Nico On Comics: The Many Selves of John Constantine, The Hellblazer Part One

“As I’ve said before, HELLBLAZER’S a writer-driven book if there ever was one. John’s the
kind of character who becomes the person who writes him (or is it the other way around?)
Good or bad, Paul [Jenkin]’s version of John is gonna be different from Jamie [Delano]’s
and Garth [Ennis]’s (perhaps a wee bit more introspective, etc), just like the guy
who’ll take over Hellblazer after […] will write a different John from Paul. “
-Axel Alonso, letters page from Hellblazer 126, Jun ‘98

John Constantine. Magus. Conjurer. Alcoholic. Smoker. Uncle. Conman. Asshole.

When we think of Wolverine, we get a certain mental image. A man who is at all times a feral, ninja, soldier, superhero, lover, killer, teacher-of-teenage-minority-female-protégés. But he is a set thing. Wolverine is Logan is James Howlett is Patch is Weapon X. His character is set (save for the odd Logan cries a lot story (BKV’s Logan, Bendis’s use of Logan in The Pulse Secret War arc). He is all of those things is at once. The titles he appears in are Wolverine-suited titles where he belongs. They’re often violent, involving SNIKT-ing off various appendages. But Wolverine is almost always Wolverine in a Wolverine title. When we think of Tony Stark, we think millionaire industrialist playboy alcoholic bogged down by fears of insecurity and weakness, fighting obscure and bizarre villains in a robo-suit. We know who Tony Stark is. You rarely open an Iron Man issue and have to struggle to figure who Tony Stark is. I’m sure we have his movie franchise in part to thank for that – we all know who he is now. And that’s awesome.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, even Luke Cage – these are all iconic characters, who all revert to a certain status quo. Who they are is a clearly defined character. We recognize them. Even when a writer comes along who changes things, it isn’t long before they revert to who we knew them to be. A character like Spider-Man who regularly appears in what cannot be less than 5 monthly titles has even more trouble breaking free of that status quo – he’ll be who we know him to be in at least one title each month. These characters are more than just a loose set of notions tied together in a costume – we know these characters, we know who they are, and when we read their titles, we understand it. Even Batman, whose titles appeal to his different readers – Detective Comics is detective stories, while Batman involves more Two-Facey/Jokery villain types – we know what we’re in for.
John Constantine is not so lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective).

John Constantine first appeared in Alan Moore’s legendary Swamp Thing. Famously created because Moore wanted to write a character who looked like Sting, Constantine had his own title within 3 years, which has not ceased publication since 1988. Hellblazer, which was supposed to be called Hellraiser but Clive Barker beat them to it, and in its 300 issues only had 8 major writers each to have their own run (which compared to Uncanny X-Men who since 1991 has seen over 15 regular writers), with a number of fill-ins between, all 300 seeing John Constantine as the lead character. Except, as Axel Alonso tells it, there’s been at least 8 different Johns who have taken turns as the magus.
Having always had a keen interest in the character and having read some here-and-there, sometime a few years ago, I began collecting up all the Hellblazer I could find (his on-going plus any important minis, appearances, one-shots, annuals, specials, OGNs, and even in continuity novels). And fuck me sideway, John has all of those. With the help of a few terrific sites (Straight to Hell & the John Constantine Appearances Index), I was able to get this organized into a readable fashion and began a journey into who John was.

He’s been described as “The Master of Bad Luck Magic.” His most frequently used powers are his cunning and street smarts. However, he’s raised the dead. No, seriously, he uses necromancy in an arc. Some writers, Delano in particular, would be willing to go issues without the appearance of magic, while others relied on it. Though, for the most part, the best Hellblazer stories get a Long Island Iced Tea-esque mix going, taking equal parts character, cunning, magic, mystery, and horror to create the universe of John Constantine, who for a guy who once told future-most-power-mage-in-the-universe Timothy Hunter to never reveal his true name for fear of its power, is pretty well known.

I read NEARLY EVERY issue, save for a few appearances in books that had no impact on the character (no offense, Mobfire) and his post-Moore Swamp Thing. This is what I know about John Constantine.
Each writer takes the general idea of John Constantine as they understand him and (I’d like to think) do their best. But what changes more than who John is is the world around him. One great thing about comics is you can be reading X-Force one month, at issue 115, enjoying Warren Ellis’s Counter-X secondary X-Book early millennial revamping, and suddenly you’re reading a satire of the mutant condition about a reality show and a floating blob named Doop (who you would begin having sexual fantasies about, never sure what it is about his soft, round head, and that pointed “X” stamped across his body…). Comics can change significantly at any point, but as a rule, they don’t. Usually, the format/genre the book is in remains the same. X-Force becoming X-Statix (while stunning) is a rare occurrence. Even Grant Morrison’s hostile (and brilliant) takeover of the X-Universe by way of New X-Men was born out of history and status quo – the institute became a school again, Magneto was the ultimate villain, Jean became the Phoenix (oh, fuck you that’s not a spoiler at this point). It was a classic X-Book, violated within an inch of its sanity and reborn a terrifying, beautiful creature that sent the superhero genre forward after a stagnant decade.

Who John is does not vary writer to writer any more than Wolverine does. Logan may be more of a lover or a ninja or decides to train a Jewish girl or a Japanese girl depending on the author. John is a complicated, multifaceted character, giving room for many authors to write him without breaking from who he is. He’s always a hard drinking, chain smoking, bad ass magus with a trenchcoat. His character is a set thing – writers don’t get to change that without betraying the fans. What changes more than John, though, is the world he’s set in. We don’t necessarily see a whole new John each run, since new writers tend to build on what the previous ones have done. How John reacts to the vastly different world around him is really what changes writer to writer.

Delano wrote a political book where the secondary players were important for a time, then disposed of, leaving John always on his own. Ennis wrote a character piece focusing on John’s relationships as they relate to his world of magic, sometimes causing those he loves harm. Jenkins’s run was a story about fallout, picking up pieces from the runs before him and creating a book about magical worlds and the John ruining the lives of his friends to achieve his ends. Warren Ellis’s short run said more about John as a character in 11 issues than Jenkins’s entire 3 ½ years. The list goes on.

This multi-part series will examine how John Constantine is John Constantine, but each writer’s personal view of the world became John’s – the changes were external, not internal.
UP FIRST: Delano/Ennis!