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Wickedly Good: The John Constantine Primer

The latest comics-to-film project to hit screens large and small is Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves as the title character, with Djimon Hounsou, Shia LaBeouf, and Rachel Weisz as his supporting cast. Based on a character created by the legendary writer Alan Moore, Constantine has been a fixture throughout DC’s Vertigo line of comics since its inception in 1992, with his own monthly comic Hellblazer recently passing the 200-issue mark.

The film Constantine seems to share little in common with his comic book ancestor, the blond chain-smoking Englishman based in London giving way to a brown-haired American in Los Angeles trying to quit. The staff of Toon Zone’s Comic Book Culture forum has collected a brief history of the character for those curious about his comic book roots.

Like the “R” rated movie, John Constantine has never been a character aimed at children, with his stories often involving the sacred and the vulgar mixed with copious amounts of sex, violence, profanity, and the stuff that nightmares are made of. None of Constantine’s comics have ever shied away from controversy, and some readers may even see them as works of the evil that Constantine ostensibly battles against. At the risk of redundancy, all of the works reviewed below are for mature audiences. Toon Zone will not be responsible for any nightmares that may result.

THE ORIGIN – SWAMP THING: THE CURSE and A MURDER OF CROWS
Alan Moore with Afredo Alcala, Stephen Bissette, Ron Randall, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, and Stan Woch.

Denise Mina is scheduled to take over in January 2006In 1983, Alan Moore took up the reins of Swamp Thing, a faltering title about a muck-encrusted monster that had just been adapted into a terrible movie. With his artistic partners (usually John Totleben, Rick Veitch, and Stephen Bissette), Moore mixed equal parts intelligence and skin-crawling terror to completely tear down and rebuild the character, creating some of the most groundbreaking comics of the 1980′s in the process.

The earliest story arcs of Moore’s work (collected in the Wikipedia’s entry on John Constantine and Straight to Hell: a Hellblazer Site trade paperbacks) returned the character to his horror-story roots and developed some novel new takes on him along the way. The Ultimate Hellblazer Index and A Murder of Crows collect Moore’s sprawling “American Gothic” storyline, which introduced the mysterious John Constantine to the DC Universe. Through a mix of blackmail and the lure of knowledge, Constantine led the title character through dark, ugly corners of America on a quest for understanding. Each chapter reworks a horror movie cliche, such as vampires, zombies, or werewolves, to create frights that are simultaneously new and familiar, all of which ultimately leads up to a battle of truly cosmic proportions.

In these first appearances, John Constantine demonstrates a scene-stealing unflappability in the face of the absurd or the unthinkable. The trench-coated, chain-smoking amateur magician in these stories exudes arrogant bravado in the face of mind-numbing horrors in order to ensure that the right sacrifices are made for the greater good. The fact that these sacrifices are often made by other people manipulated into the situation by the smooth-talking Englishman laces his actions with dark and ironic humor. Despite his freewheeling demeanor, however, there are many instances where Constantine comes off as an icy, cold-hearted individual with plenty of sharp edges that can slash open anybody who comes too close.

PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS – HELLBLAZER: ORIGINAL SINS
Jamie Delano with John Ridgway and Alfredo Alcala

Too many bloody ghosts following. trade paperback.

By this time, Moore had already broken away from DC, and fellow Englishman Jamie Delano was at the helm. It seems odd to describe stories involving demonic yuppies, spontaneous combustion, infernal electioneering, bloody-minded ghosts, a four-headed soccer (excuse me, “football”) hooligan, and voodoo as “mundane,” but that is how this first collection of comics feels in the wake of Moore’s Swamp Thing stories. While Moore subverted horror cliches in order to rebuild them, Delano seems to taken a more traditional approach to constructing his scares.

This is not to suggest that these comics aren’t well done, however. There are a lot of fine chills to be found in this volume, most of which hinge on the high price one must pay to play with hellish or divine forces. Delano hits most of the same notes that Moore does, although this Constantine is far more haunted (often quite literally) by the deaths he has caused. Still, Constantine is in fine form, managing to snark a demon lord while lying in traction and coming up with an extremely creative solution to the aforementioned football hooligan. Delano also introduces the idea that Constantine deliberately chooses not to take sides between Heaven and Hell, even as both attempt to lure or compel him to do their bidding.

If there are complaints to be leveled towards the work, it’s that subtlety is largely abandoned in favor of making things explicit visually and ideologically. There is far more gore in this comic than there was in Moore’s work, and the screeds against the right-wing movement at the time are unapologetically blunt. In addition, the book ends on something of a cliffhanger, which must be explained by the author at the start of the volume, since the crisis’ resolution ultimately happened in another comic book series.

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR – THE BOOKS OF MAGIC
Neil Gaiman with John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson

Constantine: the Hellblazer CollectionIn 1990, writer Neil Gaiman wrote Too many bloody ghosts following. and in the newly released Constantine: the Hellblazer Collection trade paperback. Two parallel stories unfold in this single issue, one of which involves a mysterious woman with an odd request for Constantine, and the other the ghost of a homeless man who froze to death years ago. Only John Constantine could manage to use a line like, “You poor, dead bastard,” as a prelude to a suprisingly tender moment.

THOSE THINGS WILL KILL YOU SOMEDAY – HELLBLAZER: DANGEROUS HABITS
Garth Ennis with William Simpson

Wikipedia’s entry on John ConstantineIn May 1991, Garth Ennis took over the Hellblazer writing duties with issue #41. His opening story arc, “Straight to Hell: a Hellblazer Site,” starts with a terribly simple idea: what have all those cigarettes Constantine smokes been doing to him for all these years? Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Constantine calls in all the favors he’s got to no avail, and manages to cross the Devil along the way. It all works out in the end (the comic is up to issue #210, after all), but the ride there is full of exceptionally clever twists and humor that’s black as the grave. This story is what The Sting would be if the Prohibition-era gangsters got replaced with angels and demons, and if all the bargains ended up being Faustian ones.

The real surprise in “Dangerous Habits” is the tremendous human warmth that can be found in these stories, both in the unlikely but oddly touching relationships that develop and in the copious amounts of blood and gore that end up splattered on walls. This John Constantine seems to balance the casually cruel Moore and Delano version and the more human one presented by Gaiman, lifting the best bits of both without losing the core of what makes Constantine distinctive as a character. Future stories would often resort to overt and copious gore that made the Delano stories seem positively demure, although the cleverness and emotional center to the stories would never be lost.

THE FUTURE
These stories only scratch the surface of John Constantine’s comic book adventures. In the Sandman comic book series, Neil Gaiman introduced Lady Johanna Constantine, a Georgian-era ancestor with the same propensity for finding and causing trouble as her descendant; she was granted a 4-issue mini-series recently. In his own monthly title, Constantine’s adventures have been chronicled by writers such as Eddie Campbell, Grant Morrison, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, and Mike Carey. The title is still going strong, and Scottish crime novelist The Ultimate Hellblazer Index. Regardless of the movie’s ultimate success or failure, the comic book fate of the wise-cracking Englishman seems secure.

As secure as his fate ever is, at least.

JOHN CONSTANTINE WEB RESOURCES
Wikipedia’s entry on John Constantine
Straight to Hell: a Hellblazer Site
The Ultimate Hellblazer Index

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