Unless otherwise noted, art on this page is by Neil Gaiman (W), Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg (A), Todd Klein (L), and Robbie Busch (C)
Before I met John Constantine, I read a story about him in an interview Alan Moore did with Wizard: The Guide To Comics. I gave my copies of Wizard to some grad student studying the relationship between pie jokes and the decline of Western civilization, but thankfully the Hellblazer Wiki has the goods:
“One day, I was in Westminster in London — this was after we had introduced the character — and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut. He looked — no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.
“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”
The idea that John Constantine, hardboiled magician trapped in a world he never made (more A.E. Housman than Howard The Duck, but not far afield from the latter), could find a spell that took him out of his fictional confines and staggering into our own off-color confines, is part of his charm and a factor in his ability to endure, I suppose. At a certain point, Constantine didn’t need Moore’s marching owners, finding direction from a veritable who’s who of writers: Delano, Ennis, Ellis, Milligan, many more. And somewhere down the road he probably won’t need anyone to send him out the door. A recent Milligan storyline in which Constantine’s iconic trenchcoat took on a life of its own wasn’t much of a stretch: the character’s taken on a life of its own, so it’s only natural that his suit would follow suit.
Then again, I wonder. I’m not worried about the fight left in Constantine or the abilities of his current creative caretakers: I’ve enjoyed Hellblazer immensely during the lengthy run put together by Peter Milligan and his various companions, and what I’ve seen of Jeff Lemire’s work on Justice League Dark has me optimistic about Constantine’s adventures in the Nu52. I am concerned that readers are taking his constant presence for granted, though. How many people still read Hellblazer on a monthly basis? My local shop buys three copies a month, but I’ve never seen a trace of these other two readers. Then again, people do talk. When I told some friends about this site, some of them revealed that they’ve kept up with Constantine all these years.
Not me. Well, not until recently. I had run-ins with Constantine a few times, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started digging deeper into the trades, tagging along every month. What happened? Partly nostalgia, maybe. Like many Wizard-reading kids of the 1990s who didn’t have ready access to well-rounded comic shops, Vertigo books demarcated the end of the known comic book universe. The weird-looking indies covered in the “Palmer’s Picks” column looked interesting enough – I remember filing Paul Pope’s THB away in the back of my mind, and that an image of one of Charles Burns’ Black Hole teenagers creeped me out (still does) – but even in the cosmopolitan confines of Brooklyn, my local shop’s proprietors rarely wavered from each week’s stack of DC, Marvel, Image, Ultraverse. The Vertigo books literally lined the back margins of the table reserved for each week’s new releases, often buried under or obscured by the various X-spinoffs and Spider-Man specials.
Wizard got me interested in Preacher, which got me interested in Vertigo’s various offerings. But this interest was fleeting, motivated in part by the fact that I was leaving comics behind a bit to catch up with a high school social life that gradually left fewer nights for Prodigy bulletin board sessions and fewer funds for much beyond Preacher and a few other things. But before I dropped out of comics for a bit in the late 1990s, I had two memorable run-ins with John Constantine. One came about as a result of Mark Miller and Philip Hester’s underrated Swamp Thing run, a swan song for the character (that even featured an amazing issue with Curt Swan guesting on art) in which Constantine played a pretty significant role. We’ll get to that some other time. Today I want to talk about The Sandman. Specifically, Essential Vertigo: The Sandman.
Essential Vertigo: The Sandman was a reprint project for a run that, in retrospect, probably didn’t have much demand for a reprinting. I believe The Sandman had only recently ended or was just wrapping up when issue one hit the stands. Then again, I went to a store that had a very small amount of counter space for trade paperbacks, favoring back issue bins over cheap reprints. Unless you were looking for The Dark Knight Returns or Evil Ernie: Resurrection (two of my first trades), you wouldn’t have much luck at this particular store.
John Constantine showed up in Essential Vertigo: The Sandman #3, which came out in October 1996 (the original issue came out in 1989). I almost didn’t pick up this issue, having lost track of #2 in the aforementioned piles of New Releases (I was a pretty shy fourteen year-old, shackled with oversized plastic frames and braces, so I didn’t have my own pile of pulled comics behind the counter; whenever I see younger hipster-types voluntarily choosing to wear glasses that I hated for so many years, a little part of me twitches). But Dave McKean’s cover must have seemed interesting enough, or I must have been sick of “Heroes Reborn,” which seemed boring even back then despite the fanfare.
“Hullo John Constantine.”
Re-reading this issue for the first time in years, I’ve noticed that so much of what I like about John Constantine is present in these pages. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who liked this guy when they ran into him here, despite the fact that it’s taken me over a decade to track him down again. The initial chapters of Preludes & Nocturnes, in which Morpheus, the Master of Dreams, wandered around collecting the possessions he lost during his captivity, were almost done-in-one horror stories, but weird ones that took detours into fantasy lands, superhero terrain, EC territory, ripped from the headlines type stuff.
This particular detour really features Constantine doing most of the driving. Because this is the Internet and lists are optimizable and et cetera, let’s shift into some bullet point territory. Here’s why I think (to borrow a bold-faced cue from my buddy Chris Sims) The Sandman #3 features everything that’s great about John Constantine.
