Opening remarks are a prerequisite to talking about the final Vertigo issue of the imprint’s longest running series, the only from Vertigo’s original armada to last nearly so long, and a series which, totaling its original DC imprint and Vertigo lifespan, has lasted for 25 years. The series’ past and future are apt to be reassessed in much the same way that John Constantine reassesses his past and future in issues #299 and #300. In fact, it’s hard not to read these issues without interpreting them on some level as a metaphor for the series as a whole, weighing its achievements and milestones.
[Vertigo's first HELLBLAZER, cover by Dave McKean]
When DC announced the conclusion of Vertigo’s HELLBLAZER with issue #300, and the subsequent migration of the character John Constantine to the DC universe proper with a new series entitled CONSTANTINE, negative reactions dominated discussion of the news. Though no doubt this had plenty to do with deeply committed fans not wanting such a massive change to their beloved character’s existence (and can we assume that sex and profanity, staples of Constantine’s life, will no longer appear in the DC universe incarnation?), but also because it seemed to hint darkly about the future of the Vertigo line itself. If the flagship series is cancelled, can the imprint be far behind? But, truth be told, there’s no solid evidence that Vertigo is on the way out. It’s more clear that Constantine became an attractive character to take part in the DC universe proper in much the same way that Swamp Thing faced a more indefinite relocation. This suggests that it was the strength of HELLBLAZER that led to this change-up, not a lack of sales or performance as a Vertigo imprint. Those who are not amused by this co-opting of Constantine might consider the working man’s magician cursed by his own success.
[SPOILERS for HELLBLAZER #299 and #300 below!]
Since John Constantine’s first appearance as a character in SWAMP THING #37 (1985), he has been the subject of fascination. The stellar roll-call of those who have worked on HELLBLAZER over the years is staggering, and most who have worked on the series, including plenty who never got the chance to, have expressed an absolute fixation with the comic, largely due to the nuances of the character himself, much more an anti-hero than a hero, at least part con-man, largely self-destructive, and capable of weathering the fact that he can be unlikeable. Issues #299 and #300 grapple more firmly with that “unlikeable” aspect, questioning the wholesale destruction he’s often brought to those around him and more or less pose the question: does Constantine have a conscience about what he’s done? If he had the chance to make a redeeming gesture, would he? Fans may think they already know the answers to these questions, after all Constantine is a “bastard”, but writer Peter Milligan (from issue #250-300) does his best to dispel this certainty.
[Constantine's appearance in SWAMP THING #37]
Also working in Milligan’s favor is that he isn’t prepared to let major characters recede into the background in the drama of Constantine’s perplexing death and less perplexing resurrection. Epiphany Greaves, Constantine’s young wife, plays a substantial role in this final drama and establishes some visceral emotion for the reader to identify with, given their own anxiety over the possible “end” of Constantine after a quarter century of brushes with death. Their love story, spanning decades, could have been shuffled aside in favor of tying up the entire series, but instead becomes a linchpin of Constantine’s final internal struggles. Both issues #299 and #300 are also well-paced, full of feints and misdirections that keep readers guessing, and Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini’s layouts give admirable weight to meaningful transitional moments in the narrative that reflect both Epiphany’s and Constantine’s psychology. #300, particularly, represents very strong visual storytelling that’s appropriate to such an important moment in comics history.
[Cover art for HELLBLAZER #300]
But what about the conclusion itself? Some readers will consider it ambiguous enough to be satisfying, leaving room for interpretation, and drawing together the many dimensions of the character’s history, presenting plenty of silent panels for them to populate with their own reactions. It’s possible that no ending to HELLBLAZER could be truly satisfactory, given the fact that most fans don’t want the series to end. Even the fact that the conclusion is well executed can’t fully redeem that fact. But the conclusion does leave the series with a haunted feeling, which is certainly what the series, if it must end, deserves to hold onto.
[Cover art for HELLBLAZER #299]
In issue #299, Epiphany’s thoughts, in narrative text boxes, lead the reader down some dark paths while memorably traumatic images take center stage. The issue opens with Epiphany kneeling in a pool of gore over Constantine’s body, his chest blown open. Any shred of hope that the magician might survive is dispelled by Epiphany’s commentary, feeling him “slipping away” on the way to the hospital. Epiphany’s explosive reaction, shooting the man her father, Terry Greaves, presents to her as her husband’s killer, point-blank in a spatter of brains reinforces the seriousness of these jarring events to the reader, who might be second-guessing whether Constantine is, in fact, dead at this point.
When Constantine’s ghost begins to appear, it seems even more conclusive that this is, in fact, the end of the anti-hero’s mortal days. While the funeral itself is short and understated, Epiphany’s series of responsibilities, from surveying John’s corpse, the orchestrating the collection of his ashes, draws out the process of coming to terms with his death. This is a fairly successful way of giving the reader time to contemplate their own reactions. Issue #299 ends with a seeming cliff-hanger as Epiphany returns home to find Constantine waiting for her. This is the conclusion to issue #299 that readers are desperately hoping for. Surely, there had been some mistake, or ingenious plan to fake Constantine’s death. It provided some relief to readers waiting for the final issue of the series.
