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The recently cancelled Hellblazer was a classic. It had a uniqueness that set it apart from the rest of DC. Ripping its cynical, chain smoking protagonist away from its pages and smashing him into a neat, fit-for-mass-consumption format seemed to be the height of hubris. We had all seen it before. Money Men taking a popular character and, not understanding what made them popular in the first place, waters them down to fit the norm. A fate worse than cancellation. A fate that seemed to be reserved for Vertigo's Hellblazer.
Yes, Constantine is no Hellblazer. The book doesn't recreate the former's charm or style, but I don't think that was the point. Constantine sets out not to retread ground already crossed by Hellblazer, but to stand apart with its own charm and style. So how does this New 52 John Constantine stack up?
Only three issues deep, John has already fought two powerful mages, been targeted by a cult, talked his way out of execution via The Specter, and lets a close friend down. So far, so Constantine. The over arcing plot concerns an uber magical compass that gives the possessor the ability to locate any magical artifact anywhere ever. A devastating advantage in the wrong hands. Are Constantine's hands the right ones? Maybe. They're less wrong than a femme fatal Sargon the Sorcerer and an evil, blind Southern gentleman at least.
Issue three deals with John traveling to London where the last piece of the compass has been hidden (the compass, like all powerful mystical items, has been separated into pieces and scattered throughout the globe). Due to a curse, London actively tries to kill him in ways that appear as an accident. Coupled with the aforementioned evil mages, a hellish pocket universe, and an awkward situation with an ex, it's just not John Constantine's day.
First thing's first. The writers, Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire, do not betray the character of John Constantine. He's still cynical, self destroying, and every bit the loner he was before. Even in the first issue SPOILER, OH MAN, LOOK OUT!: Constantine sacrifices his friend so that he can escape with the first compass part. A very Constantine move.
The biggest changes would be twofold. One, Vertigo's John Constantine was usually pulled into a situation via circumstance. True, he'd sometimes poractively set out to stop a plot, but he always did so reluctantly. New 52 John is much more active, fighting to balance the scales of the magical world whereever he's needed. Two, the magic of Hellblazer was much less crackling bolts of colored energy and more subtle effects like a poem that summons evil fairies or a patch of grass that makes people quickly starve to death. While there are remnants of that here, it's much more a ZOOM! BANG! "shooting lightening" type magic.
The art melds well with the story, creating interesting and detailed visuals as the book offers us different dimensions, the use of magic, and peeks through unique POVs. Kudos to Renato Guedes, he's a worthy replacement for Giuseppe Camuncoli's work. Interestingly enough, Guedes' kinetic style compared to Camuncoli's expressive, heavily-grounded art mimics the shift in the book's tone.
Unfortunately, the book didn't escape the transplant completely unscathed. Constantine feels like it's holding back. It has its dark, sober moments, but feels like it's afraid to take the sex and violence to its logical end like Hellblazer did. Understandable, you'd be cutting out its gross marketability if you made that move. The thing is, you either commit to it or don't. Having it halfway; dipping a toe into the gritty, grimy dark and then pulling back at the last second rings hollow with the audience. Again, this is only three issues in, so maybe it's something we'll see develop later on.
Does Constantine come with a recommendation? Yes, if you're into fantasy elements, a fan of Hellblazer, or just really into what I'm now calling Trenchcoat Fiction, it's worth picking up. However, DISCLAIMER: it's not Hellblazer, it's its own book. Do not go in expecting the same tone, the same direction.
It's different, yes, but that doesn't make it bad.