John Constantine: ex-lunatic, ex-punk, black magician, detective, smoker, trenchcoat wearer, bastard. Tearing through 300 issues of Vertigo’s Hellblazer (and beyond into the milder new Constantine series), it’s just been announced that he’s also being developed as the hero for a potential NBC TV series, the pilot of which is currently being written by David S. Goyer. With that in mind, we cast our minds back over his DC history, and mused which of Constantine’s best stories might be ripe for adaptation. It’s likely that very little of what lies beneath will actually find its way to the screen, but it’s fun to dream…
[There are spoilers ahead, for those who might be thinking of getting started on the comics].
The Hellblazer comics occasionally flit back to Constantine’s early years across their run, filling in family back story and adding detail like his membership of punk band Mucous Membrane and his strangulation of his twin in the womb with his own umbilical cord. But it’s the infamous Newcastle story that is absolutely the key event in his history, pitting him and his ill-fated “crew” against the demon Nergal for the first time. In a nutshell sparing you the details, the attempted rescue of a young girl from the clutches of Hell goes disastrously wrong, and Constantine ends up committed to the Ravenscar mental institution.
Jamie Delano and Alan Moore teased the actual events of Newcastle for some time before Delano finally filled in the blanks in Hellblazer #11. That approach, rather than using Newcastle as a starting point, might be best adopted by the TV series too: setting up an entire supporting cast who don’t survive into subsequent adventures would be an interesting twist, but probably isn’t something a US TV network would risk.
Potential rights issues aside (last we heard, Swamp Thing was with Joel Silver) there’s obvious crossover potential for John Constantine and Alec Holland, since Constantine emerged from Swamp Thing’s pages. His relationship with the jolly green giant begins when Constantine is masterminding the crusade against the Brujeria, an insidious black magic chaos cult who have quietly taken over the world and are now embarking on the destruction of Heaven. Later, he’ll reluctantly act as a surrogate when Swamp Thing and his still-human lover Abby decide they want to conceive a child.
Swamp Thing reappears much later, during Mike Carey’s Hellblazer run. By that point, supernaturally speaking, anything goes. This early in its life, however, we’re thinking the Swamp Thing stories might be a bit too “out there” for television.
Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer run is absolutely rooted in its time (the ‘80s), which makes it the comic’s most overtly political period. Hellblazer #3 sees Constantine fighting demon yuppies on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s re-election, while longer arcs take in new-age travellers, evil parliamentary freemasons, neo-Nazis, the messianic Resurrection Crusaders, and Nergal’s Damnation Army. The latter story sees Constantine getting a demon-blood transfusion from Nergal, which has ongoing repercussions.
Perhaps Delano’s best tale though, and one that might ease a television audience into Constantine’s world before getting down to the crazy demon shit, is The Family Man: a relatively straight serial killer yarn. It’s still a formative tale for Constantine – it’s the first time he deliberately kills anyone – but in The Family Man himself it also has a great antagonist. One particular sequence, in which Constantine and the killer stalk each other across London in the wee hours of the morning, (you could call it a game of cat and mouse, but it’s more like cat and cat) would alone make for a superb hour’s drama.
Aside from some material dealing with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Garth Ennis’ run is less topical than Delano’s, and in a strange way also warmer, since it introduces Constantine’s first real love affair in the form of the feisty Kit. They make a great couple, and her decision not to put up with his lifestyle proves temporarily catastrophic for the magician.
Ennis brings us vampires, gangsters and, of course, demons, but perhaps his single greatest story is his first, Dangerous Habits. This would have seen him facing off against the Devil himself, but a clash with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, running at the same time, meant that Satan had to be replaced with “The First of the Fallen”. Still, it’s the ultimate Constantine-as-trickster story, in which the mage sells his soul to three different demons in a gambit to get his cancer cured. It also includes a great chapter in which The First is temporarily defeated with a pint of Holy Guinness.
In a garbled form, however, a lot of this arc found its way into the Constantine movie, so a cautious showrunner might choose to leave it on one side for fear of over-familiarity.
Warren Ellis’ time on Hellblazer was short: he walked after an issue about a school shooting was pulled from the schedule in the wake of Columbine. His brief stint does, however, give us Haunted, which shows Constantine at his most ruthless.
Essentially a murder mystery, this sees Constantine investigating the death of an ex-girlfriend, who in the years since he knew her had descended into drug addiction, and whose ghost now regularly manifests at a London children’s playground. Her demise, it turns out, is tied up with someone testing the concepts of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Clearly, Constantine isn’t going to let that slide.
In many ways this is quintessential Constantine, portraying him both as magician and detective. But it also emphasises brutal horror over the dark fantasy of some other arcs, so it might be a bit strong for NBC.
