To Hell And Back
♦ 2018 is the 30th anniversary of Vertigo and now DC’s John Constantine Hellblazer and so Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN took a look at the ups and downs of the character over the years…
Comics’ favourite amoral reprobate celebrates thirty years of his own title – not bad for a relic who rewrote the book on brinkmanship while living on ciggies and gin. John Constantine was unquestionably the first English character in American comics that wasn’t a cipher or cliché, but he did exude a very familiar Englishness that would strike a chord with American readers. A dated non-hero whose main skill has been sly survivalism, Constantine has proven to be a far more versatile character than one would’ve thought possible, his credibility intact with ever changing creative teams. He may also be unique in the comic world as a character who visibly ages, which is great for those readers who have stuck with him all these years…
Created by Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette in Swamp Thing 37, Constantine was initially the snide, rumpled foil who was there to school Swampy regarding the considerable power that he possessed. After several appearances, JC was given his own series, John Constantine Hellblazer, which certainly took this reviewer by surprise – an English comic book with entirely English sensibilities, cadences and mores making the leap from Compendium Bookshop to the comic stores of America. Constantine himself had been a character based on an earlier “occult detective” created by Moore and Bryan Talbot for Warrior, which was shelved due to Moore falling out with the comic’s publisher. With Moore heading soon after across the pond, so did Constantine, at least regarding his series’ imprint.
It was Jamie Delano who scripted the first forty issues of the series – like Moore, he had been part of the British comics scene, and it was his development of the character that was to be pivotal. Having been not that much more than a plot device or turn in his Swamp Thing cameos, Delano turned him into a troubled, vulnerable and deeply flawed archetype, whose smug bravado was a smokescreen for his frailties. His regular excursions into penury and depression delineated a non-hero who is as much a chancer and user as a force against evil, his gambits and desperation leading him, for example, to taint his blood with that of the demon Nergal. The “Newcastle” origin story in issue 11, a key chapter featuring a young Constantine playing fast and loose with dark magic, proves to have dire and long-lasting consequences, both for him and those unfortunate to be his close friends.
The occult had been a very 70s fad, with Satanism and witchcraft very much in vogue, including (remarkably!) DC’s “mystery” titles. Delano’s take on Constantine leavened the sorcery and melodrama by positioning him in a very real if skewed world, buttressing arch polemic and issues of the day against the otherworldliness. Hellblazer’s milieu was rarely gothic, but enmeshed in the urban decay and entropy of Thatcher’s Britain, with endemic corruption, hooliganism and racism just some of the touchstones brought to the fore in what was a bleakly political series that would often veer into Hogarthian caricature. Nevertheless, Delano’s run, especially his Original Sins arc, was crucial and uncompromising, the moral quandaries faced by JC leading the reader into distinctly grey areas. His legacy of course was that Hellblazer and Constantine would always have a political conscience, with the lead battling social injustice while mirroring the entropy that continually engulfed him.
Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman both produced fill-ins in Delano’s absence, but the second proper tenure with JC was undertaken by Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis, whose run on the title, mainly illustrated by the great Steve Dillon, was practically definitive, and also the longest – the series made his name, and was also the most successful period for the book. Ennis’s time on Hellblazer was characterized by a more direct, visceral approach, with gruesome violence very much to the fore. For all of that the tone was slightly lighter, with a gallows humour that made the series more accessible. In this period Constantine was enmeshed in a civil war in Hell, along with him facing off against a new arch-nemesis, the First of The Fallen. Perhaps his greatest work would be the Dangerous Habits storyline, in which Constantine’s heavy reliance on tabs finally catches up with him. It was here that we saw JC sink to his lowest ebb, yet still manage to cling to some sort of dignity as he somehow outflanked his malefactors. Ennis and Dillon would continue in a similar vein in their follow-up title, the equally excellent (and irreverent) Preacher.
