[This is another one where I come off as a raging asshole. I have changed my mind about everything I said here (except the part about the logo, as I still prefer the original). Richard Corbin, as I believe I’ve mentioned here before, really is a horror master. I was just stupid and inexperienced with the comic book world back then. Also, I have since learned to love Azzarello’s run. The prison stuff was a bit iffy, but all my doubts were met by the end of that storyline. It laid the groundwork for John Constantine’s journey to the heart of the American dream. Looking back, I fucking love it now. Also, at the time I was unaware of why Warren Ellis was kicked off the book. It was for a one-shot story involving a shooting at a public school. Unfortunately, this happened just after Columbine. Vertigo thought publishing it would be in bad taste. Ellis walked out on the rest of his run. Vertigo eventually published that story. It was pretty good. Anyway, this was in the Elmhurst College Leader on April 24, 2000.]
Okay, this has got to stop. Hellblazer has had its ups and downs (thankfully, there have been more ups), but the latest story arc, Hard Time, is quite possibly the lowest Vertigo’s longest-running title (not counting the newly resurrected Swamp Thing) has ever sunk.
First of all, give credit where credit is due. Writer Brian Azzarello has one of the greatest ears for dialogue in comic books. He took a pretty dull comic from the ‘Sixties called Jonny Double and gave it a hard-edged cynical look for the ‘Nineties that was simply beautiful and gruesome at the same time. He writes another ongoing series called 100 Bullets, a formulaic concept that he somehow manages to write wonderfully every month. There is no doubt as to his abilities as a writer.
Tim Bradstreet, the cover artist, has published some amazing pieces of artwork in the past, from his haunting Unknown Soldier covers to his earlier Hellblazer covers, all very spooky stuff.
As for artist Richard Corbin, well, he just sucks. His drawings look like a child’s dolls. He’s supposedly a horror master, but if he is, then Ronald McDonald is God. Sean Phillips, with his use of shadows (perfected by skipping pencils and going directly to inks) and rough drawings is a horror master, but not Corben and his doll-like drawings.
Corben excepted, Azzarello and Bradstreet have proven themselves in the past as worthwhile. However, with the Hard Time storyline, their talent has gone to hell. Bradstreet seems to have lost his eerie edge (which is also evident in his Punisher covers)—he’s grown sloppy with his shadowing technique, and it looks like he’s trying to imitate Corben.
As for Azzarello, he broke one of the rules that has made Hellblazer such a strong comic book for so long: whenever a new writer takes up the reins, the writer always wanders into protagonist John Constantine’s mind and world. Instead, Azzarello plucks Constantine out of his scummy, disease-ridden angst-ridden London and throws him into an American prison. What’s he there for? Azzarello still hasn’t answered that. Constantine has engaged in ample badness in the past, but he’s an ace at avoiding the authorities.
What it comes down to is yet another story about how bad prison life is. Just what the world needs . . . There are times when Hellblazer wants to go back to its more terrifying self, like the bloody shower scene in #146, but for the most part, the horror Azzarello is emphasizing is the horror of prison. You know, sodomy, cigarette debts, skinheads, the occasional body cavity search form a gloved screw, the usual stuff. Again, the dialogue is great, but whatever happened to the old Constantine? The one that tricked the Satan into curing his lung cancer? The one that couldn’t keep his friends alive?
Azzarello, in a recent interview, said that he wanted to emphasize the con man side of Constantine, but the thing is, that’s not all he ever did. Besides, he usually had a reason to screw people over. Here, there’s no reason—he’s just in prison screwing a lot of people over and up.
Azzarello isn’t the right writer for the job. Whatever happened to Warren Ellis’s run? Granted, his one-shot issues weren’t that great, but his Haunted story arc was the last great Hellblazer story. Bad artists are common in Hellblazer, but there has never been a bad writer. Again, Azzarello isn’t a bad writer, but he’s just not right for this comic book.
Oh yeah, and the new trademark sucks, too. Forget the high-tech crap and go back to the old trademark—it was much better.