John Constantine, Hellblazer: All His Engines by Mike Carey (writer) & Leonardo Manco (artist)
There are so many options available to the reader who wants to meet John Constantine for the first time. He was created by Alan Moore in his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing (Moore’s entry into American comics). Another good place to start is with Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer: Original Sins, the volume collecting the first issues of Constantine’s solo title Hellblazer — the longest running title in the history of Vertigo, DC’s line of comics with adult content and adult themes (both in terms of being explicit and being intellectually complex). Unfortunately, DC just recently canceled this title at issue #300 and has replaced it with a PG-version starring a younger Constantine. The title of this series is simply Constantine. He also appears regularly in the New 52 series Justice League Dark, a new title in the rebooted DC Universe. I would not recommend getting to know Constantine for the first time through Justice League Dark or Constantine. Instead, I offer another frequently recommended first title: John Constantine Hellblazer: All His Engines by Mike Carey.
All His Engines is often recommended as a good entry point into the world of Constantine because it’s a graphic novel instead of a trade collection (which brings together a series of monthly issues that make up separate story arcs). I reserve the term graphic novel for stories that are meant to have a clear beginning and end, have a unified theme in addition to a unified plot, and are not meant to be part of an ongoing series even if the main character IS part of an ongoing series. All His Engines fits this definition. Carey has written this novel to introduce new readers to the character of Constantine, to his most defining modes of action, and to his best friend and driver Chas. The version of the book I have even includes a full five-page informative essay about John Constantine’s fictional history AND the history of his creation and development over time by different writers. Comic books rarely have such long essays, and this one is excellent. Finally, the book includes a list of fourteen recommended Hellblazer titles, with a short summary of each book. So, even on an editorial level, this book is put together as a handbook for the new reader, the reader I have in mind when writing most of my reviews.
The story of All His Engines is excellent and bears all the hallmarks of a typical Hellblazer story: Constantine sets out to help a friend — in this case, a young girl is in a coma, and we realize this phenomenon is spreading world-wide and is of demonic origin. As always, we admire Constantine’s willingness to help, particularly when the personal threats to his own health are high. However, people tend to die around him — as is seen in this book, too — so he’s not always the person anybody wants to call in. He’s a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency kind of guy. But when magic and demons and evil spirits are involved, the chain-smoking Constantine is the man you want to call. He is always in danger of losing out in his going up against demons and the like, but Constantine always figures out a way to double-cross the double-crossing demon—this aspect is often the most thrilling part of a Hellblazer story: “How will he get out of it THIS time?” However, he has a reputation in the realms beyond ours, and even Satan is wary of him. Only Constantine can face up to all kinds of demons, and he does so with a Billy Idol sneer (I mean this comparison in the best way), so when even he gets scared by what he sees, we realize that there’s some serious sh*t about to go down.
I’m not sure I’ve ever written “sh*t” in a book review, but my impulse is key to Constantine’s character and the tone of these books. That’s partly why I object to the new PG-versions of his character: I can’t imagine a censored Constantine or even one who has to have his speech littered with asterisks. Constantine was created by a British writer, and very few American writers wrote any of the 300 issues of Hellblazer. It’s always been a mark of the book that often harsh, British humor and satire would be central to it and the characters. All His Engines — like all Hellblazer titles — should not be read if you have any problem with the F-bomb and the rest of that rowdy family of words.
You also shouldn’t read this book or any other Hellblazer titles if you don’t like explicitly depicted horrific scenes, including images of demons and sacrifice and physical and psychological torture of all imaginable types. There’s one two-page image that is enough to make the squeamish put down this book in a fire if one weren’t worried that the demons in hell would scream as it burned. I joke, but if you are bothered by portrayals of satanic rituals and blood sacrifice (and human sacrifice), then you do NOT want to read this book. There’s even one disgusting looking demon who lives in a decaying mansion with a pool full of decaying . . . . Well, I’ll let you use your imagination on this one. I think you’ve got the picture by now.
