The Books of Magic

By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3781-3 (HB)                :978-1-4012-4686-0 (PB)
:978-1-85286-470-5 (Titan Books Edition)

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC, he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format issues a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a supposedly typical London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his long-anticipated ascendancy. This meant becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for either Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous, the self-appointed mystic guides provide him and – through literary extension – us, with a full and dangerously immersive tutorial in the history and state of play of “The Art” and its major practitioners and adepts.

However, although the four guardians are not unanimous or even united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark, he has to die…

Thus, following an Introduction by master fantasist Roger Zelazny, the thaumaturgical thrills begin in Book I, painted by John Bolton.

Here the Phantom Stranger conducts his youthful charge on a trip through ‘The Invisible Labyrinth’ revealing to Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, and other Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin as well as mid-20th century crime-busting mystics Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton picks up the brushes for the second chapter, wherein irrepressible urban trickster-wizard John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the then-established DCU: introducing the wide-eyed lad to contemporary paranormal players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Terry Thirteen (AKA the Ghost-Breaker) and mystic super-hero Zatanna, who boldly organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala, Queen of Darkness and the diabolical opportunist Tannarak attempt to take matters – and Tim – into their own wicked hands…

For his third work-experience trip, Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) escorts the messianic boy on a voyage to the outer lands and Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘The Land of Summer’s Twilight’. This ethereal, beautifully evocative segment would inform much of Timothy Hunter’s later life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord/Travis Morgan, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, Etrigan the Demon, Cain, Abel and the (Gaiman-originated) Sandman Morpheus.

Bringing the initial educational experience to a close, ‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrinations as ruthlessly fanatical zealot Mister E whisks our astounded boy to the end of time, where the sightless fanatic attempts to twist Tim to his own bleak, black agenda. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time; progressing even forward past the Legion of Super Heroes, to the end of Order and Chaos, unto the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil; Magic or mundane?

Books of Magic still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today. Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone, this is still a cracking good yarn (available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and even a British edition from Titan Books), offers useful grounding for all things supernaturally DC and still has overwhelming relevance to today’s much rebooted continuity.

© 1990, 1991, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 1: Original Sins (New Edition)

By Jamie Delano, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-300-6-7

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint.

This collection is available in paperback and digital formats, collecting John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-9 plus crossover chapters from Swamp Thing #76-77; cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and beginning a renaissance in comicbook horror that thrives to this day.

Back in 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line and metaphorical underpinnings.

‘Hunger’ and ‘A Feast of Friends’ also established another vital fact. Anyone who got too close to John Constantine tended to end very badly, very quickly…

‘Going for It’ then successfully equated Conservative Britain with Hell, with demons trading souls on their own stock market and Yuppies getting ahead in the rat race by selling short. Set on Election Day 1987, this potent pastiche never loses sight of its goal to entertain, whilst making telling points about humanity, individuality and society.

Constantine’s cousin Gemma and tantalising splinters of his Liverpool childhood are revealed in ‘Waiting for the Man’: a tale of abduction and ghosts which introduces disturbing Christian fundamentalists the Resurrection Crusade, and a mysterious woman known only as Zed.

America is once again the focus of terror in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ as the Vietnam war breaks out again in rural Iowa, before we pop back to Blighty for ‘Extreme Predjudice’.

Skinheads, racism demons and more abound as Delano cannily joins up lots of previously unconnected dots to reveal a giant storyline in the making. The Damnation Army are up to something, but nobody knows who they are. Now everything’s going bad and somehow Zed and the Resurrection Crusade are at the heart of it all…

Brett Ewins & Jim McCarthy briefly replace magnificent regular artist John Ridgway for the first three pages of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, before the beautifully restrained and poignantly humanistic stylism returns with Constantine further unraveling the Damnation plot by catching up with the Coming Thing: the cutting edge mysticism dubbed cyber-shamanism.

