Constantine or when the imitators eclipse the original

We’re living in a strange age where every American comic you ever read, no matter how obscure, is probably going to be a movie or a TV show sooner or later. Want proof? Look at Marvel’s massive line-up of upcoming movies, including a bunch of characters I for one would never have expected to see on the big screen. But hey, we’re living in superhero comic movie utopia these days and I for one like it.

Regarding to Marvel’s competitor DC, I finally got around to watching the pilot episode of Constantine a few days late. Here is a recap from Tor.com and one from iO9.

Like Gotham, Constantine was a comic related TV show I was planning to skip. But then I saw the trailer and it looked pretty good. So I decided to give it a try.

So what is the verdict? Middling. I’ll probably give the show another try (after all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed ten episodes or so to become really, really cracking good), but so far I’m not at all convinced. And I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the show itself or just bad timing.

Let’s start with the good: Welsh actor Matt Ryan, who was previously best known for his role as the sniper dude in the forgettable Criminal Minds spin-off Suspect Behaviour, and also had a part in the Torchwood season 2 episode “Meat” (a.k.a. the one with people eating space whales a.k.a. the last Torchwood episode I ever watched, because I realised the show I had once enjoyed had turned to crap), really makes an excellent John Constantine. He looks as if he’d stepped right out of the comics (and talking of which, it’s bloody depressing that John Constantine of all characters is now played by a guy who’s younger than me). The dialogue is also perfect. Constantine sounds just as cynical and foul-mouthed as he did in the comics and still manages to be likeable. I also liked the fact that he was allowed to keep his accent, a rarity for US genre TV.

Unfortunately, the closest we come to seeing Constantine smoking in the TV show is seeing him playing with a lighter and sitting next to a smaking ashtray. Given that Constantine was one of those character famous for smoking, this is a bit disappointing, but that’s 21st century US morality for you. Besides, John Constantine is not the only comic book smoker who has been put on forced nicotine withdrawal. Wolverine hasn’t been seen smoking in the comics for a while nor is he seen smoking in the latter X-Men films, though we do see him with a cigar in the earlier ones. Nick Fury, another famous cigar chomper, hasn’t been seen smoking since he turned into Samuel L. Jackson. I haven’t seen the Thing smoking in a while either – not sure what’s up with Gambit these days.

So in short, nothing but kudos for Matt Ryan. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast and the pilot episode in general is not nearly as good. The female lead Liv, played by Lucy Griffith, is apparently supposed to be the audience identification character who is by now standard in many speculative TV show, usually portrayed as a young woman. Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gwen from Torchwood and every Doctor Who companion ever are other examples of this character. However, unlike the various Doctor Who companions or Skye or even Gwen, Liv didn’t work for me at all. Her hair and make-up were just too perfect, her reactions didn’t ring quite true and somehow she never convinced me that she was anything other than an actress playing a part. After having seen her in action, I’m not surprised that the production team wrote her out in favour of another female character who also has the advantage of being a character from the comics.

Harold Perrineau, best known for his role in Lost, plays an angel called Manny who tries to persuade Constantine to do his dirty work for him. Now I like Harold Perrineau, plus he adds a much needed shot of colour to what is otherwise a very white show in spite of being set in Atlanta (Why? Constantine works best when set in Britain. So why not London or Liverpool or Newcastle?). Nonetheless, his character – who doesn’t exist in the comics as far as I know – immediately rubbed me the wrong way. At first, I thought it was because Manny was too similar to Castiel from Supernatural (who was ironically modelled after John Constantine), another angel character I have never liked, even though he’s a fan favourite.

Then I thought the reason was that I don’t like angels, particularly of the macho sort, in general. Indeed, one thought I had throughout the pilot episode, whenever John Constantine or any of the other characters went on about angels and demons and heaven and hell and damned souls suffering for all eternity, was, “Damn! Was the comic always this religious and I just never noticed it?”

Now a few explanations are in order: First of all, I happily read the Hellblazer comics for several years during the Warren Ellis and Brian Azarello runs and even own a John Constantine action figure, who is sitting on my bookshelf, checking out the arse of Jakita Wagner from Planetary. However, even though I know I read the comic and can instantly recognise the cover art and even some interior art, I remember next to nothing of the plot. Which is unusual, since I can recount X-Men or Spider-Man plots (or Preacher or Transmetropolitan for other Vertigo series) from the same era in great detail. Hellblazer, however, is just one big blank.

Secondly, I’m not religious at all. I did manage to be religious long enough to go through my confirmation (and I was convinced at the time or I would never have gone through with the ceremony, because I was never the type to do it just for the money), but I gave up on religion not long thereafter. However, the brand of Christianity I grew up with was a very rational blend of Lutheranism. I was taught that hell was just a metaphor used to scare people rather than a place, that there was no such thing as eternal damnation, that demons didn’t exist and that angels were something only superstitious people believed in. And those people only believed in guardian angels – violent angels with the flaming swords just plain didn’t exist outside certain parts of the Bible (and those were metaphors as well).