So why do I recommend All His Engines? Well, I think the art and story are good and are an excellent introduction to one of my all-time favorite characters and series. It’s X-Rated Harry Potter on Crack (In fact, look up Carey’s ongoing comic The Unwritten, about a Harry Potter-type character). And it’s excellent horror literature, and I make this claim as one who has always hated horror movies and fiction. Horror movies just creep me out with the music and edge-of-your seat tension and made-you-jump surprises. I do not like ANY Horror movies. Period. And the only Horror fiction I like is of the older type: Poe and Lovecraft, for example.
So why am I recommending a title that falls clearly in the category of Horror? In starting to read comics in my late 30s, I found out that I do like Horror in comics. Without the creepy music, suspense, and surprises of movies, the images don’t really bother me. My favorite comic book series ever — Sandman — has many elements of Horror in it. The Walking Dead and Locke & Key are also appealing to me, as are the many translations into comics of stories by Poe and Lovecraft (Keep an eye out for future reviews). Fatale by Brubaker is a mix of noir and Lovecraft. Swamp Thing, too, falls into the category of Horror.
Finally, of course, we have Hellblazer, the most horrific title I read on a regular basis. I have all 300 issues, and it’s one of the most consistently great titles ever written in the field of comics. Also, some of the greatest names in comics have written Hellblazer. As one who often lectures on the history of Jazz, I tell my students that if they just listened to all of Miles Davis’s albums and studied his career, they would be introduced to some of the greatest names in jazz, from Bird and Diz to Coltrane and Bill Evans to Wayne Shorter and Hancock. The same is true for Hellblazer. If you picked one title to read to get an introduction to the best British writers in the field of comics, Hellblazer would be the best one. Starting with Alan Moore and ending with Peter Milligan with issue #300, Hellblazer featured the following brilliant minds: Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle, Si Spencer, Paul Jenkins, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman. Only a few Americans wrote for the series, but considering that the main one is Brian Azzarrello of 100 Bullets fame, you can see that this series has brought together some of the best contemporary, post-1986 authors in comics.
I plan on reviewing more Hellblazer titles in future columns, but I want to recommend this one as a good starting point. Each writer brings his own interests to the title, some focusing on political concerns specific to Britain, some focusing on social and environmental concerns of interest to us all, and some focusing on developing Constantine’s character and his relationships with others. Other writers focus on his magic and his relationship with other magical characters in the DC Universe (DCU).
I have a real love for the magical and mystical side of the DCU, and Constatine is at its heart. His character is British noir, supernatural PI, and I suppose that model fits in with the incredibly trendy Urban Fantasy best represented by Harry Dresden (as I understand it). But I like my British, trench-coat wearing, street-smart magician to take the form of John Constantine. As you can see, there’s a lot to read in the world of John Constantine, so you’ll want to go ahead and get started. Put in an order for Hellblazer: All His Engines.
Other works by Mike Carey: When I finally decided to read a novel in this Urban Fantasy sub-genre outside of comics, I knew I could trust Mike Carey, so I’ve recently picked up the first book in his Felix Castor series, which is very much cast in the Hellblazer mold: The Devil You Know. If you’ve heard of but have not read the Felix Castor novels, don’t avoid them because you think he might be a Dresden knock-off: Carey was writing Constantine — an older character than Dresden — as early as 2002, only two years after the first Dresden novel appeared. Mike Carey has several other comic book series worth checking out: the finished, three-volume comic book Crossing Midnight, the ongoing and much-praised title The Unwritten, and the completed 75-issue series Lucifer, a spin-off from Gaiman’s Sandman. This series went out of print, but it looks like they are reissuing it. I can’t recommend Lucifer enough. If you like Sandman at all, you’ll want to get these newly published volumes as they come out. Gaiman gave Carey his blessing and encouragement in writing this series, and I think that it often reaches the level of greatness seen in Sandman in both art and writing. I have no idea why this comic book isn’t as praised as much as Sandman. Run don’t walk: Lucifer needs to be on your bookshelf.