I haven't read a huge amount of Hellblazer, having only dipped into recent outings like Ian Rankin's Dark Entries and Peter Milligan's "Scab" TPB. However, this new Pandemonium hardcover graphic novel by Jamie Delano and ‘Jock' is certainly the best John Constantine story that I've read so far.
The story is told in three acts. After a brief, supernaturally violent prologue set in modern-day Iraq, we see Constantine wooed in London by an enigmatic Muslim woman with a fair share of secrets. The romantic mystery isn't drawn out for too long, however, as Constantine's love interest soon leads him into a gritty Middle Eastern drama with a war/espionage bent. Finally, the story concludes with an all-out fantasy/supernatural sequence of the sort that fans of the character will probably be very comfortable with.
Despite touching on some fairly sensitive contemporary issues (including the occupation of Iraq and the abuse of prisoners of war by the American military), the story never feels as though it's trying to score political points or push a certain agenda. Instead, it feels as though it's driven by the central characters and the problem that Constantine is called upon to investigate, with the Middle Eastern trappings merely serving as interesting detail that enhances the story rather than overpowering it.
To his credit, Delano steers clear of the kind of lazy stereotypes that we've seen in stories about Iraq over the last decade, writing a strong female Muslim character in the form of Aseera, and dealing with the American armed forces that occupy Iraq in an even-handed and non-judgemental manner. It would have been easy for the book to fall foul of clichés and overly-familiar character archetypes, given the amount of fiction that has revolved around the region over recent years, but Pandemonium manages to remain distinctive and original throughout.
That's largely due to the strong characterisation of the book's lead. It probably won't come as a surprise to longtime Hellblazer fans to hear that Delano has a very strong handle on the character (to my shame, I've never actually read any of the writer's original acclaimed run on the book), but he brings out the character's core attributes so deftly here that even newcomers like me will feel comfortable with John Constantine in just a few pages.
Constantine's reaction to his love interest in early scenes, the way he behaves whilst being interrogated by MI6 and blackmailed into going to Iraq, and the way he treats the soldiers that he's partnered with once he arrives all add depth to his character whilst also constantly advancing the plot. Delano's Constantine is cocky, abrasive, and darkly humourous, but the writer smartly never lets the character feel too safe, making it clear that he doesn't always have the answers and is to some extent as baffled as the reader in places.
When the reveal of the exact nature of Constantine's supernatural adversary comes, it's a surprise, but one that feels perfectly fitting given what we know about the character (and his Middle Eastern roots). It also allows the writer to push the final section of his story into far more fantastical territory, as Constantine has to (literally) bluff his way through a game of life or death with a horde of demons. It's a scene that might come off as smug or off-puttingly slick for other characters, but by that point in the book, Delano's Constantine has built up enough credit with the reader that his triumph feels well-earned.
I haven't talked about Jock's artwork yet, but it brings Delano's script to life well. The angular style of the artwork suits the rough-around-the-edges Constantine perfectly, and Jock does well with the visual characterisation of Aseera too, even during the scenes in which she sports an inexpressive form-cloaking niqab. I was occasionally reminded of Michael Gaydos's work, as Jock manages to bring the same grounded, realistic quality to his artwork without making the more fantastical elements feel out of place.
Strong colouring choices help different sections of the book to feel distinctive, with vivid orange violently punctuating the monochrome black-and-white of the prologue; washed-out greys capturing the urban drudge of London; dry yellows and saturated blues conveying the heat of Iraq's day and the cool of its night; and bloody, dark reds giving the demonic realm a real nightmarish quality.
Some interesting visual techniques are used to unsettle the reader, too: it sometimes feels as though the art as originally drawn has been warped or skewed before being put on the page, which -- together with the non-linear layouts of panels that are used throughout the book -- effectively conveys the shifting realities and undercurrent of uncertainty that run through Delano's story. Jock also does well with his depiction of the more explicitly violent and shocking moments (such as the climax of the scene in which Constantine and his companion are captured by kidnappers who threaten to execute them), which are used sparingly enough that they carry a real impact.
I can recommend Hellblazer: Pandemonium to fans of John Constantine and newcomers to the character alike. This is an enjoyable supernatural yarn that plays out against an interesting and unusual backdrop that helps the story to stand out against more conventional horror fare. And, crucially, the book always puts its characters at the centre of the action and makes it feel as though their actions are driving the plot, rather than the other way round. I've warmed to the character of John Constantine far more than before as a result of reading this book, and it's made me keen to check out Delano's earlier work with the character.
What did you think of this book?
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