Causing Trouble from Day One: Celebrating John Constantine
On this day in 1985, a man walked into a bar. It was a punk bar; this was 1985 in comic-book London, after all. The man was named John Constantine, and he was there looking for a friend who had information about the end of the world. It all happened in the pages of Swamp Thing #37, written by Alan Moore with art by Rick Veitch and John Totleben; the "American Gothic" storyline was beginning in earnest, and Moore's legendary run was kicking into high gear.
According to Moore, the character of Constantine owes his debut to the fact that Swamp Thing's regular artists, Totleben and Stephen R. Bissette, were big fans of the band The Police, and they wanted to draw a character who looked like the lead singer, Sting. Even though it ended up being Veitch on the pencils for Constantine's first appearance, he is unmistakably a dead ringer for the British musician.
Moore spoke at length about Constantine's creation, and the Sting connection, in a 1993 interview with Wizard Magazine:
One of those early notes was they both wanted to do a character that looked like Sting. I think DC is terrified that Sting will sue them, although Sting has seen the character and commented in Rolling Stone that he thought it was great. He was very flattered to have a comic character who looked like him, but DC gets nervous about these things. They started to eradicate all traces of references in the introduction of the early Swamp Thing books to John Constantine's resemblance to Sting. But I can state categorically that the character only existed because Steve and John wanted to do a character that looked like Sting. Having been given that challenge, how could I fit Sting into Swamp Thing? I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that.
Later that issue, Constantine meets Swamp Thing, and they do not get along. But he offers the heroic monster a fair exchange of favors, and that more or less ends up working out. Swamp Thing gains greater control over his powers and knowledge of his true nature through his interactions with Constantine, and he also plays a key role in stopping that aforementioned apocalypse. Of course along the way a bunch of people die, including legendary DC heroes Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer, and Mento (from the Silver Age Doom Patrol) is driven mad. Constantine has a hand in all of this, and accepts it as the price of saving the universe from darkness.
And that's John Constantine. He'll deal with who and what he has to, and he doesn't apologize for it. He remains Alan Moore's "blue-collar warlock," but he's become a bigger star than Moore ever intended when he did his friends a favor and introduced a Gordon Sumner lookalike.
In late 1987, Constantine spun out of Swamp Thing into his own title, Hellblazer, with the initial creative team of Jamie Delano and John Ridgway. This helped build the darker, more mature and horror-oriented (not to mention British) corner of the DC Universe that sat the stage for Neil Gaiman's Sandman and eventually led to the establishment of Vertigo. Hellblazer ran a very impressive 300 issue before it ended in 2013.
In issue #51 of that book, John's narration briefly mentioned that he's had boyfriends as well as girlfriends, and one of mainstream comics' most prominent bisexual characters was born. Over the years that aspect of his life has been ignored by some, but it's become more prominent in his current series, Constantine: The Hellblazer.
Constantine has magicked his way into other media over the years, starring in a loosely adapted 2005 film called Constantine, in which he was played with an American accent by Keanu Reeves. A TV series with the same title appeared on NBC in 2014, featuring Matt Ryan as a much more faithful version of the character, but it was canceled after only 13 episodes. However, Ryan went on to play Constantine on CW's Arrow, and it seems likely we haven't seen the last of the blue-collar warlock as a live action character.
John Constantine started as a supporting character created on a whim, and he became a star. At times he's almost been a hero, and when he's found it necessary he's come very close to being a villain. He was one of the grittiest characters in an era of comics that was all about grit, but he survived long past that era's end. And now he's finally a comfortably queer character in an era when (most) comics are finally comfortable with queerness.
With DC trimming down its titles for Rebirth, he's still getting a new The Hellblazer relaunch. Hero or not, Constantine has become an important part of the DC Universe, and it's clear that he's not going anywhere anytime soon.