"Hellblazer" #280 is the fourth part of a storyline titled "Phantom Pains," and for the first three issues I think most of its readers thought they knew what it was about. John Constantine was on a quest to replace his missing thumb (chopped off in an earlier storyline), while there was a b-plot involving his niece Gemma whom was looking for revenge (thanks to nastiness inflicted on her by a John Constantine doppelganger). You could almost hear the audience nodding along as it progressed, thinking to themselves that Gemma's storyline would be picked up later, that the thumb was where it was at.
Except, of course, Constantine has a full set of thumbs again as of last month, and we still have two more chapters to go in "Phantom Pains." In other words, the thumb was a distraction, and the events everyone should have been worrying about and paying attention to (including Constantine himself) was Gemma's plans for revenge.
It's that misdirection that has generally punctuated Peter Milligan's run on "Hellblazer," and 30 issues in I'm still tickled by his writing for the series. I'd never have thought having Constantine married off would be a good idea, but six months into the relationship I find myself shocked at how well Constantine and Epiphany work together, without coming across as irritating or too good to be true. And while having a family member scarred by Constantine is hardly new to "Hellblazer," I'm pleased with how well this story has run. This issue gets deep into Gemma's head, and she never comes across as stupid, or naïve, or a victim. She's someone who was hurt, and thanks to trickery (that fooled quite a few people) has been misdirected toward her uncle. In many ways, she's a Constantine through and through, and no matter how much in the past we've seen him try to steer Gemma away from this path, watching her go after her uncle is surprisingly satisfying even though you know it's the wrong decision.
Gael Bertrand steps in as a guest artist this month, and Bertrand is a good match for the rest of the art in this story. Like Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini, Bertand's art has a clean look to it, reminding me not only of Camuncoli but Philip Bond as well. There are differences, of course; Bertrand draws Constantine with a slimmer face, and some sharper edges, but that's just artistic license. It's an attractive look that reads well, and Bertrand nails all the emotional scenes in Milligan's script. You can see Gemma's anger and fear and hurt and confusion on her face, and I'd love to see Bertrand come back for any future guest artists stints that might be needed.
A lot of attention is being paid on John Constantine being one of the stars in this fall's "Justice League Dark," and his general re-introduction to the DC Universe. But don't forget about "Hellblazer" as well; it's as good as ever (and starting this fall will even be DC's highest-numbered title!) thanks to Milligan and company.