Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Comic Book (Anti) Heroes

John Constantine: The Beginning

John Constantine is arguably one of the greatest and most loved characters in modern comic history. He is a magician, an exorcist, a demon hunter, a con-artist, a consummate cynic, an acerbic wit, a scouser, a complex loner and an inexorable chainsmoker. Although lacking in any of the characteristics that would traditionally define a hero, John is driven by a deep desire for redemption and the need to do some good with his life.

The chain smoking trenchcoat wearing John Constantine was created by Steve Bissette, John Totleben and the legendary comic book genius Alan Moore, and reportedly, Alan Moore created the character after the artists expressed an interest in drawing a character that looked like Sting. Later Jamie Delano became responsible for Hellblazer and its subsequent popularity as he took John into a real world environment aging in real time and defined the character into the loveable, flawed anti-hero.

Constantine made his first appearance as a recurring character in the horror comic series Swamp Thing in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1988 that Constantine finally got to star in his own comic with the DC publication of Hellblazer (in 1993 when DC launched Vertigo the consistently popular Hellblazer became its first title and remains its longest running series).

The morally ambiguous mage John Constantine was born in Liverpool on 10th May 1953 and his entry into the world is typically violent and dramatic. His mother, as a result of a reluctant abortion years previously, died in childbirth and we learn that the foetus John strangled his own twin in the womb with his own umbilical cord. Interestingly, later in the series a parallel universe reveals that in its reality the twin survives and becomes the well-rounded, balanced and respected magician that John couldn’t possibly be.

John and his father Thomas spend his childhood harbouring deep resentment for each other and their troubled relationship comes to an abrupt end when John runs away from home and in a final farewell he places a curse on his father that results in his becoming withered and frail.

By the time he is fourteen, Constantine had developed a serious interest in the occult (an inevitability as as far back as the 6th century his ancestors have been occult dabblers) and, partly as a means to avoid the harsh realities of his troubled, unhappy childhood, spends his time immersed in any books he could find on the subject. This obsession results in a pivotal confrontation between father and son that is ultimately the last nail in the coffin of their already fraught relationship. When John is expelled from school for initiating a chant of “Out Demons! Out!” in morning assembly, his father, furious with the child’s actions, takes his son’s books outside and begins burning them on a bonfire. Enraged at the act this moment becomes a catalyst and inspires the young John Constantine to use his magic as a means to avenge the wrongs that he perceives to exist in the world.

In grand old style John runs off to London and sets up house with Francis "Chas" Chandler, the character who goes on to become his closest, most trustworthy and longest surviving, friend. Finding himself as settled as he gets in 70s London John begins to explore his fascination with the occult. While honing his skills he also becomes obsessed with emerging punk scene and begins his own band Mucous Membrane.

Despite the great name John eventually realises that his band is in fact the worst band ever, and he dispenses with punk music as a career, but holds onto the attitude and remerges as self-styled punk rock magician. Having heard reports of mysterious going ons at the scene of Mucous Membrane’s first ever gig at the Casanova Club in Newcastle John, along with his ramshackle band of friends, set off to investigate matters further.

It transpires that the club’s owner Alex Logue, an infamous ‘sex and drugs magician’, has been using the club’s basement for satanic orgies, sacrifices and other all manner unsavoury practices. Rambunctious and over confident John is perversely thrilled to discover that a fear elemental is responsible and comes up with the foolhardy plan to summon a demon to destroy it. Unsurprisingly this course of action ends in tragedy leaving the Newcastle Crew emotionally and psychically scarred and Logue’s abused young daughter’s soul consigned to hell. The incident haunts him

Driven almost to insanity by what he witnessed in Newcastle and the resulting guilt of the incident John winds up being incarcerated in the ‘Ravenscar Secure Facility For The Mentally Deranged’ where he suffers even further torment as the staff and inmates believe him to a child killer. Ravenscar becomes a recurrent ‘home’ for John and he spends the next two years in an out of the facility. It isn’t until powerful East End gangster Harry Cooper intervenes that John is finally released for good, but at a price, Cooper wants John to wanting John to bring his son back from the dead. And that’s the just the beginning of his troubles.

Essentially John Constantine is a reprehensible bastard; he’s bitter, twisted, cynical and self-obsessed, he merrily puts the entire human race in jeopardy to pull off the world’s greatest con and cheat death from lung cancer and he is often responsible for the horrific deaths of those close to him. Ultimately he can never be relied upon to do the right thing, though occasionally he’ll do the wrong thing for the right reasons, but yet, he is still intensely likeable and you always remain on his side.

Predominately against the gritty backdrop of London’s underside, JC remains constantly locked in grim conflict with; demons, vampires, angels, serial killers, evil cults and The First of Fallen and often himself and his own self-induced madness, and that’s just a few of problems. But the deeper identity of Constantine is that no matter how self-serving and amoral he is by nature the wrong choices he makes are often in terms of some greater good and frequently he becomes the underdog’s sole champion, albeit a reluctant one and not necessarily the one the particular underdog might have chosen given the choice. Quintessential everyman, Constantine is the figurative shadow of humanity itself; he’s selfish, flawed, underhand, petty, desperate, arrogant, malicious, he’s all of us on a bad day, but yet, despite who is and where he came rather than because of it he still manages to achieve the small triumphs for good that offer hope and these achievements despite of all his serious flaws give us hope that we can be better too.

If you haven’t read Hellblazer you really, really must. I mean really, I’m serious, go buy the trade paperbacks now.


  1. Great read. John Constantine has always been an intriguing character...although I prefer to pretend that the Keanu Reeves picture was never made. In fact--aside from the Matrix and Bill & Ted series--I prefer to pretend that MOST Keanu Reeves movies were never made!


  2. Jonny! You, sir, are a man of fine taste. I completely agree with you, I'm too am in deep denial about that movie, and Keanu Reeves, deep, deep denial about him. If we ignore him he might go away.

  3. Awesome summary! I love Hellblazer. Am also hoping for a complete rebooting of the film so someone can do it properly this time.

  4. Hey, Chris! Just have to say, I'm finding your blog fascinating. It's nice to get an insight into the individual creative process. Very cool.
    I'm always immediately dubious about almost any comic book film, sad old purist that I am. But, to be fair, I think it's terribly difficult to do the material justice in film. Part of me would almost prefer to see it as a TV series. But that would probably be even more ghastly, and starring someone out of Hollyoaks probably. Eurgh, now I've sickened myself.

  5. That's true, a TV series would be fantastic if it was done right. Glad you're enjoying the blog!

  6. Jinx, this is one of the finest, most articulate and thorough character reviews/studies I've read. I only know Alan Moore WATCHMEN, so I've missed out on Constantine (cept for the Keanu movie, sorry :) ) Your post is just so enthusiastic that I'm going to go out and check into Hellblazer.

  7. Oh, Rogue, thank you so much. I'm so happy that I've encouraged you to check it out. I promise you won't regret it. You can come back and see me if you do. x

  8. I loved the original run of Constantine but sadly I sold those issues off on eBay a few years back out of necessity. I've always thought Keifer Sutherland in "Flatliners" was the perfect embodiment of the character.

  9. Right on. I love me some Constantine, and I love this article. Nicely put, m'dear

  10. Me again. Just wanted to drop by and let you know that I included a link to this post in my second "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!




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