John Constantine, Hellblazer: Death and Cigarettes

Hellblazer Death Cigarettes

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes…again

The Doors (1967)

 Having given up on monthly comics, I’m only now getting to this final Hellblazer collection, the end of Vertigo’s longest-running series, and probably the end of the character as we have known him for all of these years. It’s a very generous collection, which includes the Annual story “Suicide Bridge” plus the last nine monthly issues (#300 was double-sized) and a few sketches.

Hellblazer Suicide BridgeThe Hellblazer Annual “Suicide Bridge,” opens the collection. It’s a very good standalone story in the classic Hellblazer mode: another bit of Constantine’s past returned to haunt him. Nice atmospheric art from Simon Bisley, all done against an appropriate black background. Bisley also illustrated the first of the monthly issues (“The House of Wolves”) which shows some early history between John and Epiphany. It involves werewolves, which have not shown up in Hellblazer before that I can recall.

The endgame begins in earnest with the five-part “The Curse of the Constantines.” Constantine has been feeling guilty about breaking his promise to his sister Cheryl. He had promised to find her long-lost son, but it now looks as though the son may be looking for him. There have been a series of ritual murders with the name Constantine written in blood. John’s investigations lead him to Ireland, where a nurse had taken the foundling child to raise as her own. As the story twists and turns we encounter a magic cult, and the ghost of old friend Brendan Finn. John is initially convinced that his nephew Finn must be the source of the black magic–he is a Constantine, after all–until he discovers that Finn has a foster brother named Declan. As usual the encounter with Declan puts practically everyone at risk, but Constantine comes out on top in the end. If you’ve read any Hellblazer stories at all this does not constitute a spoiler. The story is in the details.

Hellblazer Final IssueThe title arc “Death and Cigarettes” brings the series to an end.  At this point I will admit that I didn’t care for the Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini art team at first, but they grew on me. That’s been true of most of the changes in artist on the title over the years. Certainly by the end I wasn’t wishing for any other artist, because I thought Peter Milligan was writing well for them. I also grew to really like Simon Bisley’s covers, and his occasional interiors were a nice change of pace.

Mulligan came up with a great starting point for the arc: Constantine has been seeing portents predicting his death in five days. So he sets about visiting his old friends and familiar haunts, saying goodbye.

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Despite all of Epiphany’s precautions, he gets shot to death at the end of Part One, in a sudden, violent, ultimately meaningless way. Yes, really. One never knows with Constantine, but it’s firmly established that it’s real. So the question is: how does he get out of this one? There’s still time for plot curves, and Mulligan delivers them in spades. A demon appears after the funeral impersonating John, convincing enough that Epiphany has back-from-the-dead sex with him. Then after she gets involved with John’s nephew Finn, Constantine’s ghost comes to her with a request. Turns out there’s a reason he had very specific instructions about the treatment of his ashes.

The death promised by the title - from Issue #299

The death promised by the title – from Issue #299

So he comes back from the dead for real, but he still has the Fates to deal with. He leaves Epiphany to spare her any further pain. His niece Gemma finds peace by dispatching him with Angie Spatchcock’s one remaining dart. There’s a mystical travel sequence which ends with Constantine back in Liverpool in a pub. He looks elderly (and the bottles in the bar behind him are labelled with all of the past Hellblazer creative teams).

I really didn’t expect John and Epiphany to live happily ever after–now, that would have been a twist ending!–but I thought that tension was handled really well, right up to the bitter end. Could any ending really have been completely satisfying? If Constantine had done something really splashy like storming the gates of Hell, it wouldn’t have been true to the generally low-key approach he always took. He typically didn’t get involved in a situation unless he was asked for help, and didn’t use actual magic except as a last resort, preferring to con his way out of it.

Taking the dart hit from Gemma was clearly intended both to give her some closure, as well as a means of escaping the Fates. But it’s unclear what his actual fate is. He looks confused in the final panel. Is he actually dead, and a quiet pub is his  idea of Hell? I’m tempted to say we’ll never know, but this is comics, so it’s not impossible that this version of Constantine will be revived some day.

In the end I’d say I’m satisfied. Milligan gave us some sharp turns right up to the very end, which is what a Hellblazer story should do. And having some ambiguity about Constantine’s final fate also seems true to the character.

Although I’ve read the title from the beginning, I’ve chosen not to attempt a big overview of Hellblazer history, because that has already been well done by others.

Hannah Means-Shannon wrote a thoughtful review of Hellblazer #300 for The Beat, including an overview of Constantine’s history:

Review: Down at the Pub with HELLBLAZER #300

David DelGrosso wrote an extensive two-part series for Comics Now! magazine on the occasion  of the title’s 20th anniversary (through Issue #250):

Aging Along With John: 20 Years of Hellblazer, Part 1

Aging Along With John: 20 Years of Hellblazer, Part 2

About marksullivan5

Librarian, Jazz musician, comic book fan
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