Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Frazer Irving
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
Remembrance has always been a theme in Hellblazer. As early as Jaime Delano’s first issue, John Constantine has lived his past as though it were the present. When he revisits the apartment of his dead lover, Emma, killed in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, he doesn’t just feel the pain of grief as he remembers her; rather, she appears to him as a ghost and accompanies him when he leaves. Likewise, in the elegiac short story “One Last Love Song” (Hellblazer #142), Warren Ellis’s drunken Constantine stumbles through the city streets followed by a steadily growing entourage of past loves (including the aforementioned Emma). Each shade brings with her a detail: “Tess. Basement club in Soho. Danced for hours. When we opened the door for a breath of fresh air, a huge plume of steam came out with us, lit amber by the streetlights as it climbed.” Yet the line between such nostalgia and the guilt that the dead bear with them is thin. Of Emma he aches, “One last wish, one last I love you could bring her back. One last missing-you spell. Walk on.”
Mike Carey adds to the literature of John Constantine’s memory with Hellblazer #213, a childhood tale occasioned, as Constantine’s reveries often are, by death. In this case it is his sister, Cheryl, killed in the last story arc, who drives him back to his grim, industrial hometown to recount his first experience with his “gift.” This moody chapter from Constantine’s past is ostensibly a classic bully story, with the young protagonist as the victim of a child-thug who is “two years older than [him]. And two yards taller. The sort of kid who starts shaving in infant school,” and the sort of kid who had put his sister’s eye out with a knitting needle. But by the end of Constantine’s tale, it is much less clear who the victim is, as fortunes are reversed, the past is manipulated, and, as always, the Hellblazer comes out on top but not unscathed.
Carey’s script for this bleak episode gets a suitably bleak treatment by guest-artist Frazer Irving, whose desolate landscapes are inhabited by figures with theater masks for faces: Their eyes are composed of black shadow, their mouths forced into harsh grimaces; the menace of the bully is conveyed through a flared nostril, young Constantine’s pain and fear through a clenched eye. These scenes bring to mind another classic English bully tale, Neil Gaiman’s story of Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine in Sandman #25. Like Irving’s, Matt Wagner’s renderings of both the zombie abusers and their still-living victim feature black circles around the eyes and severe shapes of the mouth that perfectly express a glowering threat or an agonized panic. But because Hellblazer #213 isn’t at all a supernatural tale, the highly stylized faces that populate Limbo Town in Irving’s Klarion The Witch Boy are here loosened, roughened, given a maturity more suitable to this Vertigo title. Lee Loughridge’s colors adapt to this decidedly non-pulp tale by displaying an evenness in stark opposition to the splattery blacks and reds of hell in the last arc. The sky of this issue is the sickly green of a contaminated aquarium.
The richness of John Constantine as a character is such that his best writers-—and Carey is one of them—-can add to his history in a way that feels organic, as if the reader is slowly getting to know him. This story gives the perfect illusion of having been told to Carey, rather than created by him. As Carey’s tenure on Hellblazer winds down (issue 215 will be his last), a short story like this one has the air of a long, last look at who Constantine is to the writer, and it is Hellblazer fans who benefit, as the portrait of this scoundrel and flawed hero deepens.
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