Hence, my reaction to any sort of speculative fiction that draws heavily on hell, demons, damnation and angels is one of extreme alienation. If anything, the alienation is stronger than with speculative fiction that merely uses mythological tropes that are unfamiliar to me, because angels, demons, hell and eternal damnation are things I have been told from very early on are backwards and superstitious. I can tolerate demons for some reason – it’s angels that usually get me. I have no interest in reading about/watching macho jerk angels (and they’re always macho jerk angels). Ditto for eternal damnation, the religious apocalypse and all that jazz. Indeed, too much focus on Christian religious concepts that are superstitious or just plain weird to me is one of my biggest dealbreakers for supernatural/occult/dark fantasy properties. This is what killed Supernatural for me post season 4 and what killed Sleepy Hollow for me in spite of really liking the characters.

So watching a John Constantine pilot filled with a lot of stuff about angels and demons and hell and damnation triggered a reaction of “Crap, was the comic always this full of religious stuff?” reaction in me. Followed by, “But Hellblazer is a British comic, predominantly written by Brits. And Catholic or Anglican*, aren’t Brits supposed to be rational about Christianity?**” Though considering how much Christian religious content or outright grappling with religious issues there is in British SFF, I suspect I was wrong about that.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Warren Ellis and Brian Azarello Hellblazer runs I read way back when were lower on the outright religious content than other issues of the comic, let alone a TV series made by Americans. On the other hand, I barely remember the plots, so maybe I just ignored the religious stuff. After all, I happily and eagerly read Preacher around the same time. I was a lot younger when I read those comics and more easily able to simply blank out stuff that annoyed me than today.

However, while watching the Constantine pilot and ranting that it was just like Supernatural, where those bloody angels ruined everything once they showed up, something else occurred to me. Even though I have very few memories of the Hellblazer comic, something about the show seemed painfully familiar to me, as if I were watching a story I had seen told a hundred times before. But how could that be, if other comic book movies and shows retelling the same old familiar story didn’t bother me in the slightest. Besides, I barely remembered the Hellblazer comic anyway.

But then it hit me: I had seen and read this story told a thousand times before. Every single element seemed familiar to me, because it was. Not necessarily from the Hellblazer comics themselves, but from the many urban fantasy novels and supernatural noir TV shows inspired by them.

As someone with an academic interest in the urban fantasy genre, I was always aware that comics in general and Hellblazer in particular had been an influence on the genre. But until I watched the Constantine pilot I hadn’t been consciously aware how massive that influence truly was. Because let’s face it, every male urban fantasy character, particularly if he is a mage or supernatural detective, is at least a little bit influenced by John Constantine.

The trenchcoat, the cynism, the bleached hair, the punk affinities, the bad childhood, the tough guy facade coupled with sheer panic inside, the tendency towards hanging out in dodgy bars, the hard-boiled/noir influenced narration, the substance abuse – these elements show up in varying degrees in every single urban fantasy or supernatural noir franchise with a male lead. Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, John Taylor from Simon R. Green’s Nightside series, Jack Winter from Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series (probably the most Constantine like of all the Constantine imitators), Atticus O’Sullivan from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, Connor Grey from Mark del Franco’s eponymous series, Simon Canderous from Anton Strout’s eponymous series, Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, Cal and Niko Leandros from Rob Thurman’s Leandros Brothers series, all of these characters are the spiritual descendants of John Constantine.

As a result, watching Constantine felt like watching a mash-up of Supernatural and the abortive Dresden Files TV series as well as TV adaptations that never were of the Nightside series or the Black London series or the Leandros Brothers series. And while I was noticing the many parallels, I couldn’t help but thinking that I’d rather be watching/reading any of the series listed above than the show I was actually watching.

Now I haven’t read any Hellblazer comics in a decade or so. And like I said before, I barely remember those comics that I did read. It’s probably telling that the one Hellblazer plot I can remember with complete clarity isn’t a Hellblazer story at all, but Warren Ellis’ Hellblazer pastiche from Planetary (There is a reason my John Constantine action figure is checking out Jakita Wagner’s arse).

However, in the decade or so since I gave up on Hellblazer, I have been eagerly watching Supernatural (at least until those bloody angels showed up) and have been devouring the literary adventures of Harry Dresden and John Taylor and Jack Winter and the Leandros brothers and Atticus O’Sullivan and Simon Canderous and Connor Grey. And I find those characters a lot more interesting these days, because they have actual conflicts, relationships, families, romances, siblings, children (in some cases), while John Constantine is a British dude who smokes a lot, drinks a lot, curses a lot, used to be in a punk band and does magic. Compared to his more interesting successors, John Constantine simply comes across as bland, which is probably why I have completely erased his adventures from my memory, even though I know I read them for several years.

I’ll give Constantine another try to see if the show grows on me. After all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed almost half a season to go from “decent, but nothing special” to “really good television” and from there into the stratosphere.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether the perfect time for a Constantine TV series (or a Constantine movie that actually remained faithful to the source material, unlike the travesty that we got) isn’t past by now. John Constantine has spread his wild oats around and by now his legacy is all over the airwaves and urban fantasy shelves. Which paradoxically makes the original stand out less, not more, and indeed seem like just another urban fantasy/supernatural noir series with a cynical male lead.

