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Vertigo Book Club: Hellblazer Addiction

Vertigo Book Club: Hellblazer Addiction

By Ashley V. Robinson Monday, May 7th, 2018

Welcome to the Vertigo Book Club, a recurring feature where readers share their thoughts on a Vertigo classic that they’ve just read for the first time…or the first time in a while.

Among all of the comics that have starred the cigarette-smoking, trench coat-wearing magician-slash-con-man known as John Constantine, I’ve always loved the HELLBLAZER title the best. As a trailblazing part of DC’s mature readers Vertigo line, it lets the reader know right away the sort of subject matter that they are going to be faced with. And so it is in the 300+ pages that you are getting in the most recent edition of “Dangerous Habits.”

It’s also a fair warning that this book could now be considered a period piece. In a number of ways, Constantine is a pretty despicable dude. It’s always been part of his charm, an extension of the grey morality that his antihero persona inhabits. But one has to wonder how much of this is also simply because we’re decades from the debut issue and society has changed. Just like any time you pick up a comic book series that was created more than ten years ago, I would caution you to approach reading Hellblazer through that lens. But do read them because these stories of John Constantine remain some of the best to ever come out of Vertigo…and the comic book medium at large.

Jamie Delano, the writer who launched the Hellblazer series in 1987 after Constantine’s debut in SWAMP THING, pens several issues, particularly toward the beginning of Dangerous Habits. If you do what I did and read the more than 40 issues of Hellblazer stories that lead up to this volume, then you get the pleasure of seeing so many of Delano’s threads starting to get tied up into creepy demon magic-printed bows. Characters like Zed, Marj and Mercury were introduced in some of the very first issues of Hellblazer and they are reaching the height of their respective powers as the value in their personal relationships with John Constantine are revealed to pay off in the wake of his mortality.

Even if you are only familiar with the character of John Constantine from his single cinematic appearance (which was VERY loosely based on the Dangerous Habits storyline) or from his eponymous television show and subsequent #DCTV appearances on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, you know that Constantine is made up of some pretty strong iconography. The smoking cigarette is the one that always came to mind for me, even before I ever encountered the character in the comics. So it’s fitting that Dangerous Habits is driven by John Constantine’s body losing the battle to that particular vice. The revelation that he is dying of lung cancer is hinted at in an early issue in this collection (the one where he reunites with Marj and Mercury), although it takes quite a while for any such words to be spoken out loud.

Most of this storyline is penned by another Vertigo great, PREACHER scribe, Garth Ennis. Following his work on Dangerous Habits, Ennis would go on to write that story about another character with a penchant for smoking and entangling himself with the occult and the religious. (For more on that, be sure to read my fellow Vertigo Book Clubber Danielle Bullis’s take on ABSOLUTE PREACHER VOL. 1.)

John Constantine had been in and out of Hell in previous volumes, but it’s not until Dangerous Habits that we’re faced with a very real threat that he’s going to be there until the end of days. It’s a pretty big toll that’s going to be extracted from his soul as punishment for a lifetime of recklessness. Given what he’s been up to in the adventures that led him to this point, it can be difficult not to think that maybe John deserves what the Devil wants to see inflicted on him.

Where the story soars and cements itself in quality is in how Constantine pulls his wits about himself to escape eternal damnation. He blazes his way straight into the worst place imaginable and back out again with what is tantamount to a trick. It is the most rock & roll and truly John Constantine maneuver that has ever been committed to the page and helps explain much of this acclaimed storyline’s appeal.

Artist Will Simpson handles art duties for Ennis’ issues and the Delano issues are rendered by a collection of artists, although I wanted to especially mention Steve Pugh. Hellblazer stories rarely resemble each other visually from issue to issue, except when it’s in service of an overarching narrative. The art is stunning and visceral throughout this updated collection and it doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to understand why it has withstood the test of time.

Simpson’s art is immediately noticeable and it strikes the balance between the hopelessness of a person suffering a terminal illness and damned to Hell, while keeping the current of trickery that is ever present in John Constantine bubbling just beneath the service. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but always seems to be convening to serve what Ennis is throwing down and is never without a touch of magic to it.

Truly, if you know who John Constantine is and what type of occultism he deals with, you could jump into Dangerous Habits and get something out of it. I think it is elevated by the stories that lead up to it and is ultimately more satisfying when read through that lens, but if you’re afraid of having to invest that much in a solo title then I say jump in, my friend. It’s hot and scary on the other side, yet I am certain you’ll dig it, luv.

HELLBLAZER VOL. 5: DANGEROUS HABITS by Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, William Simpson, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh and Dave McKean is available in print and as a digital download.