NOVEMBER 26, 2014
NOIR ANTIHERO probably isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when thinking of John Constantine, who for 15 years was the central character of Vertigo/DC Comics’ Hellblazer and is now a contender on NBC’s fall schedule. A practitioner of the dark arts, perhaps; a con artist who chooses to roll his dice in only the most dangerous games, undeniably; someone who makes deals he has no intention of keeping with humans, angels, and demons alike, yes. These are epithets that could easily have slipped from the mouths of Constantine’s friends just before their untimely downfall or demise, fates that await most of his friends. The comic where he originated was called Hellblazer, after all, a word that captures both the dystopian tenor of the world Constantine inhabits and the recklessness he often has to embrace in order not only to survive in but also occasionally to save a world on the edge of the abyss.
That said, what truly drew me into Hellblazer weren’t angels or demons or the occult, but the same thing that drew me to the noir antiheroes I was discovering as an adolescent. Constantine has a gift for solving mysteries, often ones he has forced upon him. He also often finds himself backed into corners that require some degree of moral and ethical relativism to escape. He doesn’t buy the righteousness of heaven and has seen firsthand the horrors of hell, which contributes to his complicated inner compass and shifting sense of good and evil. While charismatic and loyal, Constantine’s friends would be better off without him — most are harmed or have their lives changed, typically for the worse, by his actions or their attempts to assist him. Many die and, given the supernatural and horror aspects of Hellblazer, haunt him both literally and metaphorically. His romances are similarly doomed, as are the women — and men — who briefly monopolize his affections. Neither the new television show nor the 2005 film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves hint at this, but Constantine has a strong connection with London, especially its seedier sections, just as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe had with Los Angeles. And like many noir antiheroes, Constantine is cast as a tragic, romantic character eking it out on the peripheries of day-to-day life, and, in his case, in the liminal twilight between this world and the ones beyond it.
Hellblazer debuted in 1988 and ended after 300 issues last year. (The story continues today in Constantine, which pushes the character out of the shadows of the DC’s niche Vertigo imprint and more fully into DC Comics’ larger universe, with mixed results.) The series attracted some of the finest writers and illustrators in the comics business, which isn’t surprising as the character of Constantine was created by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) during his run on Swamp Thing, and all but three of the first 40 Hellblazer comics were penned by Jamie Delano, part of the lauded “British Invasion” of comic creators in the 1980s. In addition to its appeal for horror writers, Hellblazer also had a knack for attracting contributors known for their crime and comic writing, such as Warren Ellis, creator of the acclaimed Transmetropolitan and author of the hardboiled crime novels Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine, and Denise Mina, winner of the prestigious Martin Beck Award for her 2011 novel The End of the Wasp Season. And writer Brian Azzarello’s hardboiled influences, seen in his 100 Bullets, carried over to his lengthy and well-received run on Hellblazer.
After 26 years of life in comics, John Constantine has transitioned to the small screen. Watching the pilot for the first time, I was reminded more of CW’s long-running series Supernatural than of Hellblazer; it seemed all angels and demons, troubled exorcists, salt lines around doorways, complicated sigils carved into wooden floors, and dusty books in lost languages that often hold the key to saving the day. Despite the talented roster that landed Constantine a spot on NBC’s fall lineup — including screenwriter David Goyer, of The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel renown, and director Neil Marshall, who cut his teeth with the cult hit Dog Soldiers, won over more horror fans with The Descent, and has helmed two episodes of Game of Thrones — Constantine doesn’t truly emerge from the shadows of television’s other horror offerings, nor does it try to do anything drastically different in its first episode. Heaven and hell sells, as do showdowns with big, nasty demons, and the pilot of Constantine is crafted accordingly.
Constantine does show promise, especially with Matt Ryan in the titular role. He appears to be the right man for the job, and his take on the character should smooth the ruffled feathers of the Hellblazer faithful who were upset when the not terribly blond or British Keanu Reeves was cast in the 2005 film adaptation. But despite a few flickers of hope, I was disappointed. Constantine has 15 years and 300 issues of Hellblazer comics to draw from, including a number of brilliant story arcs crafted by some of the best writers and artists working in the comics industry — including Mike Carey (Lucifer), Garth Ennis (Preacher), Grant Morrison (Batman, All-Star Superman), and even Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Stardust) — and yet the first impression of the show is that of a project conceived by members of Supernatural’s Winchester Brothers Fan Club.