In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist…

Alfredo Alcala signs on as inker with ‘Intensive Care’ and the drama ramps up to a full gallop as the plans of both Crusade and Army are revealed, and the value and purpose of Zed are finally exposed. All Constantine can do in response is make the first of many bad bargains with Hell….

The volume then takes a stranger turn due to the nature of periodical publishing…

The storyline in Hellblazer #1-8 ran contiguously, before converging with Swamp Thing, wherein the wizard reluctantly lends his physical body to the planetary plant elemental so that the vegetable guardian can impregnate its human girlfriend Abigail Arcane.

Thus, in the ninth issue, there’s a kind of dissolute holding pattern in play as the weary wizard confronts the ghosts of all the people he’s gotten killed to allow all the pieces to be suitably arranged. ‘Shot to Hell’ (Delano, Ridgway & Alcala) then neatly segues into Swamp Thing #76-77 for the conception of a new messiah. Sort of…

The post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics were long neglected after the author’s departure, but eventually fans realised that writer-artist Rick Veitch – aided by veteran inker Alcala – produced a stunning sequence of mini-classics well worthy of serious scrutiny. The issues built on Moore’s cerebral, visceral writing as the world’s planet elemental became increasingly involved with ecological matters.

Having decided to “retire”, Swamp Thing (an anthropomorphic plant with the personality and mind of murdered biologist Alec Holland) was charged by his ephemeral overlords in “the Green” with facilitating the creation of his/its successor. However, the ancient and agonising process was contaminated by consecutive failures and false starts, leading to a horrendous series of abortive creatures and a potentially catastrophic Synchronicity Maelstrom.

Alec, “wife” Abigail and the chillingly charismatic Constantine are eventually compelled to combine forces – and indeed some body-fluids – in ‘L’Adoration de la Terre’ (Swamp Thing #76, by Veitch & Alcala) – to create a solution before the resultant chaos-storm destroys the Earth.

The process is not with risk – or shame – but the affair is brought to a successful conclusion in ‘Infernal Tringles’ (Swamp Thing #77, and with Tom Mandrake pencilling) and with terrestrial order restored, the participants go their separate ways… but the events have affected them all in ways that will have terrible repercussions in the months and years to come…

Rounding out the so-sophisticated spook-fest is an original covers gallery by Dave McKean and John Totleben, and an “in-world” exposé of Constantine by faux journalist Satchmo Hawkins in ‘Faces on the Street’.

Also included are other relics of the antihero’s sordid past such as the lyrics from Venus of the hardsell – a single from John’s aberrant punk band mucous membrane – plus extracts from the magician’s medical file whilst he was an inmate of the Ravenscar Secure Psychiatric Facility

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should be without.
© 1987, 1988, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

The Names of Magic

By Dylan Horrocks & Richard Case (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-888-4

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format editions a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter (co-created by John Bolton) was an ordinary lad unaware of his incredible potential: a natural but untutored magical prodigy (and yes, I know who he looks like but the series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous the self-appointed mystic guides provided him with a full tutorial in the history and state of play regarding The Unseen Art and its major practitioners and adepts. However, although the four guardians were not united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly had no doubts. If Hunter could not be turned to the Dark he had to die

The Books of Magic spawned a 75 issue run of issues under the Vertigo imprint plus attendant annuals, mini-series and spin-offs as the neophyte sorcerer struggled to find his way and learn the craft, aided and/or hindered by sort-of girlfriend Molly and a hidden personal history akin to a colossal, convoluted cosmic onion skin. His enigmatic lineage and true origins remained a crushing, crippling but crucially important mystery – especially since all the mystic powers of this world and many others either wanted him dead or enslaved…

By 2001 and the advent of this excellent tome (collecting the five-part Names of Magic miniseries) Hunter is a lonely, isolated fourteen year old runaway with no past, roaming the streets of London. His loving family have been exposed as fakes and surrogates, he’s lost or been abandoned by all his human associates and the final reeling shock was finding out that his real mother was Titania, Queen of Faerie and his sire her mortal falconer and plaything Tamlin

However when he is simultaneously attacked by a raiding party of the Theena Sidhe from the Higher Realms and a politically influential mortal magician’s cult in ‘Invocation’, Tim is rescued by a sword-wielding stranger and old mentor Dr. Occult and his life is once again collapsing around his ears…

The stranger is Ash; a Walker and one of a hidden human brotherhood who police the ancient magical places of Earth, charged with taking the unwilling boy on a pilgrimage down those venerable lost paths to save his life and find his calling.

