John Constantine: Hellblazer – A Retrospective of the 90s Comic Runs and Their Impact on Urban Fantasy
John Constantine: Hellblazer – A Retrospective of the 90s Comic Runs and Their Impact on Urban Fantasy
By Neal Martin/ March 31, 2023
Last Updated April 26, 2023
John Constantine, the chain-smoking, streetwise magician and anti-hero, has become a cultural icon in the realm of comic books and urban fantasy. Since his first appearance in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Constantine has evolved into a complex and compelling character that has left an indelible mark on the genre. In this retrospective, we will explore the 90s comic runs of Hellblazer, delving into the character of John Constantine, examining some of his most memorable moments, and highlighting the impact he has had on literature and urban fantasy.
Background and Creation of John Constantine
Created by writer Alan Moore and artists Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben, John Constantine first appeared in Swamp Thing #37 in 1985. Interestingly, Moore had the character designed to resemble British musician Sting, adding a distinctive and memorable appearance to the already intriguing character. The resemblance was so striking that it helped create an immediate visual impact, further cementing the character’s place in the minds of readers.
The character was initially conceived as a supporting character for Swamp Thing, serving as a cunning and streetwise occult detective who would assist Swamp Thing in navigating the supernatural world. However, John Constantine’s enigmatic personality and morally ambiguous nature quickly captured the attention of readers, and his popularity grew rapidly. With his chain-smoking, trench coat-wearing aesthetic and sharp wit, he stood out as a unique and compelling figure in the comic book landscape.
Recognizing the character’s potential, DC Comics decided to give John Constantine his own series, and thus, the Hellblazer series was launched in 1988. This series allowed the character to further develop and flourish, enabling writers and artists to explore the complex world of magic, demons, and moral dilemmas that surround the character. John Constantine’s solo adventures provided a darker, more adult-focused narrative that pushed the boundaries of traditional comic book storytelling and contributed to the growing popularity of urban fantasy in the medium.
The 90s Hellblazer Comic Runs
The 90s were a defining period for the Hellblazer series, featuring works by some of the most influential writers and artists of the time, including Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, and Paul Jenkins. These creators crafted unforgettable storylines and arcs that not only explored the supernatural world but also delved into social and political commentary.
Garth Ennis’s “Dangerous Habits” (Hellblazer #41-46) is arguably one of the most iconic storylines in the series. The arc follows John Constantine as he faces his own mortality after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The story is a gripping exploration of Constantine’s character as he cunningly outsmarts the devil and saves his own soul from damnation.
Jamie Delano’s “Fear and Loathing” (Hellblazer #62-67) tackles the conservative political climate of the 90s in the United Kingdom. Constantine battles a group of right-wing extremists who seek to bring about a new era of darkness and xenophobia. This arc showcases Delano’s ability to weave social commentary into the fabric of urban fantasy.
Garth Ennis’s “Rake at the Gates of Hell” (Hellblazer #78-83) sees Constantine seeking revenge against the demon Nergal, who has been a persistent thorn in his side. The storyline culminates in a brutal confrontation between Constantine and Nergal, demonstrating the darker aspects of the Hellblazer series.
Paul Jenkins’s “Critical Mass” (Hellblazer #87-91) explores the theme of loss as Constantine mourns the death of a close friend. The story delves into the protagonist’s vulnerability and the emotional toll that his supernatural escapades have had on his personal life.
John Constantine as a Character
John Constantine, the cunning and enigmatic protagonist of the Hellblazer comics, has become a quintessential figure in the urban fantasy genre, largely due to his morally ambiguous nature and complex personality. Throughout the 90s comic runs, Constantine’s character was developed in ways that both humanized him and highlighted his darker qualities, making him a compelling and relatable anti-hero.
Morally ambiguous and cunning
In the 90s Hellblazer comics, Constantine’s moral ambiguity was often showcased through his cunning and manipulative tactics. He frequently used his knowledge of magic and the supernatural to outwit both his enemies and allies alike. For example, in the “Dangerous Habits” storyline (Hellblazer #41-46), Constantine tricks the First of the Fallen, a powerful demon, into curing him of lung cancer by making deals with two other demons and pitting them against each other. This move solidifies his reputation as a trickster who is willing to use morally questionable methods to achieve his goals.
Relatable human flaws
Despite his supernatural abilities and experiences, Constantine is characterized by relatable human flaws that ground him in reality. Throughout the 90s comics, his struggles with addiction, guilt, and personal loss make him a sympathetic figure. In the “Fear and Loathing” arc (Hellblazer #62-67), Constantine confronts his alcoholism and the consequences of his actions, showcasing his self-destructive tendencies and vulnerability. These humanizing elements make him an accessible character for readers who may not typically engage with supernatural stories.
Another defining aspect of Constantine’s character in the 90s comics is his complicated relationships with friends, enemies, and lovers. His long-standing friendship with Chas Chandler, a London cab driver, is a notable example, as it is often tested by Constantine’s actions and the dangers they face together. In the “Rake at the Gates of Hell” storyline (Hellblazer #78-83), Constantine’s manipulative behavior results in the death of his friend, Rich Eldridge, which adds to the burden of guilt he carries.
Constant evolution and growth
Throughout the 90s comics, John Constantine’s character evolves as he confronts various supernatural threats and personal demons. His growth is evident in the “Critical Mass” storyline (Hellblazer #84-88), where he faces the consequences of his past decisions and works to redeem himself by stopping an evil cult. This arc demonstrates his increasing willingness to confront his own shortcomings and take responsibility for his actions.
Overall, John Constantine’s character in the 90s Hellblazer comics is a rich tapestry of moral ambiguity, human flaws, complicated relationships, and personal growth. These aspects make him a fascinating figure in the urban fantasy genre and contribute to the enduring appeal of the Hellblazer series.
