John Constantine misses bars unlit by the glow of televisions, the freedom to smoke indoors, the days when “people just pissed in the phone boxes.” Simpler times. The kids of twenty-first century London slink around in “man-bhurkas, masking shame” behind hoodies and oversized baseball caps. “They talk jamockney,” Constantine complains, “that horrible bastard language hybrid of all the laziest and worst of every different culture.” They’re not at fault, not even the ones dumb enough to mug John on a quiet night: they’re just “snot-nose kids brought up to believe they’re tenth-rate citizens,” after all, products of decades of institutional failings and years of neglect, oppressed by poverty, driven by fear.
If Hellblazer: City of Demons devoted five issues to John’s soapboxing, he’d be able to enjoy the quiet pint he desired, as we’d be putting serious distance between us and his nostalgic musings. Thankfully, writer Si Spencer cuts Constantine short, allowing the twenty-first century to chime in by running John over with one of its luxury vehicles. John doesn’t even realize he’s been hit until his old man rant starts to get away from him, dissolving into a stream of babble: “Seven by seven, like 77, when punk really hit and the jah apocalypse – when the two sevens clash, the 277 – that’s the bus from the Clyde, right? What the fuck am I banging on about?”
What is at stake in City of Demons? The first issue kicks off with another identity crisis of sorts, John having been disenfranchised from his corporeal self by the car accident, shouting “I’m John Constantine. I’m John fucking Constantine!” in a spectral form while his body is rushed to the emergency room. Most writers new to Hellblazer seem to take this route, opting for a fresh start that keeps the character’s past caretakers at bay. Spencer lays Constantine up for three months, and when he hits the London streets he’s a figure of constant motion, a far cry from the crank at the bar complaining about the warning labels on cigarette packs.
The publication history of this particular storyline is a bit murky: artist Sean Murphy mentioned over at his blog that the issues were held up for a while, though it’s hard for me to say whether this story was meant to run in Hellblazer proper or if it was always designed to be a miniseries. In any case, City of Demons was worth the wait, and I think it’s an ideal jumping-on point for new readers curious about Constantine. Little to no background with the character is needed to follow the happenings here. The most important bit concerns the mixture of human and demon blood that’s coursing through Constantine’s veins, but you can suss that out pretty quickly.
The relative detachment from Constantine’s history might turn off longtime readers: no substantial wrinkles are added to the character, and the stakes for John plot-wise are relatively low. In many respects this book almost reads like a “soft” reboot of the character, or even a template for how to make a Hellblazer TV show work (though this latter reading may stem from knowing that Spencer has written for EastEnders and other shows). “It’s like House, but he’s a magician.” Not quite, but in the ballpark. Once Constantine is back on his feet after his hospital stay, he has little trouble tracking down the root of London’s problems and dispensing with them. He’s much less miserable here than he was in Delano’s first two issues: his jokes seem less like defense mechanisms and more like the words of a man comfortable in his own skin.
The main plot of City of Demons concerns the transformation of Constantine’s demon-infused blood into a kind of biological weapon. The men behind said transformation are Misters Young and Yorke, two researchers at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital with their eyes on an infernal prize: recognition (and, presumably, some sort of commendation or appointment) from the powerful forces of Hell. Their motives are fairly vague beyond the drive for additional power and authority, but that seems to be part of the point. They distribute Constantine’s blood quickly and efficiently, with no regard for the lives they’ve destroyed in pursuit of their promotions. “If we took a city, hell would have to notice.” It’s as simple as that. Cities and their inhabitants are little more than sites where bureaucrats and yes-men might refine their CVs in search of better jobs, a means to an end, residents be damned.
Spencer frequently suggests that hell doesn’t require the services of Young and Yorke: the city’s already been taken. The horrors experienced by many London residents on a day-to-day basis are sufficient. “I shouldn’t think The Evening Standard would notice,” Constantine tells the pair, “Let alone hell.” Constantine is not just bragging about his abilities here. We see the demonization of several London residents throughout City of Demons: immigrants working without proper safety equipment; native Londoners viewed as outsiders because of their religious beliefs; young mothers mocked for their children, signs of alleged indiscretions; African men unable to make small talk at bus stops without being perceived as threats. Spencer is also careful not to make these brief snippets of city life simple caricatures: they’re not given much space to inhabit here, but each Londoner has their own take on the public eye that brands them before they’re consumed by the book’s main plotline.
