Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits (DC/Vertigo, 1996).

I've occasionally had discussions with people who just don't like black and white comics, and have spent their lives conditioned to think in terms of four-color spectacular super-fights. They don't like the look of color-stripped collections like Marvel's Essentials or DC's Showcases. The harsh reality of godawful, half-assed color comics like the old Marvel Further Adventures of Indiana Jones are lost on them. However, I'd read and reread the absurd, day-glow world of solid hot pink backgrounds and assorted flat yellow and green characters of those Indy books a dozen times before suffering through the eye-punching "Dangerous Habits," a pivotal, excellently-scripted storyline that saw writer Garth Ennis bring his mindset to the world of John Constantine for the first time. I received a copy from somebody on a couple of weeks ago, and my retinas are still hurting.

The real tragedy is that it looks like artist Will Simpson really did try his best on this book. The design and pacing are excellent, and it appears that Simpson and his inkers balanced the pages in anticipation of having them colored. Then colorist Tom Ziuko went to work on them and utterly, absolutely, ruined them. A random flip opens the book to page 82, where the entire page is purple. This is, from start to finish, the laziest coloring job that I've ever seen, with giant chunks of solid, dull colors dumped over Simpson's linework with no attention paid to what the hell is being colored. Simpson's a fine artist, and good Lord, this is an amazing script, but the book is absolutely ruined by the unbelievable hack job that Ziuko pulled.

And this is a huge shame, because "Dangerous Habits" turned out to be one of the best Hellblazer stories that I've ever read. It's a tossup between this, "Rake at the Gates of Hell" (also by Ennis) and that unbelievable one-off that John Smith and Sean Phillips did about the laundromat. I've always enjoyed John Constantine in theory, but the unreliable artwork and DC/Vertigo's unbelievably dopey job of collecting the series in book form - mercifully and at long last on its way to being corrected with the forthcoming reissue of Original Sins - has had me loathe to really dig into it. This, artwork aside, was definitely worth the wait.

This story opens with Constantine coughing up chunks of his lungs and seeing a doctor, who confirms that he's got terminal lung cancer and only a few weeks to live. Seeing the rogue trying to make amends with old friends and family while desperately looking for a way out of this mess, and really, really pissing off the devil along the way is amazing. Cheating death is Constantine's specialty, but the way he manages to step out of this nightmare - for now - really is a treat.

Obviously it's not spoiling anything to note that he doesn't die here - the comic has continued for about another hundred monthly issues since this story - but the resolution to this is just about the most audacious and beautiful idea that Ennis has ever come up with. I'd recommend this wholeheartedly and loudly, if only it didn't look so hotdamned horrible.

DC's mature readers line, which evolved into Vertigo, was always marked by bad coloring. The Jamie Delano/Steve Pugh run on Animal Man was similarly hideous, and a flip through this own book's odds-n-sods Rare Cuts collection shows many more poorly-executed color choices, including some more of Ziuko's wince-inducing work. The other day I was talking about how the filthy rich me of a parallel Earth has been hiring better artists to redraw Grant Morrison's comics. In that same alternate reality, Simpson drew "Dangerous Habits" balanced for black and white, nobody ruined his linework with this garish, dimwit color, and it's the best horror comic book that money can buy. So, recommended, but with reservations.

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