250 issues of "Hellblazer." That's certainly an impressive milestone for any modern comic to hit these days, doubly so for what has proven to be the tent pole for the Vertigo comics line. In honor of "Hellblazer" hitting issue #250, the book assembled five creative teams to each write a short story about John Constantine. The thing is, I think some teams are proving to be more adept at the comic short story than others.
Dave Gibbons and Sean Phillips kick off the issue with what is, surprisingly, the weakest story in the bunch. It's such a standard story progression -- with Constantine agreeing to find a missing artifact -- that you keep waiting for the punch or twist that never arrives. It's got some great art thanks to Phillips (as well as colorist Val Staples, the two of whom also work well together on "Criminal"), especially with drawing crowd scenes in London, but the story itself felt so flat that I actually put the comic down afterwards, worried that "Hellblazer" #250 had front-loaded the issue with the best material and that it would be all downhill from that point on.
As it turned out, "Hellblazer" #250 is a comic where each story is better than the previous presentation, so if you can make it through the first you're in for a treat as the quality level increases. Jamie Delano and David Lloyd tell an all-right story about a card game and the life of one of the players, but there's a real lack of emotional investment for the reader. Constantine himself is just an observer for the story itself, which seems like a bit of a mistake in terms of getting your reader interested, and Lloyd's washed out art doesn't give this slightly lifeless story any added oomph or excitement.
Things start to pick up with Brian Azzarello and Rafael Grampà's strange little "Hellblazer" poem involving demons and pubs. The story itself is all right (although I must admit that I think it works better as a "silent" comic and I started skipping the actual lines of poetry), but Grampà's art is drop-dead gorgeous, a beautiful mixture of Geof Darrow and Paul Pope all rolled up into one. Based on this alone I'm going to have to run out and buy Grampà's new book "Mesmo Delivery" from AdHouse Books, and I for one am ready to see more Grampà in 2009.
Peter Milligan and Eddie Campbell are next up to bat, and this is one of the two stories that I was the most curious about. Milligan is set to take over "Hellblazer" next month, which is actually rather surprising when you consider that he's been such a mainstay of Vertigo in general and has still never been the regular writer for the comic. Their contribution here is clever, hitting just the right mixture of mystery, occult, and family drama that can make a "Hellblazer" story great. My one complaint is that this actually feels like a story that should have taken up an entire issue instead of just six pages. Its conclusion ends up being a little rushed, and I do wish that we'd gotten to see Milligan's idea expanded over a few more pages. It's a promising start to Milligan's run on "Hellblazer," though, and it makes me hopeful about seeing his first full issue.
The best story, though, comes from a writer better known for his work in novels. China Miéville's books are outstandingly vivid and imaginative, and it's great to see him take that same range and apply it into a story drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini. Miéville's story of demons made of fallen ash is creepy and exciting, and Miéville really understands how to use the structure of comics when writing his script, complete with using page breaks as an additional storytelling tool. This is a sharp, well-constructed story. Camuncoli and Landini bring it to life in its climax so well that I actually went back and re-read the story as soon as I was done, it was so good. I really hope Miéville would like to write some more comics projects ("Hellblazer" or otherwise) down the line, because this was just marvelous.
"Hellblazer" #250 ends up being a real mixed bag. Had it just started with the third story I'd be over the moon with the end result, but as it stands it's a good but not great final product. Then again, one of the strengths of "Hellblazer" has been that even with a multitude of different writers, the character and the comic have both remained appealing to a wide range of readers. I suspect the same is true here; there's a little something for everyone in this end-of-the-year themed issue.