John Constantine, Hellblazer

12 Aug

John Constantine first appeared in 1985, gracing the pages of Swamp Thing #37 with his barbed one-liners and suspiciously Sting-like appearance. Originally a supporting character who played a pivotal role in the classic “American Gothic” Swamp Thing storyline, John struck a chord with readers and in 1988 the first issue of his own comic, Hellblazer, hit the stands. For such an enduring and influential character, John Constantine’s origins are almost bland: drawing for Swamp Thing in the mid-80’s, artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting. Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore wanted to create a more “blue-collar” occult character to contrast the more aristocratic Zatanna and Dr Fate, and John Constantine (rhymes with “wine” not “bean”) was born. His solo series, Hellblazer, began in 1988 and lasted 25 years, ending with issue #300 in February 2013.It was then relaunched in 2016 with the title The Hellblazer as part of “DC Universe Rebirth”, restoring the character to his original cast, tone and setting. Well known for its political and social commentary, the series has spawned a film adaptation, television show, novels, and multiple spin-offs and crossovers.

Alan Moore has also said that he wanted to portray his mystical character in a new and different way. Whereas wizards had frequently been depicted as old, proper types, he wanted someone much more blue-collar and streetwise. In the beginning, Constantine was an important if supporting character in the Swamp Thing tale called “American Gothic,” where he served as a consultant for old Swampy. But the character was popular with readers, and so he got his own comic in 1988, titled Hellblazer. Initially written by Jamie Delano, that book was labelled as a Mature Readers title. And in fact, when DC’s Vertigo launched in 1993, Hellblazer switched over to that imprint. It made sense, as Constantine clearly leant himself to more adult stories. He was never as cut and dry as a typical superhero, or even a typical hero. Though he ultimately did the right thing most of the time, his motivations weren’t always altruistic. In fact, Constantine’s often been portrayed as selfish and a bit of a jerk, and has had the unfortunate track record of frequently getting those around him killed. His stories have ranged from the fantastic to the horrific, with the so-called Hellblazer often employing his magic, detective skills, and con man talents – or a mix of all three – to get to the bottom of his supernatural cases…

Constantine was born in Liverpool, though his mother died during childbirth (and this was only after he had murdered his own twin in the womb). His father never forgave him for his mother’s death, and from a young age John began to school himself in the occult. One of his first spells was to rid himself of his childhood innocence, hiding it in a box. Eventually he put a curse on his old man, nearly killing him, before backing out at the last minute. But once he did die, Constantine Senior’s ghost would come back to haunt John – as would many of his dead friends and lovers over the years. What’s interesting about the character too is the fact that for the run of Hellblazer, from 1988 to 2013, he more or less aged in real time. This of course differentiates him from guys like Superman or Batman, who are eternally 30 years old. As such, Constantine’s rich history is specifically rooted in the past. For example, when he first saw the Sex Pistols perform in 1977, he was inspired to form his own punk rock band, the apparently awful Mucous Membrane (but what a great name). Aging the character like this also allowed the writers of Hellblazer to confront the real world around Constantine as much as they did the supernatural and horrifying. Of course, sometimes the real world is fairly horrifying even when there’s no supernatural involved.

In what would prove to be a pivotal moment in the young Constantine’s life, one of his earliest confrontations with the underworld came in Newcastle, England. Joined by his band mates and some fellow occultists, Constantine attempted to save a young girl who had summoned a demon. John called forth another demon to defeat the first one, but unfortunately he botched the job and inadvertently consigned the girl to hell. He and his crew were emotionally scarred by this tragic turn, and afterwards Constantine was blamed for the girl’s death and committed to an asylum. The demon he had summoned was called Nergal, a creature that would go on to become one of his greatest foes. And in fact, this storyline was the inspiration for the first episode of the 2014 TV show. Speaking of which, that other live-action version of the character – the Keanu Reeves movie – also took its cue, in part, from a classic Hellblazer storyline. The “Dangerous Habits” comic arc by writer Garth Ennis saw John diagnosed with lung cancer and depicted his attempts to trick his way to a cure – and avoid eternal damnation in hell as well. This story also served as the introduction of The First of The Fallen, a frequent foe of Constantine’s who also goes by a name you might recognize… Satan.

For all his earthly foibles, Constantine plays with the heavy hitters. In Hellblazer #128, he even managed to blackmail God Himself, implying that once he gets to hell, he’ll outwit Satan and the rest and take over. And then he’d turn his attention to Heaven… Another major story came in the tale “The Family Man,” where Constantine has to deal with the notion of actually killing someone… not a demon, but a man. Writer Brian Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer saw John wandering the USA, where he had to deal with porn dealers and white supremacists, among other despicable matters. And then there was the crazy “day in the life” for Constantine where he traded a day with the demon Rosacarnis – a day which went on almost forever, and included him becoming the father to three kids who went on to try and murder his friends and family. A version of the character would eventually rejoin the mainstream DC universe in 2011 with the “Brightest Day” crossover event, and then the launch of the New 52 continuity reboot that same year. As a member of the supernatural team Justice League Dark, the New 52 Constantine was distinctly different from his Vertigo counterpart – decades younger than the sixty-ish Hellblazer. And by 2013, the Hellblazer book was cancelled after a 25-year-run with its 300th issue, replaced by the New 52 character’s eponymous solo title. In 2016 a new comic book entitled The Hellblazer: Rebirth was released that was part of the DC Rebirth, a major relaunch in an effort to return famous DC stories from before the New 52 back into the reboot. The plot concerns John Constantine finally returning to London after being cursed by a demon that forced him to leave the city. Although the 2014 live action series failed to make it past a first season, the character (played by the same actor, Matt Ryan) continues to make infrequent guest appearances on other DC superhero shows on the CW television network. And with almost 30 years of history behind him, Constantine is certainly ripe for a new, perhaps more faithful adaptation on the big screen. I can’t wait to see what comes of it…

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