The Rosicrucian sages of The Cold Flame of the Golden Lotus, who want to co-opt Hunter’s power or negate his threat potential, have been embedded in the fabric of British Society for centuries and soon have their media tools and pet coppers on the trail whilst the rival Faerie stalkers – supposedly under a truce to leave Tim alone – rely on their own arcane methods to relentlessly pursue the fugitives…

When man and boy rendezvous with the “Trenchcoat Brigade” in Cornwall it is decided to closet the lad at the puissant magical college known as the White School where he can be safely trained in the use of his incredible powers.

Of course, there’s a snag: to enter a student must simply utter their True Name but when Tim tries he discovers that even his own identity is a lie…

Reeling in shock at the School gate, Tim and Ash narrowly escape a police ambush in ‘Trust’ and the boy almost succumbs to a beguiling spell from Lotus master Mr. Lily before stumbling into another Faerie trap. It appears that one clan of Fair Folk has made a pact with the eternal enemy of The Unseelie Court to destroy Tim, but the fugitives turn the tables on their hunters and Tim saves one of them from death, binding her into an unbreakable debt that she must repay twice-over…

‘Secrets’ sees Tim and Ash recruit modern Pagan “Bearclaw” Clarke to their Spirit Quest. However the Cold Flame close in and a police raid disrupts the astral journey before any secrets can be uncovered. Ruthlessly shooting their way out, the trio take ‘Flight’, daringly hiding deep inside the Faerie Kingdoms.

On Earth Mr. Lily turns his attention to Tim’s lost love Molly in his attempts to trap the young mage whilst, after a climactic struggle in Elfland, the seekers are captured and dragged before High King Auberon who denies all knowledge of Tim’s troubles. The Faerie Lord swears to ferret out the renegades working with the Seelie Court, and Tim finally learns his True Name, just before Iolanthe, eager to expend her onerous debt, warns him that he’s walked into another trap…

Battling free, the fugitive four head back to Earthly Cornwall where they wait helplessly for their following foes – both Faerie and Cold Flame – to converge for a final assault. With their backs to the sea and sure death approaching on all sides Tim and crew take refuge in tourist trap Merlin’s Cave, where as the various factions slaughter each other to get to him, the boy finds a hidden door and discovers the whole and unexpurgated ‘Truth’

Although a series with a lot of highs and lows and one which never really lived up to its promise, Books of Magic was a popular early foray into mature comic publishing for Vertigo and subsequent returns to the characters have proved quite impressive.

Here Dylan Horrocks and illustrator Richard Case – augmented by cover artist Bolton – have recapitulated and reconfigured the past whilst crafting a compelling and enjoyable fantasy yarn that reads well, looks great and stands solid enough on it own to easily serve as an introduction to the saga of Tim Hunter.
© 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Tainted Love

By Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-994-6

John Constantine is probably the greatest anti-hero in comics: a cynical, wide-boy magician and seedy, troubled soul who danced on the edge of damnation every minute of his life, ever unsure of his own motives, shrewdly manipulating events and standing back just to see what happens.

Collecting issues #68-71 of the monthly comicbook, the Heartland one-shot, Hellblazer Special #1 and the Constantine tale from Vertigo Jam #1 this volume describes with astonishing effect the absolute nadir in the Scouse sorcerer’s chequered career and also reveals some hidden secrets from his sordid past… Also included herein is an impressive ‘Hellblazer Gallery’ with stunning contributions from Glenn Fabry, Gary Erskine, Richard Case and Phil Winslade as well as the beautiful Fabry covers which accompanied the original tales.

