Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall

Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall 

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin & Doug Alexander Gregory

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-233-9

This collection of the adventures of the world’s cockiest mystical bad-ass (from Hellblazer issues #187-193) sees an on-his-uppers John Constantine gathering what feeble allies he can muster as the un-nameable supernatural horror that has been waiting to devour humanity since the dawn of time (and for the previous two volumes) finally gets its snout in the door.

The chills begin with his niece Gemma having her own grisly adventure as the dupe of an old acquaintance of her uncle, who lures her to a seemingly deserted Scottish Island to complete a old mission and a new magical machine in Bred in the Bone, illustrated by Doug Alexander Gregory, before she eventually, and reluctantly joins Constantine in London for the main event, drawn with creepy and economical effectiveness by regular artist Marcelo Frusin.

Carey’s writing smoulders with a steady and overwhelming oppressiveness as his rag-tag band of desperate and self-serving mystics are forced to combine their talents in a desperate and inevitably futile attempt to thwart a truly unstoppable opponent who (which? what?) not only out-powers them, but has also achieved the inconceivable by out-foxing the arch-trickster Constantine.

How the wily con-man defeats a Thing that has won it all, and what the genuinely terrible cost is, provides a masterful horror tour-de-force that is compelling and eminently satisfying. Mike Carey’s tenure on this series is going to be one that will always rank as the highest of high points.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sebastian O

Sebastian O 

By Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84023-996-4

The mini-series was one of the earliest Vertigo outings and sadly doesn’t stand so well against later work by the writer or publisher. Blending Michael Moorcock’s alternative spy Jerry Cornelius with steampunk standbys, the myth of Oscar Wilde and the author’s fascination with higher dimensions, this is the tale of effete aesthete and super assassin Sebastian O’Leary, who escapes from Bedlam to wreak vengeance on the man who betrayed him — and inadvertently save the Empire from a cyber-space invasion.

It is well scripted, if a little forced, but the pretentious need to show off one’s cleverness obscures the narrative flow, don’tcha know, and were it not for the spectacularly underplayed drawings of Steve Yeowell, one might be forced to conclude that it’s all a bit of a bore.

©1993 Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. All Rights Reserved.
Cover and compilation © 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lucifer: Evensong

Lucifer: Evensong 

By Mike Carey & various

(Vertigo)  ISBN 9781-84576-448-7

It’s an age old dilemma in comic book storytelling: What do you do the day after you save the universe? Mike Carey answers it by checking in on the survivors in a series of character vignettes that provide closure by counterpointing the Sturm und Drang with charm, humour and melancholy in equal measure.

From issue #70 of the monthly comic, Zander Cannon and Big Time Attic draw Fireside Tales, a yarn of the centaurs and humans of the alternate universe crafted by Elaine Belloc, God’s granddaughter. Evensong (issues #71-72) shows Lucifer setting aright what he can with past allies and enemies as he prepares to depart our universe for the great unknown. The art is by Peter Gross and Aaron Alexovich.

The vulgarly charming demon light relief takes centre stage with issue #73’s The Gaudium Option as the New God gives the repulsive tyke one last clean-up job. Eve (issue #74) and All We Need of Hell (#75) are both illustrated by art veterans Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly and feature a supernatural Girl’s Night Out, and finally the last departure of the Lightbringer, after a suitably telling ultimate chat with the long vanished original God, Yahweh. A perfect end to a masterpiece of comic fantasy.

Or it would be if the book had ended there. However, the editors saw fit to smash the narrative flow by tacking on the one shot Lucifer: Nirvana after that splendid conclusion.

Please don’t misunderstand. Nirvana is beautifully painted by Jon J Muth, an engaging fantasy anecdote as fine as anything else produced by Carey in his career as Lucifer scripter. But you don’t try to stuff in one more shirt after you’ve locked the suitcase. It’s just plain stupid. And annoying. Let’s hope it’s fixed in future editions.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lucifer: Morningstar

Lucifer: Morningstar 

By Mike Carey & various

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-293-2

The penultimate volume of this supernatural saga begins with another Earthly digression as a grim agent of the Angelic Host moves through Hamburg to deliver retribution to some of the mortals touched by this affair. The Wheels of God is drawn by Colleen Doran and the story originally saw print in issue 62 of the monthly comic.

