Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Media Properties

Yesterday, I picked up Hellblazer #300.   The final issue. 

I'm sad.  John Constantine, the archetypal Sweary British Mage, has been a fixture for more than half of my life.  I've got more comics featuring the character than I can comfortably lift.  The most popular section of my website is dedicated to John Constantine. And now he's gone, subsumed into a younger, blander version of himself without any sort of ties to the culture that he grew up in.

That's the John Constantine in the DCUniverse, the new 52.  He's younger and nobs around with Zatanna, the Phantom Stranger, Frankenstein's creature.  But he's not much of a character.  Original John Constantine was rooted in the punk of the 70's and 80's.  He was a member of a spectacularly failed band (Mucous Membrane).  This gave him a center, a starting point.  His disrespect for authority, his iconoclasm and cynicism made perfect sense, because I understood the movement he came from, the zeitgeist from which he was born.  The desperate 70's were his formative years.  

This depth came from the minds of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben.  They looked around and created a character that was from their time.  And people responded to John Constantine.  He was something new--a working-class mage.  Until Constantine, comics magic weilders have been remote mages, men with towers, women with witches terrible powers.  John was different.  He was a magical mechanic, not getting involved in the ritual of magic, but doing the necessary things in order to get the desired result.  If the words are the thing, then why not just say them, rather than intoning them?  Was a copper-inlaid pentacle really necessary, or would a quick chalk one on a linoleum floor be just as useful?  This practical approach was unique, stripping away the mysticism and obfuscation, as well as the overblown speeches.  Dr. Strange has all sorts of charms and talismans, the Specter is the Veneance of God, Dr. Fate channels the power of whichever Egyptian god through his helmet, the Phantom Stanger has some strange origin story.  John as none of these.  He wasn't a doctor, a mystic, or Judas.  He was a self-made sorcerer who got into magic as a way to impress the girls.  He came from a poor family, ran away when he was 16.  Never went to college. 

As such, he was always an iconoclast, and a smart one.  He has never been a hero, because heroes do the right thing.  John was a ruthless bastard who looked at the big picture and kept his eye on it, often at a personal cost, or to the cost of a friend.  That said, what he did always needed doing.  And after the price was paid, he usually got drunk.  We've even seem him cry a time or two.  Constantine was that small person who moved the wheels of the world because they had to.  Not because they were getting fame or glory.  He was easy to relate to, because he wore his faults and vices on his sleeve.  He smoked, he drank, he cursed. All of these motions and emotions made him human, someone I could relate to. 

He changed as different writers wrote him differently.  Jamie Delano's Constantine was very different from Garth Ennis's Irish Rebel, Mike Carey's masterful manipulator.  All these were different and yet recognizeable as the same person.  But there were some authors who didn't get it, who didn't understand the point of planting your feet, and flipping off God, the Devil, and the police simply because it needed to be done.  And ultimately, this was Constantine's downfall. 

Because Constantine was a media property.  The media he appeared in was produced on a deadline, and that had to be hit, whether the writer had a good idea or not.  And since the creators weren't willing to write him for more than a decade, the chore had to be passed on to someone else.  And so there were John stories that were from individuals who didn't really understand what he was about.  Certainly the film that used the Constantine name was pretty clueless.  As, sadly, was the last man to write the comic.  But that's what happens when a character is a media property.   

And so one of my favorite favoirte media properties flicks his ciggie into the bushes and heads out for Pubs Unknown.  There's going to be a hole in my life for a while.  But I'll always have those brilliant issues, and when I want, I can open up a box of comics and visit the good old days. 

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