After years of saving the world without even knowing why – although he feared it was just to spite beings who thought themselves better than him – Constantine fell in love with Irish ex-pat Kit Ryan and seemed on the verge of turning his hell-bent life around, before as usual, his magical heritage and nasty nature messed it all up.

Kit returned to Ireland and Constantine fell apart, hitting the bottle harder than ever and ending up a booze-soaked derelict on London’s cold, hard streets. However, as low as he’s fallen, the entities he’s mocked, manipulated and made mischief with are unforgiving and ready to make things as bad as they can ever get…

This eclectic collection of most-modern horror-thrillers opens with the two-part ‘Last Night of the King of the Vampires’, the final encounter between Constantine and the supernal monster who had fed on humanity since we came down out the trees. Immortal, worldly-wise and blasé as he was the undying lych had never been so grossly insulted as when he first met and propositioned the arrogant magus in Hellblazer: Bloodlines.

Now in ‘Down All the Days’ the decadent bloodsucker executes his revenge on the debased, addled, gin-soaked street trash, determined to wring the last vestige of humiliation, pain and terror out of his fallen foe, commencing by killing the only person still talking to the Hellblazer in ‘Rough Trade’.

However, even in the very pit of despair Constantine had a surprise up his tattered sleeve. It’s not even that he particularly wanted to live; it’s simply his accursed pride wouldn’t let an overbearing, smug, supernatural tosser have the last word…

The second story-arc ‘Fall and Rise’ opens with the eponymous ‘Tainted Love’ (from Vertigo Jam #1) as the old souse relates a salutary tale to a fellow drunk. Once upon a time Constantine had a mate who was a bit of a player. And when Seth cheated on his girlfriend the wizard was there to profit from the revenge sex with Annette. Trouble was the wronged girl had more in mind than tit-for-tat and sneaked a peak at Constantine’s spell-books. Before the blood and dust settled Seth and Annette had both learned not to meddle with the dark arts and that in the end love hurts… and hurts and hurts and hurts…

Whilst the mage was pickling his brains and liver, Kit Ryan had returned to her home and broken family in Belfast. ‘Heartland’ – a superbly poignant shaggy dog tale – saw Kit revisit her formative years and able demonstrated that not all horror stems from devils and demons. Too often the monsters are us…

Constantine’s return to grace and glory finally began with ‘Finest Hour’ as the burned out wreck lay down to die by the river and was sucked into the life and final moments of a Spitfire pilot who had been shot down in flames during the Battle of Britain. Revitalised by his death-or-life experience the wizard took hold of himself and sobered up; ready to face the world once more, beginning with giving his ghostly saviour a decent and long-deserved send-off…

This episodic and eerily eccentric compendium closes with ‘Confessional’ (from Hellblazer Special #1) as the cleaned up conjuror has a chance second encounter with a defrocked priest who nearly succeeded where uncounted eldritch horrors had failed. Long ago a runaway teen named John Constantine hitched a lift with the wrong man, and now decades later there’s a piper to be paid…

I’m once again avoiding specific details since these masterful examples of bravura storytelling from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon should be enjoyed without any dilution – but for the greatest impact you should also have handy their other collaborations. So track down >Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits, the aforementioned Bloodlines, Fear and Loathing and Damnation’s Flame to embark on a truly moving, terrifying and incredible experience.

Hellblazer is a superb series about flawed heroism and desperate necessity, with a tragic everyman anti-hero compelled to do the right thing no matter what the cost, arrayed against the worst that the world can offer. It’s also the best horror drama in comics and worthy of your devoted attention. Adult comics just don’t come any better than this

© 1993, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Reasons to be Cheerful

By Mike Carey, Leonardo Manco, Giuseppe Camuncoli & Lorenzo Ruggiero (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-450-0

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, he is a mercurial modern wizard, a hell-addicted chancer who plays with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. He is nothing like Keanu Reeves. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void… the magician that is, not the actor…

That’s the only slice of levity you’ll get here, as with Reasons to be Cheerful writer Mike Carey took the world-weary warlock through some of the most infernal horrors he’s ever encountered as another of the Trickster’s infernal and impromptu devil’s bargains came roaring back to bite him on the arse…

Following on and expanding the traumas seen in Hellblazer: Stations of the Cross this volume collects issues #201-206 of the magnificent Vertigo comicbook, but before the main course ensues, opens with a terrifying palate-clearing one-off thriller.