Impact on Literature and Urban Fantasy
John Constantine’s role in the Hellblazer comics has left an indelible mark on literature and urban fantasy, and especially dark urban fantasy. His character has not only influenced other comic book characters and series but has also contributed significantly to the growth and evolution of the urban fantasy genre. Here, we delve into the ways in which Constantine’s impact can be seen in various aspects of literature and urban fantasy.
John Constantine’s morally ambiguous and complex nature has contributed to the rise of anti-heroes in comic book storytelling. His character paved the way for other flawed and relatable protagonists, such as Marvel’s Deadpool and DC’s Lobo, who similarly challenge traditional notions of heroism. The popularity of these characters demonstrates the appeal of a more nuanced and human approach to superhero storytelling, which can be traced back to Constantine’s influence.
Constantine’s adventures in the Hellblazer comics have also encouraged other comic book series to blend genres, such as horror, fantasy, and crime. Titles like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Bill Willingham’s Fables owe a debt to Hellblazer’s success in combining supernatural elements with real-world settings and issues. These genre-blurring series demonstrate how Constantine has inspired comic book creators to explore innovative and boundary-pushing narratives.
Contribution to the Urban Fantasy Genre
Constantine’s stories in the Hellblazer comics are grounded in real-world settings, like London, which allows the series to tackle contemporary issues, such as politics, social inequality, and addiction. This approach has had a lasting impact on the urban fantasy genre, with subsequent novels and series like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series similarly weaving supernatural elements into recognizable, modern settings. This has made urban fantasy more accessible and appealing to a broader audience.
Constantine’s encounters with demons, ghosts, and other supernatural beings in the Hellblazer comics have contributed to the genre’s tradition of blending horror and supernatural elements. This approach has influenced other urban fantasy authors, such as Charlaine Harris with her Southern Vampire Mysteries (adapted into the TV series True Blood) and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Indeed, Constantine’s supernatural detective sensibilities have influenced my own work quite a bit, with my characters Ethan Drake and August Creed taking their cue from him. These works demonstrate the enduring appeal of urban fantasy stories that combine supernatural and horror elements to create thrilling and atmospheric narratives.
Adaptations and Multimedia Appearances
Constantine (2005) film
The 2005 film adaptation of Hellblazer, titled Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves, brought the character to a wider audience, albeit with some changes to the source material. The film’s success demonstrated the potential for urban fantasy stories to thrive in other media and paved the way for future adaptations of similar properties.
Constantine (2014) TV series
The 2014 TV series Constantine, starring Matt Ryan, offered a more faithful adaptation of the comic book character and received praise for its portrayal of the supernatural elements and urban settings. The show’s fan following and subsequent inclusion of Matt Ryan’s Constantine in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow further solidified the character’s impact on urban fantasy and its potential in multimedia adaptations.
In addition to live-action adaptations, John Constantine has also made his mark in the world of animation, further solidifying his impact on urban fantasy across different media formats.
Justice League Dark (2017)
In the 2017 animated film Justice League Dark, Matt Ryan reprises his role as the voice of John Constantine. The movie showcases Constantine’s expertise in the supernatural as he joins forces with other mystical characters like Zatanna, Deadman, and Swamp Thing to confront supernatural threats that the regular Justice League cannot handle. The film’s success and the prominent role of Constantine in the story demonstrate the character’s appeal in the animated format and his versatility in team-based narratives.
Constantine: City of Demons (2018-2019)
Constantine: City of Demons is a two-part animated series that premiered on CW Seed in 2018, with Matt Ryan once again lending his voice to the titular character. The series delves deeper into Constantine’s backstory, exploring his relationships with other characters from the Hellblazer comics, such as Chas Chandler and Nergal. This animated adaptation faithfully captures the dark and supernatural tone of the source material while expanding the character’s reach to new audiences who might not be familiar with the comics.
Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020)
John Constantine returns in the 2020 animated film Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, playing a crucial role in the battle against the supervillain Darkseid. The film’s mature themes and gritty storytelling align with the tone of the Hellblazer comics, offering fans a faithful representation of the character while also showcasing his ability to contribute to larger, interconnected narratives in the DC Universe.
John Constantine’s influence on literature and urban fantasy is undeniable. His character has played a significant role in shaping the genre, inspiring other comic book characters and series, and contributing to the development of urban fantasy in various media. Constantine’s enduring legacy serves as a testament to the power of innovative storytelling and the ongoing appeal of morally complex anti-heroes.
The enduring legacy of John Constantine and the Hellblazer comics is evident in their continued influence on the urban fantasy genre and the comic book industry as a whole. Over the years, the series has explored complex themes and challenged traditional notions of heroism, leaving a lasting impact on readers and creators alike. As a result, the character of John Constantine has become a touchstone for the urban fantasy genre, inspiring countless other stories and characters that blend supernatural elements with real-world settings and issues.
The popularity and relevance of John Constantine and the Hellblazer comics in modern media is a testament to the character’s resonance with audiences. His numerous adaptations and appearances across various media platforms, including film, television, and other comic book series, have allowed him to reach a wider audience and solidify his status as an iconic figure in the urban fantasy genre. As the demand for stories that explore the intersection of the supernatural and the mundane continues to grow, the appeal of John Constantine and the Hellblazer comics remains strong.
As fans of urban fantasy and comic book enthusiasts continue to discover the rich history of John Constantine and the Hellblazer comics, there is a growing appreciation for the impact the character has had on the genre. By exploring the 90s comic runs, readers can delve into the foundations of the urban fantasy genre and gain a deeper understanding of the character’s significance. With their unique blend of supernatural elements, horror, and contemporary issues, the Hellblazer comics offer a compelling and immersive reading experience that continues to captivate and inspire new generations of fans.