Friday, October 24, 2014
The Long, Crazy Life of John Constantine, Hellblazer
Tonight, network television is premiering a new show called Constantine. It's based on the long-running (but now defunct) comic series from DC/Vertigo called Hellblazer; or, more accurately, I guess, it's based on the safer version that can be found in the newer DC re-boot of the character, simply called Constantine.
I won't be watching. No, I'm not boycotting it or anything. I'm at work tonight. But honestly, even if I was home, I'm not sure how excited I would be about it. The DC re-boot is pretty much a toothless version of a character I love dearly.
Hellblazer was the only comic I read consistently for well over twenty years, and that version of John Constantine is as close to a fully fleshed out and complex personality as you're ever likely to see in the pages of a comic book. He grew and changed over the course of the series in a very realistic way. He aged in "real time". He was a hero and a bastard and a con-man and a savior at various points; like real people, he was never just ONE thing.
That's why so many different writers were able to do such great work with him over the years. Making Constantine "consistent" was silly, because real people are not consistent.
If you don't know, here's the deal about John Constantine: he appeared initially in the much-lauded Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing, back in 1985, as a mysterious supporting character, guiding Swamp Thing (or manipulating him, if you prefer) on a series of grisly adventures that tested the swamp elemental's powers as he was rediscovering himself. Constantine was a stylish but somewhat seedy Brit, conceived as a "working class magician", a bit snarky, a bit cynical, always with a hidden agenda and a last-minute plan. He always seemed to know something that everyone else didn't, that was his thing. He was a master manipulator who was willing to do some very bad things for the greater good.
The character was a huge hit with readers, and in 1988, after a few more important appearances in Swamp Thing, he was spun off into his own series-- at first meant to be called Hellraiser, but Clive Barker had just beaten them to the punch with that title, so the last minute change up was called Hellblazer.
Written by Jamie Delano and drawn mostly by John Ridgeway, Hellblazer took the bare bones concepts of Alan Moore and expanded on them beautifully. Even though Moore created the character, Delano was really the one who made Constantine great. Over the course of his initial 40-issue run, he filled in Constantine's background, he gave him the internal struggles, he pulled back the curtain to show what was really going on in Constantine's brain. He made him human, and he set up the themes that would be consistent throughout the history of the title-- namely, the toll Constantine would always pay for his work. The working-class mage/con-man was often forced to make horrible sacrifices for the greater good, losing friends along the way, and pieces of his own soul (literally and figuratively). Delano also used Hellblazer to comment on the social and political climate of Britain in those dark days of Margaret Thatcher, and gave us bits like Constantine's stay in a mental asylum after inadvertently causing a young girl to die and be sucked into Hell, being partly responsible for the death of his father at the hands of a serial killer called The Family Man, and strangling his "good" twin brother in the womb. All of these things would be referenced many times over the years. Delano's run remains the hallmark, in my opinion.
With issue 41, Garth Ennis took over the title, and began what is still the most popular run ever of Hellblazer. With artist William Simpson at first, and then Steve Dillon, Ennis' approach to Constantine was a little less refined and less political, instead choosing to go a more personal route. He showed us a Constantine with friends, a Constantine in love, and ultimately a Constantine who would once again lose it all in the end. It was an angry run of comics that confronted racism, corporate greed, homelessness, and religion, but it also had great moments of black humor. Ennis gave us probably the most famous Hellblazer story, in which Constantine gets lung cancer and manages to save himself by utilizing a ballsy con against the Devil himself (the First of the Fallen) and two other lords of Hell.
Ennis wrapped up his run with issue 83, and, after a one shot by returning writer Delano and a three-parter by Eddie Campbell, the reins were picked up by Paul Jenkins, with the great Sean Phillips on most of the art.
Jenkins run is highly under-rated. He opted to go in a different direction than the one pointed out by Ennis, instead focusing his run on British folklore and mythology. It was less bombastic than Ennis, less colorful and profane, and showed a Constantine trying once again to have some kind of normal life with his eccentric circle of friends. But the one constant of his life, the inevitable crash and burn, happens at the end and once again he's left alone and devastated.
Garth Ennis came back briefly after the Jenkins run, for a gruesome 6-part dark comedy called Son of Man, about the consequences Constantine has to deal with after bringing back to life the dead son of a London gangster, using a demon with a... well, a devastatingly huge dong.
