Better hide your copies of The Dresden Files: Constantine’s coming back to town.
It has been a while since mainstream audiences may have heard about John Constantine, a noire, cynical British mage who tries to keep the world together any means necessary. After all, the Constantine film with Keanu Reeves came out almost ten years ago. Beyond that, Constantine’s solo series, Hellblazer, was quite distant from DC’s mainstream, given that it was in their Vertigo print or their adult line. There, Constantine explored numerous dark, gritty, and downright horrifying threats, both fantastical and even real issues such as school shootings, the War on Terror, rape, and many others; the sort of areas where characters like Harry Dresden don’t dare walk. Part of what helped fuel the commentary and character development was Constantine’s aging in real time—he actually aged over the 20 years that the series ran, which helped lend to his weary, broken, “I’ve seen it all” aesthetic. This ended when Hellblazer was cancelled in 2013 and John Constantine’s solo series was rebooted and brought into the mainstream DC universe fold, the New 52.
Now, to celebrate Constantine’s new TV show (10/9c p.m. Fridays on NBC), let’s see if New 52 Constantine, Volume 1: The Spark and the Flame is accessible enough to help potential fans get their Constantine fix.
Short answer? Mostly, when plot holes and rushed characters aren’t hindering it.
The long answer:
The Spark and the Flame by Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes collects the first 6 issues of the Constantine solo series, and primarily follows Constantine’s quest to track down the pieces of Croydon’s Compass before the Cult of the Cold Flame can. That arc is written by Lemire, who introduced Constantine to the New 52 with his Justice League Dark series, and doesn’t carry over to the last two or three issues. Fawkes then takes over with issue 5, where he focuses on setting up and tying into the Trinity War event that was going on in August 2013; so it would only be fair to judge the two storylines separately.
The quest for Croydon’s Compass/MacGuffin is a departure from what might expect for a noire detective series. Lemire’s arc takes more of an Uncharted feel as Constantine globe trots to Norway, Mayanmar, and his old stomping grounds of London, to solve puzzles and find artifacts. How he, a broke mage whose money seems to mostly go to cigarettes and rubbing nickels together for warmth, is able to afford the airfare is not explained. Still, it is a tightly paced adventure, with a piece of the compass being dealt with each issue; as such, the story quickly gets into the thick of things with little explanation, which is where some of the cracks in the book lie.
The problem with being a part of a much larger, complicated universe is that there are numerous magic methods or philosophies and it is difficult to tell where Constantine’s version of magic falls compared to the one we see in Justice League Dark or the Trinity of Sin books. How magic works or if anyone can do it or only certain people can leave rules unanswered. We do get some hints, as Constantine seems to primarily rely on incantations and artifacts for his magic, but since its limitations are unclear, his magic often comes across as a get out of trouble card and hurts the suspense.
Fortunately, this is problem is partially helped by Constantine having clear physical limitations, something that sets him apart from much of the rest of the DC universe. He can be wounded and unlike many of DC’s main characters, can be hurt by minor things like crowbars to the ribs, which at least adds a layer of tension to each confrontation. Another interesting note is that Constantine is rather reluctant to use magic himself, as he focuses primarily on his knowledge of the arcane and cunning to outmaneuver enemies and even friends. That’s where Lemire and Fawkes really distinguish Constantine from other “heroes”: he is practical and willing to sacrifice anyone for the sake of the greater good, which makes him unpredictable and interesting. This is established right in the first issue on Constantine’s trip to Norway. Not only does Constantine drag along his friend Chris, whom he was helping figure out his abilities, and make him pay for the hotel and taxi, but he even reluctantly sacrifices Chris while he flees to make sure the compass piece stays out of enemy hands. Innocent people are fair game as well, which can be seen when Constantine has a demon rip out a shopkeeper’s eyes to keep the final compass piece out of the Cult’s hands.
Artists Renato Guedes (issues 1, 2, 3, 5, 6) and Fabio Neeves (issue 4) do a great job at capturing this side of Constantine, as he never looks completely well or even trustworthy: his eyes often look red or ringed and his clothing disheveled. He looks sick, which reflects his soul and inner struggles well. Likewise, the artists’ character designs and environments look satisfactorily creepy (with the possible exception of magic mobster Papa Midnite, whose design is the typical feathery witch doctor, Hoodoo affair which is quite the contrast compared to everyone else. Granted, it could be argued that it’s the contrast that makes him stand out, but it still feels like a tad cliché and potentially offensive to have an African American dressed up as a stereotypical witch doctor and could have easily been updated along with everyone else), especially the Silent Hill version of London Constantine gets trapped in for a few pages in issue 3, and each country feels starkly different, aesthetically. There is a powerful sequence in issue 4 when Dotty, Constantine’s landlord, asks how his friends are doing and he has rapid flashbacks of how he burned bridges with each one, which is laid out perfectly by Neeves.
Still, unfortunately, as much as we might feel bad about Chris on principle, to introduce and kill him in one issue really doesn’t give us much to get attached to, nor is it explained what his ability even is (or how Constantine finds specifically where the pieces even are, since Chris identifies the countries but little more) or how he knows Constantine; heck, it is revealed that the Spectre’s host considers Chris a close friend, which only raises further unanswered questions about his backstory. The same goes for Lloyd, Constantine’s bar-owning friend who seems to be loyal to him is odd, as Constantine is the DC equivalent to Marvel’s Nick Fury or an IRS agent: whenever he shows up, you know that you’re going to be screwed somehow and likely never get the full story of what happened. Why Lloyd trusts Constantine or how they met is left unexplained; hopefully that is fleshed out early on next volume, given the cliffhanger this volume ends on. We do get some more details about Dotty, who is the widow of a thief that was a father figure and mentor to Constantine. As for Dotty herself, we don’t get too much and given that is implied that she is killed towards the end of the volume, I doubt we’ll get much more.
While we’re on the topic of the last two issues, Shazam’s appearance in the Trinity War tie-in issues is a surprise. Without the context of who Shazam is or what is going on, most readers are going to be caught off guard and probably a bit confused. That tends to be the unfortunate fate most tie-ins. To its credit, Fawkes does incorporate the book’s ongoing plot with Cult of the Cold Flame into the tie-in, but not without some bumps along the way.
Overall, the New 52 Constantine is pretty accessible and serves as a good enough introduction to the character, with some great artwork and memorable plot twists, though the plot holes and supporting cast need some work, especially so we can feel more when Constantine is forced to leave them behind. It’s worth a look, but will likely not leave you completely satisfied or in the know.