There is, however, a simple way for Constantine to avoid this fate — embracing an aspect of Hellblazer that hasn’t rubbed off on shows like Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, or Grimm: Constantine’s roots in the noir tradition.
Many characters in horror-influenced shows and films are forced to abandon their former, comfortable lives and ideas of the world, but no one forced Constantine’s hand. Even as a young punk rocker, he embraced the darkness. Despite a few attempts to walk away in the wake of the horrific consequences of his actions, he could not imagine doing anything other than exploring the shadows, probing the depths of hell and human depravity. Indeed, many of Hellblazer’s writers have played heavily on the fact that he is addicted to the life he’s chosen, not only its frequent adrenaline rushes in the face of otherworldly and all-too-human evil and violence, but his ability to play humans, angels, and demons against one another in order to accomplish an end (and not always a justifiable one). He’s a far less sympathetic a character than one usually finds in such fare, and a far more complex one, too, with a history of betraying those closest to him in the name of his own survival or curiosity, and, only occasionally, to protect others or for a greater good. And like many characters from noir and hardboiled fiction, Constantine often believes he has the upper hand, or has it all figured out. Like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, he frequently does, but his arrogance blinds him, too, sometimes with disastrous or deadly results.
Hellblazer further echoes the noir tradition in two very important ways. First, the comic never shied away from social commentary, resisted censorship and embraced taboos with abandon, and nearly always linked the fires of hell (and even the glories of heaven) to the more shadowy qualities of human nature. The first demon John encounters in Hellblazer is Mnemoth, who preys on hunger, fear, and suffering, which allowed Jamie Delano to very quickly address drug addiction — very much on the minds of Britons in the late 1980s — and even the dire situation in Sudan. It also gave Constantine a chance in the first few issues of Hellblazer to betray and condemn a friend, as Mnemoth must be bound to human flesh before it can be destroyed.
Secondly, while characters like Supernatural’s Sam and Dean Winchester share with Constantine a space on the peripheries of society, the Winchesters do not share his social mobility. Rarely do Sam and Dean venture in their 1967 Impala into the equivalent of a Chinatown, ghetto, or border town, all of which feature heavily in film and roman noirs, but Constantine passes easily through cities, economic classes, and societal groups, always the outsider, always cool and detached.
Constantine has often felt to me like a Dashiell Hammett character who got lost and wandered through a Lovecraft novel before winding up in Thatcher’s England, and, as such, could quite easily become more than just another of television’s demon hunters. While I can understand contemporary television writers wanting to steer clear of the first few years of Hellblazer’s run and choosing to set the show in America, none of this would prevent them from tapping into large swaths of the series, including Azzarello’s profoundly dark run, which starts with Constantine in an American prison suspected of the murder of a friend, and ends with him taking down a group of neo-Nazis and one of the wealthiest, and cruelest, men in America (whose backstory more than passingly resembles that of Bruce Wayne).
What the 2005 film and the Constantine pilot seem to have overlooked is that Constantine doesn’t use knowledge of the dark arts to overmatch his opponents; he relies on his wits, cunning, and insight into the dark corners of the human (and non-human) heart. In one of the finest story arcs in Hellblazer — Azzarello’s brilliant Highwater — Constantine uses magic only once, to unravel a group of racist hate-mongers who believe the Bible supports their cause. There isn’t even a demon urging the neo-Nazis onward; the writers of Hellblazer knew all too well that we humans need little assistance damning and destroying ourselves through our ignorance, hate, and cruelty, and pitted Constantine against other humans as often as they did fallen angels.
Instead of battling monsters, TV’s Constantine could offer us a look at ourselves through a glass darkly. Can you imagine the impact of a storyline continuing his journey into the heart of racism and prejudice today, one that didn’t lead to a demon that could be exorcised or killed, but brought him face-to-face with average white Americans? Obviously there are many pitfalls to avoid while pursuing a course like this, but, in the right hands, a show like Constantine could stay true to its roots, and offer not just entertainment, but insight. That’s a balance that both the aging punk rocker and the noir antihero in Constantine could be proud of, one that might even help to wash some of the blood off his hands.