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John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.