Review: Constantine Volume 1: The Spark and the Flame by Ray Fawkes, Jeff Lemire, Renato Guedes and Marcelo Maiolo

Constantine

Constantine Volume 1: The Spark and the Flame
DC, 2014 (collecting material from 2013)
Writers: Ray Fawkes, Jeff Lemire
Artists: Renato Guedes, Fabiano Neves and Marcelo Maiolo

Review by N Emmett.

Created in 1985 for Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s run on Swamp Thing, the character of John Constantine became the star of his own series, Hellblazer, in 1988. This title was originally penned by Jamie Delano and passed through a number of other hands before being cancelled in 2013. As a replacement, DC launched Constantine, the first six issues of which are collected in Constantine Volume 1: The Spark and the Flame.

A more casual comic reader may wonder exactly what this change entails. The main difference is that Hellblazer was published by DC’s “mature readers” imprint Vertigo, while Constantine is one of the company’s mainline comics – meaning that adult content is toned down, and crossover elements with DC’s superhero-filled universe are amped up.

The relaunch certainly resulted in a sales spike: while comic shops were ordering around 9,000-odd issues of Hellblazer each month towards the end of its run, the first issue of Constantine netted 37,564 sales. This number declined in subsequent months, but with sales of around 20,000 units the title is still healthier than its Vertigo predecessor. However, long-time fans of the series feared that this boost in commercial success would come at a cost, with John Constantine’s adventures being watered down for a lower common denominator.

Now that the first half-year of Constantine has been collected in one book, it is a good time to see whether these concerns were justified.

Const1Writers Jeff Lemire (DC’s current go-to man for penning supernatural series) and Ray Fawkes are keen to show the readership that John Constantine is the same old wheeler-dealer occultist who lied and cheated his way through three hundred issues of Hellblazer. The first issue of Constantine lays out with clinical tidiness who this man is and what moral code he follows: at the climax, Constantine is given the decision between allowing the antagonist Sargon the Sorceress to obtain a powerful magic artefact, or allowing her to kill his young friend Chris. Stony-faced, Constantine picks the latter option. “Sorry, Chris” he says, as he walks away from his pal’s crushed body.

With so many comic book antiheroes relying on their fists, guns or claws, Constantine stands out from the crowd by relying on his wits. As experienced a con man as he is a warlock, he can slip out of seemingly any tight spot with a few well-placed words – magic or otherwise. While there is often a price to pay for his victories, he somehow manages to avoid paying it himself; instead, it is those around him who end up making the sacrifice. Poor Chris is just one of many skeletons in this shady magician’s closet, but Constantine can ease his conscience with the fact that he is ultimately fighting the good fight against sorcerers with even fewer scruples. He is the proverbial someone who must do the dirty job.

The book’s cover gives the unfortunate impression that Hellblazer’s occult system has given way to laser-gun battles, but Fawkes and Lemire take an enjoyably playful approach to magic. A curse const3that brings about potentially fatal bad luck; a charm that causes any injury to be inflicted on the assailant – this kind of thing is not particularly original, but is at least engaging.

The artwork, principally from Renato Guedes, rises to the macabre subject matter. In one standout scene, Constantine is transported from London to some kind of hellish nega-London in which familiar architecture and vehicles rearranged into gravity-defying, Escher-like constructions. Sticking around at all angles are hanging corpses, implicitly people who committed suicide after finding themselves trapped in this nightmare world.

So, the character is in place, and he is surrounded with a workable fantasy world. However, there is one element missing, and it is an element that was vital to the success of John Constantine’s earlier stories: the element of reality.

In his first few issues of Hellblazer during the eighties, Jamie Delano touched upon subjects such as fundamentalist religion, yuppie culture, Margaret Thatcher, AIDS, homophobia and neo-Nazi skinheads. By contrast, there is nothing in The Spark and the Flame to indicate that it was const2published in 2013, the year that saw the leaking of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden, the resignation of Pope Benedict, the deposition of Mohamed Morsi and the Boston Marathon bombing. Surely at least one of those subjects could have served as a backdrop to a Constantine saga?

Instead of mixing magic with real-world issues, as Hellblazer did, Constantine makes a surgically precise effort to distance itself from reality, taking place in a world populated largely by pre-existing comic characters such as the Spectre and Captain Marvel. The inevitable result is that the storylines take on a vapid quality: the first half of the book follows Constantine as he goes on a plot-coupon hunt for three pieces of a magical compass that, when combined, will do something or another. This plot thread is quickly wrapped up to make way for a crossover with the “Trinity War” storyline that was going on in the pages of Justice League at the time (which, alas,    is about the closest thing to a contemporary reference that can be found in the book).

Poor old John Constantine. Once he had demonic wine-bar yuppies as villains; now he has to make to with the insipid likes of Sargon the Sorceress.

The Swamp Thing storyline in which Constantine made his debut heralded a wave of comics that took lower-tier const4characters, such as the Sandman and Shade the Changing Man, and used them to tell sophisticated and literate stories. Right now we are seeing an opposite process, spearheaded by the nauseating Before Watchmen cash-grab, in which these gamechanging works of graphic fiction are one by one being turned back into plain old superhero comics – all the better to serve as raw material for movies and TV shows, my dear.

Constantine Volume 1: The Spark and the Flame is not without merit. It at least remembers what it is that makes the character special. Sadly, however, it forgets what made his stories special.