If you’re like me, then you have far more books than you can actually read. You can’t go into a Barnes and Noble without getting something, you can type in your credit card number without looking while browsing Amazon.com and it takes you until June to work through all the books you got during the holiday season. In my case, this is true of a book that I got as a belated Christmas present and have just now gotten around to finishing; John Constantine: War Lord.
The first in a series by Bram Stroker Award-winning novelist and co-screenwriter of the first The Crow movie John Shirley, this book is an excellent introduction to the character of John Constantine for newcomers as well as a real treat for old fans like myself. The book actually opens with a helpful profile of John, his life and his personality as gleaned through the eyes of the mysterious “Servants of Transfiguration”, who will turn out to be the villains of the piece.
Set sometime after the end of the Mike Carey run of Hellblazer, the plot is fairly standard-issue but is executed quite well. John is unwittingly dragged into an effort to stop a doomsday cult (the Servants of Transfiguration I mentioned earlier) from using the global environment of fear and the deaths of the thousands killed in the Iraq War and elsewhere as the catalyst for resurrecting The War Lord – a god of slaughter and death in the Lovecraftian vein.
At first John is reluctant to help out, as per usual. That changes when he finds out the cult has gotten their hands on Mercury, a young woman with amazing psychic powers who – once upon a time – was almost John’s adopted daughter. This leads John to abandon his studies in white magic in an Iranian monastery and form a reluctant alliance with the spirit of a stoner telekinetic Californian (that is taking up residence in the body of a Muslim holy man) and an AWOL American soldier with the power to see the dead souls around him in order to save the world.
The novel has a real Jamie Delano feel to it, with social commentary on current political events (i.e. The War in Iraq) being mixed with a fair amount of true magic and John’s own personal mixture of hedge wizardry and bullshit. The theme of true evil being found, not in supernatural creatures, but in the human heart has never been stronger, with just as many villains being rich men who just don’t care as wily old magicians matching their power against John’s. And while the book does refer a bit to John’s old adventures and friends, all of these references are fully explained and not done in a “Ah, there’s old so-and-so from when I did blah” manner.
The one problem with the novel, and I admit it’s a small one, actually involves how some of the story elements of John’s past and the comics are used. Mercury, for instance, has very little of the spark that made her such a memorable character as a pre-teen girl and she could actually be almost any generic psychic woman if the plot didn’t require her to be someone John cares about.
Another example of this is the brief cameo by John’s old friend Rich; an aging punk, still living the punk lifestyle, who gave John his nickname of “Conjob” and made John the godfather of his daughter. Rich abandoned John along with all of his still-surviving friends at the end of Paul Jenkins’ run on the title due to John’s efforts to guarantee that The First of the Fallen wouldn’t try to get at John through his friends ever again – by driving all his friends and loved ones off. So seeing him hanging around John’s favorite pub, while a nice touch given how many of John’s close friends were killed off during Things To Be Thankful For, does seem a bit contradictory.
Despite this, I highly recommend War Lord to everyone, whether or not they read Hellblazer comics or any comics at all. If you’re new to the world of Hellblazer, this book is a fine introduction. If you’re an old fan like me, you may quibble a bit about some of the characterization and cameos, but you’ll enjoy yourself nonetheless. And if you’re just a fan of good scary supernatural yarn, you can’t do much better for your $6.99 American.