After Ennis’s decade spanning run, the title passed through the hands of many name writers, with variable degrees of success – Eddie Campbell’s effort was a worthy misfire, while his successor Paul Jenkins, despite adding new players to the Hellblazer ensemble, didn’t quite grasp the gritty amorality encompassing JC’s world. At least we got to learn about his past as a punk musician. Jenkins was assisted by future superstar Sean Phillips on interiors and covers. Following on from Jenkins was Warren Ellis, who was seen as the writer to return the title to its former glories – he succeeded, but his time on Hellblazer was brief. He was followed by the first American to take up the helm, crime writer Brian Azzarello. Unlike Ellis, who was obviously a good fit for the character, Azzarello’s tales, set outside JC’s familiar milieu, were extremely hard-hitting and edgy, but didn’t really grasp the essence of Constantine. Nevertheless his turn was highly praised by Alan Moore.
After Azzarello, it was Liverpudlian writer Mike Carey who, in 2002, took up the scripting reins, managing a sterling job of balancing the essential humour and bleakness of the title, whilst adding more magical, metaphysical tropes. Carey’s tenure, which lasted three years, brought the title back into focus, blending the Ellis and Delano versions of the character while introducing new players and tying up unresolved plot lines. He also went on to write the acclaimed All His Engines graphic novel. He was succeeded by the more than capable Denise Mina, a crime writer who had never worked in the comic medium before. After her year on the title, Andy Diggle wrote 19 issues of the book, focusing on the Golden Child, Constantine’s unborn twin who, as one would expect, had been manipulating events surrounding him.
Following on from Diggle, venerated Vertigo scribe Peter Milligan took over, taking our protagonist through several affairs, one marriage, and the loss of his thumb and fabled trench coat, whose new wearers end up committing horrific acts. Milligan’s fifty issue run was characterized by an aging Constantine’s need both to reacquire his younger, punkier self and also to escape his past and live a more simple life, which of course was impossible. With issue 300 approaching in 2012, DC announced that the series was to be cancelled, allowing JC to finally accept that his time was up, and that death was now more of a release than something to be avoided. Despite this, Constantine was nevertheless revivified, just in time for the elegiac and self-referential closer, which sees a visibly craggier Constantine in his rightful place, propping up the bar in a suitably grotty watering hole.
DC’s decision to cancel the Hellblazer title and bring Constantine back into the DC universe was greeted with general consternation by most of fandom, along with prospective writers who had wanted their go with JC. The new series, simply called Constantine, featured the younger version of the character from Justice League Dark, also scripted by Peter Milligan. The more mainstream, pared down version of Constantine began his own new series with a new team, writer Robert Venditti and Renato Guedes. This refit, which had been part of the New 52 (yet another DC Universe reboot) attracted tepid notices, leading to DC’s decision to bring back elements of the old Constantine into current continuity in Hellblazer: Rebirth, which began in 2016.
The John Constantine character had always been seen as suitable for a screen transfer – the inner monologue, the dystopian, grimy setting, tremendous supporting cast, moral ambiguities, cultural legacy and the considerable, filmic canon available meant that a cinematic version would be a seamless transition. However the Constantine movie, released in 2005 and starring Keanu Reeves as the anti-hero and set in Los Angeles, was an absurd misfire, its only connection to the source material being its plot, which was vaguely based on the Dangerous Habits storyline, and its name. A film that was predicated entirely on compromise and missing the point entirely, it did moderately well at the box office but was, needless to say, a wasted opportunity.
Johnny got optioned again in 2014 as NBC, after a bit of dithering , gave him his own TV series, which lasted for 13 episodes before the network pulled the plug. The series, starring Welsh actor Matt Ryan, was a far more decent effort, with the character at least having a reasonable resemblance to the Delano / Ennis version. Despite this set back, Ryan is about to reprise the character in the same network’s Legends of Tomorrow series, alongside mainstay DC heroes such as Vixen, Steel, Atom, White Canary, Rip Hunter and their respective adversaries. He will join as a regular in series four.
Although not an entirely original character, Constantine’s occult take on the down at heel (hell?) gumshoe has been a major success for DC, and a considerable influence on other crime or horror mavens in myriad series. The Hellblazer title has often pushed the envelope and has successfully regenerated itself over many iterations, yet for the most part has retained its core identity, its lead character becoming one of the most recognizable, even iconic non-heroes in the history of the medium. And not a cape or trace of spandex in sight – just his eternal Silk Cuts and bevvies.
Here’s to his proper rehabilitation in his (and our) comfort zone, rubbing shoulders with lost souls, betrayed lovers, thuggish cronies, corporate gangsters and vengeful demons. We need the classic Constantine now more than ever.