GUEST POST Constantine #18 review by Colin Smith

Why can't the cool be distilled from the challenging, the attitude from the provocation, the pleasurable shiver from the unnervingly taboo, the comfortingly lad-thrilling from the tragic and the confounding? 

Why not John Constantine, super-magician? Skill, a cunning change of genre and a clear sense of purpose can transform even the most unsettling of characters into intrinsically comforting figures. From Cyrano de Bergerac comes Fire Chief CD Bales, from the ruthlessness of pulp-era Batman comes Adam West's joyous interpretation, and even Granny-shocking Johnny Strabler eventually morphs into The Fonz. So, what if John Constantine wasn't, for all his dubiously good intentions and crass charm, a poisonous mess of irresponsibility, faithlessness, self-loathing, impulsiveness and hubris? Why not a heroically tarnished, cursed-but-indomitable hero rather than a repeatedly toxic everybloke? What if we were to ultimately sympathise far more with Constantine than his cannon-fodder victims, and what if his unsettling physical vulnerability was homoeopathically diluted by the clear implication of a superhero's might? 

Taken on its own terms, there's no reason an all-ages Constantine can't be at the very least interesting. He couldn't be the fabulously dangerous and profoundly damaged anti-hero of Moore and Delano and Ennis and their peers, but why can't a kid-friendly, don't-scare-the-horses Constantine be entertaining, and even challenging, in its own right? More has been achieved with a great deal less.

On the evidence of writer Ray Fawkes and artist Jeremy Haun's 'Half A Chance', the problem's not that Constantine's been reframed so much as that he's been bowdlerised. Though the work seems anxious to insist that this Constantine is compellingly tragic and rebellious, he's been stripped of many of his most distinctive and unsettling characteristics. Boy-thrilling self-pity has replaced the conviction of irredeemable guilt, while PC-quips and one-note braggadocio have supplanted the threat of a truly dangerous outlier. Instead of a profoundly unsettling and somewhat contemptible social refusenik, Fawkes and Haun's Constantine has all the carefully emasculated cool of a boy band aimed at the early teen market. 

As such, 'Half A Life' fetishises power and arrogance rather than dissecting their appeal and consequences, flirting with the pretence of defiance and a suggestion of uncomfortable emotions while delivering a securely banal experience. It's a circle that can't be squared. Much of the surface of the old Hellblazer remains, but Constantine's been drained of his old capacity to challenge, amuse and upset.

'Half A Life' is nothing but a by-the-numbers, humourless, issue-long set-to between Constantine and his mystical enemies, and the more the comic tries in its over-serious, dead-hearted and wisecracking way to pretend otherwise, the more obvious it becomes.

For all that Constantine remains positioned as a sneering counterweight to the superheroes of the DCU, he's clearly now little more than a costumed crimefighter himself. With his deflection charms, duelling magik and defensive chants, he's far more the heroic brawler than the would-be-Machiavellian, out-of-his-depth troublemaker. So clearly does Constantine now fit with the superhero tradition that his once-defining contempt for "costumes" appears ludicrous. (As absurd, in fact, as his Eighties costume of red tie and trenchcoat, which is surely as irrelevant to today's culture as Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker and churchwarden pipe.
 But then, surely a rebooted Constantine for today should be associated with something more daringly contemporary than Seventies English punk?) With little but the lack of Lycra and a remarkably unconvincing English accent to clearly distinguish Constantine from the Nu52's default Dark Age product, the comic's insistence that it really is brave and dark and disconcerting strikes as both pretentious and embarrassing. In truth, its ethics are nothing more nuanced than kill-or-be-killed, while its intellectual ambition extends no further than the mechanics of ripping a super-baddie's body in half. No matter how tastefully dingy the colours of Richard and Tanya Horie, 'Half A Chance' is entirely free from the suspense that it aspires to project. Too glibly grim to escape the memory of Hellblazer's fundamental spirit and purpose, Constantine seems to be constantly drawing attention to its own inadequacies.

