During the 1980s, the comic book industry drastically changed it’s content to reflect the times as well as to gain new and different readership. At the height of the Reagan and Thatcher era, a time when ideas of “moral decency” were strangling the life out of political discourse, media was in a state of hyper-sensationalism. While many pieces of media glorified some of the violent conservatism of the 1980s, some of the most notable comic book writers of the era challenged this with their monumental works. The extreme, gritty violence of Frank Miller and the sophisticated darkness of Alan Moore helped fill a void in the public imagination. People wanted something that felt real and challenging, not more simple re-hashed superhero stories. It was during this time that the world got its first taste of the hellish, cocky, chain-smoking Brit, John Constantine.

John Constantine’s first appearance in Saga of the Swamp Thing, art by Rick Veitch and John Totleben

Constantine first appeared during Alan Moore’s iconic run on SWAMP THING, while the comic was briefly tied into the massive DC crossover, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. He appeared before Swamp Thing to recruit him on a mission to stop the oncoming darkness from destroying reality. While Swamp Thing does acknowledge that Constantine is powerful and wise in his knowledge of magic and the forces controlling reality, he feels as if Constantine is using him. As helpful as he is in helping Swamp Thing fully realize his status as an elemental, Constantine mostly comes off as a self-serving jerk, and that’s because he is.

John Constantine is the quintessential comic figure of the 80s, and every aspect of his style and personality reflect that. He is coarse, rude, and uninvested in anything that could pose harm to his ego, exhibiting a sense of nihilism that was all too prevalent in the 80s. Constantine smokes like a chimney and struggles with alcoholism, reflecting the realities of high substance abuse and addiction rates at the time. He almost always only looks out for himself, often casting those closest to him in the fire if it serves his own best interests, representing the rise and danger of neo-libertarianism in the U.S. and U.K.

His appearance was modeled after Sting, during a time when The Police were the edgiest pop group around. In a 1993 interview with Wizard Magazine, Alan Moore discusses Constantine’s appearance and his general concept for the character.

“…the character only existed because Steve and John wanted to do a character that looked like Sting. Having been given that challenge, how could I fit Sting into SWAMP THING? I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that” (Moore, 1993).

If Constantine is so reflective of what some consider negative aspects of the 1980’s such as addiction, conservative politics, punk fashion, and working class mentalities, and is just generally unlikeable to those around him, why do audiences find him so compelling?

 

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John Constantine rose to popularity quickly, and has kept a residence in the collective comic book consciousness because he is the perfect example of a complicated man seeking to redeem himself. He is popular because audiences see aspects of themselves within him, even if they are not always desirable traits. Constantine stood out among his superhero contemporaries, because he is all too human. Despite the fact that he has access to all of these magical abilities, he’s more often than not struggling to cope with his everyday life on Earth.

He is so relatable, and in fact based on human reality, that creator Alan Moore has even claimed to have seen him in real life on two separate occasions:

“…one day, I was in Westminster in London — this was after we had introduced the character — and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut — he looked — no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar. I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest” (Moore, 1993).

It’s hard to believe such a claim coming from Alan Moore, who is often as nutty as he is brilliant. He isn’t the only former writer to have this experience, however. Jamie Delano and Brian Azzarello have also had strange real life encounters with Constantine at a distance. Yet, as relatable and unquestionably badass as he is, something changed in his character between the height of his popularity and today.

hellblazer cover
Cover to Hellblazer #3, art by Dave McKean

At no time was John Constantine more successful both critically and commercially than during the early years of the DC/Vertigo title HELLBLAZER. Not only was the title a showcase for up and coming writers (now considered comic legends) such as Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, and Grant Morrison to name a few, but was also one of the most sophisticated and ethically complex comics to come out of the 80’s. Despite having the elements of a fantasy or occult work, HELLBLAZER grew in popularity as a socio-political commentary on real life. Because Constantine aged in real time, and existed in some mirror of our reality, different writers brought different political focus to the comic. For instance, Delano drew inspiration from the punk rock scene and working class life in Britain under the Thatcher administration, while Garth Ennis’ work discussed the horrors of racism and religious fanaticism (themes that would appear later in his popular series, PREACHER). HELLBLAZER was so unique and popular in its early years because the intellectual commentary broke beyond the realms of a normal comic. The work focused on the life of a man who, despite being magical, still struggled to navigate the darkest parts of our earthly realm.

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By the mid-to-late 90s, Constantine began to lose steam as he grew in commercial appeal and his unique brand of everyman saw countless imitators. Overtime, Vertigo/DC lost touch with how to make Constantine stand out, so they leaned on his traditional anti-hero traits and bad attitude as his crux. What once made the man a dynamic and complex character now completely limited him to a gimmick; here’s DC’s non-superhero anti-hero who chainsmokes and swears. How edgy. The fact that Constantine has failed to stay relevant has less to do with the character, and more to do with the refusal to take risks with his character. The very thing that created Constantine, the desire to challenge the norm, has been crushed in a backwards attempt to make the character more appealing.

This is best represented by the many (failed) attempts to branch out Constantine’s character into other media, such as film and television. Despite the fact that these adaptions take from some of the best source material from the Constantine canon, they’ve done little more than bastardize it while making no significant or worthwhile contributions of their own.

