Anyone who has talked to me for more than a few minutes about comics knows that I am a John Constantine fan. I would go so far as to say that the character is easily my favorite. I’m not alone in that appreciation either, as Empire Magazine named him the third (of fifty) greatest comic characters of all time. IGN brought him in at twenty-nine out of one hundred, and Wizard Magazine put him in tenth place out of two hundred. There is clearly something about Constantine that digs into fandom and leaves the reader… sorry, have to do it… spellbound.
For me, I had the good fortune to be reading Swamp Thing month-to-month back in June of 1985 during the Alan Moore years and it was then that this trench coated master of misdirection first graced the printed page with issue number 37. Since that time, I’ve sought out, read, and collected every (and I do mean every) appearance he’s had in comics. Even when I found myself dropping other titles during my leaner reading years, John’s Hellblazer title still found its way into my hands. I feel like I’ve had a connection to the character over the years.
I’ll freely admit I’m a fan of gambling and con man stories (Oceans 11, Leverage, The Sting, Rounders, Grifters, etc) that have that nice little twist at the end which you kick yourself for not seeing ahead of time. Some of the best Constantine stories see him relying on the con rather than the mystic, and I love that. This “petty dabbler” seemed to put himself in as much trouble as he discovered along the way. That conflicting nature spoke to me. You see, I’ve always been a sucker for the redemptive villain in fiction. If you hand me an anti-hero that ends up doing good despite his/her original goal or individual nature… I’m hooked. There’s just something in that inner struggle that I find rife for narrative play, and many characters I’ve created over the years (be it for pen and paper RPG or just personal writing or storytelling) have had a bit of the old “conjob” nestled inside them. Further, writers who can take such a character and weave a tale worth sharing have seemed drawn to Constantine and I’ve been right there for every step of that joyous ride.
You can’t talk about the character without addressing the changes in the comic book version over the last few years. Yes, I stuck by his side following DC’s New 52 Constantine series transformation which left many longtime fans scratching their head. He went from being the deeply tricky anti-hero in a world full of cringe worthy horrors to a more neutered linchpin figure within the modern DC Universe. The transformation from the long running Vertigo imprint Hellblazer to mainstream DC was not easy. Do I love that incarnation as much as the classic stuff? Absolutely not. Was I glad to still be reading Constantine each month? No question at all. Honestly, I felt that the New 52 series slowly became edgier and closer to the darker oriented content as it continued. In many ways I feel the two versions of the character did finally merge when the series rebooted once again earlier this year as Constantine: The Hellblazer. It didn’t just meld the two series titles but also re-merged the feel of the character’s complete history.
So where are we these days? We have a movie and a cancelled television series dedicated to the character. The movie is around a decade old and the television series made it for 13 episodes beginning in October of 2014 and ending in February 2015.
Starting with the film, I have to say I actually quite enjoyed it. It was deeply flawed in the presentation of Constantine himself, but it nailed the atmosphere and darker edge that was always present through the Vertigo years. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for (Constantine doesn’t need gadgets), but I found it enjoyable for what it was… a shallow version of the epic “Dangerous Habits” storyline which I’d hand to any new fan. That story is a classic both in the eyes of longtime readers of the series, yet it also receives accolades from the wider comic book world. Garth Ennis really brought home a masterwork in that Hellblazer storyline.
Turning to the television series, I’ll be up front and say I really liked it, but it took time to grow my appreciation for what they were building. Atmospherically, it was pretty spot on and Matt Ryan became a worthy embodiment of Constantine on the small screen. In fact, it’s now his voice I hear when I read the comic series. That said, the supporting cast sometimes felt like it was missing a beat and was a little forced into the story, as one aspect of Constantine’s character is his inability to keep close friends safe. That said, Chaz, Zed, and Manny provided a nice backdrop for Ryan to find the swagger Constantine needed.
Sadly, the series often leaned on special effects and magic for story resolution. In watching, I was often waiting for that Constantine twist I didn’t see coming. Overall it felt far too straightforward. In that, I feel the show’s writers were missing some real potential. This should be a show that has a big reveal that you work towards each week. Give me some kind of really dark season arc and remember that he is a con man and you can do so much while still weaving in the more supernatural elements for splash and effect. You didn’t have to make this American Horror Story with a Brit to make it a successful show. They should have allowed more of the life of the character to emerge and made sure we didn’t miss those much loved “what did John get himself into this week” moments. The very best Constantine stories leave the reader (or viewer) wondering how John’s going to get out of this situation in an almost mystical MacGyver sort of way. If they could have conjured that feeling and still given us a twist that left us shaking our heads, I’m certain we would still have a Constantine series on the air today.
As for the future of the character? The current comic series is doing well and DC has continued to cement the character in its wider continuity with things like Justice League Dark and several series and crossover guest appearances. Also, the television show may be cancelled but Matt Ryan returns to the role on the small screen in the Arrow series beginning on November 4, 2015 with an episode titled “Haunted”. As if that were not enough, Scott Rudin (Steve Jobs, Zoolander 2, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is including the character in the horror-themed Justice League: Dark with production planned to begin next year with a targeted 2016 or 2017 release date. In addition to my favorite con man, the film plans to feature Deadman, Zatanna, Etrigan The Demon, and Swamp Thing!
Overall, despite losing the television series, it’s still a great time to be a Constantine fan and I look forward to writing more about the character as the film takes shape and his comic presence further evolves. Until then I’ll say cheers, or if you are looking for John’s reply, it would most likely read “piss off you wankers”. Love that guy!