In ‘Event Horizon’ (illustrated with dark passion by Leonardo Manco) the now-retired urban mage is dragged back into the mire of supernatural horror when a greedy low-life gangster-wannabe hires some street thugs to burgle Constantine’s lock-up and steal all those “valuable antiques” he has squirreled away. Of course the assorted ne’er-do-wells soon realise to their everlasting regret that some things just aren’t up for grabs…

Throughout this creepy morality play on “don’t take what isn’t yours” the aging mage is one step behind the action and clearly off his game, so when the four-part ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ begins he is utterly unable to even comprehend the danger he’s stepped into…

At the climax of the previous graphic novel the magician “married” a she-demon, and trapped in a nightmarish suburban family hallucination fathered three devil-babies. Now those Hell-brats have come to visit and, full of childish glee, have begun torturing and murdering his every surviving friend and associate – a very small club indeed…

Constantine only becomes aware when his oldest enemy comes to his aid, just in time for some last-minute heroics to save life-long pal Chas Chandler and one of his two remaining blood-kin…

Dragged back into the life he’d thought and prayed he had finally escaped, Constantine prepares to return to Hell and save that last, lost soul… but that’s the meat of the next collection as the final tale in this book digresses to follow the freshly exorcised Chas.

In ‘Cross Purpose’ (illustrated by Giuseppe Camuncoli & Lorenzo Ruggiero), still twisted, tainted and shell-shocked by the demon who recently rode his soul, Chas goes on a rampage of uncharacteristically bad behaviour before trying to pick up the pieces of a life seemingly shattered forever.

But some things just can’t be forgiven…

This relentlessly dark British series is always drenched with savage tensions, bloody confrontations and the perfect blend of supernal terror and contemporary angst. Hellblazer is the perfect horror-comic and one no mature modern fan can afford to miss.

© 2004, 2005, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: The Fear Machine

By Jamie Delano and various & (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-880-5

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, he is a mercurial modern wizard, a chancer who plays with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void.

Given his own series by popular demand, he premiered in the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US but at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in England, so as we’re singing the same song now (but with second-rate Britain’s Got Talent cover-artists as leaders) I thought I’d cover a few old gems that might be regaining their relevance in the days ahead…

In 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal attitudes were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. Jamie Delano began the series with relatively safe horror plots, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature, chequered history and odd acquaintances but even then discriminating fans were aware of a joyously anti-establishment political line and wild metaphorical underpinnings.

Skinheads, racism, Darwinian politics, gruesome supernature and more abound in the dark dystopian present of John Constantine – a world of cutting edge of mysticism, Cyber-shamanism and political soul-stealing. In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist.

Some terrors are eternal and some seem inextricably tied to a specific time and place: The Fear Machine (collecting issues #14-22 of the mature readers monthly comicbook) is an engrossing extended epic which began when the wizard went on the run after the tabloid press pilloried him as a Satanist serial killer in ‘Touching the Earth’ (by Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham).

Forced to flee his inner London comfort-zone he is adopted by a band of neo-pagan Travellers (apparently as responsible for all the ills plaguing society in the 1980s and 1990s as fat people and immigrants are today…) and journeys through the heartland of Britain.

