In 1989, pre-Vertigo, "Hellblazer Annual" #1 was released, and I think most readers by now had thought it would be both the first and the last "Hellblazer Annual." Enter "Hellblazer Annual 2011" (originally solicited as a #1, but I guess enough complaints were registered that they switched over to number by year instead), a nice fat oversized comic. And you know what? I'm hoping this is the start of a new tradition.
It's not perfect, but Peter Milligan and Simon Bisley get a lot right with "Hellblazer Annual 2011." It's a complete story, of course, but more importantly it's one that needs the extra room; there's no way this could have worked quite right as a single monthly issue. As Constantine investigates a friend's vanishing from all the way back in 1968, it becomes rapidly clear that this is less plot-driven and much more of a mood piece, and mood pieces need time to fully form and register with the reader.
After all, this is a comic which opens with a young man on Suicide Bridge; it's not like you can't figure out to some extent the ultimate fate of the missing Tim McCabe. It doesn't really matter. Instead we have the specter of the bridge looming over the story, its presence and influence as it reaches out being the important thing.
Occasionally the flow feels slightly disrupted, with early jumps to other characters, but the second time reading through it felt much more smooth and pulled together. I can see why Milligan cuts away early on in the story (since the draw of the bridge isn't instantaneous), but it's something that could have been integrated a bit better into the overall narrative.
Bisley's art (with colors from Brian Buccellato) is moody and dark, helping set the scene a great deal. Like most Bisley comics, the characters are drawn almost homely in places; it's not often that you get slightly dumpy people with moles and stringy hair in comics, but Bisley gets us into the right mood here. This isn't a glamorous, exciting place to live; it's a run-down portion of Liverpool with no exit in sight. Bisley's at his finest when it comes to Suicide Bridge itself, though. As its span crosses off into the darkness, it becomes mildly unnerving to look at; it might be an inanimate object, but you can believe that it still has a dangerous reach.
As this is a story with John Constantine, nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and the conclusion is no exception. The theme of Constantine's friends forever having horrific fates is nothing new, but I appreciate that there's an especially mean twist here, explaining thing we didn't know about Tim McCabe's death. Grim? Certainly. But more importantly, it's that little punch to Constantine's heart that you come to expect in a "Hellblazer" story. Milligan and Bisley's occasional collaborations on "Hellblazer" have been enjoyable, and if they team up for "Hellblazer Annual 2012" next year, I'll be one happy camper. It's nice to see the "Hellblazer Annual" tradition having come back to life. Like Constantine's missing friend, some things can't stay buried forever.