribly depressing thing for me to admit – I think I might be too middle class to effectively write the character2.

Hellblazer cover artist Glenn Fabry drew this for me with his left hand, his drawing arm having been broken when he fell from a train. Imagine being that talented. This peers down at me sceptically as I write.

Si Spurrier3 is the latest writer to tackle Constantine and, after about a decade in the wilderness, it felt like a homecoming and a validation when it hit the shelves in 2019. None of the attempts to tackle the character in the years since Hellblazer had been cancelled felt quite right (although Ming Doyle’s run has a great deal to recommend it).

That initial 12 issue run was part of the Sandman Presents line that relaunched Vertigo and it was ruthlessly cancelled by algorithmic nonsense before he was ready to let it go. His viral blog post on the cancellation works as a perfect encapsulation of why he’s the only guy for the job – he was absolutely incandescent. And quite right too. It increasingly seems that, a few notable exceptions aside, the days when a writer like Peter Milligan could bed into a title and produce an unbroken run of 50 issues, creating a substantial body of work, are long gone. One of the main reasons I bailed on Marvel, after re-engaging with them a few years ago, is that every time I felt like a title I was enjoying was hitting its stride, it got canned and then relaunched with a new creative team and a new number 1. Nothing fucking sticks any more.

So Spurrier’s return to the fold, and the resurrection of his Hellblazer arc after 3 years, has been a triumphant, and deeply unlikely, cause for celebration. I’ve been rereading the initial 12 issues (14 if you count the one-off launch and a Books of Magic interlude) and it is classic Constantine, full of seething rage and disgust at the state of our politics, culture and national discourse.

Spoilers for a 4-year old book incoming

When a horrified Constantine finds the giant Albion, a cornerstone of Britain’s mythic past, chained, naked, and being wound fucked by masked politicians beneath the House of Commons it’s repellant, sickening, and completely and entirely on point. At its best Hellblazer conjures stomach churning moments that throw Britain’s corrupt heart into sharp relief far more starkly than, say, Grant Morrison’s cthuluesque psychedelia did in The Invisibles (a book I remember loving at the time but have yet to revisit).

Artwork by Aaron Campbell, colours by Jordie Bellaire, lettering by Aditya Bidikar – and isn’t is brilliant!?

All that is foul and corrupt in Britain oozes from its broken politics, enslaved to class and money. Politicians and royalty are exclusively, and often literally, demonic in the world of Hellblazer. It is a hopeless, nihilistic vision but one that it is hard to argue with, especially now. It’s telling that Constantine feels more comfortable around council estate drug dealers and gang members than he does in the corridors of power, no matter how easily he infiltrates them when he needs to.

So welcome back John Constantine. His latest adventure has taken him to America, but whereas his previous US journeys felt somewhat anchorless and defanged to me, Spurrier is turning his anger on America’s uniquely fucked up decline, and it’s glorious.

That said, I reckon Hellblazer is at its scabrous best when Constantine is in England, confronting the establishments and hypocrisies that rot his homeland from the inside out. Here’s hoping Spurrier’s truly excellent run continues long enough to bring Conjob home for another tilt at the windmills of power – if anyone deserves to equal or even surpass Peter Milligan or Garth Ennis’s lengthy runs with Constantine, it’s Spurrier.

  1. That’s ‘tyne’, like ‘Fog on the…’, not ‘teen’ ffs ↩︎
  2. Once, about 20 years ago, after enduring a slightly drunken rant about the rout of the unions, a friend of my ex-wife’s whispered in her ear ‘Does… does Scott think he’s working class? Coz he’s the most middle class person I’ve ever met!’ ↩︎
  3. Si wrote the first Afterblight book, The Cull, which I had to study when I took up the reins of the series, and which I tied my third book into quite tightly because why wouldn’t I, The Cull was really good. Also, it’s worth saying that I don’t mean to discount the incredible contributions of artists like Aaron Campbell et al, but I tend to glom onto the writers and follow them rather than artists – wholly subjective personal inclination ↩︎

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