Written by: Paul Jenkins
Penciled by: Sean Phillips & Pat McEown
Inked by: Sean Phillips
Colored by: Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by: Clem Robins
Editor: Axel Alonso
Publisher: Vertigo Comics
It’s a hard thing being a new Hellblazer fan. Actually I’ve been a fan of John Constantine for a long time; I’m just now getting around to putting together a complete run of his comic. And here lies the difficulty. Vertigo’s TP program is suspiciously spotty in regards to Hellblazer.
Rather than collect the whole series in order, the trade paperbacks seem to be released with no more criteria than the current popularity of the writer, particularly if they are currently working upon another critically acclaimed Vertigo series at the time. This worked well in regards to collecting the complete Hellblazer writings of Garth Ennis, who wrote many of the series’ major high-points. But one has to wonder why the comparatively bland runs of Brian Azzarello and Warren Ellis were collected if not to wring more money from the pockets of the fans of Azzarello’s 100 Bullets and Ellis’ Transmetropolitan.
The real tragedy is that some of the major, series-effecting moments have gone uncollected because of this. The writings of Jamie Delano who started the series and kept it going through the early formative years have only one simple trade collecting the first nine issues of the comic. This completely neglects Hellblazer #11, which depicts the oft-referred to “Newcastle Incident” and is the closest thing John has ever had to a one-issue origin story. The too-brief runs of Grant Morrison and Eddie Campbell are available only to those who have a comic shop with a well-stocked back-issue bin.
And perhaps most perplexing, not one of Paul Jenkins Hellblazer series is collected in a trade paperback format. This is doubly vexing when he wrote, for my money, is the quintessential John Constantine story. A story which, while nothing unusual in basic plot (John Constantine, former punk rocker turned supernatural sleuth, has someone close to him threatened by the forces of evil and he saves the day through equal application of con-artist skills and real magic.) excels in execution and pay-off.
Critical Mass, which takes place during issues #92-96, is that story. Jenkins made a story here that drew upon the whole history of Hellblazer, making it a treat for all the long-time readers. Despite this, he managed the neat trick of making it all accessible to new readers; a trick which most Hellblazer writers have been unable to pull off, preferring instead to ignore the supporting cast created by other writers and create their own as “long-long” friends from John’s obscure past.
Fresh from his victory over The Devil himself, John is staying with some friends when their son Syder is possessed by a demon named Buer. Buer, we find, was a contemporary of infamous evil magician Alistair Crowley and an unrepentant pedophile. Upon death, he proved so evil he managed to work his way up the ranks of Hell to become a fully-fleged demon, charged with the task of torturing of all the souls of innocent children that somehow wound up stuck in Hell.
As one of the few still loyal to The Devil (who has, since his defeat at John’s hand, been reincarnated into the body of a Greek fisherman), Beur sets about trying to bring back his fallen lord, fearful that a power struggle now will lose him his position. He speaks to The Devil on Earth and learns that only thing that can restore him to power is for “the most hated adversary” to willingly give up his soul to The Devil or an agent acting on his behalf. The most hated adversary, they quickly realize, is John Constantine.
Ever fearful of innocents around him being killed or damned because of his work, John is terrified when Beur claims that he can claim Syder as his, for a demon named Negral owed him a debt. John now, thanks to the events of a pervious story, holds Negral’s blood inside him and, by the laws of Hell, Negral’s blood debts as well. Beur makes John a deal; in exchange for his soul, not only will Syder be spared Hell but Beur will arrange the release of Astra, the young girl who John tried and failed to save from a demonic attack during “The Newcastle Incident”.
Building beautifully off the previous stories of Delano and Ennis, Jenkins wove a story that would have major repercussions for the rest of the series with “Critical Mass”. I won’t spoil the ending for you all except to say that this contains perhaps the funniest scene in all of Hellblazer and the quintessential Hellblazer story ending, where even in the throws of victory, John Constantine still finds a way to lose something or someone.
Sean Phillips artwork here is excellent as well, showing the horrors of Hell and the horrors of London with a skill surpassed by no Hellblazer artist except perhaps Steve Dillon and even that is a debatable point.