Besides, B-Sides – Brian Azzarello’s Hellblazer

Vol 1: Brian Azzarello’s Hellblazer

 Issues #146-174

 Collections: Hard Time, Good Intentions, Freezes Over, Highwater

In celebration of DC reverting back to the proper Hellblazer moniker (if only in moniker, time will tell), we start our “Besides, B-Sides” series with Vertigo all-star and purveyor of all things dark and sleazy, Brian Azzarello, and his often ignored take on DC’s resident scumbag, John Constantine.

While not derided at all, Azzarello’s 29 issue run rarely comes up in conversation about Constantine. Sandwiched between Warren Ellis’ powerful but truncated take and Mike Carey’s much more fanciful angle, Azzarello takes John back to America, and puts him through the very American ringer. While Azzarello fans would likely slip right into this, Constantine devotees find a much uglier version of the character than even Jamie Delano could have executed. He incited prison riots for his own gain. He hooks himself on heroin purposefully. He delves back into his bisexuality, though exclusively to manipulate. He joins a gang of neo-Nazis. He busts a child porn ring the hard way. And he does so with very little magic.

Far removed from the more introspective US visit of Garth Ennis’ Hellblazer high point, “Damnation’s Flame,” here John is down in the muck. While that in and of itself isn’t new at all, the manner in which he participates, and in several situations, instigates the filth around him is beyond the pale even for the man who would send a junkie to his reward simply to make his own life easier. Beyond a bastard, in Azzarello’s hands, John Constantine is a monster.

And he’s treated as such. Horror legend Richard Corben (a frequent Brian Azzarello collaborator), takes on Constantine for the first time, his knack for the grotesque in fine fashion. Likewise, Marcelo Frusin drags John through the muck, erasing whatever bits of the Sting design that he started with, and replacing it with a damaged, horrifying husk of a human being. Arguably, that’s what John would end up like, but regardless, it comes across as extreme. Which is likely why Brian Azzarello’s arc isn’t particularly lauded.

There is an argument to be made that these could just as easily be any Vertigo book. Take out what little magic there is present, add a healthy helping of Azzarello grit, make John a New Yorker and change the name, and you could easily tell the same story. Combine that with Azzarello being the only American author to have any real time with the book and you have a pretty jarring shift. But that’s what makes these 29 issues so interesting, and ultimately, essential.

Because the perspective is so different, the examination of Constantine as a character is fresh. Constantine rarely makes the right move, and many times makes the wrong one, but rarely does he orchestrate such villainy, particularly on people. The lack of care for human life for the majority of these issues is staggering. The abject cruelty of Constantine’s prison riots in “Hard Time” takes him right to the edge of anything understandable, and even further from heroism. While he ultimately shuts down the pornography ring in “Highwater” (where he also joins up with a local Nazi chapter), the lengths to which he goes to ingratiate himself to these people is slimier than he is at even his darkest moments. Again, this is an Azzarello trope. He wants ugly, and wants disgust. He gets it here.

The hard look at John Constantine strips away the British charm. That’s likely due to Azzarello being American, but whatever the case, in these pages we deal with what the manipulative, sociopathic magician we’ve read about for so long would really do. It seems cheap to tag “real” onto a Vertigo book (as so many seemed to have the “darker” or “grittier” take as a big part of their pitch), but that’s what we get. There’s no superhero, not even a little. Instead there are compromised morals and a where ethical ambiguity was once the name of the game, here there is only survival, and the objectively wrong things you have to do to keep that.

That doesn’t jive particularly well with the charmer present in near every other take on the character, but on its own merit, this is strong stuff. There’s not a whole lot of addressing the continuity of Constantine, and the impact on the 300 issue run is small, but there’s a lot of great stuff to be found here, none of which should be overlooked.

-Eric Bryan