Peter Milligan isn't above startling his readership. This is, after all, the same writer who had John Constantine cut off his own thumb in "Hellblazer" a few issues ago. Now he's following up on that earlier story with the first chapter of "Phantom Pains," and trust me, the startling moments aren't over.
The thing I appreciate about Milligan's attempts to surprise and shock (and perhaps repulse) his readership is that it doesn't just come out of the blue. Milligan leads up to these moments carefully, setting the groundwork and making it a logical (if twisted) decision on the part of his characters. It's a pattern he's used since taking over "Hellblazer" two years ago, and it's still working well for him. So as John decides it's time to take care of his missing thumb, it's another series of decisions that no sane person would make, but are still perfectly in character for Constantine.
What I find more interesting, though, is how Milligan is writing Epiphany, John's new wife. On the surface it sounds like an odd idea for Mister Toxic himself, but so far it's working. It helps that Epiphany has a strong will and sharp wit of her own, while at the same time Milligan keeps her from turning into too perfect a character so that she doesn't come off as a pet creation of his. I like his choices in how to write Epiphany; she can be startled one moment but utterly with it the next, a good mix of sidekick and fellow equal. It's about the most powerful position a character who's not John Constantine can get in "Hellblazer," and she fits into that slot within the title well.
Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini continue to provide their gorgeous art, with its interesting angles and wonderfully expressive people. I like how they take care of some of the smaller details, like the folds on John's trench coat, with the same amount of attention that a cluttered basement or a map of the country will get. Epiphany's striped scarf is just as important as a demon hovering over a dead body, or an elaborately tattooed face is as expressive as four dark tears running down cheeks. As much fun as it is to have Simon Bisley stop by on occasion for guest art stints, it's Camuncoli and Landini that make me especially excited on a visual basis every month.
After 277 issues (plus an Annual, and some specials and mini-series) it might sound hard to believe that "Hellblazer" could still feel fresh and new, but that's just what Milligan, Camuncoli, and Landini are doing each month. (Then again, "fresh " is perhaps not an adjective you might use when you see just what John does this issue. Bad, bad John Constantine.) The title has gone through a huge number of creative teams over the years, but it still delivers in spades.