GUEST POST Constantine #18 review by Colin Smith Part 2

In which the guest blogger continues a look - begun here - at how John Constantine, Hellblazer, is faring in his transition from DC's Vertigo line to the New 52 range.

If Ray Fawkes' script is patently not ready for prime-time, then Jeremy Haun's art is a baffling mix of surface gloss and structural confusion. A creator with a substantial history in the industry, Haun seems inexplicably prone to choices that work directly against the meaning of the story at hand. His unfortunate tendency towards the generic isn't the problem, although the parade of stereotypical body types and, with the exception of Constantine himself, facial expressions is anything but compelling. Even the fact that Haun at times seems to be wilfully ignoring Fawkes' script need not have been entirely fatal to the comic's success, though it can hardly be said to help matters. 

That said, the distance between Fawkes' descriptions and Haun's art can be laughably distracting. Though the text might declare that 'the London skyline ... and all the towers are sitting wrong', the art itself shows no sign of any city whatsoever. (Whatever it might mean to have a skyline that's 'sitting wrong' thereby passes without explanation.) Indeed, Haun's work shows nothing of any of the surrounding environment at all during the fight scenes that make up the majority of the book. Similarly, the artist often seems determined to avoid depicting Constantine's emotions as the text describes. Though the captions on the comic's splash page insist that 'pain' is 'rippling' through Constantine's frame, the art shows the book's title character with an expression that fuses impassiveness with intimidation. It's a degree of confusion that suggests the book was created Marvel-style, or that DC's now infamous process of editorial rewriting is to blame.

But whatever the situation, the fact is that Haun's art often seems to be carrying but a fraction of the weight that it should.

Most bafflingly, Haun constantly chooses the least appropriate page and panel designs. There are more than a few examples of this, and they're often linked to his apparently compulsive use of the page-wide horizontal panel. If the comic's opening and profoundly uninteresting scene of four beer glasses seems particularly poorly drawn, the choice of a letterbox frame to host the lack of action is equally problematic. Squeezing what's essentially a still life featuring tall pint glasses into a narrow close-up using a letterbox frame almost inevitably inspires confusion and tedium. It's a problem made all the worse by the demands of battle scenes. 

On page 3, the same choice of panel is used to depict Constantine's arm being grabbed and crushed by a mysterious, never-explained and soon-to-be-destroyed monstrous attacker. In order to accommodate the action in such a constrained form, Haun's forced to have the top of Constantine's head facing the reader and dominating the eye. The result is that the character's agony is effectively obscured, while the conflict itself is only obtusely shown. (Far more effective to show the creature towering over Constantine, but there's no space to show anything but its arm.) Elsewhere, major events are confined to relatively small frames while secondary matters are given far more space. Haun even seems blithe about ignoring the conventions of camera angles, as where characters suffering terrible pain are inexplicably shown from a low angle, a preference that, confusingly, accentuates their size and strength.

The artist even conspires against himself to unwittingly ensure that the book's climactic scene makes little sense at all. In it, Wotan is to be shown being ripped apart while attempting to use Constantine's body as an escape portal from Earth-2. Inexplicably failing to realise that there might now be several John Constantines on the planet, the fiendish and yet obviously none-too-bright Wotan ends up passing through two bodies instead of one and being torn 'right down the middle'. Confusing in itself, and with more than just the single flaw in its logic, it's a scene that would surely pose a considerable challenge to even the most experienced and able illustrator. Dividing the page vertically into a pair of highly irregular rectangles allows Haun to present two simultaneously occurring events side-by-side, but the page-long frames threaten to leave too little width and far too much depth for clarity. Lost for an angle that would allow him to show characters, action and context clearly, Haun opts for spectacular, yet bewildering, mid-shots. 

For all the dynamic potential of the page's layout, the result is a design that almost entirely obscures the intended cathartic dismemberment of Wotan. Even with the exposition in the captions, the scene lacks the immediacy that a satisfying shock demands. It's a confusion made all the worse by the decision to show the supervillain's undivided head at the bottom of the second frame. What a strange way of being torn in two that must have been, to leave the face so perfectly intact. With effort, the scene can be made to make some kind of sense. But by then, its potential for grim pleasure has long since been exhausted. This ongoing clash between Haun's obvious potential and his persistently counterproductive storytelling leaves the book feeling both perversely underwhelming and exhausting. Combined with Fawkes' script, it makes for a quietly bewildering and thoroughly disappointing experience.

