RETRO REVIEW: Hellblazer #12 (December 1988)

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Or – “The Storyarc That Started It All…”

People sometimes like to ask me what my favorite comic book is, and it’s a difficult choice to make.  There are hundreds of books that I love, even those that I have complete runs of, but none quite like Hellblazer.  In the spring of 1988, I drove to Hays, Kansas and picked up Hellblazer #1 from the stands at Gulliver’s Tattered Covers, and have purchased every single issue of the book (and many crossovers and miniseries and such) ever since.  Though the first issue is a good one, this is the book that firmly cemented my love of the character of John Constantine and the Hellblazer title.

(Though tame by today’s standards, this issue was marketed to adult readers and deals with adult language and themes. Proceed with caution if you’re squeamish or easily offended.)
 

HELLBLAZER #12
Script: Jamie Delano
Pencils: Richard Piers Rayner
Inks: Mark Buckingham
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Todd Klein
Editor: Karen Berger
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $1.25 (Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5.00)

Previously, on Hellblazer: If you’ve ever seen the Keanu Reeves movie, feel free to forget it.  John Constantine thinks of himself as a ‘working-class magician,’ a man who may not be the most powerful conjurer around, but who is certainly one of the most savvy.  His knack for being at the right place at the right time led him to the Swamp Thing, and it was he who taught the earth elemental about his true abilities and the legacy that Swampy carried for the Green.  Having now returned to his home in London, John has been forced to address his OWN past and the horrors that lie within it, as well as the consequences of his actions.  Having been badly injured during a skirmish with a death cult, John made a pact with the demon Nergal to return his health, a process that Nergal handled by transfusing John with his own demon blood.  When Nergal came to collect, John went underground, running once again from his responsibilities.  But when hell literally breaks loose, it has ways of finding you…

Hiding out in a scrapyard, John has found that his usual network of contacts and folks-who-owe-favors has gone cold, and all his various friends are either dead (mostly due to his own actions) or not speaking to him.  Even the Swamp Thing is busy with the birth of his daughter Tefe (conceived while the mind of Swampy was in the body of John himself, a process that would later have consequences as well.)  I like how horrifying Richard Piers Rayner makes the reveal of John’s diseased face, and the intentional resemblance to pop icon Sting is still clear in the art.  With nothing but circles of protection and unfiltered cigarettes to entertain him, John finds himself going through his pockets, where he finds his gas bill, with a balance of TWENTY THOUSAND POUNDS and a phone number urging him to call…

What’s with the hippy in cyberspace, you ask?  A few issues earlier, John had enlisted the assistance of his friend Richie to try and outsmart Nergal, as Richie had created a process to let his mind enter the “computer reality.”  (This is 1988, mind you, nearly a decade before the Wachowski brothers debuted the Matrix, and a few good years before the internet actually became a global phenomenon.)  Richie’s body was destroyed, but he has ordered the hardware that he’ll need to get out of the computer reality.  All he needs is a body…  (Cue creepy organ music.)  John, as always, has a plan.  A risky plan.  A particularly risky, borderline suicidal grand guignol nightmare of a plan.  First step:  TAUNT THE DEMON WHO WANTS TO FLAY YOU AND EAT YOUR SOUL.

Step two: Hide your soul.  Heh.  I like this gambit, although it does require John to trust Richie a bit more than he eventually becomes known for doing.  John lures the beast into the intarwebs and leads him on a merry chase while Richie hacks away from the outside.  Remember that part about Richie’s original experiments with computer reality?  They were designed to try and let him experience the afterlife, specifically heaven.  And they worked.  When Nergal chases John to the edge of the celestial city, he is dispelled by the powers of light, leaving John to… get double-crossed by a friend with a grudge.  Richie crows that it’s John’s turn to stay forever in the computer and eventually invent Rick-rolling, but Constantine has his feathers numbered for just such an emergency.  “That body’s dying, mate.  Riddled with disease.  Why else do you think I’d chance a crazy stunt like this?”  Double-crossing the double-crosser, John offers NERGAL’S body in return for his own back…

It goes poorly.  Richie manages to reshape the body into something he can control, and prepares to embark on a life of superhuman power and such.  But before that can happen, another domino topples, as the three Lords of Hell send their emissary to congratulate Constantine on once again defeating a demon.

Poor Richie.  For a second, he almost escaped the death-knell that is being a pal of Constantine’s.  Piers-Rayner’s depiction of hell helped to shape not only this series, but eventually helped to shape the entire Vertigo line, including the issues wherein Morpheus travels to hell to retrieve his helm and eventually ends up with the key to Hades itself.  This issue is some years before Vertigo even EXISTS, and yet it (and the issues that follow and precede it) are the building blocks of Vertigo as we know it.  John is left with an uncharacteristic moment of triumph…

…which is completely false and unearned.  The irony of this issue becomes clear not long after, when John’s feint to Richie about his body being a cancerous time bomb are proven not to be a bluff.  The triple-cross that follows that is presaged here, and the John Constantine phenomenon (Man Vs. Things That Man Can’t Understand Wherein Man Gives Said Things The Business And Usually The Finger) is being built before our very eyes.  I recall being blown away by the darkness and fatalism of this title, as well as the visuals, neither of which are quite as powerful upon revisitation, but even a quarter century later, this issue holds up as a defining moment for Constantine.  Jamie Delano has been quoted as saying that his entire goal in writing this book was to show people how awful it was to live in 1980’s England, and that squalid discontent shows in every panel.  Hellblazer #12 may not be the live wire that it was for my 17 year old self, but it’s still a pretty powerful issue, and contains enough ass-kickery to earn 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  If you’ve ever asked yourself why I’m so hateful about the execrable Hellblazer movie, you should check out some of these early issues and see how much quality they truly twisted and bastardized to create the story of Ted “Theodore” Logan, Vampire Hunter.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  With John Constantine returning to the DCU, do you think his mystique will be ruined by standard superheroics?