02/03/2009. Contributed by Paul Skevington
pub: Titan/Vertigo. 190 page graphic novel. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84576-775-4.
check out website: www.titanbooks.com
When Andy Diggle took over 'Hellblazer', he was a man on a mission. His intention was clear, he wanted to take the character of John Constantine and return him to his roots as a cocky, arrogant and supremely confidant anti-hero. This would be a brave move, following on as it would from the not too distant memory of Mike Carey's excellent run on the series.
It seemed likely that such a goal could only be accomplished by trampling on the character development of years past and re-writing or ignoring previous events so as to fit the new/old vision comfortably into the existing framework.
From the very first issue that Diggle worked upon, it was also clear that these fears were completely unfounded.
'Joyride' features four separate storylines, the first being 'In At The Deep End', in which we find chain-smoking magician John Constantine tied up underneath a pier, as a man with a gun, sits, watches and waits for him to die. I can't think of a better way of exploring Constantine's identity as a master manipulator than by starting the book with a scene in which he is, theoretically, completely helpless. Diggle then moves on to a series of interludes that principally feature Constantine and one other character.
First we have Constantine and Webb, then Constantine and Karen and so on. We watch as Constantine psychologically manoeuvres these characters until they occupy the position of his choice, winning the advantage before they even have a chance to realise what is happening. Here, Diggle infuses Constantine with a sense of cold justice that may leave the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Diggle achieves all of this whilst also pushing the character's cynical sense of humour, as Constantine fires out retorts like rabbits pulled from hats. The ending of the piece will have you marvelling at the tight structure that Diggle has imposed on the narrative, he is an author who knows how story works and who delivers on the promise of his set-ups.
The second and third stories are entitled 'Wheels Of Chance' and 'Systems Of Control' respectively and together form a single story unit. This arc deals with a ploy by Constantine to enable him to spend time by himself in a building that was once known as the Ravenscar Facility for the Dangerously Insane, but which is now operating as a government-licensed super-casino.
Here we come to the heart of Diggle's device for returning Constantine back to his glory days, as he is forced to confront the thing that has been controlling his life for the past few years in a strange story of anti-psychoanalysis. It evokes rather unhealthy possibilities of how to deal with guilt and one thinks that, at some point, Constantine must pay for the actions taken here if the story is to be given any true validity.
The final section of the book is 'Joyride', a brutal tale of social dystopia that is brilliantly deceptive in tone and yet which does not succumb to didacticism. In it, Constantine stumbles across a force that is somehow manipulating the local gang of delinquents into committing horrifying acts that they subsequently don't remember. Initially, the true terror of this prospect is disguised from the reader, as the youths are quite unpleasant enough as they are without any mystic intervention. We side at first with their victims, especially the father of a child hit and killed by the gang's runaway vehicle. We follow him down a path of revenge that will lead straight into the belly of the beast itself.
It is here that Constantine is re-introduced to the wider world again as he once more throws himself into a battle he is barely capable of winning. Everything that has gone before has prepared us for this moment. This metaphorical re-birth isn't over-played though; Constantine isn't an invincible marauder just because he has lost some of his old baggage. As he says after one unfortunate incident, 'Guess being a cocky bastard doesn't make you indestructible after all.'
It is the social critique that makes this story stand out, as especially shown in the locations chosen for the tale. From the slums at the opening, which we are encouraged to believe are the locus of the malady, we move to an attractive English country village that eventually reveals its true nature. It's an incisive argument concerning the role of circumstance in creating the thugs of our world, which we are shown in detail by the introduction to the story when we see how Danny Draper came to be as he is. So what happens to supposedly respectful people when circumstances change and opportunities are placed before them?
Leonardo Manco again illustrates, a fact of which I am exceptionally grateful. His run on this title has been so successful that it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine it without him. His work is detailed, gritty and emotionally stirring. It is Hammer-Horror and modern urban-decay rolled into one. He has an uncanny knack for making objects appear disturbing and yet oddly attractive, for instance, the fleshy majesty of Karen after we see the consequence of her unfortunate decision. His Constantine is forever changing, whilst still being recognisable as the character we love - sometimes beautiful, sometimes bedraggled, always dangerous.
Manco's 'It's good to be back' full-page illustration is utterly iconic. He works with Diggle's skilled use of panels to create horrific and memorable sequences, such as the discovery of a body in 'Joyride' which is conducted on one page in five small claustrophobic illustrations, slanted at queasy and disconcerting angles. Admittedly, there is sometimes too much similarity between the male faces in this arc, but it doesn't detract from the enjoyment and there are never any moments of confusion in the work. Manco is equally at home drawing Hell as he is the Home Counties and mixes the two with considerable aplomb.
So Constantine is back on the road to disaster again, and he is inviting us all to come with him. With Diggle and Manco drawing the map, it's certainly going to be a memorable and terrifying journey.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA