On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: How to solve a problem like John Constantine
Posted on December 3, 2014
December 3, 2014
by Andy Waterfield
Alright? I’m Andy Waterfield and, if Bryne wills it, this is the first in a new series of columns about comics and comics culture. Let’s get cracking, eh?
Like a great many English comics readers of a certain age, I have very strong views about John Constantine, titular character of the long-running (1988-2013) horror comic John Constantine: Hellblazer (previously Hellblazer), and also the protagonist of the recently debuted NBC television series Constantine. Even more recently, that television series ceased production after only a handful of episodes had aired, and its future is somewhat precarious, by all accounts.
As I say, I have some pretty strong views about John, as do many fans of the character. Below, I’m going to try to pinpoint the three main issues I have with the Constantine series, and how the producers could improve their approach, that it might return with a vengeance, and give fans old and new an interpretation of the character that works within the format, and the context, of American television.
(Warning: Contains mild spoilers.)
1. Ditch the super-secret magic house.
For some reason, the producers of Constantine have decided that John has to live in a magic house in the woods. This mystic hideout is full of supernatural artefacts, and also magical traps, because apparently they had more effects/props staff on payroll than they needed, and had to give them something to do.
John should live in a shitty little apartment with empty takeaway cartons on the floor, and stains of dubious origin all over his fetid bedsheets. Despite his power and skills, he is not nearly pretentious enough to have a lair, much less one in the middle of bloody nowhere.
2. John should be reactive, not proactive.
One of the most frustrating conceits of Constantine is the bloody map. Literally, it’s a map with dry blood on it, and when there’s spooky goings on somewhere, a drop of the blood over that particular place gets wet again, and off John goes to battle whatever ghoul needs a slap that episode. Which is bollocks.
John Constantine is not a hero. He’s not looking to make the world a better place. He is a profoundly selfish man whose addiction to magic, to the con, and the power it gives him, destroys almost everything and everyone he cares about. Occasionally, whats left of his conscience and his addiction come into alignment, and he uses his particular talents to save people. Usually at the expense of a slightly smaller amount of people. John wins the day, but always at a cost, usually incurred by the poor bastards unlucky or stupid enough to get tangled up in his life.
So yes, he finds himself in the right place at the right time, but you don’t need a map for that. It wastes time in a finite medium, and robs the character of some of his essential mystery. John shouldn’t be turning up anywhere in a New York cab, especially not anywhere that’s not in New York City. He should saunter out of the shadows, only slightly less scary to the people who seek out his help than whatever has shit them up in the first place.
3. Give John a context.
Part of the reason Hellblazer worked so well as a comic is that it was as much about John’s context as it is about John himself. That is to say, it’s predominantly set in the United Kingdom, and London in particular. The stories told within the pages of Hellblazer were, more often than not, responses to the world its writers found themselves in, that is to say, the United Kingdom of the period between 1988 and 2013, as a procession of Thatcher imitators (and not in a fun, drag queen way) repeatedly nailed the most vulnerable to the wall. Hellblazer remains, to my mind, a remarkable insight into the psyche of a nation.
Yes, John faced off against demons, errant angels, and other supernatural horrors, but far more frequently, he faced the political establishment of the Tories and New Labour, Buckingham Palace, the aristocracy, the far right, and good old bog-standard workaday horror; rapists, torturers, and killers of the kind whose stories are so mundane, so unremarkable, that they sit a few pages into the newspaper, and reminds us that the real monsters are ordinary people, just like us.
None of this is to say that Constantine should be set in the United Kingdom. Far from it. The show is a very different beast, for a very different market, but if the producers are seeking to create anything like the power and depth of the comics, then the series has to be about America, just as much as it is about John himself. That means no more stories about Welsh folklore transplanted into US mining towns.
America has a history all its very own, and a rich vein of mythology and horror to draw from. Likewise, America has a unique social fabric, and its own political classes, vested interests, and very real horrors to draw upon. Just like the UK, America’s history, and indeed its present, is drenched in exploitation, racism, bigotry, slavery, and genocide. It is as rich a seam of horror as you’re likely to find in the Anglophone world, as least once you fly out of Heathrow. Illuminate and explore both America’s dark corners, and the dark corners of your characters. Transplant not just the protagonist, but the essence of the original comics series, and you’ll create not just entertainment, but art that encourages your audience to take a closer look at themselves and their surroundings.
Do all that, and I’ll watch religiously, and I’m sure others will too. Give your audience something smart, dark, and challenging, because that’s the character you’re playing with, and that’s the series both he, and they, deserve.
Andy Waterfield used to be punk, but now he works in the music industry, so who knows anymore. He lives in London, where he goes to work, tries to write comics, and complains about the price of ale. You can follow his inane wittering at @andywritesstuff, should you be so inclined.