Morningstar (from issues 63-65), illustrated by Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly, returns to the main storyline as the war of Heaven inches closer to the flashpoint and Lucifer battles the thing that has been hiding in Jill Presto’s womb. Acquiring allies in the strangest places, he then goes to Christopher Rudd to recruit the new warden of Hell and his remaining Damned, as the war starts and both sides begin to take casualties.

Michael Wm. Kaluta illustrates a second interlude, The Beast Can’t Take Your Call Right Now (issue 66). With all the demons and monsters battling at the end of creation, who is answering when mortals summon infernal powers to make those legendary deals? This much needed and wonderful light relief serves to brace you for the carnage to come as Morningstar resumes (issues 67-69) with a severely wounded Lucifer fending off Fenris, the Avatar of Destruction, who is determined to unmake everything and return the universe to primal chaos.

This is a classic and remarkable end to a spectacular comic series, delivering the emotional pay-off that it promised and more besides. And there’s still one more volume to go…

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lucifer: Crux

Lucifer: Crux 

By Mike Carey & various

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-23811-X

The war of Heaven is going badly for all concerned. God has vanished and, despite the machinations of each being of power, a rank outsider has assumed his position and responsibilities. Many disparate factions have aligned and realigned and final battle lines have been drawn. When the battle for everything begins it will affect all reality — and not all the combatants expect, or even plan, to survive.

The sides broadly coalesce into Lilith (the woman Adam and God replaced with Eve – and look how well that turned out!) and every creature that feels wronged or slighted by Heaven, ranged against the Host of Angels and Powers besieged in their Silver City. The first story, The Eighth Sin (issue #55 of the monthly comic), by Carey and artist Marc Hempel, concentrates on events in Hell as the Angels caretaking the fell domain cede control to medieval philosopher Christopher Rudd. Following is the eponymous Crux (issues #56-57), with art from Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly as Lilith recounts her meeting with a band of sinister beings at the fringes of creation and what she sacrificed to join their alliance to destroy Heaven.

The Yahweh Dance (drawn by Ronald Wimberly, from #58) depicts the first stumbling steps of the Replacement Creator and the amount of guidance one can honestly expect from the arch-rebel Lucifer. Gross and Kelly return to end the volume with The Breach (issues #59-61). As the preparations for all-out war accelerate and the implications are felt throughout the universe by all of the truly huge cast that populate this epic, the human Jill Presto must reach some accommodation with the supernatural force in her womb that intends to be born before it kills her — or she it.

Lucifer is a true epic that reaches beyond the cosmos by concentrating on the actions of small characters as well as mighty forces. It does the work no favours to parcel it up into broken portions, even if those portions are entire Graphic Novels.

Read in one continuous flow, it becomes a masterpiece.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree

Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree 

By Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, P. Craig Russell & Ted Naifeh

(DC/Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-164-2

This would be a terrible book for a first time reader. The eighth collection of Mike Carey’s compelling new adventures of the devil collects the stories from issues #50, 45 and 51 – 54 of the monthly mature fantasy comic, and frankly, they’re all absolute crackers.

The first of these, Lilith, is a 40 page, self-contained delight illustrated by the magnificent P. Craig Russell, revealing not only the origins of Lucifer’s charismatic supernatural assistant Mazikeen, but also the building of the Silver City of the Host (where the Angels live) and the events leading to the Angel Samael’s defection from Heaven.

