Aging Along With John: 20 Years of Hellblazer, Part 1
By David DelGrosso
"I'm a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody." It's a great entrance. A fitting introduction to a character that, no matter how deep he is in trouble, is never at a loss for a good line. From The Saga of the Swamp Thing #37, published in June 1985, that is how John Constantine introduces himself to Swamp Thing. At the time, writer Alan Moore needed a supporting character that could be a guide for Swamp Thing, someone who knows magic, to explain to the creature what he was and what role he was meant to play in the mystical world. In filling that narrative need, Moore, along with artists John Totleben and Steve Bissette, created an unusual and memorable supporting character. And one that would soon become a successful lead in his own right.
Within three years of his first appearance, DC would spin John Constantine off into his own solo title, Hellblazer, a series that has now been published continuously for over 20 years. A comics run of that length is a success by any measure, but is particularly impressive for a title that doesn't feature a vigilante, costumed superhero, or perhaps even a hero of any kind.
Reflecting on the success of the character, Vertigo Executive Editor, and first Editor of Hellblazer, Karen Berger says, "I think it really goes back to the fact that this is a regular guy, and in many ways when you have a character with powers, I think it gets harder not to repeat yourself. When you have a regular person, that can respond to what’s going on in the world in a more realistic way, I don’t think they are encumbered by the fact that they can get out of things as easily as a person that has extra powers."
While DC had published many stories about magicians, Moore's idea of John as a "blue-collar warlock" set him apart from the characters that had come before, as did his ambiguous morality. Author, Tarot expert, 1990s Vertigo writer, and comics fan Rachel Pollack gives some perspective. "What I would say makes him a compelling character is what a daring idea it was. Because, before that, magicians were either good or evil. Dr. Fate was a good magician, and there were various evil magicians in comics. And certainly Constantine is neither of those. But also, they’d always been in some ways establishment figures. Even if they were evil ones, they were part of the evil establishment, whereas Constantine was this street figure. And that was something really unknown at the time. And since then it has become much more common, but I think people don’t realize how radical it was at the time, and what a departure it was from how magicians had always been pictured."
In another radical departure from mainstream comics characters, John Constantine ages in real-time and lives in the same year as the reader. John is 34 years old when his solo series begins. We know this because his date of birth is actually given in an early issue: May 10, 1953. That real-time aging means that now, in 2008, Hellblazer is one of the only ongoing books I can think of with a lead character in his mid-50s. So many leads seem to be able to stay around 35 years old, despite living through decades of published stories. But John Constantine lives in the same year as the reader, and therefore the years must go by for him, just as they do for the rest of us. That simple idea, real-time aging, while not unique to John Constantine (2000 AD's Judge Dredd ages through the future in real-time as well), is very rare in comics, especially in the case of company-owned characters like John Constantine, who is, as the fine print notes, a trademark of DC Comics.
Unlike characters with an established status quo, who often get "rebooted" back to their initial, clear and commercial premise, John Constantine doesn't really have a normal state of being to return to. He doesn't always live in the same place, doesn't always want the same things and often finds himself involved in situations of peril reluctantly, only getting involved to come to the aid of a friend or family member, or out of the sense that no one else will come along that will know how to sort out the magical mess at hand. In the course of his fictional life, he has been everything from flush to homeless, even being committed to an asylum. At times he's been in and out of love, given up on magic, been to prison, been to Hell more than twice, beaten cancer, and defeated the Devil himself. But, as fantastical as many of the events and encounters have been, Hellblazer really does read like a life, rather than just a series of stories in a never-ending middle part. If John is aging, then he is mortal, and if he is mortal, then there must be an end to his stories ahead, even if it is far off. That is a very rare and distinctive thing in a long-running comic series.
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