If you’re reading this (and I hope you are, or else we’re both losing our minds), odds are you’ve heard the fate of John Constantine. Once the figurehead of mature comics and the reason for the existence of Vertigo comics, Constantine has now been relegated to the third tier dregs of the 52-ed DCU, holding afloat the struggling Justice League Dark and beginning his own Constantinebook in 2013. While it is not unheard of for there to be crossover between DC and Vertigo (Swamp Thing, Deadman, Shade the Changing Man, and Sandman all spring to mind), it is a new trial to take one character from the other and make them exist solely in one. And DC has no idea what they’re losing.
A supporting character created by Alan Moore for his character redefining Swamp Thing run, John Constantine originally functioned as a foil for the good nature of Swamp Thing. He was a magician, a prick and a grifter. Those aspects of his character never changed. But, beginning with Jamie Delano’s run on Constantine’s own (and Vertigo’s first) running title, Hellblazer, the character of Constantine took off, growing exponentially in the capable hands of some of comics’ best writers and artists.
Where once there was a fairly two dimensional magician, there was replaced a man trying to grow from his mistakes, struggling to be a good force in the midst of evil. With that, he was a bastard. Out for himself constantly, any movement towards civility and goodness were well met with varying degrees of selfishness, greed and even malice. All of this set against a backdrop of good and evil, gods and devils, monsters and magic, the results were all the more spectacular when he chose to do the right thing. Or when he didn’t.
And, as of Peter Milligan’s last issue, the 300th of the series, that will be erased. The hard-earned and cigarette-singed history of a man will be traded up for dalliances with Zatanna and one-liners with Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
Before we push forward, let me make clear that I know, in the bizarrely short term, this makes business sense. By taking a character with a level of gained popularity, and pushing it straight into the struggling magic aspect of the DCU (especially one with some level of name recognition), there stands to be some money made. Likewise, Hellblazer hadn’t been in its finest form in some time, with dear old John being mutilated more than grown. You lose a thumb, you lose your book.
I also understand that DC isn’t pulling Hellblazer trades and back issues from the shelves. Realistically, I could just not read Constantine and move on, leaving John lay until the inevitable regression to Vertigo when this doesn’t work.
I get that. Sure. But look at what you’re losing by ending Hellblazer.
Not only has the revamped DCU made habit of bringing characters up only to completely disregard them and leave them to the worms, but it has also made mincemeat of most characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and traits, areas of particular depth for Constantine. While this is an aid to some titles, providing fresh opportunity for new creators and ideas to flourish, John Constantine isn’t Superman. John Constantine isn’t Blue Beetle. John Constantine is John fucking Constantine. What Hellblazer needed was a fresh team, not a fresh start, and by losing the entirety of the character, you only end up with one of the numerous generic Johns that have made their rounds in DC through the years.
Willoughby Kipling sends regards. Chin-chin.
Because Hellblazer was, from its beginnings, an adult-oriented book, there was never any need to pull punches, and the paths carved by Delano, Ennis, Ellis and others didn’t lead to all-ages destinations. Recall for me, if you can, the last time Green Lantern held for ransom the heart of an enemy. Recount then that time when Wonder Woman vivisected the ghost of a monster. This isn’t at all to attack the tone or content of mainstream DC stories, but instead to paint the contrast. The man who tricked the devil does not play with Superman.
This begs the question of how much of Constantine will make it into Constantine. Outside of the obvious issues (there being no god or devil in the DCU being a big one), there is John as a person. Dan DiDio released a statement this week basically saying that the core aspects of the character would not be changed, and that we had nothing to worry about so buy, buy, buy. While it may seem a foregone conclusion not to trust a DC press release, particularly one by DiDio, it still stands to say it: bullshit.
I don’t mind the loss of explicit sex and graphic violence in a Constantine book. While the grit involved went a long way to make the stories seem real, a good creative team can do wonders with limits. The loss of graphic language however, is a real one. A scumbag is a scumbag when the cards are down and John Constantine showed his hand a long time ago. If you can’t call Chas a cunt, you lose something in his summoning of demons or what have you.
The real loss is story scope and concept though. The DCU is in a constant state of returning to the status quo. It always has been, and always will be. Problematic in general, it is a problem at its most potent when dealing with characters that aim not only to upset normality, but to destroy it all together.
Some disordered background: Constantine was created by Moore as a magician and general asshole, but fleshed out by Jamie Delano as a reaction to Thatcher’s England. He was the lower class, dealing with the dregs of a demonic aristocracy, stuck always to the gutter as evil flourished in high rise apartments and well kept homes. The rich, powerful and successful were largely painted as devils in disguise, and it was John’s duty to keep them in check, fuck with their day, and bring them down in time.
It is a hard line to tow when you’re asking that guy to make sure that this menace or that threat doesn’t upset Metropolis’ applecart. You cannot ask a pauper to feed a king. Or a queen, as was generally the case.
It should be said that I have little real problem with Constantine on its own. I do not know the work of Robert Venditti to any real degree, and have nothing against a new book being set in the mainstream universe as an alternate take, what-if, or whatever. But it should not be (and no matter what, is not), the replacement for the Hellblazer series. It is a disrespect to every creator involved, and to fans, to say that “no one should worry that John is going to hang-up his trenchcoat,” then salt the earth and move along.
But that’s what DC is doing. They’re overwriting and re-organizing John Constantine as a character, and erasing what will be 300 issues of growth for the sake of a very quick buck. And this is, plainly, a mistake. Though not the first victim of DC’s haphazard policy with books and characters over the past year and a half, Hellblazer is a unique case, as DC is closing the door on something that doesn’t effect the DCU at all, in favor of something that will function only as a re-tooling of the very thing they’re ending. While other characters have suffered various injustices, this one comes with an erasure of a book, and in many ways, a character. This is where money does what vampires, ghosts, killers and devils never could, and kills off John.
But John Constantine does not die with a DC managerial decision. He will not live on in a PG-13 what-if world either. He is too strong a character with too much importance to take either of those paths. So, instead, Constantine waits. For the failure of Constantine and the realization of its mistake(s). For the re-emergence of creativity and passion in adult comics, and a new generation of readers, informed by DC’s attempts to mainstream him, discovering “Damnation’s Flame” for the first time. For “Shoot” to be brought up and debated.
I imagine him somewhere near Dublin, in a bar he knows too well, surrounded by familiar strangers. He’s older now, and it shows. His Guinness is sweating next to him as he fumbles with the Silk Cut between the fingers on his mangled hand, and as he lights up, he takes a deep breath. He’s beaten cancer and returned to the poison. He’s tricked the devil and cursed God. And now he’s exhaling, slow through his nose, eyeing the new girl pouring a shot for the poor bastard he tricked for a few Euros earlier that night.
“Euros,” he mutters to himself, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling, “what in fuck happened to money anyway.”
But he smiles at the girl and she smiles back and he’s not too proud to mumble a quick spell to himself as he guzzles his glass and motions to her for another. She blushes and saunters his way. John shuffles his shoulders a bit and sits up straight, leaning the Silk Cut in an ash tray.
The bastard magician of London slums, trying to hide a beating heart behind a battered trench coat. The devil’s mis-adventurer, eternally in trouble, but rarely ever worried. That guy there, in that smoky corner, trying to make a pretty girl smile. That’s my John Constantine, and he’s not going anywhere.
“’Ello love,” he says, “how about another?”
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