John Constantine. Hellblazer. Hellraiser. Misanthrope, mage and meddler; arch manipulator and much more besides. This trade paperback compiles one of his earlier adventures, a story arc which first spluttered its sleazy self onto the shelves in comic book form back when the 1980s finally expired and a brash new decade strode onto the scene. ‘The Family Man’, as the collection is entitled, is an ideal introduction to the character and his strange, semi-supernatural existence.
There are other anthologies of JC’s initial outings in his own publication, but this is where the enigmatic protagonist truly finds his voice. Writer Jamie Delano really nails the central concepts of Constantine’s character, and drags them – stumbling, wearing a grubby dressing-gown, with a Silk Cut hanging from a lip and eyes like sinkholes in the sand – into the indifferent half-light of an urban afternoon.
‘The Family Man’ is a good place to start because it’s not wall-to-wall demons and beasts of the underworld. Sure, there are supernatural overtones to the story but the heart of the tale is about JC as a gumshoe investigator, on the trail of an all too human evil. This killer shreds the heart from happy families, and typically leaves the bereaved father to endure both the memory of his impotence in the face of violence, and unrelenting future isolation.
JC feels a personal sense of obligation, thanks to a lighthearted little prologue which sets up the grimly gripping hunter/prey tale that follows. The closer JC gets to finding the psychopath, the more he reveals about himself… putting (as usual) his own family and few friends at bitter risk.
Before the inevitably bloody dénouement, the storyline gets put on hold for a few chapters while guest writers take a turn at the helm in some stand-alone episodes. Odd, but that’s what happens in the world of monthly comic books. The Gaiman / McKean chapter is instantly recognisable through the artwork, lettering and use of language – and it’s a solidly spooky little story. So is Grant Morrison’s effort in which a dying industrial town turns to the dark side. The V For Vendetta overtones are obvious in the art, here. Plainly, Vertigo (the publisher) was aiming to draw an audience to Hellblazer using a couple of its big-name authors, and they certainly came up with interesting angles on the normal Constantine themes. But in this compilation you might want to read them right at the very end; treat them as ‘special features’ rather than letting them interrupt the flow of the Family Man narrative.
This edition ends with some of Delano’s own short stories and, after the gruelling tension of the Family Man tale they are very welcome, if hardly light relief. In particular, his disconcerting story of a surreal Sunday is chillingly weird. It purports to offer JC the opportunity to side-step into the gleaming new 1990s and join the yuppie mainstream, or to continue to risk his soul and sanity in confronting life’s stark realities. Bitter-bleak at its core, re-affirming in its honesty.
The best bit (maybe) was saved to last. Published much later in ‘Rare Cuts’, ‘The Gangster, The Whore and The Magician’ is an illustrated, prose short story. And it is beyond elegant in its construction and content, showcasing Constantine at his absinthe-drenched best. Irascible as ever, he mouths off an ill-considered (and utterly ineffectual) curse, playing on his reputation as a creature of considerable power.
Yet when this moment of show-boating comes back to bite him on the ass, JC eschews the uncanny and extracts himself from a sticky predicament using only his street-smarts, sleight of hand, disarming candour and his essential vulnerability. His form of justice exerts the ultimate sanction on the bad guys but is more than merciful to their victims. The story’s resolution suggests the possibility of redemption, even for someone whose soul is as sullied as his own.
If anyone ever tells you that comic-book stories are superficial froth, point them at this collection. If ever there was a moment when a character comes of age it is Constantine in ‘The Family Man’.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Family Man is available in a re-issue trade paperback.
(You can also get it as an ebook but we don’t recommend that format: unless you have a simply HUGE screen the artwork loses a lot on a standard tablet or ereader)