THE COMIC COMPENDIUM: Hellblazer: Death and Cigarettes (2013)

Ed tells us why you shouldn’t judge John Constantine on his adaptations alone. 

Who made it?: Peter Milligan (Writer), Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini (Artists #293-300), Simon Bisley (Artist), Vertigo/DC Comics.

Who’s in it?: John Consantine, Epiphany.

Original run: Hellblazer #292-300, Hellblazer Annual #1.

Released: 2013.

Oh, John Constantine.

It’s a helluva shame that you will be forever remembered by the majority of the general public for your appearance in a film that bears no real resemblance to the series it was supposedly based upon. The “occult detective” was portrayed by none other than Keanu Reeves when people still thought he had some form of talent (the current chap, Matt Ryan, seems to be doing a better job). No-one but us nerds knew who he really was; a sarcastic, rude, loud-mouthed Liverpudlian with almost no scruples and the morals of an alley-cat. And my word, did we love him for it! Although that image is now on the way out due to the New 52, since the Hellblazer title was displaced with the self-titled Constantine, replacing the titular character with a younger version of himself. With Constantine pushing sixty (though, he still only looked forty and acted about eighteen), you can understand why DC decided to pull the trigger, as another twenty years down the line you’d have an eighty-year-old fighting monsters. With his older-self’s demise, it seemed appropriate to read about his final adventures.

The collection Death and Cigarettes contains two main storylines interspersed with a few “one-shots” focusing upon Constantine’s past and his personality. In all of these stories, the  main protagonist role is shared between Constantine and his wife Epiphany. I know, he got married! The initial tale is taken from the Hellblazer Annual, and brings John back to his native Liverpool, and much closer to home than he’d rather be, as we discover what’s happened to one of his best friends as a child. The next story retells the past of both John and Epiphany, so we see a flashback to ten or so years ago to when “Piffy” was just a young lass assisting her father, notorious mob boss Terry Greaves (ah, the innocence of youth), which leads to a small problem involving hairy people and their bottoms (don’t ask).

Following on from these one-shots, we finally reach the first of two main stories, “The Curse of the Constantine’s.” For those of you in the same position as me, not really knowing too many details about Constantine’s wider family, writer Peter Milligan does a stunning job of making all the information that relates to past issues easy to understand, instead of making the assumption that everyone reading the comic must be a long-time disciple. I’ve read a few Hellblazer collections in the past, but none that related to the narratives mentioned, so the backstory was much appreciated, with the flashbacks also including previously-unknown revelations that flesh out past history. It’s not only newbies who’ll learn something.

“The Curse…” starts with a riot, but this one isn’t actually Constantine’s fault, set as it is during the Ninety Nine % protests. He has a vision of a murder that really happened, and through a little bit of blackmail, he ends up in the thick of things and needing to contact his sister. The problem is that she happens to be in Hell, making it a bit more difficult than just popping round for a cup of tea. It’s this chat which sends him on a trail to Ireland where, due to the help of a few friends and a little bit of luck, he’s introduced to some relatives he was previously oblivious to.

Taking place soon after the events of “Curse,” it’s important to remember that Death and Cigarettes is the last Hellblazer story before he was rebooted, but we must look at it as an opportunity to go out with a helluva bang without worrying about affecting the continuity of the character. So, of course we begin with Constantine starting a fight in a pub. What with him nearing sixty and with a wife less than half his age, I understand that he’s going to be a bit jealous, but as it turns out, he has greater concerns than just some idiot hitting on his wife. Yet it’s Piffy who starts to worry the most, pushing John to find a way past his problems. Unsurprisingly, we then focus upon Epiphany for the majority of the story. Being the last Hellblazer tale, it’s hardly surprising that we have a fair few cameos of past cast members here, some of whom are instantly familiar like Chas, his best friend played by Shia LaBeouf in the film, and his niece Gemma. Of course, there are others who are a bit less normal, shall we say, wanting to get their revenge on the one who’s vexed them for all these years (although, I don’t just mean John). These stories boil down to two things: Family and complete fucking psychos, some of whom are one and the same. Constantine might be one of the greatest occultists to have ever walked the Earth, but if it wasn’t for his friends and relatives, he wouldn’t be worth shit. It’s kind of a strange moral to take away from a story that involves magic and witchcraft, but it’s either that or “cigarettes are good for you,” so we’ll stick with the family aspect.

Despite Milligan being the Hellblazer writer for fifty issues, a sixth of the titles’ lifespan, when people mention Constantine they’ll think of Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, and Keanu fucking Reeves. Seeing as the only other title I associate with Milligan was the fairly bad X-Statix, I wasn’t expecting much, yet this is a goddamn shame, as Milligan obviously cares about ending the series in a manner befitting the greatest fictional Scouser of all time. It’s not perfect, as there are several problems with the pacing throughout, as several scenes appear unnecessary to the plot as a whole despite taking a long while. And other potentially important scenes appear to be skipped over. Despite these caveats, however, he injects great charm and humour into the characters and manages to keep the plots full of suspense and mystery. Oh, and don’t forget he maintains the complete and utter weirdness, which I and fellow fans associate with Constantine.

With the two one-shots, the art’s not too bad, with Bisley doing an acceptable job, but it’s both Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini illustrating the main stories that had me the most intrigued. The work is neither the most detailed nor the most eye-catching with rough lines and quite blocky colours, and backgrounds appearing to be only as nuanced as necessary. It’s when it comes to the character designs that I’m most thankful, with Camuncoli managing to capture their emotions, their personality and actually making each character look individual, which sounds like such a simple thing, but it can confuse some artists. The teamwork between the two also manages to catch the atmosphere of each scene adeptly.

While the Hellblazer: Death and Cigarettes collection isn’t the best comic you’ll read, with enough minor problems to prevent it from reaching overall perfection, it’s still an enjoyable purchase and a decent send-off for DC’s greatest “magic” character (sorry, Zatanna).

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The character first appeared in Swamp Thing (vol. 2) #37 (June 1985), and was created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben.
  • In these early appearances, Constantine was depicted as a sorcerer of questionable morality, whose appearance was based on that of the musician Sting (specifically, as Sting appeared in the movies Brimstone and Treacle and Quadrophenia).
  • Empire Magazine ranked Constantine third in their 50 Greatest Comic Characters of All Time, while IGN ranked him #29 in their Top 100 Comic Book Heroes, and the character ranked #10 in Wizard Magazine’s Top 200 Comic Book Characters of All Time.

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