Hellblazer, ConJob, The Laughing Magician or The World’s Greatest Con-Man – whatever name you know him as, he’s John Constantine: a chain-smoking trickster con-artist and occult detective from the low-rent regions of London. His story takes place in a contemporary world with supernatural influence and magical dangers lurking behind the curtains, but Constantine is a well-prepared and cunning magician with all the right moves to protect himself, though not always those close to him.
Hellblazer was the longest-running and most successful title of the DC Universe’s Vertigo comics. First debuted in a 1985 Swamp Thing #37, he became a recurring character as “supernatural advisor” to the lead, and later moved to his own title, Hellblazer in 1988 where he stayed for 300 issues. With a fantastically wide range of affiliations to fringe DC characters, and appearances in other comic titles, including Infinite Crisis, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, The Sandman, Shade and The Changing Man, we see Constantine in a growing universe with numerous incarnations as a humanist of questionable morals.
What makes Constantine such a marvel in indie comics is his anti-hero status. With an ability to be at his best and worst simultaneously, we can’t help but love the foul-mouth cynic as he destroys one part of his life to improve another, chases danger, magic and adventure into its darkest depths and barely makes it by the skin of his teeth. There is never any winning in Hellblazer’s world, as we experience his relationships fall to demise and his personal ties to angels, demons and other monstrous creatures impede his ability to make any long-lasting connections, but one of the best (and worst) things about John Constantine is that he never really stops trying to do the right thing.
Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come
As all titular heroes have an event in their past that influences their motives in the present, Hellblazer has the events of Newcastle to answer for. This story begins with a young, inexperienced John Constantine who is just as arrogant and angry, but not quite the Constantine we know now. He and a crew of bandmates and occultists (including Anne-Marie before her presence as the ghostly nun, and Gary Lester before his extreme addictions) assist a girl named Astra in ridding her life of an elemental demon she summoned from Hell to destroy her abusive father.
It's clear from the very beginning that things will go awry for everyone involved, but just how badly is a testament to the future of Constantine and everyone in his life from that point forward. This is the origin story of the events that plague Constantine for the rest of his life, including the years-long antagonism between Hellblazer and the demon Nergal, as glimpsed through the tormented memories of John Constantine himself.
Collection: Hellblazer #11
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artist: Richard Piers Rayner
There are very few times in the Hellblazer series that we are given a chance to see Constantine redeemed. He's arrogant, at his best - and cowardly when it comes to the lives of those close to him. His self-imposed isolation and general bastardry has become the continuance of Hellblazer stories, but Neil Gaiman's thoughtful account cuts deep to get a piece of Constantine that hasn't been written of very often: the sentimental side of a hurting man.
This story centers around the world's view of homelessness, loneliness and the healing power of human contact. Coming up against a ghost named Jacko, who is neither good nor evil, John is tasked with the burden of having to understand more than most about the way this cold world works. There is no direct enemy in these pages except for the apathy of human nature, and yet Gaiman does a wonderful job of capturing the prism of this character's emotional depth without losing the bitter edge that makes him most interesting.
The illustrations by David McKean display a diluted London-world, with browns and monochrome colors to set the shadow-plagued scene. He does both the cover and the inside pages, making it a fantastic collection for those who are interested in seeing some of his earlier work.
Collection: Hellblazer #27
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Dave McKean
Ashes & Dust: In the City of Angels
We follow Detective Frank Turro and several others through these issues as he investigates the spiraling circumstances that led to the death of John Constantine in a Los Angeles S&M nightclub. With as many leads as there are in this venue, no one seems capable of coming up with a guilty party, and the social caliber of the clientele doesn't make anything easier. It isn't until a club member begins leaking information about a male companion to Constantine that they uncover a prime suspect.
Media mogul Stanley Manor, a man with more wealth than he knows what to do with, and with an eerily close concept to a rather familiar billionaire playboy, has had his eyes set on John for a long while. A story of madness and chaotic emotional disturbances ensue as we take an excursion into the darker side of Hellblazer's personal life, and search for an answer to who killed John Constantine.
Constantine's bisexuality has long been hinted at in the pages of Hellblazer, but it isn't until Brian Azzarello takes hold of the story in a seedy club scene of Los Angeles that we see it take a wide, controversial turn into active existence.