Excerpt from “Dangerous Habits,” art by Will Simpson

Take for instance Garth Ennis’ defining HELLBLAZER arc “Dangerous Habits.” In this storyline— one that would launch Ennis’ career into comic notoriety —Constantine comes face to face with his certain doom. Years of cigarette smoking have taken their toll on John’s health, and he discovers he has lung cancer, and doesn’t have long to live. He knows that once he dies, he will surely go to hell for all of his misdeeds and for participating in dark magic.

This story was so unique to comics at the time because a character often defined by his magical qualities was facing death due to a very human weakness: addiction. While most heroes meet their demise in battle or in a moment of self-sacrifice, John saw himself rotting away slowly and painfully, with only his memories to keep him company. His struggle, the fact that even this expert in magic cannot find an escape from death, is the relatable human element that makes the audience keep coming back. Until Constantine makes deals with Satan, in the form of the Three Fallen, all the mystical and fantasy elements of the comic are completely secondary to John’s inability to cope with his own mortality.

READ: If you like magic in gritty environments, check out Ales Kot’s WOLF!

“Dangerous Habits” is a tremendous story, and it wouldn’t be impossible to adapt or even re-imagine it in another form of media. In 2005, Warner Bros. showed exactly how easy it is to mess it up with their film CONSTANTINE, starring Keanu Reeves. The first try at bringing John Constantine to the big screen, while financially successful, was despised by critics and HELLBLAZER fans alike. Warner Bros. decided to take the movie in a different direction than the comic, which is their artistic right, yet the investment in action film gimmicks and cheap effects was not the adaption that fans of John Constantine were looking for. Instead of a mysterious Brit navigating the line between good and evil while struggling as an everyman here on Earth, 2005’s CONSTANTINE is a hot mess of a monster movie, with no depth or originality. Not only did the studio decide to Americanize Constantine via Keanu Reeves for no apparent reason, the film is bogged down by unbearable dialogue. One of the things that made HELLBLAZER stand out before and after Ennis’ run was that the dialogue felt impossibly real. With that gone, all that’s left is the hollow shell of the Constantine aesthetic, which just reads like a weirdo exorcist trying to be a badass. Plus, it never seems like a good idea to add Shia Labeouf to anything, or to have Peter Stormare (a.k.a. the head nihilist/porn star guy from 1998’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI) play Lucifer. In the entirety of the film, there are only two scenes that actually reflect anything that took place in “Dangerous Habits,” and they’re both ruined by Reeves’ performance, so maybe it isn’t fair to call the film a direct adaption. But it is undeniable proof that Constantine has struggled through a bit of an image issue.

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Shia Labeouf and Keanu Reeves in 2005’s Constantine film. What could go wrong?

The only other attempt to adapt Constantine’s character to film or television was the NBC series entitled CONSTANTINE that began nearly a decade later, in 2014. To be fair, the 2014 television series is by all means a better adaption and a higher quality piece of entertainment than the 2005 film. With that said, it still seems to have a lot of similar issues. With thirteen episodes in the first season at an hour each, the show was actually able to cover a lot of ground from the original HELLBLAZER series in a variety of ways and created a sense of development for Constantine’s character. NBC actually chose a British actor to play Constantine (Matt Ryan) who is clearly a better fit for the part than Reeves. The show also does a good job of establishing the shaky relationship that Constantine has with his friends. The show made it clear that he does actually care for others, but is more often than not acting in his own self interest, which has the repercussion of putting those friends in danger.

Yet, with all these redeeming qualities, the show is still a poorly executed monster of the week series with a few magical tidbits. The dialogue is never quite right, and over-the-top moments, along with cartoonish villains instead of ghoulish and phantasmagoric creatures, keep it from feeling grounded in the way the HELLBLAZER should be at it’s best. Following the first season, the series was canceled by NBC, and while the creators have been searching for a new network to host the show, there have been no takers as of yet. Despite the fact the show had a small fan base, the CONSTANTINE proved to once again fail to capture what makes the character special.

Matt Ryan as Constantine, from the 2014 NBC show

One thing that these adaptions can tell us about John Constantine is that he will be returning at some point or another. Fans are deeply connected to his character, even if his best and most original stories were first released twenty years ago. More to the point, DC knows that there is more money to be made with Constantine. The demise of Constantine’s image is something that Alan Moore has spoken to several times; comics and film do not mix, that they are completely different platforms, and what could be unique in one medium may not exactly transfer to the other.

“If we only see comics in relation to movies then the best that they will ever be is films that do not move. I found it, in the mid 80s, preferable to concentrate on those things that only comics could achieve. The way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel, the juxtapositions between what a character was saying, and what the image that the reader was looking at would be. So in a sense … most of my work from the 80s onwards was designed to be un-filmable” (Moore, 2008).

Constantine is an older character, and it’s going to take work outside of a flashy Hollywood production to make his character relevant and awesome once again. It may be true that diehard Constantine fans will always come back for more, but that audience will continuously dwindle until someone takes some drastic risks with the character. John Constantine is a truly unique character, and it’s going to take a daring new story to save the character from a possible predictable and repetitive purgatory. Whether it is in the new DC comic CONSTANTINE THE HELLBLAZER, in a new television series, or in some other medium, taking risks will hopefully shape Constantine’s image from tired gimmick into unpredictable occult anti-hero once again.

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One Comment

  1. allanstanwick

    May 30, 2016 at 6:57 am

    Love this article. Love Constantine. Great Job!!!

    Reply

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