What the Hell Happened? The Rise and Fall of John Constantine.

Take one look at the front cover of Hellblazer issue one.

Dave Mckean took a snapshot of some Victorian satanic killer’s handbook. The wild haired face with twinkling red star of an eye surrounded by flies, a pentagram and yawning demonic teeth neighboured by a quill dripping with fresh blood. And we haven’t even opened it yet! I can imagine January 1988, you’re browsing the new issues of Batman or Captain America and all of a sudden there’s John looking at you, goading you in his dry Scouse tone:

“Go on mate. I dare you.”

Jamie Delano grabs you with his poetic prose while the hard tones of John Ridgway paint a stomach churning opener. An overweight business man trying to sedate his endless hunger, but while slightly satirical jab at 80s consumerism this is something far darker. He is possessed by a demon rotting him from the inside out. Six burgers, an entire restaurant of food, but he still withers away to a deflated husk. And then cut to John entering the grime of central London, puffing a cigarette and complaining about everything. This was the John we first met in swamp thing, the same chain-smoking smart arse Alan Moore first envisioned when he saw the bloke in a cafe in Piccadilly circus , walking out with a wink and a swish of his trench coat.

It was the start of a charter we would see grow old and not so much rise, but fall deeper and deeper into 300 issues of hell, yet still stand up to light another silk cut.

What happened to that John? Did the smokes catch up with his lungs again? Did he buy the wrong succubus a G and T? No, Constantine has suffered a fate far worse than the tortures any fallen angels could inflict on him.

John Constantine has become PG rated.

When I first picked up issue one of Constantine I was genuinely excited. The character I had thought dead with the end of Vertigo’s run had returned in the new 52.  DC had put their faith in a series which had fallen in sales at the end of its life and offered him new life and a new audience.

John had always skirted on the edge of the DCU with the odd cameo in Sandman or a fleeting chat at the pub with Green Arrow, but now that was about to change. How would they do it? How would they mix 15 years of history into this new world? (Ignoring the god awful attempt in the last days prior to the new 52 with a swamp thing storyline which made no sense.) Short answer? They didn’t.

The warning signs are on page one when you find him in new York rather than London, (which I had patience for until you find out he can’t actually set foot in the city because of some unknown curse.) What follows is a pale imitation of the first Hellblazer issue, except with no solid build up of plot. You see a nerdy young psychic attempting to mirror the balding junkie Gary Lester, setting John on a journey across the globe for some random artifact.

It’s rushed. A few action scenes thrown in to lay the groundwork for the coming issues – and Justice League Dark soon after – but because it goes by so quickly, you almost feel bored and definitely cheated they’re claiming this chiselled blonde is our John Constantine. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh on it, on its own it does what the rest of the new 52 does: provides a quick taster for a new audience of a revamped character. Much like the Keanu Reeves film did for me, it serves the purpose of introducing people to John Constantine. Get them hooked and wanting to see more, hopefully more of the original Vertigo collections.

And in that respect, these watered-down versions have been a minor success.  The back issues of Hellblazer are still being released in volumes of graphic novels and sold in any comic shop you go to. He even got his own TV show with the quite frankly fantastic Matt Ryan at the helm, full of references to the source material which you could tell they would have done more with if it didn’t get abruptly cancelled. There are even talks of a Justice League Dark film which makes me ecstatic as a fan of John, particularly given the darkness of the current lot of films. But also, as a fan, there’s no denying that I still feel cheated by what DC have done to him.

What makes Constantine so unique and interesting is that he was never a superhero. John was always grounded in our world, or more accurately a world just beneath the surface of the one we live in. He was an aging first-generation punk who flicked the Vs at any and every form of authority that he crossed paths with, whether it was the Tories, Angels or demons. He stuck to the punk ethos of not letting others control who you were and what you do. This was a damaged man, someone who had faced the darkness from birth and tried to build himself out of the ashes of childhood abuse.

Something else that set John apart from other comic book characters was that a lot of the stories showed that, even though John was trying to do the right thing, the bodies of those he cared for still fell around him. Unlike the constant cycles of death and resurrection from Marvel and DC, these pivotal figures in his life would stay dead, haunting John for the rest of his days and causing repercussions in later stories.

One great example is from the end of “Dangerous Habits”. John tricks three fallen angels, something which Ennis kept referencing throughout his run, culminating in a showdown where the big bad had finally found a way to get his own back on John. But this wasn’t the end of it – the first of the fallen kept returning to torture John by getting to his loved ones. Like his sister, niece or wife. Or taking great delight in observing the pain inflicted by John’s demon offspring. This wasn’t like The Joker returning with a new scheme for Batman, this was John the con man worming his way out of disaster and having a target on his back for the rest of his days.

John faced problems a lot of us do but dealt with them in the way any rotten bugger of a mage would. Someone has it in for you? Blame someone else, or in John’s case embody all of your negativity into an evil clone and cast them into hell to live out your sentence. Not sure if a girl really likes you? Maybe show her something that’s unique about you like an obscure film. Or drive yourself insane by cutting off your thumb so she sees you at your worst then accidentally banish her into an alien dimension.

Hellblazer was fun because it features writers having fun and seeing how far they could push this one character and still have him somehow come out on top. Again, Garth Ennis in his introduction to Dangerous Habits said, “what could I do that’s different with the main character? I know… I’ll kill him!”

This is why the character will never work within the current DC rulebook. They simply can’t push the boundaries far enough for Constantine.

That said, there have been moments that have come close to the original. I remember laughing in Justice League Dark when John was humming to himself while decapitating Vampires, but even this seemed a little too ‘action hero’ for the sly mage. A series that had potential was Ming Doyle’s Constantine: the Hellblazer. While the New 52 only mentioned his past briefly, Ming tried to bring things like his Punk history in “Mucous Membrane” and the effects of Newcastle back to elements of his character.

Gary Lester was back, same with Papa Midnight, and the story also focused on his bisexuality by introducing a male love interest. Now while I didn’t appreciate them turning John into a hipster – looks-wise, at least – I thought this was ballsy and showed a fan of the Vertigo run was now in charge. But then DC dropped it and chose to revamp the character yet again in Rebirth.

True, he’s back in London with his best mate Chazz. He looks more like the dirty bugger he once was, and is more distanced from the superheroes of the universe, but it just seems too much like back-pedaling after the failed attempt to turn Constantine into a cheeky cockney magic superhero. For us original Hellblazers, all we see is Justin Bieber trying to do a cover of Tom Waits. It just doesn’t work.

The writer of this piece was: Indiana “Indy” Marlow
Indy Tweets from @smokingpunkindy

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  1. Review – The Hellblazer #14 (DC Comics) – BIG COMIC PAGE

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