The great Warren Ellis was next, with a terrific but way too short run that focused on Constantine the bastard-- a six part arc first, in which John finds out a former lover has been murdered by an upstart young mage, and the brutal retribution John brings down on him. This was followed by a handful of excellent one shot stories with a variety of artists. But Ellis' run was cut short by a disagreement with DC/Vertigo over a story involving school shootings, this in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.
Ellis left, and after a two part fill-in by writer Darko Macan, Brian Azzarello took over. Azzarello was the first and only American to write Hellblazer, and so his run takes place entirely in the States. It opens with Constantine in an American prison, then backtracks over the course of the run to explain the circumstances of his incarceration. Azzarello used the title to take Constantine into some of the darkest places in America, backwoods redneck territory as well as the hidden pleasure palaces of the filthy, morally bankrupt rich. It's a controversial run, but elevated sales on Hellblazer higher than they'd been since the Ennis days. Constantine comes off as particularly wicked in these issues, but mostly because we're seeing him through other people's eyes, which works. It served as a sort of reminder of Constantine when we first met him in Swamp Thing, a mysterious and slightly sinister figure.
Mike Carey followed Azzarello, taking John back to England to confront the consequences of his long absence. This run on Hellblazer is my favorite, one, because Carey is terrific at set-up and pace, and two, because he draws on lore established by previous writers and takes them to new and unexpected places. Some horrible things happen in Carey's run, deaths of characters who had been in the title since the very beginning, and Constantine's friendship with Chas (a constant throughout the series, the long-suffering Chas) reaches a breaking point. John pretty much loses it during Carey's run, suffering beyond anything the previous writers had ever put him through. Carey also made John's niece Gemma an important ongoing character, as the young woman follows in the dark footsteps of her uncle. Also, the second half of Carey's run features art by Leonardo Manco, whom I adore.
When Carey wrapped up, crime fiction author Denise Mina took over. I have mixed feelings about Mina's run; she was the first woman to write the character, and she really manages to nail John Constantine's personality perfectly. Also, she utilizes Gemma expertly. Sadly, the story itself dragged a bit, and didn't offer Constantine any real noteworthy challenge. Still, though, it should be said, Mina was absolutely terrific at character stuff.
Andy Diggle was next, with a very short but clever run that saw Constantine trying to get his act together yet again, and finally confronting the Golden Child-- that is, the supposedly "good" twin he murdered in the womb.
And finally, Peter Milligan, with the final (and longest) run on Hellblazer. While previous writers worked to strike a balance between the dark magical world of John Constantine and a more-or-less "real world", Milligan's run is noteworthy for it's dismissal of any sort of reflection of reality. It's a bright, comic-bookish world in Milligan's Hellblazer, even when the stories themselves get dark (and they do get very dark indeed at points). Constantine actually gets married about midway through Milligan's time on Hellblazer, but during the wedding his niece Gemma is sexually assaulted by "Demon Constantine", a vessel previously locked away in Hell, whom John had at one point during Jenkins' run poured all his own darkest impulses into. Even though it wasn't John that committed the deed, the incident creates a wedge between him and Gemma that ultimately costs John everything at the end. Issue 300 wraps up Hellblazer on a downbeat note, a fate you could argue as being worse than death for someone like Constantine, and a feeling of melancholy that John Constantine's long journey is at last over.
Reading the very last issue of Hellblazer marked what I knew was the end of my time as a serious reader of comics. I still pick up trade paperbacks from time to time, but it was Hellblazer that kept me showing up at the comic shop on Wednesdays. I have a very strong attachment to Our John, as I've read his ongoing story and watched as he struggled and failed and even occasionally won. I've stayed with him as he's saved the world, lost his soul, betrayed his friends and himself, aged and changed and survived crisis after crisis.
As goofy as it sounds, John Constantine is almost like an old friend (who I wouldn't trust alone!) I met when I was in my early 20's and knew peripherally ever since. I actually kinda mourned the end of Hellblazer.
DC, of course, re-booted him as a part of their mainstream DC universe, but this Constantine is clearly not the same guy. He's younger, for one thing. All that life history in Hellblazer doesn't exist for him. He doesn't operate in the "real world"; instead, he hangs out with superheroes and saves the world from alien threats and even turns into goddamn Shazam at one point. Sigh.
Anyway, the show premiering tonight. Depending on reviews, I may watch when it comes out on DVD or Netflix. Maybe. But it will always just be an actor, an imitation, of one of the most important fictional characters in my life, John Constantine. Cheers.