*Lutherans, at least the brand I grew up with, view Anglicans as a sort of spiritual brethren once removed. They are a tad wary, but tolerant about reformed/Calvanist influenced churches. Catholics are viewed as superstitious and any other Protestant denomination such as Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc… are viewed as “some kind of weird cult”. Sorry, but that’s how it is.

**And Alan Moore, creator of John Constantine, hasn’t been Christian in a while now, if he ever was in the first place.

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3 Responses to Constantine or when the imitators eclipse the original

  1. Jessica Rydill says:

    I read Hellblazer a very long time ago also. But I do think of John Constantine as essentially British. I did see the film and found it disappointing. I think that sometimes Christian tropes are used in movies and TVs to provide cheap shock/emotion.

    I believe that Anglicans cover a wide spectrum from very Protestant to close to Catholic (Anglo-Catholic). I don’t know a huge amount but I think you’re right. It’s mostly fairly rational and down-to-earth.

    • Cora says:

      The film starring Keanu Reeves was pretty dreadful. The TV show was a little better and at least they have a British actor playing John Constantine.

      I agree that particularly American films and TV shows use Christian tropes, particularly of the angels, demons, hell and damnation (and redemption) type, to provide cheap emotions, because those things work for many American viewers. See the Sleepy Hollow TV show, which I so wanted to like, but which hit me with a double whammy of hell/damnation/demons stuff and US war of independence related plots, which was a complete put-off. Interestingly, other German viewers felt the same and most of them didn’t know The Legend of Sleepy Hollow either. I kind of liked the Johnny Depp film and my students love it when I watch it with them.

      Brits are usually a bit more subtle, e.g. the Christian imagery of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes didn’t become really notable until halfway through the final season of Ashes to Ashes. Plus, Ashes to Ashes had the best devil/Satan/Lucifer performance ever. And even something that’s quite blatantly Christian such as the short-lived UK show Eternal Law about angels working as lawyers in York was more weird than anything else, plus it ended with the impending apocalypse and that was a good thing in the context of the show.

      BTW, I lived in an Anglican vicarage, when I was a student in London in the mid 1990s, and thus met a lot of Anglican priests. And those priests were of the laid-back, fairly rational type, not unlike the Lutheran priest who ran my confirmation class at home (and was the father of a classmate and good friend). So that experience also colours my view of Anglicans.

      Besides, the UK never struck me as a particularly Christian or religious country in general, so I was quite stunned to realise how much Christian religious allegory there was in British speculative fiction and speculative media in general.

      Though I did notice that the various occult/esoteric/new age movements were a lot more visible in the UK than in Germany, where they remain very hidden. Masonic temples and occult bookshops in the middle of London, druid ceremonies held out in the open – that would never happen in Germany, where even Ouija boards are considered a very bad thing. I got so badly chewed out as a teenager for using something Ouija board like that I hid the various reference books I bought at occult bookshops in London from my family at home.

      • Jessica Rydill says:

        That’s really interesting, Cora. When I was a teenager there was a huge moral panic about Ouija boards, but you are absolutely right that paganism and other New Age religions are quite bit here. I live not far from Glastonbury and someone I know has a magic shop there and is also a Pagan marriage celebrant. Interestingly, she is also remarkably grounded and down to earth – I would say wise – though not everyone who is drawn to Glastonbury could be described that way. A number of writers in SF&F that I know are either pagan or sympathetic. In fact, I think I remember a John Constantine series (“The Fear Machine”?) which used a lot of British paganism and folklore in the story.

        It must have been very interesting living in a vicarage. I’m not a Christian myself, so I don’t know anyone who is actively in the C of E, but most of the vicars seem fairly benign, and thoughtful. It is curious that there seems to be a strong thread of Christian-inspired writing in British Fantasy – starting from Tolkien and C.S Lewis, but I know that David Gemmell was a Christian, and there are some other contemporary fantasy writers who are definitely active. At Bristolcon, two panellists on a panel I contributed to mentioned that they read the King James version of the Bible a lot because of their religious faith.

        I managed to miss “Eternal Law” altogether – it sounds quite startling! I did watch some of the “Ashes to Ashes series” – I wish I’d seen them more.

        It’s a bit odd that the US default position with Christianity in TV shows (and movies) seems to use the imagery of Roman Catholicism – that version of angels, devils, Heaven etc. I adored “Buffy” but they sometimes got rather tied in knots with their religious background. I suppose that in the States they have to be careful not to offend, which can restrict what they can and can’t discuss.

        As a postscript, I should add that my mother wasn’t too keen on the Occult! I always found Ouija boards much too scary, but I think my mother was worried that they might do psychological damage – as I say there were scare stories in the British press. I don’t know whether you can get the Fortean Times, but they had an article about the Ouija board ‘scandal’ in the US and the UK in their last issue, together with coverage about the 1950’s scare about horror comics.

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