Mr. Vertigo Reviews 60: The Hellblazer Vol 1 – The Poison Truth (Rebirth); Black Hammer Volume 1 – Secret Origins

The Hellblazer Vol 1: The Poison Truth (Rebirth)
Simon Oliver, writer; Moritat, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr., artists; Andre Szymanowicz, colorist
DC Comics,  2017

They keep starting and cancelling John Constantine series, but he never stays away for long. After the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer, he was in a New 52 series titled Constantine, followed by a DCYou series titled Constantine: The Hellblazer. Now he is part of the Rebirth line, as The Hellblazer (extra points if you can keep those title variations straight). This first collection includes the Rebirth special issue plus the first six issues of the ongoing series. Writer Simon Oliver has some history with the character, having previously written the miniseries Hellblazer Presents Chas: The Knowledge (Vertigo, 2008-2009).

The Rebirth special takes Constantine back to London from New York–which requires him to reverse a curse placed on him by a demon. The curse begins to infect the whole population, until his old acquaintance Mercury (who is a psychic) comes to his rescue. He had also enlisted his old ally Swamp Thing to keep the Justice League at bay while he worked his plan, and they make a brief appearance (it’s also good to see his old friend Chas driving him around as usual). The ongoing title introduces new characters. It is quickly established that they are ancient, but it’s a while before we find out that they are djinn. They were displaced by the human race, and they’re not happy about it.

The Swamp Thing pays Constantine a visit

Whatever they are up to, its complicated. Swamp Thing calls in his favor from Constantine, and goes into the Rot with Mercury seeking Abigail Arcane, who has gone missing. Abigail is the avatar of The Rot (so the events of the New 52 series appear to have held). The djinn Marid has compelled Constantine’s old friend Clarice Sackville to gather all of London’s mages to aid his plan; Constantine has gone to get Map’s advice (Map is a mage who is the spirit of London, another legacy Hellblazer character). Bottom line is, all signs point to the djinn. Marid claims he wants to help the human race, but it looks like a crisis to everyone else. The collection concludes with Constantine and Mercury arriving in Paris. So the arc is truly open-ended: calling it “The Poison Truth Parts 1-6” is a tease, because very little is settled by the end.

But other than that it’s a satisfying start to the new series. Constantine is completely back to type: he’s not punching people, gets most of his goals accomplished by manipulating people rather than explicitly using magic, and talks like a British smart-ass. The supporting characters look and act right as well. And Moritat’s art (as well as the other contributors) is in line with the traditional look of Hellblazer artists (which admittedly allows for a lot of variation).

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Black Hammer Volume 1: Secret Origins
Jeff Lemire: script; Dean Ormston: art; Dave Stewart: colors
Dark Horse Books, 2017

Canadian cartoonist/writer Jeff Lemire first made his name as an indie creator, notably with the Essex County trilogy for Top Shelf. He followed that up with a number of creator owned projects featuring him as both writer and artist, including the long running Vertigo series Sweet Tooth. He then surprised many fans by turning to superhero work–first exclusively for DC, then for Marvel. So it is even more surprising to find that his followup to Essex County was originally intended to be Black Hammer.

This is a superhero story with a definite indie sensibility. It’s like a rural version of Astro City…or a superhero version of Essex County. The story opens with the current status quo: a group of superheroes from Spiral City who are living as a dysfunctional family on a farm near a mysterious small town from which they have no escape. The “Secret Origins” part comes in each of the following issues, which focus on the history of the individual heroes in the group, while also advancing the story in the present.

They are a motley crew. There’s a Captain Marvel analogue named Golden Gail, currently stuck in a nine-year old body; a Martian Manhunter type; a Batman-style fighter with no super powers (which would also describe the absent Black Hammer); a magical character called Madame Dragonfly; a robot named Talky-Walky; and a science-based hero named Col. Weird (who has a weird backstory, indeed)–along with the Black Hammer himself, who was lost in the battle. Bit by bit the story of how they arrived in their current situation is revealed. They were fighting a Galactus-style villain called the Anti-god, there was a flash of light, and they found themselves somewhere else. There are clues that indicate they are not on the Earth, and there may be a dimensional portal involved.

Abe tries to keep Gail in line

In the meantime they try to make a life for themselves, including romantic involvements with residents of the town. Much of the drama actually comes from their attempts to “act normal.” And the superheroics are largely relegated to flashbacks. The final issue devoted to Madame Dragonfly is an EC comics homage. But it also brings Lucy Weber, the Black Hammer’s daughter, into their world. So perhaps they are about to learn some useful things about where they are and how to escape.

One major change from Lemire’s original concept is the addition of British artist Dean Ormston to the creative team, due to Lemire’s cartoonist workload. Ormston is a great choice, giving the series a Vertigo-like look (the American comics with which he is most closely associated).

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