You may not have noticed, but Hellblazer has been enjoying something of a renaissance of late, under the fearless penmanship of Peter Milligan. Milligan’s a veteran of DC’s beautifully barmy Vertigo imprint, having a pedigree of quality work there, matched only by the likes of Grant Morrison, Alan Moore or Garth Ennis, having been writing exciting ongoings, one-shots and mini-series relatively regularly since the imprint’s inception (Notable works being 'Enigma', 'Shade: The Changing Man', 'Girl', 'Face', 'Greek Street', 'Hell Eternal'). He has his misssteps, but as a reader you know a Milligan book is going to be in exciting journey wherever it takes you. I explain this to highlight what a perfect match Milligan is to Hellblazer, Vertigo's flagship of weird, following the ongoing adventures of British 'blue collar' mystic, John Constantine. Frankly it's surprising no-one made it happen before this run. Having breathed new life into the longest running (in unbroken numbering) title of the big two over the past couple of years we actually find ourselves at a point when the series even gets its own Annual for the first time in over a decade. This, dear reader, is where we come in.
This Annual is written by series writer Milligan and pencilled with signature flair, by the inimitable (though many try) Simon Bisley. Bisley's been the regular cover artist and semi-regular penciller for the series for a few years now, and has brought some of his career-best work to the title. His gaudy, tits-and-beasties fantasy edge is sanded down here to perfectly capture the spirit of the macabre life of John Constantine in these pages. To sound like a pretentious tit for a moment (or so) it’s really matured since his Lobo work but still maintains that mischievous edge and Biz's innate brutality. This is top level sequential art, as good as any of the many industry legends who've depicted John in the past, and no less than the book deserves.
It's been so long since I first picked up an issue of Hellblazer that I forgot how one can get put off by the fact that so many issues have been published you don't know where to start. This is nonsense though; as long as you go from the beginning of a storyline, Hellblazer is easy to start cold and rarely continuity laden. Apart from the occasional story all you need to know to read Hellblazer is: John does Magic, John likes women, John's a bit of a prick. The story in this Annual is a classic example, it concerns the family of an old friend of his from his childhood. Have they been in it before? I dunno. Does it matter? Nope, all the information you need is there in the pages of the book. The story actually involves a suspicious series of teen disappearances, but in a way much of this is irrelevant too, what matters is that as ever, something moody's going on, John's deep in the heart of it and innocent people are getting hurt. And as ever John's not a hero, he's just the guy who, when the world goes up shit creek, might, just might, have the only paddle, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
If like many, you are curious about Hellblazer but just don't know where to start, start here. This is what to expect, gruesome urban supernatural horror with a not entirely irredeemable rogue in the lead. If, like I was until a year or so, you’re a lapsed reader, pick this up, it'll remind you why you fell in love with John’s dirty little world in the first place. Superior, supernatural horror for the modern reader, like an episode of Eastenders written by Clive Barker. So yeah, it’s classic Hellblazer.
With issue 21 American Vampire wraps up its latest storyline, "The Beast In The Cave", notable for featuring the first appearance pencilling on this series by seasoned professional Jordi Bernett. More famous in Europe for his work on crime classic Torpedo, Bernett has been DC's go to guy for Western action for some time now, gracing the pages of Jonah Hex and All Star Western with his superior draughtsmanship. For that reason, Bernett is a superb choice for a story such as this, wherein we see a bit more of the adventures of the series' central vampire Skinner Sweet during the American Civil War. This seems like a perfect fit to me, so, it’s quite disappointing that this has turned out to be a rather uninspiring three parter.
American Vampire is a solid if unremarkable series that has earned Vertigo solid if unremarkable sales (actually jolly good sales by Vertigo standards) and a decent critical response over the last couple of years. I’ve stuck with it from the beginning, due to the fact that although it doesn’t make me wait with bated breath every issue, it is still a very good series. I particularly enjoyed the recent epic set in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two, I would even have said prior to this misstep that the series was going from strength to strength. This story unfortunately did not meet the heights of the WW2 Pacific story, or the other Western-centric blasts from Skinner’s pasts shown earlier in the run. "The Beast in the Cave" had by far more in common with the recent "Survival of the Fittest" mini series, which again squandered a great artist (in that case star in the making Sean Murphy) and again focussed too much on Snyder's newly introduced concept of giant magic vampire gods, which for my money suspends the disbelief far too far for me. Like so many vampire-centric franchises before it, Am Vam is branching out into different kinds of monsters, with limited success. One could argue that the evolution of the beasties' species is a main theme of the book, that is, the different kinds of vampire, but that’s not really why I like the series. If I’m honest I’d happily see them drop the whole vampire angle entirely and just focus on people in the period setting. But I'm an awkward so-and-so like that.
The premise of this particular story boils down to "Cowboys vs. Indians vs. Vampires in the Civil War" and when a premise that awesome is brought to you by western/crime comics legend Jordi Bernett and fan favourite writer of great expectations Scott Snyder it screams "Unmissable" but it doesn't quite hit the mark. Not a terrible story, but not a particularly satisfying reading experience either. The story starts simply, escalates quickly and ends up all over the shop. I actually thought there must have been some kind of printing error in the final issue, the story jumped from scene to scene with very little connection other than the fact that both story lines seemed to be leading up to evens the reader isn’t even allowed to witness at story’s end. Tension builds and builds and then... well stuff happens that we don't see then nothing happens that we DO see. I can see what Snyder's going for here but it just felt like a standard Jonah Hex short story dragged out into three issues.
So a rare failure from American Vampire, but it's still a strong series, and one that's well worth trying if you haven't already. Don't start here though, begin at the beginning, or try the excellent #12 with art by the inimitable (and fairly unpronounceable) Danijel Zejelj. Hopefully there'll be a return to form in the next issue, where series regular artist Rafael Albuquerque returns to kick things forward in time again to the 1950's for new storyline "Death Race". Bring it on daddy-O!