The Laughing Magician: John Constantine should be funny. Not necessarily ha-ha funny, but the kind of funny you’d expect to find in a guy who drinks alone at the end of the bar by choice, who chimes in only when it’s worth his time or when he can’t bite his tongue any longer. Constantine’s jokes can sometimes be a means by which he kills time in order to not be killed, but they’re not just a defense mechanism. They’re an acknowledgement that hey, if we’re in over our heads and we may not ride out of here without the aid of a hearse, we might as well enjoy ourselves a bit. Gaiman beats Warren Ellis to the punch, taking the piss out of Morpheus and the Vertigo aesthetic well before Planetary #7 hit stands (a great issue, one we’ll get to in time). Of course, Constantine was the character Ellis singled out as the one worth keeping in the twenty-first century. In an industry that often takes itself too seriously, Constantine’s humor is a welcome reminder that it doesn’t always have to be somber meditations on power and responsibility (in the same way that the best Spider-Man comics have banter mixed with melodrama; in fact, Hellblazer can often be like a Spider-Man comic, but with less Randian overtones).
The Terrible Friend: If you show up in a Constantine story and you’re not driving a taxi, you might as well be wearing a Red Shirt. Chas is one of Constantine’s oldest and dearest friends, a vital element of many Constantine tales but often better off on in a supporting role. Some stories have dug a bit deeper into Chas’ backstory, but I like it more when he’s enlisted to crack wise about his buddy’s latest mess than when he’s part of the mess itself. You know Chas is going to make it through the story. But everyone else is probably screwed, especially old friends who managed to survive some unspecified off-panel escapades with John in the past.
Rachel is this story’s Friend of Constantine, and Gaiman balances out the blame a bit by making her a junky (why isn’t there a Tumblr called 80s Comic Book Junkies?). And yeah, when Constantine says “Stupid BITCH. Sometimes I STILL miss her,” you’re kind of like, OK. But the page revealing what’s happened to Rachel is still hard for me to look at. Props to Keith and Dringenberg here:
The inclusion of the panel of Morpheus on the page is a nice touch, as is his earlier warning to John about “the HUMAN” he’s about to trip over in Rachel’s home. For Morpheus – this story’s token Higher Power / Demonic Figure – these people are not even blips on the radar, mere nuisances. But for John, that women on the bed is there in large part because she used to be with the guy in that photograph.
The Urban Cowboy: London can occasionally be a bit of an Unreal City in Constantine stories, and as you can see in the image above, Keith and Dringenberg are having a bit of fun caricaturing 1980s urban types. It can also seem a bit like the New York City in the Death Wish films, in that people are getting hell of murdered by demons on its streets. But I think most good Hellblazer stories capture the spirit of city life, in large part by showing how Constantine’s live is constantly entwined and made weary by the urban landscape he inhabits. But like many of us who would never trade in their overpriced, tiny apartment for a house that’s even a short drive from a bar, he wouldn’t have it any other way. One of my favorite little touches in this story is the trip John and Morpheus take to a storage facility, because obviously Constantine doesn’t have room for everything in his apartment. Morpheus, a royal figure with a limitless kingdom at his disposal, can barely stand to rifle through this cluttered secondary location.
The Lapsed Catholic: To quote a band I like very much, lapsed Catholics are the worst. And I should know, because I am one. Many Hellblazer stories can seem like extended meditations on the specter of Christian (if not the Catholic strain per se) guilt, and of course they often take place in a universe where hell is a very real and tangible place full of sinners. But I think John’s survival, his capacity to go on in spite of the losses he’s sustained on a personal level, suggests that most creative teams aren’t interested in a character who wallows in misery, or suggesting that the life of a Constantine is a terrible life indeed. That being said, some writers and artists want you to linger on mistakes and meditate on consequences that could have been avoided. But I like the way Constantine’s story works out in this particular issue. Despite the reality of Rachel staring him in the face, the issue ends with Constantine singing his way off the page and venturing out into the night.
The World’s Most Interesting Man: Constantine is interesting because he gets himself wrapped up in interesting things, gets away, then goes back for more. I like the above panel because it distills why the character gets out of bed in the morning and does this sort of thing. Look at his face: he’s clearly never seen a dude getting eaten by his own dreams before, whereas Morpheus is bored as hell. As John says later on the page, “I OUGHT to be running away. But.” Good Constantine stories keep you along, even though you know how these stories often turn out (the aforementioned dead friends). Given the amount of Hellblazer stories out there, you’re going to have the occasional dud or mis-step. But for the most part creators have made the most of the limitations of never-ending serial narratives. And Constantine is made more interesting by the fact that he has aged over time, and unlike most monthly leading men he’s got the scars and memories to prove it. It’s also important, for me at least, that Constantine is more con man than World’s Greatest Detective. He’s got his share of book smarts and street smarts, but most of his more enjoyable tales find him in over his head, misreading situations, and figuring out how much luck he needs to get through this particular go-round. The more talented creative teams can even convince you that Constantine’s luck might be on the verge of running out, a magical spell if there ever was one.
So that’s a not-very-brief-at-all set of opening thoughts on why I like this character so much. We’ll get into the heavier stuff as things develop. But I’d like to end with a story (also reprinted on the Hellblazer Wiki) about Alan Moore’s second encounter with John Constantine, a moment that, in a bit of art imitating life, managed to work its way into Andy Diggle’s run:
“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.'”