Who the hell am I going on about? I’ll explain.
1. THE BEGINNING
Once upon a midnight dreary, comics legend Alan Moore — not quite yet a legend at the time we’re talking about, 1983 — took over writing duties on DC Comics’ Saga of the Swamp Thing. The following conversation (note: not really verbatim) happened between Moore and the artists he’d be working with on the comic, penciller Stephen R. Bissette and inker John Totleben:
MOORE: Right. Is there anything you lads would especially like to draw?
BISSETTE AND TOTLEBEN: Well, we’d kind of like to draw a character who looks like Sting.
MOORE: All righty then.
So Bissette and Totleben snuck said Gordon Sumner lookalike into a panel of Swamp Thing #24:
…and from there, Sting-clone became John Constantine, the sort of character Moore had always wanted to write: a wised-up, cynical, working-class Brit magus, no fancy-pants elite sorcerer with a cape but a “nasty piece of work” who kept an aura of hostile mystery wrapped around him like the rumpled trenchcoat he usually wore.
Constantine was a part of Swamp Thing’s supporting cast for quite a while, showing up to manipulate the plant elemental into various journeys to save the world, or, at least, several random small towns. (Oh, yes, and the world.) In 1988, Constantine got his own comic book: Hellblazer.
2. STRIKING OUT ON HIS OWN
The dude was popular, and remains so: Hellblazer has appeared monthly, first under the general DC imprint and then under DC’s mature-readers Vertigo imprint, ever since. The latest issue, as I write this, is #278. Almost two years from now, Hellblazer will hit the big 300. Well, the fans hope so, anyway. In connection with DC’s latest big crossover event Brightest Day, Constantine — along with Swamp Thing — has been brought back into the regular DC universe, and everyone hopes that doesn’t mean the end of no-kiddies-allowed Vertigo adventures with copious gore, nudity and F-bombs. The earlier issues of Hellblazer, before R-rated language became permissible in DC/Vertigo titles (don’t quote me, but I seem to recall it was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #64 that finally broke the “fuck” barrier), have the hapless Constantine forced to say things like “Friggin’ wanker” … and, really, if you’re going to say “wanker,” you might as well go big with it and say “Fucking wanker.” But I digress.
The appeal of Constantine is pretty simple: he takes no crap, he knows his stuff, and he’s a good guy to have on your side. Just don’t get too close to him: his friends have a disconcerting habit of dying. Every so often, his dead friends pay him a visit in spectral form, calling him a wanker (or a fucking wanker) or just staring at him in mute accusation. He’s had many girlfriends over the years (and a few boyfriends; you can see him swapping spit with a male lover/adversary in Ashes & Dust), and recently got hitched to a woman young enough to be his daughter. Constantine may be damned to hell, but he’s a basically decent chap who won’t stand for people being ground down by anyone more powerful, be they humans, angels or demons. He’s deeply flawed, of course, but that just adds to his appeal. He’s not perfect, not a white knight riding to the rescue; he’s just a bloke who happens to have a lot of street smarts and an equal amount of metaphysical smarts.
Somewhere along the line, it was decided that Constantine would age in “real time.” Unlike everyone else in comics, who seem to stay in their twenties or thirties forever, Constantine turned 40 in 1993, in a Garth Ennis-written story appropriately titled “Forty.” These days, eighteen years later (and damn, that makes him and me feel old), Constantine is a bit worse for wear: a scar mars his face, he hacked off his own thumb during a fit of madness, and his once-blonde hair has gone white. However, since he’s also got demon blood coursing through his veins, his aging process might be a little slower than most blokes’. He may be pushing 60, and his days as a ’70s punk-rock screamer are many moons behind him, but he’s not looking too shabby, all things considered (he still smokes and drinks to excess).
3. THE MOVIE, OR “TEEN” VS. “TINE”
Constantine got a bit of a PR boost in 2005, when a movie bearing his name hit theaters. If you thought the fanboy outcry was bad when Michael Keaton was announced as Batman, imagine the pants-shitting fury when Constantine, the British-to-his-toes gutter wizard whose early appearance was patterned on Sting, was slated to be played by one Keanu Charles Reeves.
Thing is, Keanu wasn’t all that bad as this character named John Constantine. He just wasn’t our John Constantine. He was, if you will, an alternate-universe Constantine who wore all black and hung out in Los Angeles instead of London. (Who knows, the Keanu version might even be the original Constantine’s son, from some L.A. bird Constantine shagged back in the day.)
In the comics, Constantine’s name rhymes with “wine.” Constan-TINE. In the movie, it’s pronounced Constan-TEEN. So there you have it. Constan-TEEN is the American riff, altered to appeal to TEENS (dude, Shia LaBoeuf is even in it). Constan-TINE is the real deal.
Hellblazer may have 278 (and counting) issues for you to fish through, but that doesn’t mean you have to read all of them. I’ve read most of ‘em, and there’s a reason that not all of them have been collected in trade paperbacks: not all of them are really keepers. (Vertigo has, though, recently announced plans to reissue all the Hellblazer stories chronologically in trades.) There are, however, more than a few trade collections and original graphic novels that are worth your time and work perfectly well as stand-alone tales. Some are out of print, but used copies can be bought online from the usual suspects.
