John Constantine got married this week, to no particular fanfare. It happened in Hellblazer #275, an oversized issue with a 38-page story by writer Peter Milligan and penciller Giuseppe Camuncoli. The bride has the very Milliganian name of Epiphany Greaves; the real wedding takes place after a fake wedding, and the mechanics of the story involve demonic possession, the reappearance of Constantine’s old nemesis Nergal, Constantine getting killed and then reanimating himself by forcing his soul back into his body, a ring with connections to Aleister Crowley, and a priest who accidentally confuses the texts of the marriage ceremony and burial rites: the usual, in other words.
I thought Constantine was a nifty idea for a supporting character when he first turned up in Swamp Thing #37 back in 1985: a blond Sting semi-lookalike, sneaky and not particularly trustworthy, involved with magic on some level. (That’s more or less what he’s been ever since.) In 1988, when Constantine got his own series–called Hellblazer for reasons that have never quite made sense–I figured it’d be another here-today-gone-tomorrow project, and that having British creators (like Hellblazer‘s initial writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgway) do American comics was a nice idea, but probably a trend that was on its way out. And, 23 years later, it’s clear that I could not have been much more wrong.
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I check in with Hellblazer once or twice a year; I’ve even written about an issue here before. But I don’t read it on a regular basis. It’s never been hugely popular. It doesn’t have a particularly rabid fan-base. It’s just there: one of the curious, stable facts of American comic books. When the Constantine movie came out (with Keanu Reeves desperately miscast as the title character), the series gained a “John Constantine” above its title, which has stayed there ever since. There are occasional stand-alone Hellblazer graphic novels (including Ian Rankin and Werther Dell’Edera’s Dark Entries, one of the books that inaugurated the Vertigo Crime line, despite the fact that it’s a supernatural story rather than a crime story). There’ve been a handful of spinoff miniseries. And other than that, it chugs along month after month.
Still, Hellblazer‘s durability is remarkable in itself. 275 monthly issues and counting isn’t just a solid run, it’s better than any other Vertigo series has managed–better, in fact, than any other American comic book launched in its era. X-Men/New X-Men/X-Men Legacy has been running continuously since 1991, but, to be fair, its success was guaranteed from the outset as a sister title to the gigantic hit Uncanny X-Men. Sonic the Hedgehog has been appearing monthly since mid-1993. Beyond those, you have to go to Canada for Cerebus–300 issues, beginning in 1977–or over to the U.K. for Judge Dredd Megazine, another spinoff that’s been appearing monthly or more often since 1990.
The other odd thing is that Hellblazer‘s continuing survival, or sustainability, or whatever you want to call it, seems not to have much to do with its creative team. Every other long-running comic book of its ilk (let’s say “non-superhero, aimed at older readers”–the territory Vertigo’s staked out but doesn’t have to itself) is very closely associated with a single writer, and often with a single writer/artist combination. Imagine Y: The Last Man without Brian K. Vaughan, or Northlanders without Brian Wood; it doesn’t make sense.
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But Hellblazer has gone through one writer after another, one look after another, and not many of them are particularly closely identified with the character. (The exception is the terrific Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon run, back in the ’90s, but that was more “well-executed” than “series-defining.”) Even some writers who normally have very strong voices–Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis (whose long-unpublished Hellblazer story “Shoot” turned out to be less than thrilling when it finally appeared late last year)–find themselves somewhat muted when it comes to writing Constantine.
So what keeps Hellblazer ticking? One answer is that it’s America’s most British comic book: a beachhead for a lot of the remarkable writers from the British Isles who’ve been writing comics in the States in the past few decades. Milligan, who’s been writing the series for the past couple of years, seems to have been using it as a vehicle for pointed, black satire about British culture: the cover of the new issue is captioned “The Royal Wedding of the Century.” It’s also true, though, that the very simplicity of the Hellblazer concept–that there’s a sinister, supernatural element in quotidian life–is one of the things that makes it possible for so many writers to pull something out of it. Constantine’s a well-constructed character, if not a terribly deep one; at the end of the new issue, he notes that being married hasn’t changed him, and that’s not a surprise, because not much could. It’s his world that’s the really fertile part of his series, though: a place where there are restless spirits and evil entities behind the scenes of everything from art to politics to intimate relationships.