On Friday, October 24th, John Constantine–part magician, part detective, and total conman–will make his way to television with the premiere of the aptly named NBC show, Constantine. As a longtime fan, I was skeptical about the show when it was first announced. A previous screen adaptation had left me wanting, and had all but convinced me that the dark and clever tone of the comic book would never be properly translated to any other medium. I’m still not one hundred percent convinced that NBC’s Constantine will be a perfect adaptation of the character and his stories, but after viewing the pilot at New York Comic Con, I will say that I’m now hopeful, and even excited, to see where this series goes.
Without spoiling too much about the pilot, I’ll say that it felt tonally in line with the long running Vertigo comic, Hellblazer, that fleshed John Constantine out from his self-loathing, chainsmoking beginnings. Set in the U.S., the locations and sets used definitely imbue the pilot with an undertone of dread. Constantine is a horror character, and the show doesn’t forget this. It has plenty of creep-factor, relying on slow builds that lead to frightening revelations rather than overly relying on jump scares–though there were plenty of those, too. Unfortunately, in some instances the special effects took away a bit of the scare, instead rendering a potentially frightening interaction (or two) into unintentional comedy.
The best part of the pilot was Constantine himself, or rather the actor portraying him: Matt Ryan. Ryan embodies John Constantine with a false swagger and bravado that masks a noble heart and a deep personal pain. It’s a performance that fits within the confines of broadcast television–no smoking or swearing here, folks–but still manages to bring the smartass, yet well-intentioned, magic man to life. Constantine’s pilot has its faults, of course–pacing being a big one and rough dialogue another–but nothing that tells of systemic faults and nothing that can’t be smoothed out with a few more episodes.
But enough about the TV show. The pilot airs next Friday, and if the buzz surrounding it is any indication, a lot of people will be tuning in. As a long time fan of the character, it would be great to see this show bring a new group of readers to the comics that developed Constantine into a complex, dynamic character, worthy of a show during primetime. So here’s a guide to the character, an Intro to John Constantine, if you will, and the best stories you can find him in.
It’s no surprise that a character as iconic and complex as John Constantine was co-created by one of the best comics writers ever, Alan Moore. His work from the 1980s is especially worth reading, if you’ve got the time. Out of that repertoire, Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is easily the best take on the character. It’s also where Constantine first appeared in comics. The Swamp Thing storyline “American Gothic“ sees the Avatar of the Green traveling the country, and it’s on this journey that he runs into everyone’s favorite cocky magician. I’ll just say this about “American Gothic”: the Ivunche is one of the scariest monster designs I have ever seen, and the story told around it is such an excellent example of great horror comics storytelling. After his appearance in Swamp Thing, Constantine got the first of his solo titles. Hellblazer, originally part of the main DC universe before being pulled into the Vertigo imprint, ran from 1988 to 2013. In 2013, the post-New 52 solo title Constantine launched, effectively erasing the history created in Hellblazer and rebooting the character completely.
While Alan Moore is a fantastic writer, it’s my opinion that the best Constantine stories come from Jamie Delano’s run on Hellblazer. Delano’s work on the Vertigo title is also the best place to jump onto the Constantine story train, as knowledge of the Swamp Thing run isn’t necessary to understand where Constantine is now. The trade paperback Original Sins is a new reader’s best bet for getting into the Hellblazer mythology, and was written exclusively by Jamie Delano, with art by both John Ridgeway and Alfredo Alcala. It collects the first nine arcs from the series, some of the best stories ever told about John Constantine. Delano creates a world that resembles ours, but is clearly twisted by the politics and fears of the late 1980s, when the series first started out, with a splash of the supernatural added in for fun. Constantine’s world mirrors his own grey morality: in “Hunger,” John sacrifices an old friend to defeat a demon; in “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” he witnesses the violent return of soldiers missing in action during the Vietnam War; in “Intensive Care,” he has to team up with a demon that could plausibly be described as his arch-enemy, betraying his own code of ethics in order to stop the coming of the Biblical apocalypse.
Delano is at his best when these stories go beyond simply being scary stories and start to comment on the social issues in Constantine’s world and in ours. This commentary isn’t always as subtle as it can be–in “Going for It,” Constantine fights demons who, it’s implied, are responsible for the re-election of Margaret Thatcher–but its existence creates a depth in Hellblazer that’s noticeably absent in later incarnations of the character. This absence has been felt most acutely in the 2005 movie and in the most recent DC comics series, Constantine and Justice League Dark. The stories collected in Original Sins do what good horror is supposed to do: they look at a society’s fears and pull them into the realm of the fantastic in order to better critique them. These stories feel surprisingly modern. The art has a lot to do with this, as the pages are graphic and full of movement, with panels breaking from a rigid grid system and mimicking the manic energy found in the actions of the characters. The structure of the pages, as well as the fact that the subjects of criticism are problems that still exist today, elevates Original Sins and makes it a collection that feels contemporary, even though it was published twenty-six years ago.
Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits, written by Garth Ennis and with art by Will Simpson, is another story that best exemplifies the character, and might even be a better intro than Original Sins. In Dangerous Habits, Constantine is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Constantine attempts to get help from an angel who owes him before realizing that the only person who can save him is himself. I won’t reveal what happens at the end of this excellent arc, but it happens in typical Constantine fashion–meaning it’s a clever solution that screws over people who aren’t John Constantine. Dangerous Habits is a great, nearly-stand alone story that’s pretty easy for new readers to pick up without having read any other Constantine stories. It explores the journey of accepting a terminal illness, though through the unique perspective of Constantine’s lived experience. The 2005 film adaptation pulls some influence from this arc, though somehow losing everything iconic about Hellblazer at the same time. (That film is a discussion for a completely different article, but I will say this: though it might be a Constantine story basically in name only, it is a pretty fun and watchable supernatural noir film. Plus, Tilda Swinton is in it, which is reason enough to watch it, if you ask me.)
Hellblazer, unfortunately, lost its appeal in the last few years of the title. The biting satire and rawness found in earlier stories had all but faded out by the time 2013 rolled around. And the DC relaunch (Constantine) isn’t any better. The storylines are weighed down with unnecessary exposition and the book doesn’t trust its readers to get the more clever aspects of the plot, when the plot manages cleverness. In short, whatever magic was in Hellblazer has apparently been spent. Justice League Dark, a New 52 ensemble book full of DC’s magical characters, also lacks the spark found in Hellblazer. Busy and shallow plots, too many characters, as well as an oversimplification of those characters makes the book almost unreadable. A new start in the comics landscape has done nothing to make this character as engaging as he used to be.
Maybe one of the reasons why I’m now so hopeful for the NBC show is that the John Constantine in the comics feels so unlike himself. Going back and re-reading “American Gothic“, the “Original Sins“ and “Dangerous Habits“ storylines, you can catch a glimpse of what makes this character so special, and so unique. With over twenty-five years of comics stories to mine, the show has so much potential for bringing these stories to life in a different way, and for creating new stories all their own. The pilot, unlike any of the comic books John Constantine appears in now, has given me hope that this character still has life in him, that a burial isn’t yet necessary. And if it isn’t the successful translation I’m hoping it’ll be, well, I’ve still got my TPBs to go back to.
Constantine premieres Friday, October 24th at 10/9c PM.