For such an enduring and influential character, John Constantine’s origins are almost bland: drawing for Swamp Thing in the mid-80’s, artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting. Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore wanted to create a more “blue-collar” occult character to contrast the aristocratic Zataras and Dr Stranges, and John Constantine (rhymes with “wine” not “bean”) was born. His solo series, Hellblazer, began in 1988 and lasted 25 years, ending with issue #300 in February 2013. John appeared in later issues of Swamp Thing as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and the character has been hugely influential on comics and occult mystery in general. DC’s New 52 line includes a younger, rebooted version of the character in Constantine, and a pilot of the same name is set to air on NBC next season.
Born in Liverpool on May 10, 1953, John Constantine’s life began in tragedy when his mother died in childbirth, resulting in a life-long tense relationship with his father. John discovered early his talents for the dark arts and manipulation, which he honed in his hometown until moving to London as a teenager. He embraced punk cuture and formed a band, which fell apart after John gambled with a demon and lost a young girl’s soul. Traumatized, he spent two years in and out of Ravenscar Asylum. Even that couldn’t keep him away from danger for long, and he continued to deal with demons and other unsavory types, generally relying on lies and con-artistry more than magic to get his way.
When he shows up in Swamp Thing, it’s quickly evident that being a friend of John Constantine’s often leads to early death. While most of his companions die soon after we meet them, there are constants in John’s life, like his best friend Chas Chandler, his older sister Cheryl, and Cheryl’s daughter Gemma. Since series progresses in real-time, the characters age and their relationships change, keeping the later stories fresh. While the series becomes less political as it progresses, it’s worth sticking around for later writers’ occult con-jobs and character work. John is charming and magnetic, which enables his image as the enigma emerging from the shadows with his cigarette and trench coat who knows exactly what’s going on and what to do about it. The image is mostly bullcrap though; he puts on a show to hide that he’s an egotistical, impulsive, self-pitying bastard who finds himself cleaning up his own messes as often as others’. He’s essentially a junkie who gets his kicks from the rush that only magic can provide. But he does save the world a lot, and from time to time he’ll do something altruistic, so it’s hard to hate the guy, and he’s unarguably one of the most compelling characters in mainstream comics.
If you’d like to read more about Constantine, the 25-year run of his series can seem a bit intimidating (especially for those who are more comfortable with recent contemporary comics). You could try the New 52 Constantine series, but I’d advise against it. Instead, try one of the more recent Hellblazer graphic novels and miniseries. Jamie Delano, the first Hellblazer writer, returned in 2010 to write a graphic novel called Pandemonium with artist Jock. It can give you a sense of his style with more contemporary political content, finding John in Iraq where he meets and old enemy.
For my money, Mike Carey had the best run of the series’ second decade, but it mainly relies heavily on past continuity. Thankfully his graphic novel All His Engines with art by series regular Leonardo Manco can be read separately. I feel like Carey generally didn’t do well by John’s best friend Chas Chandler, but I enjoyed the focus on their friendship in this story. It involves demonically-induced comas and an Aztec death god, all of which Constantine has to contend with when Chas’ granddaughter is kidnapped.
Finally, Sean Murphy’s art alone makes it worth reading the City of Demons miniseries penned by Si Spencer. John is presented as cool and competent, more the face he presents to the world than the secret one we know better, but the story is fun and Spencer injects a lot of dark humour. Early in the main series, John is infected with demon blood, and in this series doctors use his unique blood to influence ordinary people to commit atrocities.
If you’re serious about getting into the series proper, the best place to start is at the beginning. John first appeared in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #37-50, often called the “American Gothic” storyline, and it’s incredible graphic storytelling. John isn’t in every single issue, and it’s much more about the titular Swamp Thing, but the comics are wonderful, and they set the tone for everything that comes later. Moore lays the bones for John’s best and worst character traits.
Hellblazer #1 is another obvious starting point. While Delano’s writing isn’t as accessible as some later writers’, it’s hard to recommend this series without any of his work. The series opening finds John cleaning up a demonic mess unleashed by his childhood friend, Gary Lester. Gaz let loose a hunger demon, and John demonstrates that he isn’t afraid to sacrifice the people close to him to get the job done. The opening two-parter will show you the emotional depths Delano can hit, even if the next few issues are more focused on horror-based weirdness. Delano tapped into politics more than any other writer, commenting on Thatcher’s England and similar social issues (he famously depicted yuppies as actual demons). Delano also solidifies the character groundwork that Moore laid down, introducing some of the most enduring supporting cast of the series and fleshing out John’s history. Some modern readers find it harder to read Delano’s constant use of internal monologue, or to stomach the general weirdness of some of his plot-lines, but some of the best arcs of the series were his work.
If Delano isn’t your cup of tea, try starting with Garth Ennis, the series’ second long-term writer. His first arc, “Dangerous Habits” (issues 41-46), is the most famous arc of the series, and provided the loose basis for the Keanu Reeves film. John learns that he’s dying of lung cancer, due to his constant smoking, and becomes increasingly desperate as he gambles to save his own life. This is a well-rounded view of John as a character, displaying him at his best and worst, and features some of his important support cast. Ennis was the series’ longest-running and arguably best writer, expanding the support cast, and maintaining some of Delano’s political bite; Ennis’ run references racial tensions in London and the Troubles in Ireland. But he also wrote an issue dedicated to John’s 40th birthday, and introduced many of John’s friends as well as his long-time nemesis, the First of the Fallen (who was in Hell before Lucifer fell). Ennis gives the series its heart, and while I think there are some gems in the later series, later writers never quite hit the heights of the first two.
With the Constantine pilot airing next season on NBC, now is a great time to get into Hellblazer – nothing new will come out while you catch up! Since the main series ran for 300 issues alongside other graphic novels, miniseries, and assorted appearances, there are some dips in quality (particularly near the end). But this series could hit heights that few other series have been able to hit in my experience. John Constantine is one of the most complicated and interesting characters I’ve ever come across in any medium, and I hope that his TV show brings a whole new group of fans to these wonderful comics.