Birthed in the pages of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a sort of magician P.I., investigating the paranormal and exploring the seedier side of Western society in the 1980s. Equal part social commentary and indulgent magical realism, the first volume does an adequate job acquainting us with Constantine's major characteristics while building up a wider world with hints of conspiracy that promises for some exciting reading down the road. The initial arc about possession and African magic thrusts you into Constantine's daily life and seamlessly hints at prior events and character failings that give the character an air of mystery while grounding him solidly with a humanity at once familiar and partially detestable. Constantine is simultaneously practical and inventive and a coward, morally self-righteous and cruelly callous. At times he is nothing more than an observer and commenter on the major issues of the day: the AIDS epidemic, poverty and drug addiction and the senseless brutality of the Vietnam War and a society coming to grips with its losses. In fact, at times he seems so passive as if to not matter to the story at all - a leaf being pushed about by the whirlwind events of the 1980s in the realms of heaven/hell and earth, which I found rather irksome. At several pivotal moments during this opening arc, Constantine decides he can do nothing at all but run to live and fight another day - quite the contrast with the single-mindedly heroic nature of other characters that peopled DC comics at the end of the 1980s. The overall structure and tone reminds me of an early X-Files with Constantine investigating and uncovering paranormal influences hidden in our everyday lives and a secret war going on that greatly concerns us, but about which we know nothing. I find that unsung hero bit pretty appealing and you really can't help but like John in spite of his numerous problems.
Solid writing with the sort of connected poetry and planning between panels that you don't tend to see very often in the works of Grant Morrison. John Constantine is a fantastic narrator; sharp and witty with a self-deprecatory tendency that makes you feel sympathetic to his plight and lends an air of realism to the magical and mystical problems he faces. There's the usual 1980s comic penchant for the absurd and overreaching, but I have to say that I found most of the work in this volume along those lines far less cringeworthy than the satire of "modern" values found in other works like Judge Dredd. (The tongue-in-cheek association of bankers and stockbrokers with the powers of hell is certainly not new invective at what has historically been deemed a parasite class that we like to beat up when finances in capitalistic societies run through periods of crap, but it's done with a certain nuance and believability that most comic writing can't seem to reach.) Constantine is the culmination of the anti-hero movement begun by Moore with Watchmen and Miller with his work on Batman revisionism, and luckily has quite the creative team to back the title up - at least so far. There are hints of Sandman
, but with a greater emphasis on the human beings caught in the middle of the struggle. Rather than the perspective of an immortal (which was absolute genius on the part of Gaiman by the way), we get the perspective of the unwilling initiate.
My only concern moving forward is the fear that the narrative becomes repetitive. Constantine doesn't actually seem to solve anything. He makes connections and seems to know people who can do things, but again, his role so far has been pretty passive. I'd like to see him break that shell and be the person that the opening teaser hints him to be: a badass and fearless magician who looks horns with the devil in the evening before waking up and eating his Cheerios with Whiskey the following morning.