by Various Artists
Garrett Martin: It's kinda mind-boggling how long Hellblazer's been around. It's older than every current DC series except the four major Batman and Superman books. That's completely nuts. It's outlived all the other pre-Vertigo Mature Readers books, including the book it basically spun out of, Swamp Thing. It also inspired a really horrible movie. I've probably got twenty issues or so in a box in my parent's attic, back from when I would read anything DC slapped a Mature Readers label on, but this is the first issue I've picked up since '93 or '94. It's pretty much exactly what I remembered it being, a wry British asshole drinking, smoking, and fucking around with archfiends, and shit. Is that consistency or stagnation?
Hillary Brown: I guess I didn't really think about what a big number 250 is, not being such a regular consumer of these things except in bound form, but when I consider it seriously, yeah, that's a ton of comics, and this is the first one I've ever read. I do like the idea of a Christmas anthology issue, probably because I'm kind of a sucker for seasonal themes, to the point where I've seen basically every Halloween episode of Home Improvement multiple times. I don't know if it's so much a heart-warming feeling associated with tradition as a curiosity to see what people will do with familiar tropes, but it's firmly there, and anthologies strike me as a good way to jump into a book, at least in theory. If you don't like something, just wait a few pages and it'll be over. From the opposing view, it may not be the best method for getting a real taste of a book's general feel, and indeed, I'm not sure how it generally reads. Kind of funny but a little Guy Ritchie? Perhaps we should discuss the stories individually before we really address whether the whole thing is worth your dime?
We've got Dave Gibbons/Sean Phillips on the first one, which seems to be more straightforward and probably rather like the usual tone: cranky, tipsy, pissed about having to save the day but committed to doing it anyway, and obviously with a strong grasp on the supernatural. Then: Jamie Delano/David Lloyd on a poker-playing heartwarmer; Brian Azzarello/Rafael Grampa on a truly weird poem about the Cubs and the exorcism of the curse that lies upon them (WTF?); Pete Milligan/Eddie Campbell on a story of political intrigue and the occult; and China Mieville/Giuseppe Camuncoli on a foreign tale about multinational evil corporations and religious vengeance. Does that about sum it up, plotwise? Unfortunately, because I think I kind of like the dude, Azzarello's writing is the weak link here to me. It's a creative idea, but the story is a total mess, and the poetry doggerel. I'd really prefer people not attempt the latter unless they have a rudimentary grasp of meter, and if you try to pay attention to the rhythms of the thing, you're sure to get twisted up and lost. The art is interesting but never serves to clarify, and, basically, if you're not already familiar with the curse of the billygoat, the whole thing'll whoosh right over your head. Points granted only for ambition, and they're more than compensated for by the negatives of the execution.
GM: Totally agree about the Cubs thing. Azzarello's poem is awful, and even though I'm a huge baseball fan the entire concept is just stupid. It'd be a waste of a few pages if Grampa's art wasn't so tremendous. I've never even heard of the guy, but I loved his super intricate scratches, the little clusters of lines that make up these ridiculous looking people and their squalid bar. His Constantine is pretty much unrecognizable, and probably Grampa's least interesting design, but overall I think his art is fantastic. This book is pretty beautiful overall (obviously, with both Phillips and Campbell on board), but Grampa kinda steals that show.
You're right about the Gibbons and Phillips story; it both looks and reads the most like my vague memories of 17-year-old Hellblazers. It's very Vertigo-y in tone, appearance, and execution, and perfectly suits what is basically Vertigo's flagship on-going title.
Quickly ploughing through the rest: Lloyd's washed out pencils felt surprisingly alien coming right after Phillips, an artist whose work I've seen much of over the last few years. Kinda looks like the cover of that first King Crimson record. Delano's story was a little too pat and inert for me, and his prose was just awkward at times. Maybe it was the British slang, I don't know. I'm glad he didn't go with the expected bummer of an ending, but there's still not much of note here.
I've liked Eddie Campbell's art since randomly buying an issue of Bacchus in 1993, but I've never really read much of his stuff. Never touched From Hell or any of the Alec stuff. They're both on the overly long list of comics I hope to one day read, but not quite near the top. Still, I dig his flat, scratchy characters, who look like they're from an "alternative" Steve Canyon, or something. I also love the hell out of Milligan, despite some recent missteps; this short was the primary reason I wanted to review this comic. This story's slight, true, but it's the only one that deals with Christmas on a personal or familial level. Even though I'm sick of Christmas fiction that focuses on dysfunction, I appreciate that this short has more of a personal touch than the others. Milligan's the regular series writer as of #251, which came out this week, and was pretty good; it looks like I'll be reading Hellblazer regularly again.
That final story is some rank cornballery salvaged somewhat by Camuncoli's art. He's the new regulart artist as of #251, and although he's not the best in this issue, he does have that classic Vertigo vibe that'll work well on Hellblazer. Y'know, that slightly European look that's simultaneously more realistic yet also more abstract than typical American superhero stuff. #251, from Milligan and Camuncoli, could've been published twenty years ago, it's so firmly, classically Hellblazerish.
So yeah, like most anthologies, this is pretty hit-or-miss.
HB: But maybe a little more on the hit side than some others we've looked at. I think you're right that the art is generally of a higher caliber than most anthologies, even if it's a little dark and scratchy for my taste, and I pretty much agree with your assessment of the stories, too. The only place I'd differ is on the Milligan one, which had a lot of potential but I'm not sure lived up to it all that well. It's rare that I complain anything is too short, but I felt like this story could really have used a few more pages, which is a good sign for the future of the book, if he's going to be writing it and having those pages regularly, but a problem with the story itself. It ends up a bit choppy and with a climax that's telegraphed as huge but doesn't earn any real impact, as it hasn't really been led up to very well. Is it a twist? Or is it just an "oh, fuck. I've used up my page count. Here's an ending!!" thing?
Um, are priests supposed to condone vengeance, even if it's sort of committed by angels?
GM: That's one of the many problems with that last story, the first being the assumption that all corporations are bad whereas all impoverished slum-dwelling orphans are good.
And true, Milligan's story wraps up a bit too suddenly. He's maybe phoning it in a bit, but really no more so than most of the other writers here. Half-assed or hurried Milligan can still be pretty good, though, even if his recent superhero stuff has been less than mediocre. More space would've helped, no doubt. Have we done a Milligan comic here yet? Ever read anything by him? Shade the Changing Man was my favorite comic for a while when I was in high school.
HB: No, we haven't done any Milligan, I don't think, and I'm pretty sure this is the first thing I've read by him, despite his impressive resume. I definitely don't mean to denigrate his story much, either. It's among the better things in the book, and its Brittiness is welcome. I see, after poking around a little bit online to get who wrote/drew what straight, that a lot of people had hoped Warren Ellis would contribute a story, and I do think he'd be very well suited to doing so--or is that a cliche?
GM: I'm surprised they didn't run with the reunion idea, getting Ellis, Ennis, Paul Jenkins and whoever else to return along with Delano, the book's original writer. It's actually kind of unbelievable that Milligan had never written a Constantine story before, considering how long both have been kicking around DC.
HB: Is it generally his style? I mean, I can see Ellis and Ennis easily, but I don't know much about Milligan.
GM: Milligan's comics are usually character-driven and psychologically rich, but also pretty damn weird, so he shouldn't have any problems with a book like Hellblazer. You should track down #251, if you're interested.
HB: My interest is definitely piqued enough. So, Hellblazer #250: thumbs mildly up?
GM: More up than down, sure.