Another single issue tale, Neutral Ground, follows, with art by Ted Naifeh, relating the grim and cosmically unjust end of John Sewell, a poor working stiff who has the tragic misfortune to be selected as the venue for a board meeting of disaffected demons plotting to overthrow the current rulers of Hell. Either of these would be a wonderful introduction to a great series, so it’s a real pity that the main body of the collection recounts a pivotal tale in the seventy-five episodes (plus mini-series and one-shots) that tell the adventures of Lucifer since he abdicated his position as Lord of Hell in the Sandman volume Season of Mists.

Now, after many trials and tribulations, God has abandoned the universe and his disappearance has triggered the entropic end of Creation. Lucifer, who has made his own, separate, Universe, has reached a tense accommodation with his former peers and manoeuvres to survive and/or assume control. All the characters and sub-plots have to jockey for position in an outrageous coming together of disparate story-strands stretching back to the original mini-series and even the Sandman comics this title originally spun off from, when the Norse Deity Fenris attempts to bring Creation to a premature close on his own terms.

This is gripping reading, stylishly depicted by Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly, but you absolutely have to see what comes before if you want a cat in Hell’s chance of understanding what’s going on. So, why oh why waste two little gems, tailor made as “jump-on” stories, by cramming them into the equivalent of the middle reel of Citizen Kane or the last ten minutes of Fight Club?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Haunted, & Setting Sun

Hellblazer: Haunted 

ISBN 1-84023-362-1-

Hellblazer: Setting Sun

ISBN 1-84023-923-9

By Warren Ellis & various (Vertigo)

Warren Ellis is an iconoclastic writer and very much a “big draw” at the moment and his short run on this venerable, not to say inconsistent, horror standby was long overdue for collection. It can’t have hurt to see the tag “major motion picture” finally applied to the guy either – Constantine that is, not Ellis.

Of the film I shall say nothing, but these two slim volumes, reprinting issues #134 – 143, show the character at his best. By turns sardonic and pathetic, vicious and vulnerable, John Constantine is perhaps comics’ most human hero, and in Haunted he returns to London to find one of his few fond memories destroyed and desecrated by an upstart wizard who has a nasty line in Sex Magic. A brand new cast of “old friends” come and go in a bloody welter before the world is put to rights, Constantine-fashion. The art is by the splendid, and always impressive, John Higgins.

Setting Sun is a series of single issue stories that highlight different aspects of a very, very complex character. Locked, illustrated by Frank Terhan, gives new meaning to the phrase ‘locked room mystery’, as well as initiating a new relationship for Constantine and the police, whilst The Crib, drawn by Tim Bradstreet, looks at a different kind of magic.

Javier Pulido handles the art on Setting Sun, a grisly exorcism tale. James Romberger draws a bittersweet romantic recollection, Hellblazer –style in One Last Love Song, and Telling Tales concludes the fear-fest, as Marcelo Frusin depicts a tense night’s drinking for Constantine and a new, if temporary, friend. For fans, these must represent Hellblazer at its gruesome best, but as an introduction to new readers brought in by the magic of celluloid, they are an invaluable insight into how the character should be played.

Both volumes © 1999, 2004 DC Comics

Hellblazer: Highwater

Hellblazer: Highwater

By Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin, Guiseppe Camuncoli and Cameron Stuart

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84023-861-5

Highwater completes an epic comic strip road-trip across America by the trickster magician and thorough-going bastard John Constantine, as scripted by Brian Azzarello and previously seen in issues #164-174 of the monthly comic. For the beginnings of this US adventure the interested reader should seek out the trade paperbacks Hard Time (ISBN 1-84023-255-2), Good Intentions (ISBN 1-84023-433-4) and Freezes Over (ISBN 1-84023-531-4).

Here, the Scouser from Hell settles some old and justifiable scores with American Nazis, religious zealots, morally bankrupt billionaires and the USA’s covert government agencies, and still finds time for smoking, drinking and high-octane – not to mention often disturbingly graphic – sexual debauchery. It also depicts some of the nastiest violence seen in the series to date, from the likes of long-time 100 Bullets associate Marcelo Frusin, as well as Guiseppe Carmuncoli and Cameron Stewart, so be warned.