ORIGINAL SINS (collects Hellblazer #1-9) — The beginning of ol’ John’s solo venture. Writer Jamie Delano, whose run lasted till issue #40 (and the occasional story thereafter), took the opportunity to address social and political issues in a few of the stories, which may make this volume seem somewhat dated, what with the references to Thatcher and yuppies. (Also, like seemingly every other comics writer in the late ’80s, Delano had a whack at a Vietnam story.) But a lot of Hellblazer‘s groundwork — including John’s cab-driving buddy Chas, inexplicably played in the flick by Shia LaBoeuf — was laid here. NOTE: There’s a new edition of this volume that came out in March; it includes a couple of Swamp Thing stories that tie in with a couple of Hellblazer stories here. The previous edition didn’t contain the Swamp Thing issues, so part of the story was missing. So if you’re gonna get this, make sure you get the newer reissue.
DANGEROUS HABITS (collects Hellblazer #41-46) — The Constantine movie was loosely based on this seminal storyline, written by Garth Ennis (Preacher) and drawn, rather shakily I have to say, by Will Simpson. Years of smoking have deposited an unwelcome little friend in Constantine’s lungs, and he’s been given a matter of weeks to live. Problem: as soon as he dies, he’s going to Hell, where a vengeful Satan awaits him. How he thinks his way out of this mess makes this a great illustration of Constantine’s resources under pressure, and it climaxes with perhaps the quintessential hard-ass Constantine image (swiped for the movie).
HAUNTED (collects Hellblazer #134-139) — Mad bastard Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Red) started his brief tour through the Constantine-verse with this exceedingly grim piece wherein Constantine tries to find a naff Aleister Crowley wannabe who snuffed his ex-girlfriend. Ellis is in rare downbeat form here, going off on tangents about what a cesspool London is and what atrocities happen there every day, but since they mostly happen to poor people like Constantine’s ex, nobody gives a toss.
After a few stand-alone issues, Ellis left Hellblazer when DC/Vertigo declined to print his school-shooting story “Shoot,” which was written before Columbine but would have hit the stands shortly thereafter. Perhaps understandably, DC was worried about running a comic-book story featuring a trenchcoated lead character (remember the Trenchcoat Mafia?) who hypothesizes that the reason there are so many school massacres is that kids have no hope and no future. The story did circulate online in bootleg form and was later published in a Vertigo Resurrected volume.
HARD TIME (collects Hellblazer #146-150) — Or, Constantine Goes to Oz. The Oz of the HBO prison drama, that is, not L. Frank Baum. Hard-ass writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) began his Hellblazer run by sending Constantine to the clink for something he didn’t do (we find out exactly what in the last chapter). Constantine uses his wits and magical know-how to set himself up alongside the jail’s lifer bigwig Stark, which gets him into even worse trouble. Legendary artist Richard Corben does the honors here, and if his figures are sort of squat (as usual), he creates a despairing and ominous mood.
THE HORRORIST — A two-parter from old-school Hellblazer scribe Jamie Delano, with appropriately gloomy art by David Lloyd (V for Vendetta), this tale can be found in the collection The Devil You Know. Here, Constantine is up against a woman who saw untold suffering as a child in Mozambique and now seeks to show others how cruel life can be. John starts out as a bit of a cold bastard here — Delano overworks the “cold” symbolism a bit — but at the end of his travails he has gained, as Martin Blank put it, a new-found respect for human life. Sometimes a bit up itself, but the central conflict is solid, with a villain who isn’t really a villain and a hero who isn’t really a hero.
ALL HIS ENGINES — What do you do when your best mate’s little daughter falls victim to a demonic “coma bug” that’s sweeping the planet? Well, if you’re John Constantine, you play a death god against a hellspawn and watch the fireworks. This original graphic novel, written by Hellblazer regular Mike Carey, shows the softer side of ol’ John as he steps up to the plate to save a little girl on behalf of his long-suffering cabbie friend Chas. Featuring possibly the most disgusting demon ever, who bathes in the liquefied flesh of corpses.
DARK ENTRIES — Ian Rankin, bestselling author of the Rebus crime-fiction series, pops in for a visit to John’s neighborhood with this story that borrows equally from Big Brother and House on Haunted Hill. Several contestants are isolated in a house for a reality show as an experiment in fear; unfortunately, they start seeing disturbing things even before the show’s producers can start messing with their heads. So the producers bring in Constantine to see what’s what. Things aren’t that simple, though, as we learn the true nature of the reality show and how all the people in the house are connected. Nicely crafted, with pleasing black-and-white brushstroke art by Werther Dell’Edera, it was one of the first graphic novels in the Vertigo Crime series, launched in 2009.
VERTIGO SECRET FILES: HELLBLAZER — This 48-pager, which dropped in 2000, is the ultimate one-stop shopping when it comes to the world of John Constantine. It’s got everything that a newcomer or a longtime fan could want: fiction with spot illustrations, a funny Brian Azzarello comic with a wee John having his first cigarette, concise guides to every major supporting character (including a gorgeous portrait of Swamp Thing and his lady love Abigail by John Totleben), a timeline, a lengthy article with interviews with just about everyone who’d written Hellblazer up to that point, and even a map of “John Constantine’s London.” Some of it wound up in the collection Rare Cuts, but you should really try to find the issue itself; used copies are fairly cheap.
So that should get you started. And if you happen to meet ol’ John today, give him a pack of Silk Cuts and buy him a Guinness. Just don’t ask him to read your cards or anything daft like that, or you’re likely to get this response: