When DC Comics moved its characters from the Vertigo mature readers imprint into the DC Universe right before the New 52 reboot, one of the big questions was how characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing and Shade the Changing Man would fit into a world with slightly stricter audience standards. We’ve had two series starring John Constantine since then (“Constantine” and “Constantine: The Hellblazer”), with varied amounts of success. But with Simon Oliver and Moritat‘s new “The Hellblazer: Rebirth” #1, it feels like DC has made its most deliberate attempt yet to evoke the spirit of the original “Hellblazer” series.
The most obvious element in that regard is the title’s return to London. After having John Constantine in America for the previous two series, having him back in his old stomping grounds feels like a bit of a relief. It means that his best friend, the long-suffering Chas, is once more in the picture and driving Constantine around, and there’s a certain familiarity to that decision that feels like a good thing. Constantine needs a Chas in his life, but not just for the sake of exposition or travel expediency. In the past, the supporting character has been a voice of reason, and that’s something that’s always needed if you’re making Constantine the right bastard that he is.
That said, Oliver and Moritat are doubling down on that front with the re-introduction of a character from Jamie Delano’s run from the first 40 issues of the original “Hellblazer.” The appearance of an adult version of the then-child Mercury is a smart one; not only does she have a history with Constantine (and actually survived said experience), her psychic powers place her firmly within his world. Oliver gives Mercury a level of disdain for Constantine alongside a begrudging amount of assistance, and that combination feels absolutely right for how his allies should treat him. The way Moritat draws Mercury in particular will tickle readers; that deadpan gaze as she looks at Nybbas works well in no small part because of how he also portrays Constantine as mugging for the proverbial camera.
Oliver also evokes some other moments of the Delano run, for that matter. Some are obvious, with a small guest appearance by Swamp Thing. Others are a little more subtle, like a reference to Delano’s story that revealed Constantine had killed his twin in the womb in order to survive. As a result, this truly feels like the character going back to his roots.
The only thing that gives off a bit of worry is how Moritat draws some of the more fantastical elements. It’s hard to tell if Nybbas is supposed to look a little silly or if he’s meant to be fearsome, but he definitely comes across as the former rather than the latter. It’s one of the elements of the book that definitely makes one remember that Constantine’s adventures are no longer bear the, “For Mature Readers” tag on the cover. Overall, his human characters look good, but the one exception is Wonder Woman who comes across as curiously flat. For whatever reason, the less fantastical the character, the better Moritat draws them.
Along those lines, “The Hellblazer: Rebirth” #1 definitely comes across as PG-13 rather than R, to use the MPAA’s rating system. It does feel a bit jarring to have all of the swear words getting the visual version of being bleeped, but until the final page of the book, the level of nastiness that used to accompany Constantine is definitely muted. That said, Oliver and Moritat end the book on a slightly dark note as Constantine breaks the fourth wall to address the ethics of what he’d just done. It’s what gives me hope that the ongoing “The Hellblazer” series debuting next month will have the right type of approach.
Overall, the brightening of the DC Universe is a very good thing, but “The Hellblazer” should in many ways be a deliberate counterpoint to that mood; Constantine’s a dangerous character, as Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing and Shazam all agree upon this issue. We’ll need to see that in action so that he stands out as being different from genuine heroes. As a first step, though, this is on the right track.