Surely Hellblazer's John Constantine would look upon 'Half A Chance' with as much favour as an all-ages, anger-burying, retro-Balearic dance medley of Anarchy In The UK, White Riot and Smells Like Teen Spirit. If Fawkes and Haun's tale is in any way typical of the book, then Constantine as a Nu52 product was put together with the stupidest of intentions; to skim off a safely insipid simulacrum of Hellblazer's cool while stripping out everything that was edgy, uncomfortable and thought-provoking about the title. At the very least, such a grubbing high concept would require far more competent storytelling in order to mask its fundamental flaws than is on display here. The possibility that John Constantine might be made to work as a grumpy, hipster-for-the-kids take on Doctor Strange hasn't been disproved by Fawkes and Haun's work. But it will take a far smarter reframing of the character than this to truly prosper in today's market, let alone break out to the wider audience that Constantine was seemingly designed to entice.

For four years, Colin Smith's Too Busy Thinking About My Comics provided some of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable writing about comics on the internet, taking in everything from the fundamentals of the Fantastic Four to the question of aliens as second class citizens.  Colin is busy with other projects - a book on Mark Millar due next year and regular writings at Sequart - but the archive remains. Devour it. Wondering what he's making of DC's New 52, I suggested Colin review a random title, and Constantine #18 is it.


  1. Well, this has only made me realize all over again how much I miss Too Busy. Darn it anyway.

    One small point: "It's a degree of confusion that suggests the book was created Marvel-style..." I'm not sure how you mean that; could you amplify on this point? For me the great attraction of working Marvel-style was that it minimized the disconnect between writing and art, allowing the writer to tweak the text to better suit what's shown in the panel. For example, if the artist draws an impassive stone-faced Constantine, the writer might change his previously intended "Constantine screams in agony" to a caption reading "Inwardly I'm in agony, but I don't let it show on my face. Won't give the bastard that satisfaction." At least that's how it's supposed to work, but as ever it all depends on the skill of the operator...

    (Quick historical context for those unfamiliar with the term: "Marvel style" means that the artist has drawn the story from a plot outline rather than a full script, and the writer then adds the captions and word balloons when he sees the drawn pages. It was invented when Stan Lee was working with Kirby and Ditko. It's a tremendously useful technique but has fallen out of favor these days.)

  2. Hi Richard, and thank you for being so kind. As to your question; I wanted to avoid seeming to bash the writer and artist for problems which might have been in part beyond their control, or at least, beyond the control of one or the other of them. The problem in the storytelling itself seemed clear; the text was referring to material that the art wasn't. It was a lack of craft that was consistent with the quality of the comic as a whole, but it didn't seem possible for me to say the blame could be uncategotically laid at the door of the creators as a team. (By contrast, the artist's unhelpful choice of panel designs and the writer's terrible dialogue could, it seems to me, be largely laid at their door.) So, the problem might have been that Haun was ignoring the demands of the script. But it could have been that he had been working from an inadequate plot, or even that Fawkes found himself wanting to add more information after the pages were completed. Alternatively, the extra information - JC's feelings, the alt-Earth London and so on - might have been inserted by editorial, or added because of late-in-the-day editorial direction. (We've all heard, in and beyond the public domain, of such things being especially common in the Nu52.) Whatever the root cause, the result was a story in which the art and the text were patently not working together. Of course, regardless of the root cause of that particular problem, the art as a whole is still astonishingly poorly done, for all its gloss, while the script may even be worse on a technical level. If the responsibility for one aspect of the comic is hard to pin down, that for the book as a whole seems plain.

    What I didn't mean to suggest was that 'Marvel-style' is shorthand for 'poorly executed, ill-coordinated work'. Merely that one of the problems might have lain in a poor Marvel-style plot, or an artist not following the plot, and so on. Of course, if the script as we see it was a rescue job, then it only succeeded in drawing attention to the art's inadequacy. One of the skills of those writers who've mastered the Marvel-style is the capacity to add necessary extra information in the text without showing up the problems in the art. Again, it's not a skill that's on show in these pages.

    Hope that makes some kind of sense, and thank you for the question and info. As always, it's a pleasure to talk to you!


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