Yet if the premise of the strip is barely baked, its execution is frequently woeful. Trying not to offend while striving to maintain Constantine's belligerent cool results in some truly appalling, if undeniably treasurable, dialogue from Fawkes. Amongst a number of jostling examples, perhaps the most remarkable involves Constantine's attempted putdown of the one-note supervillain Wotan:

'It's like listening to a goose caught in a car engine. Honk honk bloody honk all day and all night.'

Honk honk bloody honk indeed.

Displaying a similar aptitude for accents, Fawkes channels the laughable faux-Cockney of Dick Van Dyke's Bert from Mary Poppins with a splutter of inexplicably dropped 'H's and cries of 'Oi!' from his supposedly British cast. That he sets his bar scenes in Liverpool only underlines how Fawkes' version of the London accent is as inappropriate as it's inept. (My favourite stab at working class speech from Fawkes is 'rounding the bend over thirty', a fantastically unconvincing way of expressing the aging process in cod-proletarian.) 

That exclusively tin ear for character and speech shouldn't, however, be allowed to obscure the more fundamental problems with Fawkes' work. With whatever passes as foreshadowing proving thin and obtuse, the comic's conflict depends on the piling up of one deus ex māchinā after another. Since the reader can't possibly predict how Constantine will eventually thwart Wotan's assault, it's impossible to care about a sequence of plot beats that appear largely without warning and pass without impressing. It's as if the fact that Wotan will end up torn in two, as DC's obsession with asinine body-horror appears to insist, can compensate for the longueurs of the interminable preceding face-off.

Regrettably, neither Constantine nor Wotan are lent anything of depth to complement their desire to do away with one another. This is all about pontificating blokes fighting to the death and little else at all. (An attempt to introduce a sprinkling of emotion in the scenes featuring Constantine's alt-Earth doppelganger flounders in excruciating dialogue and confusing scripting.) With his taste for would-be poetic captions - 'The air is screaming. It seems to relinquish itself to the ground in whirling heat...' - penchant for enervatingly decompressed pacing, and habit of failing to explain key plot points such as the end of Earth 2 and Constantine's grotesque attackers, Fawkes' script defies involvement. Bad things happen, and then more bad things happen, and then the badder bad guy meets a terrible end before the story, as it has to, judders to a close.

To be concluded ... here

For four years, Colin Smith's Too Busy Thinking About My Comics provided some of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable writing about comics on the internet, taking in everything from the fundamentals of the Fantastic Four to the question of aliens as second class citizens.  Colin is busy with other projects - a book on Mark Millar due next year and regular writings at Sequart - but the archive remains. Devour it. Wondering what he's making of DC's New 52, I suggested Colin review a random title, and Constantine #18 is it.


  1. If you check out this instructional video from the BBC, you can see around the 1:52 mark how honking like a goose was once thought to expunge demons of the mind:
    Perhaps there is something meta going on. I don't know.

  2. This isn't a review. It's a condemnation of a publishing decision, replacing Hellblazer with Constantine. I never cared for the Vertigo series and tried the new version and found the writing lacking. Loving the modern Earth 2 I decided to give it a go for this arc and if people can get past their prejudices about DC giving up on a poor selling book for a wider audience potentially, they'll find this arc is indeed the best written of the Constantine series by far...

    1. "This isn't a review. It's a condemnation of a publishing decision, replacing Hellblazer with Constantine. "

      Although there is plenty of specific criticism of the Constantine issue that I fear you may have missed in the body of the above text, I feel it's worth pointing out that Martin explicitly states at the end of the review that this comic was chosen to test the waters of the current DC line.

      And as for appealing to a potentially wider audience, I fear you may have misread the nature of DC's New 52 IP reshuffle, which was instigated not for reasons of creative vision or faith in the potential of properties, but to capitalise on existing success, even if that meant poaching property that people other than DC had made successful. Constantine, Swamp Thing, and anyone with their own cartoon shows were incorporated into a single line in order to put all characters with multimedia presence under DC's control rather than the Vertigo or Wildstorm satellite imprints, which enjoyed a level of autonomy that was eroded when parent company Warner went through a drastic boardroom struggle and one of the contentions became DC's continuing economic failure - specifically why Warner didn't have an entertainment division on the level of Marvel despite the Nolan Bat-flicks being some of the most successful films ever made, and the DCU animated universe being an undisputed highlight of Western animation.
      Hellblazer/Constantine isn't meant to appeal to a wider audience, he's merely a placeholder in DC's roster because he has a movie and a tv show, and having him on their books makes their line look like it has more pop-cultural clout. The books are not supposed to appeal to anyone, they're simply meant to exist.

