20 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 063 - Constantine Beat

Hellblazer: Pandemonium
Writer - Jamie Delano
Artist - Jock
Price - $24.99 USD

Hellblazer #260-264 "India"
Writer - Peter Milligan
Artist (#260) - Simon Bisley
Penciler (#261-264) - Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker (#261-264) - Stefano Landini
$2.99 ea.
Publisher - Vertigo

John Constantine celebrates his 25th year of existence as a character with both a graphic novel and what appears to be a well-regarded run of the regular series. Although created by Alan Moore in Saga of the Swamp Thing (another example of a Moore creation providing steady income to DC for years), Delano did a lot of the work really establishing what Constantine was about, filling in his family history and establishing the chilly, nasty and often British personality of the Vertigo imprint. And he doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of credit for it. Maybe it's that there have been lots of acclaimed writers after him, like Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Andy Diggle. It could also be that unlike those guys, he didn't follow this with something more popular. I confess when I checked his Wiki entry I was surprised to find I had read more of his work than I thought, but a good deal of it was stuff I dropped after an issue or two. Of late, he's done some stuff for Avatar, following the leads of Ellis and Ennis, and a lot of what they publish kind of reminds me of famous filmmakers doing episodes of TV anthologies like Amazing Stories or Masters of Horror: you can find some of your favorites doing some out-there stuff, but never their best stuff, and always on a budget.

I was interested to see what he came up with in his return to the character, though. In Pandemonium we find Constantine forced by the British government to go to Iraq to stop some supernatural serial killer. He accompanies Iraqi Aseera al-Aswari, the alluring woman who helped trap him, not that he holds a grudge. Delano has 120 pages or so to stretch out here, so Constantine isn't just whisky, smokes and double-entendres. There's some charm and respect in his casual, inevitable wooing of Aseera, but Delano also recognizes (and for all I know he established this trait in the first place) Constantine's obstinate, self-destructive side, causing him to get in soldiers' heads to mess with them even when he knows he's being unfair, or his compulsion to escape their supervision and set his own agenda.

I wouldn't call Jock an inspired choice as artist, but when I say that I just mean that after his work on The Losers he would be a natural choice for another gritty, militaristic comic, especially one starring another grizzled, spiky-haired jackass. That said, he has really stepped his game up since then, not so much compositionally but in his use of digital color and texture effects. You really feel the gritty swirl of the sand, the baked-on sweat, the chill when the sun goes down. It's a pretty vague Iraq setting, true, and Delano probably doesn't get quite as much out of it as he can by setting so much of it inside. Unfortunately there just aren't that many genre comics set in far off, real world places, so we take what we can get. The way the story plays out, Delano may have chosen Iraq as one more example of humans used as pawns in games and struggles over their heads, as Constantine is used, and as Aseera is used.

Where the book comes up short is the third act, where Constantine goes up against the demon/evil god behind the stinky-poison-vapor killer as the proxy poker player of a more humane deity. Maybe it's just that I'm not much interested in card games, even ones played with soul coins against mythical opponents, but I think it's more that card games are pretty hard to make exciting in comics. Moreso when the rules aren't explained and Constantine wins with cockiness more than skill. Not a bad effort overall, but there are sure a lot better ways to spend $25.

Milligan is a writer I have tended to like more than Delano, particular X-Force/X-Statix and Human Target. Right there you have some characters who make bad choices and revel in them, who have trouble making lasting relationships. Seems like a natural to write Constantine. And Milligan is pretty good. I'm coming onto his run after he apparently lost that one woman who really got to him (if you're going to write a character who's been around 25 years, why not make your mark and make it early). After a nice transitional issue with Constantine trying to escape gangsters and cops and get out of England on a phony passport (and wow, Simon Bisley's art looks committed for once!), he's off to Mumbai to maybe bring her back to life or save his soul. Of course, that story alone could be kind of dull, so Milligan and Camuncoli give us a colorful blue Indian demon occupied by a Raj-era British colonel's soul. This creature is being fed hot young Indian actresses by a filmmaker and a false British guru (old friend of Constantine's) in exchange for...well, I forget just what they get out of it besides getting to stay alive. It's not really that important. As with Pandemonium, part of the interest for a sheltered American is seeing a bit of the culture and crazy-ass deities of another land, with the added zing of thoroughly disreputable British character trying to not only improve his own karma but also to do a little to redress some of the wrongs his country did to India. And like Pandemonium, the climax is kind of weak. It probably would be a bad idea to try to come up with some rules and limitations on Constantine's magic, but it seems more often his ability to bluff or taunt his way through his magical battles makes for unsatisfying conclusions rather than being some intrinsic part of his charm.

What Milligan does do well here is give us a Constantine who's still a scoundrel but also knows grief and may have a little bit of desire to do a good deed if it's not too much trouble. The key is always to surround him with people who make even worse choices than him but also don't have his spunk or good lines. Plus, unlike Delano, who makes Constantine look like kind of an idiot for insisting on wearing his trenchcoat in the Iraqi desert, under body armor, Milligan isn't afraid to mess with the formula, here getting Constantine shirtless and covered in blood as a kind of lure for the demon. Milligan also creates a female character in gangster's daughter Epiphany who's not just a "strong female character" because she's tough, but because she seems to have her own life and goals beyond just propping up Constantine. He might be too stuck on his dead Phoebe to see her potential, but the reader isn't. She seems like a character who will soon be telling Milligan what she wants to do. Aside from the too-easy conclusion, this is good stuff.

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