“My name is John Constantine.
I am the one who steps from the shadows, all trench coat and arrogance.
I’ll drive your demons away, kick ‘em in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack.
I walk my path alone because, let’s be honest…
…Who would be crazy enough to walk it with me?” – Constantine, Pilot
A group of four, maybe five, demons are sitting in a bar, sipping children’s blood. The door opens, revealing a disheveled man in a trenchcoat. The demons don’t pay attention to the newcomer until one of them recognizes him. The demon panics, hoping the man isn’t here for them.
Its fears are realized when the bartender points in their direction. The newcomer asks if they are the ones that have been killing kids. The group’s leader asks “Who wants to know?” The newcomer says “John Constantine.” The bar goes dead silent. The smarter fiends run for the door as fast as they can. The leader tries to attack the man, but is engulfed in flames before taking two steps. Constantine pulls out a cigarette, lights it on the burning carcass, and walks out into the night.
John Constantine is one of the cleverest bastards in fiction. Between spells, snark, and sheer gall he’s managed to outwit and defeat countless threats. He’s even tricked the devil and fooled God. So who is he? How can he use magic? And what do you mean he might really exist?! Let’s find out. Buckle yourselves up, lads and lassies, this bloody ride is gonna be a rough one.
Spells, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Constantine’s Backstory
“My name’s John Constantine, and here I stay: haunted by London. And London, haunted by me.” -Hellblazer #139
Constantine first appeared in Swamp Thing #25 in 1984. He was a popular enough character that he got spun off into his own series, Hellblazer. Constantine was inspired by the haunted Winchester Mystery House*, serial killers, and looks like the musician Sting. Creator Alan Moore claims that Constantine was created solely to get Sting into a comic, but the character evolved into something more.
Constantine was born into tragedy. His mother died during his birth, and his father blamed him for her death. John and his older sister Cheryl lived with their alcoholic father for years, even as Constantine began discovering his affinity for magic. He ran away when he was a teenager, finding a home in London, and became friends with Chas**, his longest surviving friend.
Constantine traveled the world while learning magic. While traveling, he met a witch named Zatanna, (Camilla Luddington in 2017’s R-rated Justice League: Dark) who would become his on-again, off-again lover. He was swept up in the 70’s punk rock scene and formed a band.
Constantine encountered a demon while on tour. The demon had been conjured by an abused child to seek revenge on cruel adults. John, now versed in magic, convinced his band to summon another demon to try and kill the first. His plan worked… until the new demon stole the child’s soul and killed most of Constantine’s band. John was hospitalized after suffering a breakdown.
Hellblazer: Constantine’s History
Mictlantecuhtli : “You forget yourself. I am no upstart demon, scrabbling in the dirt of the human soul. I am Mictlantecuhtli. I am a god .”
Constantine : “Great stuff. I’m John–and I’m a bastard .”- Hellblazer: All His Engines
John wandered after his release until he decided to investigate a mysterious creature called the Swamp Thing. The pair became allies, then friends, and Constantine helped Swamp Thing learn the full extent of its powers and connection to the Green***.
During the series Crisis on Infinite Earths, Constantine learned that a being called the Great Evil Beast was planning to invade Earth. He called several magical heroes to help him stop this monster, including his lover Zatanna. The group won, but not without cost. Zatanna’s father sacrificed himself to save her and the party. A distraught Zatanna broke up with Constantine.
Constantine later learned he had lung cancer from constantly smoking. He summoned a trio of demon lords and offered his soul in exchange for his cancer being cured. The demons accepted the deal, only to realize a fatal flaw. None would get a complete soul. They were not smart demons. A cured Constantine left them squabbling as he puffed on a freshly lit cigarette.
Laughing Magician: Constantine’s Powers and Personality
John : “My talent’s for lying. For sticking the knife in when people least expect it. Then walking away with a smile and a wave before they even realize they’re bleeding.” Hellblazer #213
John Constantine knows numerous spells, rituals, and curses (both kinds). He can also create sigils and magic circles of protection. Hell, he even knows sleight of hand and stage magic. But his blood gives him his greatest ability; synchronicity wave traveling. What’s that mean? Basically, he can make his own luck.
He comes from the Laughing Magician bloodline, which has ancestors infamous for their ability to trick any being, even gods. Constantine does his ancestors proud, tricking heroes, God, the devil, and anyone who gets in his way. He prefers using words and quick thinking instead of magic. In his hands, a bluff is better than a handful of aces.
Constantine is a cynical trickster. He is manipulative, cruel, and would do anything to further his goals. Lucky for us, he wants to help humanity. He’s a humanist who doesn’t want gods or demons to control humans, but he tends to be manipulative. That irony isn’t lost on him.
The comic Hellblazer did a lot to shape the occult detective genre. It has influenced numerous books and movies, including Supernatural, the Dresden Files, and Hellboy.
The Actors who played Constantine
Constantine made his debut in the eponymous 2005 movie, Constantine. Hollywood turned him into an American exorcist who fought demons with guns. Keanu Reeves, fresh off The Matrix trilogy, starred. The movie bombed, probably not helped by the fact that it had nothing to do with the popular character John Constantine.
A much more accurate Constantine appeared in the eponymous TV show in 2014. He was played by Matt Ryan. While much better than the movie, the show suffered from low ratings. Perhaps viewers thought it was a ripoff of Supernatural. Constantine also appeared in an episode of Arrow and is getting an animated continuation on television.
Constantine also appears as the main character of the animated movie Justice League: Dark, with Matt Ryan reprising his role. Alfred Molina and Rosario Dawson also voice characters in JL:Dark.
Constantine: Real Man or Myth?
Finally, a rather strange story.
Alan Moore, Constantine’s creator, claims to have met him twice in real life. Yes, Moore knows he created the character. But he swears that he once saw John come up some stairs and wink at him while Moore was eating lunch. Moore didn’t follow him, thinking it was safer to just finish his meal and leave. He claims that they met again years later, when Constantine whispered “I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any &#*% could do it.”
Other writers, editors, and artists of Hellblazer claim to have seen John as well. None approached him because, as writer Brian Azzarello said, “The thing about John is, the last thing you’d want to be is his friend”.
So what’s that mean? Is it a fan in costume? A hallucination? Or is John Constantine really out there somewhere, a cigarette in hand and a smirk on his lips? That’s the trouble with magic. You never really know.
Didya get all that?
A sorcerer, trickster, and all around bastard.
* A mansion said to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles.
** Constantine’s friends have a habit of dying. Chas never has.
*** A mystical consciousness formed by all plant life.
Jared Bounacos has written for Movie Rewind since 2017.