Hellblazer #256

Written by Peter Milligan
Layouts by Giuseppe Camuncoli
Finishes by Stefano Landini
32 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

It’s hard to believe that Hellblazer had to get all the way up into the 250s before Peter Milligan became its new regular writer. Milligan was one of the pre-Vertigo writers whose book Shade the Changing Man became one of the Vertigo launch titles, and his contributions to the Vertigo line have continued ever since then. We’re several issues into his run on Hellblazer, and I think what’s made me the most pleased so far is that Milligan’s managed to mix just about everything I like about the book back into the title all at once.

John Constantine’s had better days. His latest girlfriend, Phoebe, recently dumped him and has no intention of coming back to his side. There’s a Babylonian spirit named Julian who has Constantine in his thrall, ever since Constantine had to get a cure for a curse involving hideous scabs covering the body. And oh yes, there’s also a love potion involved. Constantine’s definitely had better days, but this is also pretty much par for the course for him.

To me, a Hellblazer story should have several different elements; Constantine being slightly untrustworthy, a conflict between his sympathetic and bastard sides, a double-cross, and some strange form of magic or horror. With Hellblazer #256, Milligan’s managed to mix all of these together and make it feel right. I’m just now starting to really buy Constantine’s relationship with Phoebe, perhaps because Phoebe has felt more and more like a real person with each issue, and in part because now that they’re separated we’re starting to see just how both of them react to the split. Milligan starting his run with the two of them already together hadn’t quite rung true for me, and now I know why; it’s because only when they’ve come apart are we starting to really see how the two of them do (and don’t) fit together.

Constantine’s dilemma with the love potion is also handled well here. I like that he knows he’s doing something wrong, but at the same time how he rolls with the opportunities and situations that present themselves. It’s a sharp reminder that being Constantine’s friend is opening yourself up for disaster, and in more ways that one. Plus, of course, there are lots of little touches along the way that capture the imagination, like the return of Julian’s protection-spell-as-graffiti, or how Julian’s cure back in Milligan’s very first issue (#251) turned out to have a long-term burn just waiting around the corner.

Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini work well together in Hellblazer, giving Constantine and company a harsh angular look that helps play up the whole untrustworthy nature of Constantine’s life. I have to give Camuncoli and Landini credit that they’re able to take a scene as simple as a telephone call and make it just full of life. From Constantine’s startled, "Pheeb?" as he picks up the ringing phone that he wasn’t at all expecting, to the manipulative half-smile on his face as he talks to Phoebe while dangling a portion of the potion between his fingers, the two of them just nail each side of Constantine effortlessly. They’re also good at the odder side of Hellblazer, too; the guardian spirit in Julian’s apartment building is suitably eerie, and I love the strange twisting shapes of the graffiti that dot the building’s walls as Constantine walks through the halls.

Milligan seems to have really settled into Hellblazer, now. It no longer comes across as the new guy still feeling his way through those early issues, but instead as a confident, decisive take on the character and the series. Hellblazer has always been lucky to have strong creative teams assigned to its title, and fortunately Milligan, Camuncoli, and Landini are continuing that tradition. It’s nice to see Vertigo’s longest title still in good hands.

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