Thee Comic Column #111: The Real John Constantine

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 12.30.20 AMHoly cow. Now this my friends, this is John Constantine. I mean, if you can hold in your mind’s eye the *eck* movie version from 2005, add to it the current NBC version and then watch this short made with a super small budget and barely any effects at all, well, I think you’ll agree that this isn’t just John Constantine done right, this is John Constantine done probably as close to perfect as we’re ever going to get in our lifetime by a video production company.

Hats off to Waking Dream Studios and all the fantastic talent that went into making this short, which is gloriously set in the DC/Vertigo continuity – not the Constantine-lite, New 52 reboot of the character, which started out okay in the very first issues of Justice League Dark and quickly became apparent as DC’s management wanting a kind of ‘dark super hero’ Constantine – a la Dr. Strange  – more than an update on than the iconoclastic bad luck street magician who Alan Moore created and Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey and many, many other talented creators etched into the comic book avatar for all things Black Magic. I didn’t follow the final years of the Vertigo series so I’m not necessarily lamenting the loss of that book, but it was Constantine. And I’m not saying that Hellblazer was bad. Far from it. Always good. However, for me the preferred venue for this kind of character is the occasional one shot or miniseries a la Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries. Sparsity seems like a much better way to continue the Constantine legacy. No matter how good the stories are in the monthly, in the long run if it’s a solo book – often regardless of the supporting cast – the ongoing format eventually dilutes the character. It happens to a lot of the greats; John’s best plant buddy Swamp Thing, The Punisher and Moon Knight all spring immediately to mind. I’d also risk incurring great wraith by arguing that this dilution happens to any long-running Batman book with regular continuity as well, hence why I love a great Batman story or maybe an individual creator’s run, but have never felt the need to read about the character on a monthly basis. Seeing too much of anybody just gets old! This is why a lot of creators devise these kind of characters and their arcs in finite formats. Look at Jesse Custer, William Gravel and Spider Jerusalem to name but a few. Yes I love the John Constantine character – a character who himself started out as a member of another solo character’s supporting cast, but no I don’t feel that I need for a regular, ongoing monthly series.

But, as usual I digress…

What we’re talking about here is this short, Soul Play, and specifically we’re talking about Soul Play juxtaposed with the new NBC Constantine series. Transforming the essence of the character from the long-running DC Vertigo comic series into the “video” medium. Soul Play is very obviously a painstaking labor of love. The accompanying text on youtube says this piece was created by a cast and crew of like-minded folks working for no profit, simply the love of the character. Now, we all know that is not how/who is creating the NBC version.

 

And let’s talk about the NBC version. I watched the pilot the night it aired in October. I really like Matt Ryan – maybe just in comparison to Bill, or Ted, or whatever – and I dug that it opened at Ravenscar and threw in references to Astra and Nergal. But I hated pretty much everything else: the ridiculous special effects pieces contained in several scenes. Harold Perrineau’s wings.

UGH – I really hated those!

I hated that Chaz was American and not an ex-football hooligan.

I hated how ‘tv’ the episode was – each character’s dialogue stinted to serve to do nothing but disseminate information that would give the viewer the ‘lay of the land’.

And I also hated how, for the purposes of streamlining the character for the show’s intended mass audience, John is consecutively identified as an “exorcist”, which is so blatantly an attempt to put the average Joe in a place where they are easily able to wrap their head around what the show ‘is‘. You know, like, Magnum is a PI; Hannibal is a serial killer; James Spader’s character on Blacklist is a dangerous former spy, and John Constantine is an exorcist. This also fits in nicely with the exorcism-inspired sub genre that’s been building up a head of steam in mainstream Hollywood horror movies for the last five years or so.

Ugh! Sorry squire, but that’s not John Constantine! JC is a hard-living, bad luck narcissist who has a talent for magic and a penchant for getting anyone who is good to him killed. He’s not a bad guy per se, but he’s definitely not a good guy either. There’s a moment in Soul Play where John puts a lot on the line that’s not his to do so with and it just nails the character perfectly.

Perfectly. The only flaw here is, well, we all know this is never going to happen. Nothing this perfect is going to come down the pipes from a major network, and without a major pushing it a show of this caliber loses its venue, leaving us with wonderful fan films such as this.  I’m not complaining, well, I am, but I guess I shouldn’t, because just like an ongoing comic series will over the years erode what you love about a solo character like John Constantine, an ongoing tv show would probably do this too.

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Epilogue: Full disclosure – I might yell and scream about preserving the purity of a character but deep down there’s a part of me that’s just like everyone else. The characters I love I want to see get tv shows, movies, whatever. If you like something you want more, until you don’t want anymore. But we’re human and what’s more we’re comic book people. As such, I might be able to ignore the stuff I don’t hold all that close to my heart – ie the current iterations of Spiderman films, the upcoming Batman/Superman whatever, and all those DC tv shows, but despite having such a strong dislike for most of the Constantine pilot, just before catching wind of Soul Play I gave the second episode a spin. Nice thing about major networks is you can watch the episodes on their websites. This comes in handy for people such as myself – my tv plays DVDs. That’s it. We get no television stations at all in my house and we don’t want any. So I logged onto NBC’s site and watched The Darkness Beneath – which involved a coal mining demon of some kind. I didn’t love it, but I will say, it was a lot improved from that dismal pilot. And as several key friends have reminded me lately, a lot of tv I love I have a strong dislike for the first season. Buffy? I skipped the entire first season after disliking the first few episodes, ended up loving  a lot of the series. Same with Angel, which hits a level of awesome in its third, forth and fifth seasons that I’m still kind of startled by, because I really didn’t expect to like the show at all. Will NBC’s Constantine get better, maybe find a way to carve a unique take on the character into the die hard fans’ hearts? I doubt it, but again, at least the casting is in the ballpark this time. Now, just move the stories across the pond to John’s hometown and maybe, just maybe we’ll get somewhere.

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Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

One Response to Thee Comic Column #111: The Real John Constantine
  1. Richard Reynolds Reply

    Hi Shawn.

    I was brought to this article via Drinking With Comics. I’m the writer/director of The Soul Play.

    I just want you to know how gratifying it is to know that there are smart, aware people out there that can see past the rough edges of indie filmmaking and really understand the intention and passion behind it, especially when that person understands the source material for what it is rather than doing that internet fan, transference thing where they get hung up on the details and their own opinion of the material.

    As I labour away at my factory job, doing the creative stuff on the side, it’s sometimes tempting to throw it in, being that most of it gets lost amongst the masses of stuff just like it out there on the information-super-highway. Your article, along with others like it make it all the work worthwhile.

    Much obliged and all the best,

    Richard Reynolds.

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