The long-standing DC/Vertigo character John Constantine made his small screen debut last night on NBC’s Constantine. Created by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totelben in the mid-1980s, Constantine has enjoyed an enduring career as one of the comic book world’s premiere occult detectives, starring in his own solo series Hellblazer, and also as part of the Justice League Dark.
In celebration of Constantine’s debut, we thought we’d take a look at some of the more memorable “cases” in the character’s career, which have been captured by some of the industry’s biggest icons including Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Jamie Delano and Brian Azzarello. These storylines should function as a worthwhile jumping on point for anyone interested in reading more about Constantine, as they demonstrate the full range of his personality and the kinds of threats and demons he’s had to stare down over the years.
8. John Constantine vs. the Hunger Spirit (Hellblazer #1-2)
In his solo series debut, John Constantine is pitted against the Mnemoth, a hunger spirit that derives its power from a person’s desire to consume. This two-part arc (“Hunger"), effectively functions like a television pilot episode, introducing the reader to Constantine’s dark, mystical world and his quirky, morally ambiguous personality, while also providing a, entertaining and believably threatening “demon of the week” for him to overcome in the process.
As for how Constantine deals with the Mnemoth – which materializes as a swarm of locusts that devour a person from the inside (just in case you didn’t realize this book was intended for mature audiences) – he employs the help of Papa Midnight (making his first appearance), a master of voodoo.
With its mix of colorful characters and straightforward story, “Hunger” is a very logical candidate to be adapted for television in some form.
7. John Constantine vs. the Great Darkness (Swamp Thing #49-50)
A few years before Vertigo launched its Hellblazer series, Constantine was a recurring supporting character that was first introduced during Alan Moore’s critically-acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. In these stories, Constantine and his Newcastle crew are depicted as being rather manipulative of Swamp Thing, while not exhibiting as much of the snark and charm that the character would be known for in his own solo series.
Towards the latter part of the Swamp Thing “A Murder of Crows” arc, Constantine and his crew conduct a séance in order to aid Swamp Thing and a horde of demons against a spiritual entity known as the Great Darkness, which threatens the existence of heaven. Other mystical characters such as the Phantom Stranger, Zantana and the Spectre make an appearance in this high stakes story, which is often cited as the arc that firmly established Constantine within the DC/Vertigo Universe.
6. John Constantine vs. the Royal Family (Hellblazer #52-55)
Political satire, especially as it relates to the British Royal Family and its former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has been a part of Hellblazer and the Constantine universe dating back to his very first stories. However, in the four-part “Royal Blood” arc (which can be found as part of the larger “Bloodlines” storyline), writer Garth Ennis doesn’t even try to be subtle about his high profile political targets.
This storyline pits Constantine against the Calabraxis demon, which is believed to be the spirit that possessed notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. Except this time around, the demon was summoned by Sir Peter Marston, a rich, elitist nutcase, who believes having the demon on the throne could go a long way in reforming Britain. So the Calabraxis has possessed a member of the Royal Family (which is supposed to be the Prince of Wales).
It’s another incredibly blood-soaked and violent story, but one with some legitimate laugh out loud lines, including one from Constantine where he admonishes Marston for wanting a Calabraxis-possessed Price of Wales because “the b*stard eats people, you headcase!”
5. John Constantine vs. the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Hellblazer #134-139)
Warren Ellis’s short-lived but mostly celebrated run on Hellblazer in the late 1990s was best known for how it added an extra layer of grit and grime to a series that was already notoriously dark and violent. In his very first arc, “Haunted,” Constantine is tasked with tracking down the murderer of an ex-girlfriend, whose ghost continues to show up at a playground where John first met the woman.
Central to the development of Ellis’s story is his depiction of London. While the world class city had always been a background player in Hellblazer, Ellis makes London a central figure, playing up its savagery and despair.
Constantine’s journey to find his ex’s killer brings him to the doorstep of a rival magician, someone John dismisses as an Aleister Crowley wannabe – a reference to the famous British occultist. Much like the city where he operates, Constantine is depicted as being quite savage and vicious under the pen of Ellis, making “Haunted” a read for those with strong constitutions and stomachs.
