I remember Hellblazer being announced, way back whenever it was, and feeling underwhelmed and disappointed: a silly name, and not even written by Alan Moore. And the truth is I never warmed to the comic – now axed by DC after a 300-long run. Sometimes because I was too callow for it, sometimes because I felt I could see through it, and occasionally just because it bored me.
But also always with the sense that John Constantine simply shouldn’t have his own comic in the first place. I was firmly in the camp who had loved the character and wanted to see him slip quietly away from DC Comics as unpretentiously and oddly as he’d arrived. False hope: that kind of thing didn’t happen then and certainly doesn’t now – if you have a breakout hit, you milk it.
The Constantine who’s been published by DC for 25 years now is a far more fully fleshed, grown-ass, viable character than the knowing glyph who puffed his enigmatic way across a dozen issues of Swamp Thing in the mid-80s. That Constantine was a peroxide plot device and metafictional squib, Ambush Bug for wannabe grown-ups. But I loved him. I thought he was, quite frankly, cool as fuck.
So my Constantine was always a DC Universe character. More, he was a DC Universe character who turned up at a very specific time, just as DC instituted the first (or second maybe) of its great continuity upheavals, building an attic for itself and booting the past into it. Constantine pokes his nose into the grand opera of Crisis On Infinite Earths, and largely dismisses it: he always knows what the real game is, even if he won’t say. Written before it began he was a creature of the new DC, the post-modern, risky, sometimes gauchely dark DC of the late 80s. But he knew all of the old things too – he was never rebooted because he had never been booted in the first place: he walked into the stories and an archetype was born.
So during those wild years there were pseudo-Constantines everywhere. Grant Morrison had two: Willoughby Kipling in Doom Patrol (a straight parody: Constantine as Richard E Grant rather than Sting) and the less obvious James Highwater in Animal Man. Highwater plays the Constantine role – or is manipulated into doing so – appearing from nowhere to lead Our Hero on a world-changing odyssey revealing his status as a fiction. The real Constantine would, of course, have already known he was made up, and taken it quite in his stride.
Mystery was Constantine’s speciality as a character, and mystery was the secret heart of DC’s brand. Though they didn’t stress it, the Big Two thrived on different things: discovery versus recovery. The Marvel Universe was a grand and giddy sprawl, full of new things. DC was older and more uncanny, a mansion built of forgotten rooms and secrets, to which Constantine had all the keys. In his best DC Universe appearance after those first ones, Neil Gaiman’s Books Of Magic miniseries, this is the role he plays – the man who knows almost everything and only explains just enough. He’s asked to take a novice wizard on a tour of the magic DC Universe, promptly leaves him with an ex who does the job, then surfaces at the end of the issue to bluff his way past a sorcerous horde. Gaiman’s Constantine is kind and warm, an off-model reading of the character perhaps, but his role is the thing – to show the boy and us that despite all attempts to make it legible, DC comics and their universe is still a deeply odd – hence magical – place.
And now he’s coming back there, but it’s hard to get excited. Partly it’s that when he’s in the shared universe he works best – perhaps only – as a guest star, an agent of change or knowledge the heroes need. But partly it’s that DC finally cauterized mystery from their line-up, purging their history again and this time trying (for now) to make it stick with their “New 52”. This will be a new Constantine, younger and with inevitably more attitude, as if that was ever the point. He will know the shallow esoterica of a fictional continuum where the paint is still drying, but I doubt he’ll know the secrets of the lost, older worlds too. RIP, squire.
Originally posted on my Tumblr