Going native amongst the drop-outs, druggies, bath-dodgers and social misfits Constantine buddies up with an immensely powerful psychic girl named Mercury and her extremely engaging mum, Marj, but even amidst these freewheeling folks he can feel something nasty building. The first inkling occurs in ‘Shepherd’s Warning’ when Mercury discovers an ancient stone circle has been fenced off by a quasi-governmental company named Geotroniks. Someone is trying to shackle Mother Earth’s circulatory system of Ley lines…

Meanwhile elsewhere, people are compelled to kill and mutilate themselves and Geotroniks is watching and taking notes…

When police raid the Travellers campsite in ‘Rough Justice’ Mercury is abducted and imprisoned in a secret complex where the mind’s limits and the Earth’s forces are being radically tested. Cutting edge stuff… if only the subjects and observing scientists can be persuaded to stop committing suicide…

Mike Hoffman illustrated the fourth chapter, ‘Fellow Travellers’ as Constantine headed back to London for help in finding Mercury and uncovering the secrets of Geotroniks. He gains a horrific insight when the train he’s on is devastated by a psychic assault which makes all the passengers destroy themselves…

‘Hate Mail & Love Letters’ (with art by Buckingham & Alfredo Alcala) begins two months later. Marj and the travellers are hiding in the Highlands with a fringe group called the Pagan Nation, led by the mysterious Zed – an old friend of the wily trickster. Constantine keeps digging, but across the country suicide and self harm are increasing. Society itself seems diseased, but at least the Satanist witch hunt has been forgotten as the Press rage on to their next sanctimonious cause celebré

Touching base with his few police contacts and pet journalists the metropolitan mage soon stumbles into a fresh aspect of the mystery when a Masonic hitman begins removing anyone who could be of use to his enquiries in ‘The Broken Man’. Saving journalist Simon Hughes from assassination in a particularly exotic manner guaranteed to divert attention from his politically damaging investigations, Constantine finds new clues that a the psychic horror and social unrest are all being orchestrated by reactionary aspects of the government and a sinister “Old Boy network”…

And somewhere dark and hidden Mercury’s captors are opening doors to places mortals were never meant to…

As the Pagan Nation’s priestesses work their subtle magics to find the missing girl and save humanity’s soul, a disgusting, conglomerate beast-thing is maturing, made from fear and pain, greed and suffering and deep black despair: provoking a response from and guest-appearance by Morpheus, the Sandman, and prompting Constantine, Hughes and possibly the last decent copper in London to go hunting…

Picking up another recruit in the form of KGB scientist Sergei, events spiral ever faster as the Freemasons – or at least their “Magi Caecus” elite – are revealed to be organising the plot in ‘Betrayal’, combining Cold War paranormal research, economic imperialism, Thatcherite divisive self-gratification and the order’s own quasi-mystical arcana to create a situation in which their guiding principles will control society and the physical world. It nothing more than a greedy power-grab using blood and horror to fuel the engines of change…

All pretence of scientific research at Geotroniks is abandoned in ‘The God of All Gods’ as Masonic hitman Mr. Webster goes off the deep end, ignoring his own Lodge Grandmaster’s orders to abort the project amidst an increasing national atmosphere of mania, determined to free the fearful thing they’ve created and unmake the modern world at all costs. Constantine’s allies are all taken and the wizard is left to fight on alone.

Knee deep in intrigue, conspiracy and spilled guts, humanity seems doomed unless Constantine’s band of unhappy brothers and a bunch of Highland witch women can pull the biggest, bloodiest rabbit out of the mother of all hats in the spectacular conclusion ‘Balance’

The heady blend of authoritarian intransigence, counterculture optimism, espionage action, murder-mystery conspiracy theories and ancient sex-magic mix perfectly to create an oppressive tract of inexorable terror and smashed hope before the astounding climax forestalls if not saves the day of doom, in this extremely impressive dark chronicle which still resonates with the bleak and cheerless zeitgeist of the time.

