Created by DC Comics in the 80s, John Constantine is a supernatural detective from Liverpool. In the endless battle between heaven and hell, humanity is always in the crossfire. Although he sees it as a hopeless battle, Constantine is humanity’s unsolicited champion. Brooding, cynical, and crude, his involvement always leaves victims. Everyone hates him because bad things happen when he’s around, but – he’s the guy who deals with bad things.
“I’m an outsider—an independent operator, interested in the collision of opposites.” – “Infernal Triangles,” Swamp Thing, vol. 2 issue 77, October 1988, DC Comics.
“There’s all manner of darkness hiding in the corners of the world. And then there’s me. And I’m a right ass.” – “Going Down,” Constantine: The Hellblazer, issue 1, August 2015, DC Comics.
The first live action adaptation was the 2005 film, Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves. Being my first introduction to the character, Reeves’ portrayal will probably always be my character canon. Much like Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Reeves’ Constantine is eternally brooding, unattached, and resolved to be heaven and hell’s punching bag.
The Constantine portrayed by Matt Ryan in DC’s TV version on NBC always seemed wrong by comparison. He was pious, exaggerated, and flippant with human life. (When I went back and read DC’s original ’88 version, John Constantine: Hellblazer1, and I realized Ryan’s depiction is actually truer to form.)
DC rebooted Constantine: The Hellblazer2 comic this summer and I remember thinking, “meh.” It felt flat, disjointed, and unfocused. Researching this review I was surprised to learn Constantine dated so far back and had such a long history. After reading the original, I have to say the creators involved in the reboot have shown great craftsmanship in honoring the original and bringing Constantine back to us.
The interior art3 of the ’88 Hellblazer is cheesy and gritty with the visceral feel of a B-level, dime store rag which is apropos for an underworld story of demons, curses, and pestilence. There are all manner of horrible and deformed creatures and even the human characters exhibit grotesque expressions.
The inking deals in hard contrasts with heavily textured shadows. The color palette contains strong, harsh colors used to emphasize an unnatural and uncomfortable world.
By comparison, the ’88 covers are very modern, surreal multi-media works, including handwriting, photographs, and 3-D objects like flowers and wire fences.
The stories are over the top with demons trading souls for Porches, PTSD hallucinations crossing boundaries of reality, and souls getting lost in operating systems. Their flow has a schizophrenia to them that makes the reader uneasy. But they’re under toned with relatable themes: how our appetites imprison us, how making the hard decisions gains you no friends or appreciation, and how a society centered on gain victimizes the weak.
The 2015 reboot knows its original material very well but modernizes enough to fit into today’s marketplace.
The cover and interior artwork is fresh yet has the harsh, gritty Constantine mood, with rough lines, stylized figures, and strong contrasts.
The color palette is an updated version of the same ethereal purples, surprising oranges, and violent fuchsias.
The unearthly creatures are outrageous and colorful and their frames appear worbly, as if the paper got damp. Although very stylized, the human characters are much more handsome than the original.
The greatest improvement in the 2015 reboot is probably the story construction. They’re still wacky and creepy but the construction and editing is tighter and it’s easier to pick out sub-plots.
The amount of inner dialogue verses conversations in issues 1 and 2 was monotonous at first and, I believe, what turned me off during the first read (50% and 30% respectively). But this is where reading the original taught me the importance of this styling for Constantine. He has few friends or peers and the tasks he has to perform are best performed alone and without anyone else knowing.
One update the writers had to make from the original is getting away from the melodramatic, gum-shoes styled inner voice, something which comically dates the original.
“The thin, Sunday afternoon drizzle greases the tired streets. Ignoring the queasiness which quakes my stomach like an uneasy swamp… I turn up my collar against the toothless gnawing of the early November wind… and merge into the welcome anonymity of the city.” – “Hunger,” John Constantine: Hellblazer, vol. 1, issue 1, January 1988, DC Comics.
“The streets are hardened arteries leading to the city’s dead heart… a streetlamp winks its sickly, yellow eye as I pass—footsteps echoing from sullen buildings.” – “Hunger,” John Constantine: Hellblazer, vol. 1, issue 1, January 1988, DC Comics.
There are a handful of other differences.
The original issues run about five pages longer than the new ones.
The reboot is rated T+. The R-rated language is bleeped and depictions of sexual, psychotic, and horror themes are tamer than the original floppies which simply had “Intended for Mature Readers” printed on the cover.
Amazon sells a trade paperback, John Constantine: Hellblazer, Vol. 1: Original Sin, which includes Constatine’s appearances in Swamp Thing4, John Constantine: Hellblazer issues 1 – 9, issue covers, and some extras. If you like it, there are nine more volumes.
1 Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Hunger,” issue 1, January 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “A Feast of Friends,” issue 2, February 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Going For It,” issue 3, March 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Waiting for the Man,” issue 4, April 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” issue 5, May 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Extreme Prejudice,” issue 6, June 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Ghosts in the Machine,” issue 7, July 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Intensive Care,” issue 8, August 1988
Constantine: The Hellblazer, “Shot to Hell,” issue 9, September 1988
2 Constantine: The Hellblazer, issue 1, June 2014, writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, artist Riley Rossmo, letterer Tom Napolitano, colorist Ivan Plascencia.
Constantine: The Hellblazer, issue 2, July 2015, writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, artist Riley Rossmo, letterer Tom Napolitano, colorist Ivan Plascencia.
Constantine: The Hellblazer, issue 3, August 2015, writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, artist Ming Doyle and Vanesa Del Rey, letterer Tom Napolitano, colorist Ivan Plascencia and Lee Loughridge.
Constantine: The Hellblazer, issue 4, September 2015, writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, artist Vanesa Del Rey and Chris Visions, letterer Tom Napolitano, colorist Ivan Plascencia.
3 The creative team for issues 1 – 9 of the 1988 original series of John Constantine: Hellblazer: writers Jamie DeLano and Rick Veitch, artists John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy; colorists Lovern Kindzierski, Tatjana Wood; letterers Annie Halfacree, Todd Klein, John Costanza; covers Jim Lee, Dave McKean, John Totleben.