Upgrade or Downgrade? Hellblazer: Original Sins

19 Sep

by Mike Hansen

Hellblazer: Original Sins (1st printing)

Hellblazer: Original Sins (1st & 2nd DC Comics printing)

Occasionally, I’ll buy more than one edition of a graphic novel. Sometimes it’s by accident (which is surprisingly easy when one has thousands of books!); sometimes it’s because the newer one looks like a better version…

After a big move five months ago, I’ve finally gotten around to organizing my comics again, and I’ve discovered a LOT of duplicate material in some of my books. So as a Public Service, I thought I’d share what I know, so you can make a more informed decision on which books to buy. I’m a giver.

I’m starting with DC/Vertigo’s Hellblazer books, as I’ve managed to amass most of them over the last 21 years. It’s one of the best horror comics series of all time, so if all you care about is whether it’s good the answer is YES. Hugely imaginative, massively influential, the stories of John Constantine remain as potent today as they did when they were first published over the last 26 years. Even the character’s creator, Alan Moore, has praised the work of writers Jamie Delano and Brian Azzarello on the series, despite his general hatred of DC Comics.

the 1993 Warner Books edition

1993 Warner Books edition

(It’s a shame that DC decided to incorporate its “mature” characters back into its New 52 superhero line. If only DC knew how to properly manage its intellectual property and branding, instead of taking an “all or nothing” approach to its company-owned material, draining the life and power out of ideas that now fall far short of their potential. I’m grateful that a large enough audience exists for the “real” John Constantine so the Hellblazer stories can continue to be reprinted.)

I’ve given DC Comics a hard time a lot lately (because, let’s face it, that company has done a shit-ton of stupid things in public in the last few years – hell, in the last few weeks), but the company hasn’t survived for over 75 years by being stupid all the time. The DC of today doesn’t publish a lot of material that deserves to be read over and over (the exceptions being Fables, The Unwritten, Tom Strong, Astro City, Batman: Li’l Gotham, and – until very recently – Batwoman… there might be a few more, but these are the ones I’ve known I can count on).

3rd printing

3rd printing

But the DC of the late 1980s was amazing. The level of quality skyrocketed, from having very few truly outstanding titles in the early ’80s (The New Teen Titans, Ronin, Swamp Thing) to dozens that have stood the test of time – ones that still inspire today: Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman: The Killing Joke, V for Vendetta, Batman: Year One, The Sandman, The Shadow, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, Justice League, Animal Man, Batman: Arkham Asylum, John Byrne’s Superman titles, George Perez’s Wonder Woman, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis’s Batman work, Black Orchid, Ambush Bug, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Doom Patrol, Hellblazer… Sure, DC published its fair share of disposable titles that kept the cash flow coming in (most of which will never be reprinted), but despite its prodigious talent for appealing to an unsophisticated readership the company still managed to – accidentally, perhaps – produce a wealth of quality material for which no amount of mismanagement can end the demand (Ellis and Millar’s Authority, anyone?).

Hellblazer Original Sins 4th printing

4th printing (the only 1st edition labeled “Book 1”)

I ran across an old interview with Chris Claremont from the mid-’90s, in which he pointed out how excessive managerial and editorial interference and control of creative material guarantees that a company will never again produce works of genius like the first Spider-Man story in Amazing Fantasy #15 – and I tend to agree. The much-maligned Constantine film made DC’s parent Warner Bros. millions of dollars, and it never would have happened if the source material was the current, watered-down Constantine of the Justice League Dark (really?!)… Hellblazer is quite possibly the single greatest evidence that corporate-owned comics can have singular, long-term creative visions and generate enormous long-term profit (despite the title’s relatively low sales in its last several years, it was one of comics’ steadiest sellers).

In the last few years, DC has rediscovered a lot of its great work of the ’80s and ’90s and has reissued it in various formats, often with more complete story contents than in previous collected editions. While Hellblazer has had large chunks of issues collected over the years, the old editions took a very scattershot approach, publishing material out of order and skipping several stories. But a new, “complete” Hellblazer library launched in 2011 has started from scratch, collecting the entire series from the beginning in order (mostly – but we’ll get into that with Book 2).

5th/6th/7th printings

5th/6th/7th printings

So let’s start with Hellblazer Book 1: Original Sins, collecting the first 9 issues of Hellblazer.

I own two editions of Original Sins: the first edition’s 3rd printing (the first Vertigo edition) and the 2011 second edition’s first printing. I assume the interiors of every printing of the first edition are the same, despite the multiple changes to its cover design.

So how does the new edition compare to the old one?

THE GOOD: the new edition includes two additional stories that tie in to Hellblazer #9: Swamp Thing #76 & 77. It’s good stuff, and Hellblazer #9 makes a lot less sense without their inclusion. (Swamp Thing #76 was previously reprinted in Swamp Thing Book 8: Spontaneous Generation, and Swamp Thing #77 was included in Swamp Thing Book 9: Infernal Triangles – both out of print for years, thanks to DC’s decision to stop supporting the collection of classic Swamp Thing material once they had to decide whether to reprint the original “Jesus” version of #88, which DC had used to entice writer Rick Veitch back to the company after he left over the publisher’s original refusal to release it. Pussies.)

