The opening scene to “Death & Cigarettes”, the final storyarc of Hellblazer that runs from issue #298 through to #300, seems to say everything about the book’s lead character. That he’s old, he’s gotten hemmed in, he’s thwarted by his own power in the world. There’s nothing new for John Constantine, he’s seemingly conquered every quell that’s found its way to him. So he steps out onto a train line, his young wife as witness, and proceeds to… Well, proceeds to nothing, standing dead still, it’s the train that derails, avoiding him completely. It’s irresponsible and dangerous, and somehow still strikes home as the perfect metaphor for the worn-out prizefighter many believe Constantine, particularly the Constantine depicted in Hellblazer, to be.
Something about the scene seems deeply reminiscent of the series finale to House. It’s in the closing scenes “Everybody Dies”, set perfectly to Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart”, that even House himself conspires to escape the caricature that he and others have made of his life. It’s a life-affirming act for House, and after more than a quarter-century, current and final Hellblazer writer Peter Milligan brings us to a similar point with Constantine—where we’d want to see one last great escape, one last beating the odds, or, one final, ultimate life-affirming act. And by the close of issue #300, we get exactly that—Constantine extricating himself not only from Vertigo, DC’s erstwhile mature-readers imprint, but from Hellblazer also.
Even before Constantine was shepherded into the Vertigo imprint, he’d been the star of Hellblazer. For a little more than five years prior to 1993’s big switch, Constantine had been the only character to have his story told each month in Hellblazer. A comicbook not named for its lead—the move felt like a throwback to an older, more magical time when the Flash was solely associated with National or Batman with Detective or Superman with Action. It seemed like a little bit of a more magical past had suddenly made itself available to comics fans who were nostalgic the Golden Age, but weren’t old enough to have lived through the era. A tiny beachhead of the Golden Age of comics, just for loyal fans.
But there’s enough neo-noir swirling in the mirk of Constantine and his standard-bearer book Hellblazer to reassert at least the possibility of some darker secrets. Despite the character’s huge popularity during his earliest of incarnations (as the elusive, Machiavellian, frequent guest star in the pages of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s “American Gothic” storyarc in Saga of the Swamp Thing), Constantine was slow to get his own title. As Earth Elemental, Swamp Thing was still notionally part of the world of superheroes that DC was creating. But how would Constantine face off against the heroes and villains of the more established DC mainstream? What would it mean if Constantine had to confront the Joker or Mister Freeze or even Batman himself? Would Constantine’s brand of swindler’s magic work on them? For that matter did Constantine have any magical abilities at all? Could he have been nothing more than a con artist all along?
It was that tension that lay at the heart of Constantine, and that tension that made proved to be not only the most intriguing part of his character, but also an essential part in the Hellblazer storytelling magic. Was Constantine simply lying, was it a confidence trick, or was he really able to outwit angels and demons and even Satan himself? In the original Books of Magic mini-series, Neil Gaiman writes possibly one of the most vivid Constantine moments. While taking Tim Hunter (the boy soon to be the most powerful magician) on a tour of magic and magic-users, Constantine leaves him in the care of Zatanna. Zatanna and Tim Hunter find themselves trapped in a party that turns out violent, where the party-goers mob and hope to use Tim for their own ends. Zatanna is about to be overwhelmed. It’s then that Constantine reappears. To focus attention on himself he does nothing more than strike a match and light up his trademark Silk Cuts. “I’m John Constantine, you’ve all heard of me, or you should have”, he says softly. He proceeds to explain how he and Zatanna and Tim Hunter will be leaving and no one there will stop them. The three leave unmolested. It’s only after that Zatanna brings up the obvious—all the magicians gathered at that party were more powerful than Constantine, any one of them could have destroyed him. How’d he pull that off? “Magic, isn’t it?” he smirks in reply to Zatanna.
In the early stories, in Constantine’s appearances in Saga of the Swamp Thing and on the original Jamie Delano run (the first writer on Hellblazer), readers are invited into exactly that dilemma. Is Constantine, are his “powers” for real? This delightfully devilish uncertainty was written into Constantine’s very DNA by the writer who originally conceived of him, Alan Moore. In “Straight to Hell”, an essay by Michael Bonner introducing Constantine in 2005’s Vertigo Secret Files: Constantine (a book meant as a primer to that year’s summer blockbuster, Constantine), Alan Moore is quoted as saying, “I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting to do for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that.”
While the idea of Constantine may have grown from there, sadly, Constantine did not. The years between Constantine’s creation in 1985, his ensuing popularity and his eventual solo title were long years. Did DC’s publishing team perhaps see dangers the fans didn’t? Were there fears around how well an English protagonist would play for an American audience? Or were the fears more structural? Was there a genuine fear that Constantine in his own book might realistically have nothing to say to the mainstream of DC’s superhero publications? And if that was of genuine concern, would it signal the further secession of characters only tangentially involved in the mainstream DCU, characters like Swamp Thing or Animal Man? Moore’s own pitch for Twilight of the Superheroes that saw Constantine outwit almost all of DC’s superhero lineup, only to be outwitted by his older, cannier, cagier self, might not have allayed fears in the way it had been hoped.
Maybe it’s better by far to buffer Constantine and buffer the DCU. Maybe a book with Constantine’s own name on the cover isn’t for the best. Maybe what’s best is a place-holder title, one that (if needed) could provide cover to and create distance from the mainstream of the DCU. Maybe not Constantine, maybe instead, Hellblazer.
To Be Continued…