I have strong feelings about John Constantine.
Hellblazer was one of the first comics to really draw me in as a reader; it was politically engaged, featured well-developed and deeply flawed characters, and was unapologetically weird and often silly by modern standards. The series is incredibly messy—it tries to tackle the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the AIDs crisis, the religious right, and Thatcherism in just the first collection, stumbling as often as it succeeds.
But what I’ve always loved about the series is Constantine himself, the emblem of all that is good and terrible about the original Jamie Delano run. He cares so deeply about things but is absolutely incapable of not fucking them up—at one point, he falls down a flight of stairs into a demon club before proclaiming them “DEMON YUPPIES. SOUL-BROKERS FROM HELL.”
The first arcs are all about how Constantine’s fuckups get his friends killed, and yet, he keeps fucking up, keeps trying. He cares. The series makes that clear in the arc where Alec Holland takes over Constantine’s body and feels how deeply that caring goes, how despite his devil-may-care, disaffected attitude and overwhelming shittiness, Constantine does what he does because his ghosts are as figurative as they are literal.
Unfortunately, it seems that few Hellblazer writers share my affinity for how badly Constantine sucks at everything. My first dabble into ongoing comics was Justice League Dark, in which Constantine was written as more of a superhero who did “tantric finger-touching” with Zatanna. Call me blasphemous, but even the bleakness of the much-loved “Dangerous Habits” arc written by Garth Ennis left me feeling like the story was meant to belong to a different character.
Everyone seems to have a take on John Constantine, some of them in line with my (objectively correct) likes, some of them channeling aesthetics rather than character, some of them working entirely off the conceit of ‘punk rock magician,’ some of them all about wardrobe. Unfortunately, most of them just don’t do it for me.
That’s because they’re all mostly wrong.
It’s no secret that the world of Supernatural is heavily inspired by other modern fantasy giants like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Good Omens (written with Terry Pratchett), but one of the most transparent references is Castiel’s wardrobe. His trench coat and suit with loose-fitting tie are directly inspired by John Constantine, but that’s about as far as it goes.
It’s a missed opportunity, really. Constantine would be perfectly at home in the Supernatural universe, though I remain eternally grateful that he hasn’t shown up there other than in reference form. Also, call me blasphemous again, but Castiel’s outfit reminds me more of Agent Dale Cooper than John Constantine.
My biggest gripe with Constantine being Castiel’s inspiration is that it makes it near impossible to spot a cosplayer at a distance. Unless they’ve got the big ol’ wings (most don’t) or they happened to accessorize with a cigarette, there’s really no telling who they’re supposed to be.
3. Harry Dresden
I have not read these books nor seen more than half an episode of the show. Harry Dresden seems okay, other than that he is far too capable and I hate the hat he’s wearing on the cover of Skin Game. Constantine has worn some godawful outfits thanks to being written in the ’80s, but at least it’s not that.
2. Rupert Giles
Yes, he’s a stodgy old librarian. But he’s also a British punk rocker who dabbled in magic who got a whole lot of his friends killed. In “The Dark Age,” we learn that Giles and his crew of young magicians foolishly summoned a demon and failed to properly bind it. Years later, the demon stalks and kills the members of the crew until Giles, alongside Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang, are able to stop it.
Now, consider the Newcastle incident. Constantine, a reckless magician/musician and his crew of similar reckless magician/musicians foolishly summon a demon and fail to bind it properly. The demon stalks and kills the members of the crew, forcing Constantine to look at the consequences of his actions.
So yeah. Giles is stodgy old librarian John Constantine, Q. E. D. But all the edgy stuff that makes Ripper (and Constantine) interesting is gone by the time he becomes said stodgy old librarian, so I’m not interested.
1. Constantine (The Movie)
Constantine, the Keanu Reeves version, is as much a knockoff as it is an adaptation. The story is a combination of several iconic Hellblazer arcs, most notably “Hunger” and “Dangerous Habits,” and features callbacks to numerous characters and set pieces from the series.
But this version of Constantine is neither blond nor British and pronounces his name as rhyming with ‘teen’ rather than ‘tine,’ a point of contention for those who care very deeply about these features that are (apparently) crucial to his character. Also, he’s Keanu Reeves! In a time when it was fashionable to hate Keanu Reeves, because—oh, I don’t know, the two Matrix sequels or whatever. And while Reeves’ performance isn’t quite the charismatic con-man Constantine I know and love, the story hits all the right beats.
Consider: Reeve’s Constantine has an absolutely dire sense of humor. He’s wry and sarcastic, a darker take on Constantine’s sense of humor than, say, his Delano-written love of puns.
Consider also that, despite the appearance of competency, Constantine still manages to get three of his compatriots killed through negligence (his refusal to properly train Chas), denial of any magic that doesn’t suit him (his removal of Father Hennessy’s protective amulet), and preoccupation with his own problems (his delay in helping Beeman). That’s three deaths in a two-hour movie—pretty Constantine, in my humble opinion.
Constantine’s Constantine, the brunette, American, more-exorcism-than-magic-focused magician with a sarcastic rather than charismatic sense of humor, is absolutely a knockoff. But, despite the movie’s flaws, Reeves’ Constantine is also the one that most closely matches what I like about the character—he tries, damnit. And Peter Stomare’s Lucifer and Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel are pitch-perfect, even if Shia LeBoeuf’s Chas is, uh, decidedly not Chas.
More importantly, this movie gave us the most important gif of all, and that, I think, is Constantine enough for me.