A word balloon from the first chapter has been restored after the text was dropped in the original edition (page 29). I have no idea if this had been fixed in later printings of the first edition.

2011 edition

2011 edition

The new book design is terrific, an appropriately hellish feel that the first edition lacked. It sort of reminds me of the design work on the Spawn movie, only good. The modernized version of the classic original Hellblazer logo is a great fit, too.

THE BAD: the paper used on recent Vertigo trade paperbacks isn’t nearly as good as the paper of 20 years ago. Don’t be fooled by the size of the new edition: the paper stock is both thicker and cheaper. (For accuracy’s sake, I looked at my 2nd and 5th printings of Doom Patrol volume 1 – a book I accidentally doubled up on – and the recent 5th printing is much thicker, despite having identical contents.) The reproduction is less bright, with less-sharp blacks and muted color. The paper feels cheap and rough, and has a greater likelihood of printing errors: on page 199 of my copy, the blue background has a sandpaper-like, grainy look instead of the clean, solid blue of the original.

The cheaper paper might have been used to keep the book’s price down, as these new editions collect quite a few issues for $19.99 apiece. (My 3rd printing from the mid-’90s has a $19.95 cover price.) Keeping a graphic novel’s cover price under $20 is pretty difficult these days, so if this gets this material into more hands I can live with this change. Seeing as how the new edition of Book 1 is already in its 3rd printing (another rarity these days), I’m thrilled that so many more people have the opportunity to afford such incredible material. If enough new readers fall in love with this classic material, maybe a more upscale edition could be produced down the line.

This book missed an opportunity to reprint the original edition’s new cover art by Dave McKean used on the 1st and 2nd printings. It’s never appeared anywhere else, and seeing it reprinted (especially without design elements, if that were possible) for the first time would have been a treat. I don’t imagine DC would have wanted to remove the ad page in the back, but there are several design pages in the front that could have made room for this artwork. (The cover art for the 3rd-7th printings was from Hellblazer #1.)

Hellblazer by Jamie Delano, volume 1 (Spanish edition)

Hellblazer by Jamie Delano, volume 1 (Spanish edition)

The new edition is also missing writer Jamie Delano’s 1992 introduction, probably because it acknowledges the old edition’s missing Swamp Thing issues, possibly because of its political overtones (though ex-punk Constantine is written as clearly anti-Thatcher, a less divisive position now than in the ’80s): it would have been nice to keep the intro as a bonus feature in the back of the book, but that’s a rarity outside of Marvel’s archival editions – as a freelance researcher for Marvel’s books, I ought to know!

THE REST: the new edition moved Dave McKean’s wonderful cover artwork (without design elements, just how I like it) to the back of the book (making the chapter breaks less clear), along with various bonus text pages from early issues. The Swamp Thing covers by John Totleben and Dave McKean do include the original design text, but it’s mostly unobtrusive and classy, so it’s no big deal.

The new edition also has consistent, typed page numbers that look better than the previous handwritten ones of various sizes; the new ones occasionally cover slightly more art but don’t affect the reading experience at all.

The new cover art by Jim Lee is cool, but I’m not sure if it’s the best image to use here. Jim Lee remains a masterful illustrator, one of modern comics’ great stylists – but while this image may be a good representation of John Constantine in general, the winged demon/monster/thing doesn’t appear anywhere in this book. Jim Lee may sell more books in 2013 than original cover artist Dave McKean, but this particular piece makes for a better pinup than cover. Also, the Spanish edition does a much better job reproducing Lee’s cover than the U.S. edition, which looks dark and muddied by comparison.

THE VERDICT: so should you get the new edition? IT DEPENDS. If you already own the first edition with the better paper stock, and the two Swamp Thing books, there’s not much reason to buy the material again unless you really like Jim Lee or have the O.C.D. need for the spines of your books to match (as most future volumes of the new editions do include previously uncollected material) – though it is nice to have the missing word balloon from issue #1 restored. But if you don’t own Original Sins, you should definitely grab this new edition: 11 comics for under 20 bucks is a pretty great deal these days, and the slightly lesser quality is only noticeable in a side-by-side comparison like this. Hellblazer Book 1: Original Sins belongs in every comics or horror reader’s collection.

(Thanks to Kris Shaw at Junk Food for Thought and Collected Editions Consumer Resource Center for the inspiration.)

4 Responses to “Upgrade or Downgrade? Hellblazer: Original Sins”

  1. donmiguel November 9, 2013 at 14:52 #

    Thanks a lot for this one. It really helped me decide which one to buy. Are you going to do the same with the other volumes? Because I am going to buy volume 3 The fear machine and it doesn’t seem to me that there is any change between the older version and the newer. Only the price.

    • All Day Comics November 9, 2013 at 17:48 #

      Thanks! Glad this post was helpful for you. I do intend to do the others (along with other books I own!), hopefully soon. I don’t own the original Fear Machine yet, but if I had to guess I’d say the only differences would be the design and cover artwork. Anybody out there know?

      • donmiguel December 16, 2013 at 11:07 #

        I ended up ordering it so I think I would be able to say by the end of the week if there is any difference or not

      • All Day Comics December 16, 2013 at 12:12 #

        Ironically, I should be getting my own copy this week, too (I recently found a used copy cheap online)! But please feel free to send me your thoughts on it.

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