Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison,
John Constantine: Hellblazer -- Rare Cuts (Vertigo, 2005)

Twenty-three years ago John Constantine sprang from the fertile imagination of Alan Moore to become a part of The Saga of Swamp Thing. Two years later, in 1987, Jamie Delano was approached by Vertigo editor, Karen Berger about giving Constantine his own storyline, his own comic, which debuted the following year. Twenty years on, this story about the chain-smoking, cunning magus is still going strong, at 250+ issues. As with most monthly comics, Hellblazer has seen reprint in graphic novel form; however, until recently, a number of the earlier issues did not receive this treatment. Why is uncertain; it wouldn't seem to be for content reasons . . . few storylines could be more controversial than Garth Ennis' version of the Annunciation, which was collected. For whatever reason, when Rare Cuts was published in 2005, it was a first look at some key stories seen only by those who collected the individual issues.

What Rare Cuts delivers is six stories from Delano (issues 11, 35 and 84) , Ennis (56) and Grant Morrison (25 & 26) which give readers a glimpse into John Constantine's beginnings and his adult self's psyche. The volume opens with "Newcastle," which details one of Constantine's earliest dealings with a demon, as he and a group of friends try to rescue an abused girl from a literal demon of her own. It's a stark reminder that not everything John touches turns to gold; in fact, everyone except the demon comes out on the losing end (Constantine in particular, since he ends up in an asylum for two years after the event).

Morrison's "Early Warning" and "How I Learned to Love the Bomb" show an older, more cynical and perhaps wiser John Constantine, but one who is still as potentially vulnerable as the average man around him when dark forces are involved. Morrison ladles a dose of political commentary regarding the decline of English industry -- and nuclear weapons -- into the two issues, using the fears of the common man to drive their own inner demons to the fore.

"Dead Boy's Heart" leaps back in time and back to Delano, who shows us John as a little boy. A fairly dark little boy, who knows too much of what goes on in the adult world around him, has far too active an imagination and a not so latent streak of cruelty. John's early life isn't full of love, warmth or homemade chocolate chip cookies, and this issue provides some insight into why Constantine is the way he is.

Ennis' "This is from the Diary of Danny Drake" reminds readers that John isn't a bad man, per se. Just a man with bad habits, but with his heart ultimately in the right place, despite everything he's seen or done. In this dark story, Constantine starts out to save a sad sack from the demonic fate that awaits him . . . until he realizes precisely how the man had been avoiding his fate so far. There are lines even John Constantine won't cross.

Rounding out the issues is one of the more decidedly twisted bits of John's life, involving his buddy Chas' witch (literally) of a mother and a dress-wearing, bewigged chimpanzee that's just far too human acting for comfort. The John of this story is younger, decidedly capable of fear, but disturbingly cunning beyond his years.

David Lloyd, Sean Phillips, Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham provide the art for the included issues. Even though there are several artists at work here, there's a consistent feel to the art, and John is immediately recognizable, no matter his age, or the artist. Each issue's front cover is also included, although the artists aren't listed. Regardless, Dave McKean's and Glen Fabry's art is immediately recognizable.

Included at the end is a painstaking timeline of events in the Hellblazer series, from John's birth in 1953 to 2004, and a map of "John Constantine's London," with notes about important locations.

Even if readers have all the issues or graphic novels, Rare Cuts is an excellent edition to any Hellblazer collection for its stark, insightful portrait of John Constantine.

[April Gutierrez]