Today, Michael and Patrick are discussing Constantine: The Hellblazer 4, originally released September 16th, 2015.
Michael: I’m going to tell you something that you’ve heard so much already that you’re going to want to stop reading after I tell you (but please, don’t): fiction is escapism. The simplest bit of escapism is tossing our problems aside and putting ourselves in the shoes of someone sexier, stronger, more likeable and generally just better than what we’re working with. There’s an equal amount of catharsis and distortion at play in this escapism. John Constantine isn’t the guy you are wishing you could be – he’s the guy who you’re thanking your lucky stars that you’re not. I mean, afterlife existential grief/survivor’s guilt makes your last break up look pretty vanilla.
After he learns that his old flame Veronica took her life years ago, our favorite Hellblazer has gone on a bender in Constantine: The Hellblazer 4. John stumbles through some of the regular hangouts of his rebellious youth, bottle in hand, while we visit those same scenes as they were yesteryear. John is aggressively drunk (ASIDE: we have overused “belligerent” far too much in the drunken context that it has lost its meaning. END OF ASIDE), feeling sorry for himself as he comes face to face with his destructive nature. We see how he brought Veronica into his deep, dark, dangerous world of magic – and how he abandoned her when she wanted out. Like Veronica’s eventual fate, Constantine seems to want to end his own life. He summons the “tentacle monster” that has been busting his ghost pals, and realizes that the beastie might actually be Veronica herself.
Clichés are only as prevalent and overemphasized as they are because their truth is appealing. And one of the clichés we love in our fiction is “the bad boy” (or girl); the rebel who flips the middle finger to the establishment but has a sensitive side buried deep down. Not every modern day hero/star role is the bad boy, but they often have that dark side to them that we love about bad boys. Wolverine, Han Solo, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see also: Faith and Angelus); there are enough prominent bad boy archetypes that could probably fill up this entire article. From my admittedly limited knowledge, I know that John Constantine is very much a sonofabitch. Though he’s fighting on “the side of angels,” he doesn’t care whose life he fucks with to overcome the latest otherworldly threat. We love him because he ultimately IS a good guy; which leads us to forgive him for being a sonofabitch. This also comes into play in abusive relationships – but we don’t have to worry about that because Johnny boy isn’t a real person and he can’t hurt us like the rest of the people/ghosts in his life! Since the hero is always at least part bad boy these days, fans often find themselves defending the hero’s dickish choices. He’s the hero! He’s just trying to save the day goddammit, let him do his job! While that line of thinking is extremely popular, I don’t think it’s very sustainable. “Being the best there is at what I do” gets pretty old pretty quick, which is why quality Wolverine stories aren’t so easy to come by. What’s welcomingly different about Constantine: The Hellblazer 4 is how writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV make our bad boy come face-to-face with his inner demons (literal, metaphorical. Yes, I know.)
The problem of owning up to your own shit is that you run the risk of focusing entirely on what YOU did to others, instead of what you did to OTHERS. John is mourning the loss of Veronica, but he’s not placing the emphasis on her wasted potential but on his own. Though he might argue that he’s punishing himself, John is drinking himself blind and pissing on everything in his path to make himself feel better. There’s no real atonement here – just a pity party. In fact, it’s worse than a pity party because his self-indulgence is at the expense of others. Not only does he ruin a magic show, he essentially commits murder out of nihilism. John’s quest up to this point was to protect his ghosty pals from Mrs. Tentacles – though you could argue that that was motivated by selfishness as well. For him to just invite death to his door and take him and whatever nearby ghosts with him is pretty fucking twisted, giving the framework of the series. Without delving too much into this analogy, it’s kind of like a mass shooting where the gunman finishes by turning the gun on himself. Dark stuff, sure, but Constantine doesn’t live in the world of sunshine and rainbows.