In an approach that might work quite well for television, Brian Azzarello stripped Constantine of any regular supporting cast and transplanted him to the States, where he wandered alone, getting into trouble. “I wanted to bring the mystery back to him,” said the 100 Bullets author. He also played up the aspect of Constantine as a kind of psychological confidence trickster, and played down the actual magic. “Demons and monsters… yawn,” he explained. “Human beings are the most horrific things on the planet.”
This era saw Constantine sent to jail, and tangling with white supremacists and rural snuff pornographers, but it’s the self-contained Freezes Over that’s perhaps Azzarello’s finest Hellblazer hour. Constantine gets stranded in a bar during an ice storm, and gets in between the criminals and random innocents who are stuck there with him. At one point, in a moment that perfectly encapsulates how insidiously dangerous Constantine himself can actually be, he persuades an injured gunman to bleed to death. No magic: just talk. Sometimes the smartest man in the room is the most frightening of all.
Taking the opposite tack to Azzarello, Mike Carey brought Constantine back to Liverpool and London, and surrounded him with a huge cast of recurring characters, many of whom originated with Delano, Ennis and Ellis. Carey’s lengthy run on the comic also largely constituted a single story, making it perhaps the best template for TV adaptation.
Down in the Ground is the climax of Carey’s epic, dealing with the aftermath of the landmark issue #200. Following some supernatural shenanigans (Swamp Thing got involved) that went rather south, Constantine struck an ill-advised deal with the demon Rosacarnis, agreeing to give her a day of his life in exchange for a rescue. Subjectively, that day turned into decades for Constantine, and saw him fathering three children for Rosacarnis. All of whom, in the aftermath, set about dismantling his life and killing anyone he was close to. Kids, eh? So ungrateful.
Then you’ve got Nergal, who it turns out is Rosacarnis’ father, and has himself had a “difficult” few years (he was destroyed and had to grow a new body – twice!), during which time his daughter has usurped his throne in Hell. He’s not too pleased about that, and strikes an uneasy alliance with Constantine, his great enemy, to depose her again. The First of the Fallen also shows up to enjoy the show, while on the mortal plane those affected include Chas, Constantine’s sister Cheryl, his niece Gemma, and on/off lover Angie Spatchcock. There’s at least an entire season’s worth of material here, and probably more. Constantine’s long day would make an excellent season cliffhanger.
Crime writer Denise Mina took over the reins from Carey for a short stint of twelve issues, which brought Constantine up to her own stomping ground of Scotland. It’s a big story in terms of its events (we end up with deserted streets and martial law in Glasgow), but it’s also contained enough to work as an entry point for newbies, and thus might work as an early arc for television.
The strange story has its roots in a heretical monastic order from the 11th Century, whose religious niche was empathy, which here means sharing the emotional pain of others. Skip ahead to the present day, and the order still exists in secret, creating, with supernatural assistance, an “Empathy Engine” that causes a pandemic. Tapping into the emotions of others is a bad thing, when those emotions are an exponentially spreading fear and panic. While he pieces together the mystery, however, Constantine wanders through this without directly affecting much (the climax hinges on the outcome of an England v. Portugal football match). So perhaps it’s not an ideal contender for adaptation.
Constantine’s back in London (and North Yorkshire) for Andy Diggle’s tenure, reinstalled as the arrogant street-mage, butting into police investigations, and finding trouble everywhere from slum-like prisons to high society. With demons, obvs. In short: not a bad template for a weekly series of standalone episodes, possibly dipping occasionally into a broader mythology, as The X-Files did.
This late, there’s a sense of Hellblazer starting to repeat itself, picking over old events yet again. Prime culprit is issue #233, which takes Constantine back to Ravenscar (no longer an asylum; it’s been turned into a hotel and casino) on “unfinished business”. On TV, however, told in conjunction with the Newcastle story and its aftermath, it could play very well.
Pete Milligan got to shepherd Hellblazer towards its final issue, and his run is much like Mike Carey’s: using many of the same characters in a kind of ongoing supernatural horror soap opera. He brings back Constantine’s niece Gemma, returns to the business that left his sister Cheryl in Hell, and revives Constantine’s evil twin. Are evil twin stories ever a good idea?
Most significantly though, Milligan braved something nobody had tried before, and had Constantine get married. The nubile Epiphany Grieves allowed Milligan to vastly up the nudity and hot sex quotient of the comic, but she also brought with her a disapproving gangster father for some continuing drama.
As with Carey, the ongoing threads would be perfect for seasonal arcs, and John and Epiphany’s predictably red wedding would make a good centrepiece episode. But if the show, as Milligan did, ever runs a story about Constantine’s trenchcoat going off and having adventures on its own, it will seriously have jumped the shark.