Review: NBC’s Hellblazer is not on fire…

…so go read the comics instead.

Man, I'm just overwhelmed by all the straight male-ness in this image.

Man, I’m just overwhelmed by all the straight male-ness in this image.

Someone leaked the pilot episode a few weeks back. I was unimpressed, but decided to reserve judgment. However, last week we received the news that John Constantine’s status as a queer man is “irrelevant” to his character and he is, as such, now straight. I have since lost much faith in the writers adapting the new series.

Okay, sure. We haven’t seen more episodes yet. We don’t know where this is going. The team is definitely trying to stay true to the characters, and is doing well in a lot of ways. They could get better! They’re trying really hard to portray his chain-smoking, despite network television’s ban on lighting ‘em up onscreen. The Newcastle comic canon might be getting a cool reinterpretation (comic spoilers). Zed might make an appearance. All good things.

As for quality, they’re also name-dropping NBC’s Hannibal as inspiration. That might be a decent sign, considering Hannibal is one of the best, darkest shows on television right now; or it could be a horrible sign, considering its characters and settings are almost absolutely polar from Constantine’s core. I’m no adaptation purist, myself, but in Hellblazer’s world, Hannibal Lecter would be a two-bit demon exorcized in an instant—never the titular character.

Regardless, in honor of John Constantine, here’s a plug for the old comic runs. If you’re planning on watching the show, check out some of the source material; if you’re not planning on watching the show, treat yourself to an excellent story regardless. If you’ve seen the delightful Keanu Reeves movie, it’s a fun movie but a poor adaptation, so forget everything about it.

He may look like your average Hollywood straight middle-class dudebro anti-hero, but John Constantine gives way more of a damn then all those turds put together.

He may look like your average Hollywood straight middle-class dudebro anti-hero, but John Constantine gives way more of a damn then all those turds put together.

For those of you who don’t know, let’s talk about John Constantine. He first appeared in issue 37 of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Since then he’s been written by a host of phenomenal folks (and a few assholes I like to ignore). He remains one of the most popular comic characters to date; while he is particularly of British national importance, also has a large audience in the United States. More than that, he’s… a pretty remarkable character, in that he represents a lot of minorities ignored even by “diversity in comics” efforts. In canon [when not written by writers with the competency of pickled testicles] John Constantine is:

  • Queer. From the very first arc, Delano identifies Constantine with queer sexuality. A gay friend of his dies. His significant other (a woman at the time) assumes they had an intimate relationship–she just assumes that Constantine is queer. This is confirmed later: as the comic goes on, he’s seen getting out of bed with a man, laments his (disastrous) relationships with “girlfriends and even the occasional boyfriend”, and even has a thing with a sorcerer in the Highwater arc.
  • Sexual assault survivor. He is raped multiple times by people of various genders.
  • Working class poor. He grows up with a criminal, alcoholic sex offender for a father. In adulthood, he is often so poor that he has to steal food.
  • Neuroatypical. In early arcs, he experiences a nervous breakdown. He also hops in and out of mental institutions throughout his life. At several points, his instability renders him homeless. (As a note: people who’ve already seen the leaked pilot might say, “Hey! They got this one right!” Except… they portrayed Constantine’s trip to the mental institution as a fun overnight camp. They never identified him as genuinely suffering a mental breakdown; they treated his stay as a bit of a joke.)
  • Medically abnormal. Beyond neuroatypicality, he also has marked physical abnormalities. Because of his smoking, he lives with terminal cancer at one point. (We might be getting this plotline in-show.) He is also noticeably disfigured by scar tissue.
  • Geographic minority. This won’t sound like a very big deal to us USA kids, and I can’t really speak to all the political dynamics here… but he’s also a northerner. As far as fictional representation goes, UK northerners are portrayed with discrimination similar to what US television does to white trash southern atheists: they’re portrayed as stupid, hated beasts no proper people want to talk about. (The show got the accent more or less right, as I understand it).
  • Socialist. He’s anti-Thatcher. He hates conservative politics. He makes angry socialist political rants. The first batch of writers created him to criticize Britain for the way it treats its poor working class citizens. Despair in the lower classes creates breeding-grounds for demons. In the late ‘80s, Thatcher’s policies devastated working class communities. See: the time she tried to make the poor choose between eating and voting. So, uh, hang on… poor people + despair = demons… Thatcher + poor people = despair… therefore… Thatcher + 2x poor people = demons. Thatcher = demons. Yeah.
  • Humanist. I cannot stress this enough. You will find no humanity-hating bitter Hollywood anti-hero, here. There’s ambiguity about his allegiances, certainly. But he constantly loves people and humanity and all its capacities—particularly the downtrodden, the poor, the ignored.

{Trigger Warning: image that includes text referring to sexual assault.}

John Constantine REALLY hates rapists.

It’s gross and terrible and problematic that the current writers made him a rapist in the first place. More than that, it destroys consistent and deliberate efforts made by thirty years of writers who decided, collectively, that John Constantine would never be a rapist. John Constantine REALLY hates rapists.

There are a lot of things I can say about this list. Like any comic, Hellblazer’s run hasn’t been perfect. Some writers have erased his sexuality; others, his working-class background. The most recent reboot is incompetent, and turned Constantine into a rapist—despite the comic’s thirty-year history of speaking explicitly against sexual violence.

But, ignoring the bastardized misinterpretations of Alan Moore’s intentions, at the heart of it, we have a queer working-class antihero with many markings and experiences of the disenfranchised. And more, this character ranks consistently in the top tiers of comic characters. That’s important. John Constantine is important.

Plus, I mean. He has monologues like this:

I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness. Oh, I’ve got it all sewn up. I can save you. If it takes the last drop of your blood, I’ll drive your demons away. I’ll kick them in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down and then I’ll be gone back into darkness, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. I walk my path alone… who would walk with me? (Issue 41, Dangerous Habits, Part 1: The Beginning of the End by Garth Ennis)

And. I mean.

John Constantine is not a high class black magician.

John Constantine is not a high class black magician. It’s kinda awesome.

So now that you definitely really want to read Hellblazer, you might not be sure where to start. Here’re some recommendations!

  • Start at the beginning. Here’s a decently-priced paperback collection, conveniently compiled for you (and complete with Swamp Thing crossover issues).
  • If you’re a university student, pick something at random from your library. For WashU students: WUSTL library catalogue. Alternately, order anything you like from MOBIUS or ILLiad.
  • Warren Ellis (creator of Transmetropolitan and Iron Man’s Extremis comic form) wrote an amazing arc in issues 134-143.
  • Alan Moore (creator of V for Vendetta and Watchmen) introduced him in the Swamp Thing comics, so you could start at the beginning and go from there. Here’s a guide for doing that.
  • Ashes & Dust in the City of Angels, available in the Highwater collection, is also amazing.

Go have fun!

–K. Mae Petrin

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