Collection: Hellblazer #170-174
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Marcello Frusin
The Family Man
Constantine has learned to live rather uncomfortably with the ghosts in his life, but watching him run away from the horrifying repercussions of his acts has become something of the regular. While he's survived the last batch of terrors in life, the same can't be said for anyone close to him, and still there's one thing that he can safely say of himself: he hasn't killed anyone - yet.
This arc brings Constantine into a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer who specifically targets happy families. There is a meaningful psychology behind these issues that utilize the detective noir genre and the occult/supernatural tilt of Hellblazer, allowing for a chilling confrontation between two similarly tortured, albeit differing psyches. With a truly human evil facing him for the first time, we see Constantine as we've never quite seen him before.
There's a subtle, albeit brilliant little bit of a crossover in this issue between Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Hellblazer, alluding to the issues of The Sandman Vol. 2, where John aids Morpheus in recovering a bag of his sand.
Collection: Hellblazer #23-24, #28-31
Writer: Jamie Delano
Rake at the Gates of Hell
Through all the darkness that is collected in these stories, there is always some intelligence and emotion to Hellblazer, and all of that is served boldly by Garth Ennis, who concluded his run on the series with Rake at the Gates of Hell. This collection shows that John's one of the shadier heroes of the comic book world, but a hero nonetheless.
Constantine's quest for power has led him to a boiling point, so when he comes up against Satan in a revenge scheme of a personal nature, we're left wondering whether he's got what it takes to get out of it in one piece. Simultaneously, we're given a perspective into a heavy dose of reality through side stories that span racial tensions and personal vendetta grown out of violence.
Rake at the Gates of Hell stands as a truly human exploit with Constantine on the fringes of each critical event. The end is a more sentimental telling of emotional depth that explores the history of Kit and her family in 1990's Belfast, which wraps up the story in a particularly human way.
Collection: Hellblazer #76 -83
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
In the first nine issues of Hellblazer we are introduced to everything that makes him an anti-hero within a heavily politicized 1980's London. His selfishness, petulance and a hoard of hellish foes make a big impression here, fleshing out the character of Constantine through the gratuitous violence and gore of his past and present.
There is a main arc focusing on the struggle between the forces of Hell and a fundamentalist Christian cult, and beyond that a struggle with his own haunts, both literally and figuratively, as we're first introduced to the ghosts of his mistakes. There's an appearance by Swamp-Thing in the end, for those who really want to feel out the origins of John Constantine.
The pages are filled with the colorful rhetoric that makes these comics so popular, layered with the eye-catching, magically strange and borderline psychedelic depictions of true evils that he encounters.
Collection: Hellblazer #1-9
Writer: Jamie Delano
Opening with our demonologist stumbling upon the brutal murder of an ex-girlfriend, Constantine suspects foul magical play and steeps himself in the occult underbelly of London to find the person responsible. John calls on the reluctant assistance of a few old friends to get the job done, but no amount of alliances can save him from the brutality awaiting him in the gruesome, violent sickness of Hellblazer's London.
There is a slow but consistent build in these pages, with the action coming from the insight of the character and such purely human terrors that would drive any other human being mad. Both writer and illustrator give fantastic detail to the on-and-off scene environment of violence and deception that surrounds Hellblazer, but this - like any Hellblazer story - is not for the faint of heart. The ending is as severe and noteworthy as anything John Constantine has ever done, which is why it's perfect for fans old and new.
Collection: Hellblazer #134-139
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: John Higgins
This first collection of Hellblazer comics introduces you to the crude graveyard humor and vulgarity of John Constantine as written by Garth Ennis, who held the longest run for any writer on the title.
Constantine has battled numerous foes in his time, manipulating and deceiving everyone in his life to get a job done. There is no supernatural entity or dark alley that could make him back down from the path to arcane power, so what is it that could shake up a pragmatic, bold magician like him? Short answer: death.
The nature of Hellblazer springs to life as John ventures into finding a way to save his life by any means necessary. His desperation leads him to some dangerous territories, including dealings with lords of Hell, succubus demons and haughty angels.
Within these issues we see Constantine at the beginning of some prolific relationships in the series, such as with the love interest, Kit Ryan, and the King of the Vampires. This is the perfect beginning for new readers who want to get into the atmosphere of Hellblazer's gritty London streets, and old readers who want to revisit for a poignant, entertaining time with a favorite asshole.
Collection: Hellblazer #41-46
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: William Simpson