To pull back a bit, I just want to comment how impressed I am with the vibe of this issue and overall series. I mentioned Spike earlier because he kept popping into my head while I read Constantine’s words. I love how the marriage of punk rock and dark magic works so well that I don’t even question it. The script is vague in all of the right places – we don’t really know the specifics of their demon rocker tour, but we don’t really need to. And we’re given just enough backstory of Veronica, Georgie and John that it’s not overbearing. Instead of coming off as hokey and forced, I felt the relationships that were laid out for us. I did give a slight eye roll at Veronica being revealed as Tentacle-puss, but it’s grounded in what we’ve seen in this series already. So who am I to judge?
Patrick! First off, thanks for turning me on to this book – much obliged. What do you think of John’s pity party? Did dark magic = drugs ala Buffy for you like it did me? Also, what is it about record stores that make them such good hangs?
Patrick: Record stores are good hang-out place because they’re aspirational. You can walk through the stacks (either with your buddies or alone) and imagine the all the various free, artistic lives that created the products you’re seeing. They’re also a weird collapsing of the last 80 years of culture all crammed next to each other. The Beatles next to the Beastie Boys? Fats Waller next to Wilco? That alphabetical order doesn’t give a shit about presenting these recordings in a meaningful order. It’s simultaneously chaotic and ordered, punk and reverent, anti-establishment and big business. That’s one of the things that this issue does more impressively than anything else for me: present music and magic (and by extension, the pursuit of all art) as a loftily unattainable ideal – one that slowly disconnects the artist from reality.
We see this literally happen in this issue. Veronica starts to disappear because she’s in too deep with magic. John has too, but he doesn’t seem to care. As long as he’s got the shows, what does anything else matter? What’s fascinating to me is how much I related to this idea of disappearing into a form of art that feels more “genuine.” In fact, that’s almost the story of my life, with far less dramatic results, of course. In my twenties, I got really into writing pop songs with strange, dense chord progressions and lush, difficult orchestrations. I even released an album (called A Better Glass, it’s on Spotify if you’re curious*) and it’s precisely as unapproachable as I’ve described in the previous sentence. I could have written simpler songs, but that would have felt dishonest – like I was hiding cards up my sleeve instead of giving up pieces of my soul to pull them from the depths of hell, like a real fucking artist. Which isn’t to say that my record is “real fucking art.” There are a lot of problems with it, chief among them being that I hadn’t quite figured out how to sing on this thing. But I do feel like I dug deep into myself to make that thing, and went to some weird places lyrically and harmonically, and I can totally understand the feeling that no one followed me to those weird places.
Or, he’s an example from right now – Improv Comedy. Weird little pattern we’ve seen as Retcon Punch’s writer pool has grown: a lot of our writers are improvisers. Me, Michael, Mark, Ryan M., Andy, we’re all locked in to the comedy scenes in LA or Chicago. That means we’ve each experienced countless nights watching theatre that’s a thousand times funnier than any movie or TV show ever could be. When Constantine started to heckle the sleight-of-hand artist on stage, I felt like I was in my parents’ house, ridiculing the episode of Big Bang Theory they were watching. More than seeing a self-destructive trope in John Constantine, I’m seeing an idealist who was willing to pay the price for genuine experiences. Of course, there’s a void between the price a young man is willing to pay and the price a middle-aged man is willing to pay, and that void is where we find Constantine in this issue.
Artists Vanesa R. Del Rey and Chris Visions lean in to this concept of playing nostalgia against Constantine’s present-day experiences with two separate gorgeous splash pages. They’re sort of memory collages that exist in real space – album covers, polaroids, guitar picks, etc. It’s a perfect juxtaposition of “then” and “now” – so much so that the narration box that is so eager to orient the reader in time in every other scene is totally absent here. These pages aren’t taking place now or then – they are now and then.
I mean, it’s really no wonder we empathize with this particular anti-hero: he’s simply stuck romanticizing his younger days when his pursuits were purer. What’s more relateable than that?
*Fellow Retcon Puncher Drew actually played trumpet on two of the tracks on my record: “Japanese Baseball” and “Write It Down.”
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?