Friday, July 24, 2009

Who the hell is John Constantine?

Back when the only source of comic news available to me were house ads and columns from Johnny DC and Stan's Soapbox, I was fascinated by John Constantine, without knowing a damn thing about him.

In fact, with the distribution of mature comics almost non-existent in my little corner of the world, the first place I ever saw the character mentioned was an issue of Teen Titans. Former Doom Patrol member Mento was going through one of his kill-'em-all phases, and would wander around talking to himself and mentioning the character's name. Constantine was a man of true mystery, and the few hints I could pick up from comics like that Titans issue didn't tell me much about the character, but gave me enough to keep me looking for more.

(Around the same time, I also had a little trouble trying to figure out what this Watchmen comic was all about, although I knew it had something to do with pirates and sugar cubes. It wasn't until I found a cover-less copy of Who's Who that I first read all about the particular details of that slice of comic history, and it was another half-decade before I actually saw the damn thing.)

The first time I ever actually saw John Constantine was in a house ad. Despite owning the odd issue of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, I had managed to collect the few issues that didn't feature the character. It wasn't until Richard Piers Rayner took over for a brief run on Hellblazer and DC put out a half page ad for the laughing magician, crowing about the whole new look that he was getting from the artist, that I finally saw him.

It was also here that I first realised that John Constantine was the main character in that Hellblazer comic I had also heard about. Considering I was well into my teens by this time, the only explanation for missing this vital fact is that I was, after all, just a teenager and therefore as thick as pigshit.

I still can’t figure out what it was that caught me and reeled me in about the character. I knew he was into magic, but that was all. It was that one image of a dirty, working-class magician with a cigarette in one hand and a weird smile on his face that got me.

From there, I managed to scrounge a few more issues of Swamp Thing and I had a fair idea of who this man was. I knew Garth Ennis, a writer I was familiar with through Crisis and 2000ad, had taken over the comic, but actual issues were still non-existent.

The first issue of Hellblazer I ever managed to buy was well into Ennis' run, and after the title had made the official switch to the Vertigo brand. To be honest, it was the lure of a Glen Fabry cover and Steve Dillon art that caught my eye first, more than any real affection for the character. The one I had built up in my head was faded by then, but the comic struck a chord. It wasn’t just the storyline, it was the storytelling craft on display. Dillon has always been good, but was still refining his style. Ennis was young and full of piss and vinegar, and had a couple of things to get off his chest.

It led into the obligatory wander across America that every Vertigo title had to do every 24 months, but it was sad and funny and a bit mental, and I was with Ennis and Dillion to the end of their run.

I wish Eddie Campbell had stuck around a bit longer, because the Paul Jenkins Constantine never clicked. After that, even a return from Ennis was only okay, and I haven’t bought a regular issue since the first one from Ellis.

I still read them, mainly in trade paperbacks from the library. I like a lot of things about Azzarello, but couldn’t get a grip on the overall plot, and Carey lasted a bit too long.

The speed and humour that Diggle brought back to the title was a welcome relief, and I am genuinely interested in reading the current stories from Milligan. Some of them have even got art from Bisley in there. Simon Bisley! I still love him! Maybe I will have to check some new issues out.

Still have to throw some love in Delano’s direction, having read almost all his run in back issue chunks. Like the later Carey stories, some of it goes on a bit, but Delano also had a good eye for the truly disturbing, including the most horrific appearance of Winnie The Pooh ever.

There have still been mis-steps. We won’t talk about that movie, and there has been plenty of mediocre Hellblazer comics and books from respected creators, but the essential creation is still incredibly potent. The working-class mage with more honour than most, even if he rarely shows it. Somebody who understands the sacrifices that must be made for the greater good, but doesn’t forget all the mates that he lost.

John Constantine is still a man of mystery, I don’t know a lot about him, and some of what I do know makes me hate him, buts he is still the ultimate charming git.

I’m still looking for a couple of the Ennis issues of Hellblazer. I still don’t know how he gets that demon out of Prince Charles, or what he does with the dead bodies that scientists were doing horrible things to. I’m looking forward to finding out one day.

But this week, I did finally get every issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, after a 20 year search. The issues I got this week included the very first appearance of John Constantine, and he did something that really surprised me.

He was always good at that.


Jesse Farrell said...

I saw the film Constantine, sort of by mistake, to get out of a snowstorm in New York City.

Weirdly enough, I didn't hate it. Had nothing to do with John Constantine/ Hellblazer- it was entirely other- which is why I think I found it passable.

Sure, they tossed everything about the character that made JC JC, and Keanu Reeves actually seems embarassed by his own performance, as if the moment the director yelled cut, you'd actually see him wince. But if you just imagine it's called "Johnny Magic," it's not a bad movie. Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel? I can't write that one off entirely.

Bob Temuka said...

Oh okay, I didn't totally dislike the movie, but I did hate two moments so much that it ruined the rest of it for me.

One was the bit where Constantine totally screws over the demons by turning the fire sprinkler water into holy water, which was great, but then they followed it with an absolutely unnecessary bit where he shot them in the face with a shotgun and kicked and punched his way through them. It ruined the moment and turned the character into another action film cliche.

The second part was that last bit at the end, where he whips out a pack of chewing gum, and showed they completely missed the point of the character.

I had no problem with Constantine turning American, brunette and all Keanu Reeves, it was still possible to tell a Constantine story with those changes. But those two little bits ruined the whole damn film, because it showed that everybody involved had not idea what they were dealing with.

I like a good fanboy whine, every now and again.

Bob Temuka said...

Oh, and Tilda Swinton was magnificent, but she always is.

Jesse Farrell said...

Yeah, they didn't get Constantine at all. Hence "Johnny Magic."

Swinton can play anything. Had they cast her as Bruce Wayne in the new Batman movies, I might have watched them (see? I can also make with the fanboy whine).