The first time I met John Constantine was back in the early 90‘s. I was an Art student with a crappy minimum wage job and barely enough coin in my pocket to afford something off the dollar menu at Taco-Bell. I was wandering through a bookstore, killing the remainder of my lunch hour when, glancing up at the comic-book rack, I spied a title called ‘The Books of Magic’. I grabbed the book and found a dark corner of the shop to stand in while I read it.
Back in those days they didn’t like for folks to sit around reading the merchandise without buying it, and they certainly didn’t set out big comfy chairs for you to do so, but I usually got away with it. I had a particular way of making myself look like I was supposed to be doing whatever I was doing. I would re-shelve books and answer questions when customers happened by and busy myself about reading the spines of nearby books when I felt the store manager looking in my direction.
And so there I was, reading a book I had no intention of ever paying for, when I met the greatest con-man of them all: John Constantine.
I usually didn’t gravitate toward comics in those days, but there was something about the title and cover of this particular book that intrigued me. Inside, I discovered that I was walking in on the second issue of the series. The plot focused on a bespectacled british lad named Tim Hunter who discovers that there is an entire society of magic wielding folks living just out of sight of the normal world and that he has a place among them. In the first four books, Tim and his pet owl (Harry Potter was less than a twinkle in Rowling’s eye at the time) are given a tour of that magical community along with some of it’s many dangers.
However, while reading that second issue, I found myself far more interested in the tour-guide than with Tim or any of the larger than life characters he met along the way.
Up until that point in my experience, comics were the realm solar-charged aliens who punched asteroids out of orbit and mentally unstable billionaires who dressed in tights and capes while fighting crime from the rooftops. Magic, when it made an appearance, was most often represented by the brightly colored likes of Dr. Strange conjuring arcane lightning from his fingertips to blast away at equally prismatic villains bent on turning humanity into zombies.
Flipping my way through ‘Books of Magic’, it was clear to me from the very beginning that John Constantine was a different animal altogether. As he and Tim made their rounds, rubbing elbows with the most flamboyant sorcerers that the DC-Universe had to offer, Constantine himself seemed less than impressed with the lot of them.
Years would pass before I met him again, and this time it would be in the pages of his own book: ‘Hellblazer’. I was managing a comic book store in those days and had ready access to any title that interested me but ‘Hellblazer’ was one of the few books that I would actually spend money on. The writing was just that good!
So who was this John Constantine fellow anyway?
John was a con man, a trickster, a chain-smoking foul-mouthed womanizing prick who was as likely to use his skills to cheat his friends at cards as he was to wheedle his way out of a contract with the devil. He didn’t prance about in a pair of tights and brightly colored robes while shouting incantations at the heavens. Instead, he was the consummate antihero, a selfish rogue who spent most of his time prowling his way through life wrapped in a filthy brown trench coat, looking for his next mark and trying not to be eaten by those enemies he made along the way.
He was, in short, exactly the sort of bloke you might expect to meet in real life.
Whether you would ever want to meet him was another matter entirely. Friends, enemies, random passers by, anyone who entered his circle usually didn’t leave it again unscathed. He was not someone to look up to or try to emulate, but he felt real – far more so than any other comic book character I can think of.
And I learned a lot from John. I learned as much about magic from him as I ever did from serious books on the topic (and if by that you want to think that my opinion of the vast majority of such books is that they are utter and complete crap – well, I’m not likely to contradict you). He taught me things about ‘Synchronicity’ that would have left Jung in a rage, and demonstrated the ‘Law of Attraction’ better than any “self-help” book could hope to.
On a more practical level, John (and his writers) taught me a great deal about how to develop a complex character. Here was a guy with just about every bad character trait possible, yet still likable enough that you’d be willing to buy him a pint at the local pub.
Just don’t leave him alone with your drink. And don’t sit too close.
After 25 years, DC Comics has ended ‘John Constantine: Hellblazer’ with its 300th issue. John himself was in his 40‘s when I first met him and would have been sixty come May 10 of this year. Unlike all the caped crusaders and men of steel that dominate the pages of most comics, John aged (kicking and screaming) over the time I knew him. Sadly, if the world of comics mirrors that of the real world in any significant way, it must be that the same great rule applies: “Out with the old and in with the new.”
DC has announced that with ‘Hellblazer’ closed down, a younger version of the character will appear in a new book titled ‘Constantine’. This new book will be part of the regular DC-Universe instead of the more adult themed Vertigo imprint which featured the former title.
Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that.
Oh, I’ll continue to add back-issues of ‘Hellblazer’ to my collection until it’s complete. John Constantine will live on until the ink fades and the last pages crumble into dust. I don’t need a neutered version of the character to carry his legend forward. John’s legacy is right there for anyone to see and it speaks for itself.
“I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness. Oh, I’ve got it all sewn up. I can save you. If it takes the last drop of your blood, I’ll drive your demons away. I’ll kick them in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down and then I’ll be gone back into darkness, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. I walk my path alone… who would walk with me?”
—John Constantine: Hellblazer 1988-2013