The latest Hellblazer trade paperback, Scab, picks up after the events of recent three volume arc by Andy Diggle. Peter Milligan, a veteran writer probably best known for a slew of Vertigo titles — Shade: The Changing Man, Animal Man, Enigma and the currently running Geek Street — as well as a handful of titles for Marvel, has taken over writing duties for the series beginning with these stories (issues 251-255 plus a single story from issue 250).
A three-part arc, “Scab,” opens the collection. This particular scab is both physical — Constantine’s body is being taken over by a flaky, messy scab — and figurative, as a sin from John’s past has come home to roost. In this story, Milligan introduces a new love interest for Constantine, Phoebe, an attractive, intelligent doctor. She’s also fairly open-minded, accepting John and all his faults. However, as the disease physically manifests itself as a part of her past she’d rather forget, can Phoebe cope?
It’s surprising to see Constantine seriously involved again, though not at all unexpected to see things begin to unravel as all his attendant weirdness comes home to roost. It will be interesting to see how — if — the two handle the relationship in the future. What does turn out to be particularly jarring about this story arc, though, is the root of Constantine’s sin. Without giving too much away, it seems a bit odd to see John siding with “The Man,” as it were, even when he was younger and in need of money. John has many faults, but purposefully screwing over the common man hasn’t ever been one of them and it leaves a bit of an unpleasant taste — not just for him.
The two-part story “Plague Doctor” is more typical John Constantine, who finds himself drawn by the spirit of a “doctor” from London of the bubonic plague who has a couple of requests to make (one of which John is amenable to, the other . . . not so much). The action alternates between the present day and Constantine’s visions (hallucinations?) of the plague doctor’s life. It’s a good, dark character piece.
The closing story, “Christmas is a Curse,” is one of five stories originally published in issue 250 (which also included stories by Jamie Delano, Brian Azzarello, China Mieville and Dave Gibbons — hopefully these will eventually find their way to collections as well!). Here Milligan joins forces with legendary comic artist Eddie Campbell (From Hell) in a short take on Christmas’ darker side, especially when it crosses paths with political ambition. The title comes from Constantine’s wry observation about Christmas as a catalyst for pent up anger. “Christmas is a Curse” may be a scant few pages, but it’s classic Constantine.
Across all three stories, despite the changes in personnel, the art is consistently solid. However, it lacks some of the gritty realism of previous issues, coming across as a bit more generic: Constantine is more chiseled, less ravaged than in days past, which isn’t quite the right look.
Although the first story arc ends on a bit of a flat note and the art a bit different, overall Scab is a decent addition to the Hellblazer series.