4. John Constantine vs. the Family Man (Hellblazer #23-24, 28-33)
This absolutely terrifying story courtesy of Jamie Delano, demonstrates that not all the evil in Hellblazer comes in the form of demons and spirits. In this instance, Constantine is trying to track down a merciless serial killer dubbed by the media as the “Family Man,” for his propensity to murder entire families (with an added emphasis on women and children). Upon meeting the elderly man for the first time, Constantine is quickly terrified by the fact that the killer reminds him of his father. As Constantine closes in on the killer, the “Family Man” exacts his revenge by murdering the detective’s father.
As the story unfolds, there is definitely something cryptically other-worldly about the “Family Man,” but the tension and uneasiness of the story is sold by the fact that killer is just a flesh and blood man. This is further emphasized by how Delano ends the story, with an incredibly uncomfortable showdown between Constantine and the old man.
3. John Constantine vs. Neo Nazis (Hellblazer #64-66)
In the very disturbing “Fear and Loathing” arc by Garth Ennis, Constantine’s past actions once again come back to haunt him and those closest to him. In this story, a group of upper crust Neo Nazis attempt to kill Constantine and his then-girlfriend Kit after they blame John for corrupting the archangel Gabriel. Both Kit and Constantine manage to survive, but John’s buddy Dez Foster is savagely beaten and sliced up with a box cutter and bleeds to death.
Meanwhile, as this is all happening to him, Constantine conspires with the succubus Chantinelle to have sex with Gabriel, causing him to be cast out of Heaven. After the Neo Nazis are killed by Dez’s revenge-seeking brother, Constantine confronts Gabriel telling the archangel that he intends to use him as protection from the First of the Fallen. Gabriel tells Constantine that he’s not actually seeking protection, he just likes to destroy anything that is pure and good. Constantine brushes aside the criticism, but even the most ardent Constantine supporter would admit that Gabriel wasn't totally off-base.
2. John Constantine vs. the Demons of Newcastle (Hellblazer #11)
In some of the earliest Jamie Delano Hellblazer stories, Constantine keeps referring to his titanic shortcomings in Newcastle. Less than a year into his run on Hellblazer, Delano finally explained to curious readers what exactly Constantine was referring to whenever he talked so despairingly about Newcastle.
In a flashback sequence, Constantine talks about an exorcism gone awry which involved a young girl. With his “Newcastle Crew” operating alongside him, Constantine conjures a the powerful demon, Nergal, in attempt to rid the girl of her own possession. But because of Constantine’s cockiness and dismissal of his hesitant teammates, Nergal turns out to be more than anyone can handle. As a result, the girl dies, and the Casanova Club, where the incident took place, is burnt to the ground.
This is one of those stories that really taps into the pathos of the Constantine character – displaying how he’s more than just a chain-smoking, middle finger giving bloke from England. The Newcastle tale functions as a kick to the gut, and is considered one of the greatest Hellblazer stories ever told.
1. John Constantine vs. Lung Cancer (Hellblazer #41-46)
It what is almost universally considered the most popular Constantine story of all-time, “Dangerous Habits,” is one of the first Hellblazer stories written by comic book industry icon Garth Ennis. The storyline, which was loosely adapted for the 2005 Constantine film, pits the occult detective against one demon he seemingly can't conquer – terminal lung cancer.
Obviously, Ennis’s first extended work with the character wasn’t going to end in his death, but it’s the sadistic joy of the journey leading to Constantine's great escape that makes this story an undisputed classic. Knowing that his days were numbered, Constantine cons the underworld by selling his soul to three different demons, thereby daring them to go to war over his damnation. When the First of the Fallen determines that it wouldn’t be worth risking the chaos such a war would bring to Hell, he instead opts to cure Constantine of his disease.
The storyline marks one the great recoveries in comics, not to mention an incredibly memorable panel of Constantine giving a single finger “salute” to the demon who reluctantly cured him.