This is a superb example of modern horror fiction, inextricably linking politics, religion human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills. That our best chance of survival is a truly reprehensible exploitative monomaniac seems a perfect metaphor for the world we’re locked into…

Clever, subversive and painfully prophetic, even at its most outlandish, this tale jabs at the subconscious with its scratchy edginess and jangles the nerves from beginning to end. An unmissable feast for fear fans, humanists and political mavericks everywhere…

© 1989, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Son of Man

By Garth Ennis & John Higgins (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-830-3

Garth Ennis ended a spectacular run on the urban wizard and all-around nasty-piece-of-work John Constantine in grand manner with Hellblazer: Rake at the Gates of Hell. By wrapping up all his loose ends and eradicating almost everything built during his tenure Ennis gave the regrettable impression that he was never coming back, but to every fan’s delight he returned with frequent collaborator John Higgins (see Pride and Joy) to craft this terrifying and pitiless tale of urban horror and twisted heritage set in the darkly charismatic London underworld.

During the Falklands War, when John Constantine was still in and out of criminal asylums, gang boss Harry Cooper asked a favour. Already well acquainted with the worst that Hell housed, the cocky young wizard knew true evil when it stuck a gun up his nose and was wise enough to comply.

With a few of his friends – for they weren’t all dead back then – he successfully resurrected Cooper’s dead son, and counted himself lucky to escape with his life and knees intact. No one, especially Cooper, needed to know just how he’d accomplished the impossible.

Twenty years later an older wiser man, he’s being harassed by Copper’s thugs and their bought coppers again. The kid’s all grown up now and taking over the family business, but his actions don’t make sense. Rather than making money, all his efforts seem destined to turn the city into a seething cauldron of race-hate and gang warfare: a literal Hell on Earth.

Now Constantine has to deal with the thing he brought back before it settles with him and all London too – but the outlook is far from rosy…

Collecting issues #129-133 of the monthly comicbook, this is an excellent blend of crime-thriller a la “Cool Britannia” with the signature black comedy-horror that Ennis has made his own, and the expressive, boldly subtle art of John Higgins perfectly captures the brutality, hilarity and sheer fear generated in this terrific thriller.

Grown-up comics simply don’t get better than this and both crime fans and horror lovers can pick this book up with no prior familiarity and still have the time of their lives…

© 1998, 1999, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Chas – The Knowledge

By Simon Oliver & Goran Sudzuka (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-140-3

It’s tough being a sidekick – especially when your guv’ner is the sardonic, ultra-cool laughing magician and arch-trickster John Constantine, and you’re just an over-the-hill granddad who drives a black cab in a London you recognise less and less every day. Your glory days are long gone – if there ever were any – and all you can look forward too is the big match, a few jars and not too much ear-ache from the dragon you married.

Chas Chandler (not the pop star) is probably Constantine’s oldest mate, at least this side of the grave, and his stolid, sensible “hit it don’t hex it” attitude has saved the street sorcerer from disaster on more than one occasion. His brushes with the unknown are mercifully limited but always terrifying (see for example “In Another Part of Hell” in Hellblazer: Rare Cuts) and he’s more than happy to keep it that way.

For such a man loyalty is sacrosanct and family worth dying – or killing – for.

Whilst his prospective son-in-law and a friend are researching “The Knowledge” one of them is involved in an accident that releases a spiteful demonic presence last seen during the Great Plague. This hateful spirit has nasty plans for London and quickly starts to enact them.

With Constantine pathetically unavailable Chas is forced to take action himself, aided by a few plucky cabbies and an extraordinarily tempting American lady he found in the back of his cab. Luckily this bloke at the pub, last guardian of the Secret History of Licensed Hackney Carriage Drivers, is on hand to explain the true meaning of The Knowledge: the mystic origin of the 320 routes all cabbies must learn before they qualify, and how the twenty-five thousand street names, esoteric stops and countless places of interest visited by tourists have kept our great metropolis safe and secure for four centuries…

More dramatic than terrifying, this is a cracking magical mystery (originally released as a 5 issue miniseries) with pitifully human heroes giving their all for just the right reasons; a delightful treat for jaded readers who might be in need of light refreshment before plunging back into the bleak and sordid cauldron of extreme, urban horror, but a terrific tale with which to break in prospective new fans.

© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Entries – a John Constantine Novel

By Ian Rankin & Werther Dell’edera (Vertigo Crime/Titan Books Edition)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-342-1

Award-winning – and officially honourable – crime writer Ian Rankin makes a remarkable debut as a graphic novelist in this superbly unsettling horror story starring the best anti-hero in the business. John Constantine, seedy modern magician and consummate bad seed. tends to bring out the best in his writers, and although the plot here is nothing new the treatment of the large cast of characters is a deft juggling act nicely handled, while the narrative set-pieces are gripping and stuffed with good old fashioned creepy tension.

Constantine has acquired a certain reputation in the right circles over the course of his life, so he’s not too suspicious when a sleazy TV producer offers him wads of cash to advise on the latest reality show Dark Entries (I have to admit I loathe the title) wherein six contestants are isolated in a rigged haunted house, competing for big prizes and fully expecting to be scared out of their wits.

Unfortunately what’s terrifying these housemates is nothing the producers and technicians devised but appears to be the real thing.

Quickly inserted into the show as a new contestant Constantine finds himself mired in a diabolical mystery involving the seemingly innocent competitors, and too late realises that he’s fallen for the oldest trap in the world. Stitched up like a kipper, his only chance is to free his companions before he can escape the house and the horrors that built it.

Sharp, gritty and deeply compelling this is a powerful recapitulation of classic horror and murder yarns complete with a sting-in-the tail that will leave the reader breathless and hungry for more.

Viscerally illustrated by Italian artist Werther Dell’edera this black and white hardback is similar in format to the old Paradox Press DC imprint to which gave us A History of Violence and Road to Perdition among other gritty adult thrills. Dark Entries is easily in the same class and would make any reader a very happy – if nervous – fan.

© 2009 DC Comics. All rights reserved.


By Andy Diggle, Leonardo Manco & Daniel Zezelj (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-881-2

Following directly on from the events of John Constantine, Hellblazer: Joyride (ISBN: 978-1-84576-775-4) this second collection of the unstoppable mystic trickster written by London’s Pride Andy Diggle re-presents issues #238-242 of the monthly Vertigo comic-book; comprising two chilling preludes and a visceral saga that sets up the series for a longer, even darker tale to follow.

Modern mystic Constantine is indulging in his downtime of choice: ciggies, booze and a hot date when he’s summoned by the ethereal Map, Patron god of London to rescue a trio of young thrill-seekers who have inadvertently slipped into the metaphysical hell of Shadow London. Grudgingly acquiescing, the sordid sorcerer forgets his own first principle “what are you really after?” to his eternal regret…

‘Smoke’ is illustrated by Daniel Zezelj, and is followed by ‘The Passage’ a prologue illustrated by Leonardo Manco (as is the rest of the volume) which introduces Mako, a War-Mage in devastated Darfur who’s hunting for the eponymous ‘Laughing Magician’. A Muti master (blackest blood magic), the deadly sorcerer is thwarted by an old wizard (last seen in John Constantine, Hellblazer: Original Sins (ISBN 1-84576-465-X) who sends a warning to Constantine by possessing an aid worker and dispatching him to Britain.

Magic is harsh and has no thought for innocence. The harrowing trip is just a taste of what is to come when Mako gets the right scent and follows all the way to London.

The trilogy of chapters that follows once again displays the callous superiority of comics’ greatest anti-hero as he finesses one threat against another, but the book ends without closure as his foes are now aligned against him and the trickster leaves his home turf to prepare himself for what’s still to come…

Andy Diggle has a powerful feel for and grasp of the idiosyncratic world of John Constantine. Blending Gangland, today’s news headlines, politics and the ghastly unknown, these dark pleasures are some of the most compelling stories in a series that has spanned more than twenty years and drawn the best work from a truly stellar cast of creators.

If you haven’t sampled the delights of Hellblazer you should climb aboard the ghost train and get chilled right away!

© 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.