Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter‘s weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big (and small) screen.
Magic always comes with a cost. This week sees the release of both Justice League Dark No. 21 and John Constantine: Hellblazer No. 5. Consider this a tale of two Constantines. Justice League Dark, a Comics Watch favorite, finds John Constantine and Zatanna in search of Abby Arcane following the disappearance of Swamp Thing in the previous arc. Written by Ram V and James Tynion IV with art by Alvaro Martinez Bueno, Justice League Dark positions Constantine squarely in the world of superheroes and a cosmic war over magic, echoing Alan Moore’s original use of the character in the pages of Swamp Thing. John Constantine: Hellblazer, written by Simon Spurrier with art by Matias Bergara, is spun-off from the Sandman Universe line. This iteration of Constantine is a mature, ages 17+ iteration of the character that continues the trials and tribulations of the character popularized in Vertigo’s 300-issue series that ran from 1988 to 2013. These separate iterations of Constantine, equally beloved in their own way, showcase the flexibility of one DC’s most enduring non-superhero characters.
The Constantine we experience in Justice League Dark is innately tied to the larger DC Universe, with the character battling alongside Wonder Woman, Detective Chimp and Man-Bat. While he’d never consider himself a superhero, he does fit neatly into that world. His ties to DC’s magical characters like Zatara, Doctor Fate and the Phantom Stranger only serve to strengthen the character, showcasing his costly use of magic and lack of nobility that often comes attached to characters sharing similar power sets. Justice League Dark stays true to the character while giving him the opportunity to play a significant role in a larger superhero tapestry, not unlike his early appearances in Swamp Thing, beginning with 1985’s No. 37. In many ways, his current story within this arc of Justice League Dark takes the character back to his roots as he is once again drawn into a search for Swamp Thing and Abigail Arcane.
The Constantine featured in John Constantine: Hellblazer is intimately tied to the U.K., reflecting the real-world and aging in real time. The sociopolitical concerns of Hellblazer drove the horror elements for the books 300-issue run, tackling subjects ranging from nationalism, police brutality, homosexuality, poverty and religion. Spurrier’s series may not feature Vertigo branding, the label now defunct and effectively replaced by DC’s Black Label, but it feels like a true continuation of the series started by Jamie Delano, and continued by comic giants like Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey and Peter Milligan. Spurrier’s book is one detached from the world superheroes, and thus the writer savors John Constantine’s inherent flaws and bad decision making. There’s no Justice League to set a standard of behavior for him to aspire to, and any time he manages to move up a step, there’s something there to knock him three steps back, often due to his own flaws.
While both books are firmly set within the world of horror, the way in which these horrors are handled are obviously different. Justice League Dark has personal stakes that lead to world-ending consequences, and the immediate perils are those faced by our lead heroes. John Constantine: Hellblazer on the other hand operates on a smaller scale. Constantine’s choices don’t necessitate the end of the world, but they do promise death for those he cares about and underprivileged. One way to think about these books, both great reads for Constantine fans and horror fans, is that Justice League Dark is focused on those who make and enforce the policies of magic, where John Constantine: Hellblazer is centered on the working class perception of magic, and how it makes ordinary lives all the harder. There isn’t one version that’s better than another, but when it comes to a film adaptation is there a more successful approach?
Constantine hasn’t quite made magic onscreen. Francis Lawrence’s Constantine (2005) has become a cult favorite over time, but its major deviations from the comics, including the fact that lead Keanu Reeves is not British, didn’t lead to a successful franchise launch. And NBC’s Constantine (2014) series, which only ran for 13 episodes, was more authentic to the character but its American setting and procedural storytelling didn’t manage to capture either the social commentary of the comics or the spectacle of his then role in the DC Universe as part of the New 52 lineup. Matt Ryan is currently reprising his role as Constantine on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, which is a more family-friendly take on the character, but has helped build recognition among those who were unfamiliar with the troubled and troublesome mage.
Ideally John Constantine could play a significant role in a potential Justice League Dark film, one that takes inspiration from the current series. And additionally, perhaps he could lead an HBO Max series that could follow the character from the ’80s to present-day, adapting Hellblazer’s most beloved stories and providing a historical and modern sociopolitical context for the character. When it comes to adapting John Constantine, perhaps the best answer comes down to recognizing that there are two Constantines, one who fits in with the world of superheroes and epic stories, and another who walks the back alleys of a world not so different from our own, with horror and intrigue that stem from our actions rather than those of costumed heroes. For now, we can just be thankful that DC has allowed for two great iterations of Constantine to exist simultaneously and bring distinct variations of horror and magic to comics.