Milligan opens issue #300 with a rather endearing argument between Epiphany and Constantine, and plenty of sex (possibly reinforcing all the things about the Vertigo series that make it Vertigo versus the upcoming DC Constantine series) before the false sense of security is swept away. In typical fashion for the series, things are rarely what they seem, and Epiphany has been sleeping with a proxy, demoniacal version of her husband. Another loss ensues, and readers again are faced with the shocking realization that Constantine seems to be dead for good. Epiphany’s dalliance with Constantine’s nephew Finn reinforces this and puts some emotional distance between Epiphany and the death of her husband. Several weeks even pass before John’s ghost begins to throw a wrench in this process of moving on. When John proposes that Epiphany helps resurrect him in physical form, it seems almost too easily done, but again, is what readers have no doubt been hoping for. In a series where death and hell are rarely much of a barrier, why not bring back Constantine so that he can resume his arcane lifestyle in more fleshy form?
For readers getting a little uneasy about all these backward and forward movements in possibility, they might be wondering at this point, “Is that all?”. After all the hullabaloo, a simple exercise in resurrection seems almost a let down. Apprehension about Constantine’s return aside, seeing the familiar yellow textboxes of his thoughts return to the narrative is pretty electrifying and moving after an issue and a half of silence from the leading man. Constantine’s revenge on Terry Greaves, and his warnings to the wayward Finn about occult pursuits ring true to character, and it’s easy to forget about any previous misgivings. They resurface, strongly, however, in the last third of the book, and are emphasized by Milligan, Camuncoli, and Landini in ways that can’t be ignored.
Epiphany’s quip about Constantine’s plan to escape the Fates in a quiet Irish village, “You are biologically incapable of living a quiet life”, becomes sinister and resonant. Camuncoli and Landini’s strongest page in the narrative depicts Constantine closing his eyes in bed with Epiphany, thinking, opening them again, and then staring in an almost grotesque way out of the panel as he reaches some kind of realization about himself. It’s only a matter of panels before Epiphany has to bid him farewell yet again. Is it believable that she’d let him go at this point? The narrative suggests that she’s learned to let go due to previous iterations of losing him, but it’s also a little rushed and simple, maybe due to a desire from Milligan not to get too repetitive in farewell scenes.
Leaving the choice of whether Constantine lives or dies up to his conflicted niece Gemma may be a convenient solution to the conclusion of the series, but her actions are actually not surprising and her conversations with Constantine help hammer home the dilemma of the entire series. Does John really take responsibility for his actions? How far does he allow other people to be responsible for their own fate, and does he recognize that they can affect his? Gemma takes up that symbolic role of those who have been wronged in some way by Constantine’s more narcissistic pursuits, and if it’s a game of roulette to see if he’ll get what’s coming to him, he wins or loses depending on your vantage.
Constantine is released from the burden of cause and effect, the awareness of the harm he’s likely to keep bringing to others, particularly Epiphany, by Gemma’s bullet. He may well suspect in advance what will happen and be participating in a form of assisted suicide. But this is where all the ambiguity sets in. It’s almost like the constraints of the series ending mandate that Constantine must choose a way to exit the stage, and he does. The choice he makes is telling: it seems like a sacrificial act, one that expresses at least a desire for redemption. This makes a final statement about Constantine’s humanity and alters the way he’ll be remembered by others.
The last three pages of the comic could merit a review on their own, and Camuncoli once again shows his confidence and versatility in handling heavy, iconic moments. After an explosion of light, the viewer’s vantage rises over London, travels along a motorway toward Liverpool, glides through the streets and approaches a pub aptly named, of course, “The Long Journey’s End”. Those are the basics. It’s reasonable to assume that this represents Constantine’s disembodies spirit traveling somewhere important. The final panel is what leaves readers with whatever sense of closure or uncertainty they are prepared to generate for themselves. Constantine appears, surrounded by homage including the comparatively younger figures of possible contributors to the series, but with the same staring, uncanny expression on his face that marked his decision to leave human life. It’s a static image, and Constantine appears aged and uncertain of his own identity.
[Constantine in the DCU]
No doubt plenty of planning went into the scene, from the finely drawn tributes to HELLBLAZER contributors on every bottle behind the bar to the decision to portray a form of afterlife for the anti-hero. As final scenes go, it throws the gates wide on interpretation. That allows the series to form a kind of eternal loop of narrative, a fitting farewell to a pocket universe within DC. Though it’s not exactly a celebratory bon voyage to such a beloved character or series, it suits the downbeat, often backfiring lifestyle of Constantine himself, a life wherein plans almost always went awry and left him playing his perennial role of the “bastard”. If you wanted more redemption for Constantine, you probably should have settled on a character for whom a “quiet life” is not some form of hell (and that may be one interpretation of the final panel, that being retired and down at the red-lit pub is his punishment for a life less than virtuous).
Any interpretation of the final issue of HELLBLAZER is tempered by the knowledge that a younger Constantine will soon be born, a Constantine who will go “back to his roots in the DC universe” as Dan Didio claimed in response to negative reactions when HELLBLAZER’S conclusion was announced. Yes, it’s true, HELLBLAZER ran for 62 issues as a DCU series before being launched as a Vertigo title, but that doesn’t assure us that it won’t be a bumpy ride for Constantine heading toward a reincarnation. That’s not to say that he won’t be well received. Constantine has always shown that he’s a virtuoso at jumping between worlds and handling all the horror thrown at him. If he’s anything, he’s tough, and if the new series CONSTANTINE from DC is the only way for readers to reach the character on the “other side” of his most recent demise, it’ll be hard not to follow him into the DCU rather than truly saying “goodbye” to John Constantine.
Title: JOHN CONSTANTINE, HELLBLAZER #300/Publisher: Vertigo, DC/Creative Team: Peter Milligan, writer, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini, artists.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.