On the other hand, the scared white guy with the shotgun who blames these Londoners for his own problems is all cartoon (and not too far removed from John’s “musings” at the start of City of Demons: they’re both men who insist on their right to peace and quiet, at the centers of their own imagined Londons, convinced that things have not always been so loud and difficult). But we’ve also sadly seen this show play out in the real world: urban racism driven by a sense of entitlement and the tendency to project blame away from institutional shortcomings and toward the boogeymen that share our air. The occult threats are easily dispensed with in City of Demons, and there is satisfaction in seeing two white collar managerial types bedeviled by unexpected resistance, by the human elements who reject their inhumane directives. But the social forces that oppress people on a daily basis, the culture of fear that sets Londoners against one another, these remain part of the city’s fabric.
The moralizing is not what drives City of Demons: this is not a somber book, by any stretch, so let me get off my pseudo academic soapbox and join Constantine at the bar. Spencer’s Constantine is not weighed down by any real existential dread: once he’s healed up, he’s all swagger, all bastard, all about the cute nurse and what she’s up to once the cannibals are all cleaned up. The blood pours out in buckets: the violent acts are committed by frustrated artists, neat-freak housewives, bored boyfriends. This is more ripped from the headlines than high modernism, is what I mean. Moments of pretension or cliché are quickly undercut, and in some cases they are literally stabbed away. For example, a brief, melodramatic sequence involving a wayward son and his loving mother goes from Full House to Elm Street in the span of a page or so.
Artist Sean Murphy even went so far as to fuck with fun-hating Hellblazer fans, putting Constantine in a Misfits t-shirt in the above panel in the hopes that the image might annoy fans expecting to see John stick to his British punk roots (he did go on to regret the decision, which was motivated by the critiques lobbed at his artwork in the wake of his first Hellblazer storyline with Jason Aaron). I like the idea that there are people out there who can’t imagine John checking out the transatlantic punk scene: is it really unlikely that he’s never strayed beyond the confines of late 1970’s UK terrain? It reminds me of Joe Piscopo telling writers on Saturday Night Live that “Frank wouldn’t say that” back when he did those Sinatra routines. Even Jamie Delano has a sense of humor about some of the changes Constantine has gone through since the writer passed the torch along. In a 2001 interview with Sequential Tart, Delano joked that he would “never forgive” Garth Ennis for allowing Constantine “to discover a taste for that filthy brew Guinness.” City of Demons is primarily about the various forces that keep John away from his now-beloved Guinness: what was once apocrypha is now canonical.
We should talk more about Murphy’s art, because it really is the biggest selling point of City of Demons (although as Murphy himself has noted on his blog, you don’t get the pretty pictures in your comic book without the story: Spencer gives him lots of great stuff to do here).We should also pay homage to colorist Dave Stewart, who assists Murphy in crushing the artwork here.
And it’s not just the moody, atmospheric sequences and the gory bits. Murphy’s not afraid to tweak Constantine’s nose a bit, literally exaggerating its length. We get the classic images of John smoking, taunting his enemies, flirting, but there are also moments where the character’s face matches his various mood swings, distorts to heighten particular emotional reactions, transforms into a scratchy and ragged visage. While I mentioned earlier that this book almost reads like a pilot for a TV show, it would be impossible to translate Murphy’s work successfully to film. Who else could sell Constantine bouncing off a trampoline, Wile E. Coyote style? Even if you’re not the biggest Hellblazer fan, you should check out City of Demons to see why all the cool kids are talking about Sean Murphy.
As much as I love Peter Milligan’s current run on Hellblazer and its investment in the particular contours of John’s long and storied history, City of Demons is a nice detour for long-time fans and a perfect entry point for newer readers. Self-aware and self-deprecating, but also careful not to slip into self-parody, it situates John Constantine in twenty-first century London without losing sight of the character or the changing cultural landscape.
Hellblazer: City of Demons #1-5 (2010-2011) by Si Spencer (W), Sean Murphy (A), Dave Stewart (C), Sal Cipriano (L), Angelina Rufino (Associate E), and Shelly Bond (E). Available in trade paperback and on Comixology.