John Constantine: Hellblazer: Hard Time
Title: Hellblazer: Hard Time
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Richard Corben
About as far from the essentially feel-good ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ as it gets, ‘Hellblazer: Hard Time’ is the story of how John Constantine, a British con artist, ex-punk and mage, is sent to prison for life but escapes by turning the inmates of the prison against each other in one of the most conniving and attractively mean ways imaginable.
Fans of the ‘Hellblazer’ graphic novel series (available in all good comic shops) will be familiar with John Constantine. Forget the recent Hellblazer film which starred Keanu Reeves and was loosely based on the comic. John Constantine doesn’t have dark hair, he doesn’t have a gun, he isn’t American and he doesn’t drive a car.
John Constantine is hotness on a stick. He can out-spike Spike in Buffy. He’s arrogant, sneering, witty, and has a tendency to get everyone who loves him killed. He’s a magician and warlock, and cuts ugly deals with the devil. He’s an ex-punk from Manchester who doesn’t say much, and when he does it’s usually with a pint in his hand. He’s about as far from Harry Potter as you can get.
‘Hard Time’ isn’t the first graphic novel in the Hellbazer series, but it’s a good place to start because you don’t need to know much about his past to enjoy the graphic novel in its own right. The plot sees Constantine shoulder the load for someone else’s crime and get sent to a prison as a lifer with a thirty-five year sentence. From the word go he is viewed by prisoners and wardens as a victim and a pawn in their political squabbles. The Aryans, the bikers, the wiseguys – they all want a piece of this charismatic and innocent-seeming British guy.
Without his tricks or his cigarettes, Constantine must do what he can to stay afloat in the prison’s corrupt system, and the ensuing results are guaranteed to take the reader’s breath away.
Writer Brian Azzarello has kept the Hellblazer dialogue sparse and taut with no words wasted, and the humour dry to the bone. Long-term purist fans of the Hellblazer series will be pleased to see that the ghosts of the friends that Constantine has allowed to die during his murky career are back, and that Constantine doesn’t indulge in self-torment at any point in this story arc. His ethics may be on the grey side but his will and confidence are intact.
Particular mention must also be paid to Richard Corben’s art. Believable but expressive, it has something of the seventies comic artists like Robert Crumb in its heavy lines and leering faces – the perfect foil to a pungent stand-alone prison story that Hellblazer fans should love and newcomers can afford to pick up without feeling lost in the plot. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ this isn’t.
The downsides? Constantine is even more of an antihero than perhaps his current creator intended. Tricking Muslims into reversing the direction in which they pray? Not cool. You’ll see a lot of prison tropes in this graphic novel, too.
Even if you don’t get into ‘Hard Time’, do keep an eye out for the Hellblazer series. We promise you – if you like the murky dark depths of the human soul and need more demonology in your life, you’ll like ‘Hellblazer’.