Hello, squire. In this edition of Comics 101, I’ll talk about one of my favourite characters of all time: John Constantine (as a brief aside, Constantine rhymes with fine, none of the adaptations got this right).
However, rather than focusing on the current version of the character (who apparently has a different origin story) I will be dealing with Constantine before DC decided to bring him back into the mainstream DC Universe. That’s the real version of the character to me, mostly because of all the time I spent reading it.
“I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.”
John Constantine was created by Alan Moore during his run of The Saga of the Swamp Thing. John Totleben and Stephen Bisette once mentioned they wanted to draw a character that looked similar to Sting and Moore thought it was a cool idea. So inspired by his look on Brimstone and Treacle and Quadrophenia the three of them created John Constantine. However, Rick Veitch was the artist in that first appearance and added an earring to the design.
He debuted in issue 37 of The Saga of the Swamp Thing (published in 1985). However, the panel you see above is from an earlier issue. The artists had drawn a character resembling Sting in that scene and when they introduced Constantine to the comic they decided to make it so that character had been him all along. Not much has changed since that first appearance, he’s English, a former punk singer who wears a trenchcoat and chain smokes Silk Cut. He’s also a prick and everyone who gets close to him will meet a bad end. He’s also bisexual, although he was only depicted in a relationship with a man once.
John Constantine’s role was that of a spiritual advisor. He helped Swamp Thing come to terms with its true nature, gain a better grasp of its powers while annoying the shit out of it as well. This led to a situation where Swamp Thing gained possession of Constantine’s body and decided to get a tattoo of a tree in his butt as retaliation.
The character proved popular enough so he was given its own spin-off in 1988, Hellblazer. Later it became part of Vertigo.
“I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness.”
While Swamp Thing only hinted at his past, Hellblazer explored it extensively. Many issues deal with the strained relationship with his family, his guilt over an exorcism gone wrong, his girlfriends, friends and so on.
It also explored his skills, he’s an adept magician but relies mostly on his wits. He’s also The Laughing Magician and he can manipulate synchronicity, essentially making his own luck.
When it comes to storylines, while Jamie Delano established the character, Garth Ennis took him to the top. When he was going to write for the character he thought something like “He’s been through a lot, what can I do to him now?”
The obvious answer was “I’ll try to kill him.” So his run started with the storyline Dangerous Habits, where Constantine gets cancer and tries to get out of it, angering the three demons that rule Hell in the process.
One of the interesting things about this series, was that John aged in real time. When the series started he was in his 30s, and there are issues where he celebrates his birthday. By the time Hellblazer finished he was in his 60s, although he looked younger because of demon blood.
There are many things I could’ve said about Hellblazer and John Constantine. I could’ve just written some sort of biography, but it didn’t feel quite right. I can’t recommend Hellblazer enough, and considering that DC are publishing a new edition collecting every issue in chronological order, this feels like the best moment to get into the character.
Just avoid the Keanu Reeves movie if you’re considering watching it, it doesn’t make justice to the character. On the other hand the TV series is more faithful to the character, but Hellblazer will always be the real deal.
Angry Spaniard, adoptive Irishman. Writer, reader, tea drinker and video game player/designer.