    2. Thanks for the comments, Flip, but there's no way this isn't a review - it's a detailed look at an issue with plenty of examples as to why Colin thinks it just ain't very good; in part one here, Colin puts the spotlight on the writing and in the coming conclusion he turns to the artwork and sums up. Examples and opinions certainly constitutes a review.

      Yeah, there's comparison with the Vertigo version, but that's inevitable for the sake of context - entirely fair. I didn't always enjoy the Vertigo book, with one writer in particularly totally missing the mark in my eyes, but to say it didn't have good writing ... well, opinions vary and all that, but with the likes of Delano, Milligan, Ennis and Morrison all contributing, I am surprised!

      Brigonos, many thanks for your response, it's thoroughly appreciated and, actually, better put than I could manage, like as not. Your insight into why DC reshuffled the pack (and I'm kicking myself that I've never previously noticed the playing card comparison) makes perfect sense.

    3. Hello Brigonos - gawd bless you for finding a context for the, er, honking. As for the idea of Constantine as trademark placeholder, I think there's much to it. Indeed, it would be insane for DC not to have a Constantine title out there at the moment. (I'm often baffled by the Big Two's unwillingness to exploit film/TV exploitation of their properties. Unlike some I've read on the net recently, for example, I think Marvel's absolutely right to push their GOTG line as far as the market will bear.) But I do think that John Constantine was - no matter how crassly - reshaped purposefully to fit into the blokeish and yet only-just-PG marketplace that DC was and often still is targetting. It's a decision, and a process, that I find fascinating because it raises so many questions of craft, marketing and common sense. Why, for example, not have two Constantine books, one in the Vertigoverse - to tap into the TV show - and one in the Nu52 universe? It all seems rather daft to me, as does the ill-thought through rebooting of JC himself.

      But as you imply, corporate policy can often seem to be little to do common sense or quality. Perhaps that would explain why Constantine is currently selling - according to estimates on the net - barely more than the old Vertigo book, without generating, I'd suspect, the TPB sales that the old series did. It's all been laughably thought through.

      None of which is to suggest that Constantine shouldn't have been rebooted, or that he shouldn't - as I said in the above & underscore in the conclusion- have been turned into Doc-Strange-With-An-Attitude. The issue is how poorly it's been done. Honk honk indeed!

  3. Interesting read. Don't have the time right now to get into a detailed defense, but I'll definitely check in for part 2 of your analysis. I wouldn't defend the series as great or anything, but I guess in a difference of nuances what you call "paint-by-numbers", I'd call "solid". The book was trapped in the Forever Evil crossover too long, but has really been on an upswing the last couple of months. At least in my reading experience - the Futures End 5 years later story with Dr. Fate was particularly enjoyable. So, yeah, there's room for improvement, but I have faith in Fawkes - and for now I feel entertained enough to continue reading.

    As far as the fake English accent goes...guess it helps in this case that English is not even my first language. I trust your word, though, and see why that would be irritating.

    By the way, have you read Ray Fawkes' other work? His indie stuff is so much better than his DC work. I'm recommending "The People Inside" to absolutely everyone right now, whether they are actually into comics or not, as I believe it is one of those rare works that can change lives. It may even prove all the ridiculous cover quotes right, as far as Fawkes being "the seminal storyteller" in comics today, crazy as that claim sounds. Please check out that book. And if you don't believe me, believe Kieron Gillen, who seems to have had the exact same experience but can express it indefinitely better:

    1. Many thanks for the comments. Honestly, do feel free to defend the series, I like an exchange of opinions, and I know Colin does too.

      It's funny you should mention Ray Fawkes' The People Inside, I was at the Thought Bubble Con in Leeds, Yorkshire, this weekend and in a panel entitled The Best Thing I Read This Year, That Man Gillen was recommending the book again. I'll give it a look, thanks.

      And part two of Colin's review is now live.


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