Vertigo was just about the best thing to happen to mainstream comics, and Hellblazer was just about the best thing to happen to Vertigo. Introduced in Alan Moore’s whacked-out Swamp Thing run because artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben wanted very badly to draw Sting. And so working-class, scouse warlock John Constantine was born. The look is pretty familiar to anyone who’s so much peered momentarily at a single frame of The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man through a foggy window while out of their mind on edibles. Chain-smoking smart-mouth in a trench coat. A lot of I’m bad news, luv and Get too close…and get burned. Now and then, Moore would peel back this noir façade and you’d maybe get a glimpse of a two-bit, pumped-up thug just trying to keep up. A man always on the ropes, always desperately grasping for the next scheme. That’s more or less what Jamie Delano had to work with on his inaugural run on Hellblazer: a mere suggestion of a character, carefully concealed under genre conventions and with an all too familiar (yet legally distinct) face. Delano takes this Constantine, effortlessly cool magus that he is in Moore’s run, and spends about 40 issues kicking him in the ribs.
Comparing comic book characters and their compulsions to substance abuse is fairly passe by now. It’s a good thing, then, that Constantine has plenty of literal substance dependencies. You can take your metaphors and shove them. Everyone, I imagine, knows someone who spends each day trying their damnedest to die as quickly as possible. It’s not that they’re suicidal, far from it even. Drink, smoke, lick doorknobs, play in traffic; whatever your vice, everyone has something to pick at that eternal scab, that death drive. However, this isn’t what sends Constantine digging up terrors and ghouls in Delano’s 40 issues. That’s just the drinking and the smoking. Indeed, early in Ennis’ seminal run on the character, Constantine is diagnosed with lung cancer, before talking his way out of it by selling his soul to the three lords of Hell. With a new lease on life, he goes right back to smoking thirty silk-cut a day. No one wants to live forever. However, Constantine’s other vice and the closest thing he has to a vocation is something else entirely. Scrambling and clutching in the dark is the same kind of fixation that you see in the eyes of creepy children that are a bit too keen on staring at roadkill: a fascination with malice and everything ugly in the world, and a need to drink in as much of it as you can. Delano presents this as the core of Constantine’s noir affectations. He’s a tortured witness to every horror the world can dredge up, but only because he wants to be. Unattached and aloof for the majority of his run, Constantine gets to live as a nomadic voyeur peering into the dark heart of Thatcher’s England, sneering all the while.
“The Bogeyman” and “Dead Boy’s Heart” are two of the great achievements of Delano’s run on the character, assessing Constantine as a man driven by, more than anything, a need to spite a world that finds ever more clever ways to disappoint him. The demons and the bastards are running the world. Always a step behind him are the bogeymen threatening to swallow up the shallow, insubstantial, pink thing that he is. Every atrocity that Constantine commits, in turn, against these powers is an act of self-affirmation. All comic book heroes do what they do in search of self-affirmation, to be bigger than the towering monoliths that always threaten to collapse in on their tiny fragile worlds. How do you live in a city and not become an accessory to the unimaginably massive structure you’ve stapled yourself to? Here is a need to not be a victim of the world. Constantine takes that just a bit further: the world is his victim, he is its bogeyman magus always ready with another cruel magic show. Hellblazer is a book utterly without hope in the future. Indeed, the only consolation is that there may be no future to suffer at all. Written in the late ‘80s, Delano is, of course, wrong here. But who can be faulted for hoping?