DC comics is actually a tautology, those letters standing in acronymically for Detective Comics, the title of what once was their defining series. Detective Comics is where the character of Batman was born and refined into who he is today and in the same way Action Comics spawned Superman. The books that bear their names as titles came later, introduced presumably to make it easier for new fans to find the characters that they had heard so much about. I bring all of this up because here we have a modern-day example of this occurrence, a character stepping out of a series named in the abstract –Hellblazer – and into and into one that bears their own on its covers: enter Constantine.
What differentiates this transition from those two is that their change was made because the characters in them had broken big, because their movies were hits and because they were the two that every comic-liking kid wanted to read. Constantine, the movie, was middling on both critical and commercial levels, it came and went quickly leaving few ripples as it did and that was many years ago now. The character isn’t yet that kind of classic but he did have a dedicated cult audience thanks to the controversial and challenging Hellblazer and has a charismatic potential to be so much more. He was the break-out character in all the New-52 books that he had cameos in and so it only makes sense that DC would then try to break him out properly with a starring series in the main line.
This isn’t how a lot of people have seen the move however, those die-hard fans of Hellblazer ( which I have ashamed lay never seen a panel of) see it purely in financial terms and so they have been complaining about how the move from Vertigo cheapens the character, how it sells him out and they’re not entirely wrong though neither is that such a bad thing. Billed as “From the pages of Justice League Dark” the Constantine of this new series, helmed by the same Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes who co-write that one, is something of a compromised character but that is exactly what makes him so compelling: Constantine’s conflicting levels of courage and selfishness have always received high-praise, so to the friction between his fantastic feats and street level attitude so why should mixing in more traditional superhero elements to his strange supernatural world be an inherently bad thing? Why not break what you may be able to make better?
Sure it is early days yet but I got a very similar feeling from this first issue as I did from the one in which Lemire first started writing JLD; he has such a strange perspective on superheroes and the supernatural which when paired with the familiar foundational narrative formulas of someone like Ray Fawkes produces a peculiar but potent plot line. On the surface the story here is a simple one – Constantine and his side-kick are off to find a McGuffin before the evil cabal of eerily named mages can – but you can already feel that this is simply the first step on a far longer journey, that something epic is in store. Unfortunately you can see as well as feel a lot of this set-up since many of the issues scenes are dedicated to exposition; to introducing this world and the players within it. This though is to be expected of any first issue and they would almost be remiss not to include it.
The series isn’t as simple as that synopsis might suggest though since for every scene of story there is one for something a little stranger. For instance Constantine doesn’t simply use his power like your average superhero would, he also ponders on it, philosophising in a fascinating way about the the cost and effect of magic in a way that manages to both ground that most gaudy of abilities and make you think a little. There is depth then to the book, there is also some of that other D word that gets associated with Vertigo titles, that element that many feared had been lost: darkness. I cannot say too much about the contents of the comics climax without spoiling but suffice it to say Constantine hasn’t suddenly turned into Superman over the break.
The art by Renato Guedes straddles the line similarly; effectively meshing with the established look of the fifty-two while also evolving something of a unique style. Guedes’ work is ultra-detailed, near photo-realistic and yet quite obviously art thanks to a subtle touch of cell-shading. This effect may well have been enhanced by the colours of Marcelo Maiolo, but it feels inherent to the line work. Enhancing is exactly what Maiolo does throughout the book; the pages coloured mostly in dull, realistic tones with these terrific slices of colour whenever a spell is cast or a cigarette lit. It captures perfectly the divide inherent in the book itself. A short shout out to Sal Cipriano who had the mammoth task of lettering the large amount of narration present here and keeping it legible.
I’m not a marketing expert, I don’t know what the kids want and so I can’t say with any certainty whether or not this comic will do for the character of Constantine what DC seem to want it to, whether or not it will make him a big star. I can though speak critically and say that while it may not be challenging in the same way as Hellblazer Constantine is still more complex than your average major title on the rack and while it may not have the same adrenaline appeal as say Superman it still delivers on the action; it might not be high-art like his indie books but what Lemire delivers here is pleasure without guilt which is more than a lot of mainstream titles can say. It’s already all that but its only just begun and as Lemire is doing here in dark fantasy what Jonathan Hickman does to sci-fi it seems likely that things only get stronger from here.