Hellblazer has consistently surprised everyone with its adaptability and longevity, and John Constantine is well on the way to becoming an iconic comics character. This volume, however, might not best serve as a first introduction to the old sod.

© 2001, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Swamp Thing: Healing the Breach

Swamp Thing: Healing the Breach 

By Joshua Dysart, Enrique Breccia, Ronald Wimberly & Richard Corben

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-235-5

Although starting strongly, this current revival of the evergreen (sorry, I’ve resisted that long enough now) franchise has started to falter, if not positively meander, in its spooky journey through the nastier corners of America. Reprinting issues #15-20 of the monthly comic, we find a no-longer omnipotent Earth God tripping back to his college days and consorting with his old mentor, even whilst he tries to deal with the imminent destruction to his Bayou habitat from both assorted creatures from beyond and the construction of a huge refinery.

The scripts might be in need of some attention, but you can’t fault the pictures. The astounding Breccia is supplemented by Ronald Wimberly and, for the final two chapters, the legendary Richard Corben, as Swampy/Alex Holland delves deeper into his formative years.

Since this is merely a portion of a much larger story-arc, perhaps the next volume will get the narrative back on track and deliver some of the metaphysical chills and wonderment that fans have become accustomed to.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Swamp Thing: Infernal Triangles

Swamp Thing: Infernal Triangles

By Rick Veitch, Jamie Delano, Stephen Bissette, Alfredo Alcala & Tom Mandrake

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-395-5

The reprinting of classic Swamp Thing continues as a coterie of guest creators detail the increasingly cosmic adventures of the planet’s Earth Elemental. From issue #77 Jamie Delano scripts and Tom Mandrake and Alfredo Alcala illustrate Infernal Triangles, a reconciliation of sorts with the street wizard John Constantine, used as a semi-witting sperm donor in the creation of the plant creature and his human wife’s baby.

The next issue To Sow One’s Seed in the Wind, written by Steve Bissette, details Abby’s and Swampy’s preparations for that impending happy event, and Veitch returns to write and draw the tale (Waiting for God [Oh!] from # 79) of Superman’s attempts to stop the Bog God’s revenge attempt against Lex Luthor, who almost destroyed him back when Alan Moore was writing the series.

From here things might get a touch confusing, so bear with me.

The Longest Day, from Swamp Thing #80, is a prequel to the Invasion cross-over event that ran through all the DC comics that year. For our purposes suffice it to say a coalition of alien races decide to wipe out humanity, and, as one of them uses plant-based technology, they decide to remove Swamp Thing in a pre-emptive strike. Warned by the Parliament of Trees, our soggy hero nonetheless vanishes from the planet and is presumed dead. Veitch and Alcala handle the creative chores for this and the next part, Widowsweed (issue #81). A frantic and desperate Abby has to deal with an alien bounty-hunter trying to destroy her nigh omnipotent – and missing — husband. The continued tale breaks off at the end of this moving and engrossing chapter as, for no logical reason, the previous year’s Swamp Thing Annual is wedged in to fill up the volume, utterly destroying the mood and the tension that should have carried over to the next volume. These aren’t periodicals, guys! They’re books! Give some thought to narrative flow when you compile these things, or you’ll never expand into the “real” world audience.

That story by the way, Distant Cousins which could have fitted in anywhere before The Longest Day, is a grimly whimsical and dark tribute to DC’s publishing obsession with monkeys and apes over the years and features such luminaries as Angel and the Ape, Monsieur Mallah, Gorilla Boss Dyke, Titano, Janu the Jungle Boy, Gorilla Grodd, Bwana Beast, Roy Raymond, Congo Bill and Congorilla in one attempt to correct evolution’s biggest mistake. Veitch scripts and is joined by a coterie of fun-loving nostalgists including Shawn McManus, Jim Fern, Stan Woch and Tom Yeates on the art.

These are fine stories, provocative and memorable, and deserve to be read – preferably in some semblance of dramatic order

© 1987, 1988, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.