This was an interesting experience; reading through twenty year’s worth of a single title as essentially a single work. While I was peripherally aware of John Constantine he’s not exactly an A-list character. Spiderman, say, is well enough established in nerd culture that I could probably bluff my way through a conversation about him despite the fact I’ve never read one of the comics, but I (and I suspect most) couldn’t say the same here. The upshot of this is that there’s this massive, historically embedded run of storyline to which I’m coming more-or-less spoiler free.
Jamie Delano, 1988-1991 (5 volumes)
The first iteration, and very much of its time and place. The opening few issues do that interconnected thing where you need to know that Constantine and Swamp Thing have some sort of connection (which is still as accurately as I'm able to describe it) for some key situations to make much sense, but that aside then this is a bygone alternative comedian's take on Britain under Thatcher, without too much in the way of comedy. For all that I mock (gently), and for all that the social commentary is not especially subtle, this sense of time and place is vital in grounding what would otherwise be some fairly generic horror tropes. And thus it works; had it not all the rest of this would have been moot.
Garth Ennis, 1991-1995 (6)
This is the good stuff. A slightly more nuanced take on social commentary, interesting and relatable secondary characters, and less in the way of psychedelica and unsatisfyingly easy counter-cultural juxtapositions. Great supporting characters too; Kit's fantastic and The First of the Fallen, despite the usual problems with escalating tension when the principle antagonist it the devil himself, is a pleasingly sly yet petulant incarnation of the character. If the Royal Blood storyline skates a little too closely to From Hell, well, this can be forgiven; if you're going to steal from someone, you might as well steal from someone good. In fact, given Constantine's origins, hard not to conclude that this is anything other than a tribute.
Warren Ellis, 1999 (2)
Paul Jenkins's run is missing from this little (!) collection, so we skip to the other Ellis's all too short period of custody. Map is a great creation, and if the Haunted arc relies a little too much on (another) one of Constantine's ex-girlfriends getting nixed in order to provide motivation, then the single issue storylines only serve to give tantalizing hints of what might have been had Ellis stayed in control. All the more so because he was followed by…
Brain Azzarello, 2000-2002 (4)
John Constantine takes an American interlude. Facile.
Mike Carey, 2002-2006 (6)
Back on track after that embarrassing little sojourn stateside. More or less. You forget that this is part of the same DC universe as Sandman and Lucifer, but I guess if you hand the reins to the writer of the latter then you have to expect some of that to bleed through. The three lifetimes in one day conceit is nicely (by which I mean harrowingly) done and it sets up perhaps the strongest single long-term story arc in the canon.
Denise Marina, 2006-2007 (2)
Summer Isle transplanted to Glasgow, and with added English vs Scottish jingoism thrown in for good measure. Liked this a lot, actually, and good to see some of JC's female companions not getting mystically fridged but forcing the pace by themselves.
Andy Diggle, 2007-09 (3)
Peter Milligan's closing leg is likewise missing, so we finish up with Andy Diggle's residency, which is all right, but nothing special. The 'evil twin' is a bit tired as tropes go, wouldn't you say?
So, with the addition of three spin-off volumes (Papa Midnite, Lady Constantine, Chas: The Knowledge), where does that leave us? Firstly, with the unsurprising observation that comic art, or at least the technology supporting it, has got significantly better over the last quarter of a century. This perhaps dates the earlier volumes even more than the subject matter, which in many ways remains depressingly relevant, as the broadsides Delano aimed at Thatcher come full circle with another Tory government seemingly doing all they can to widen the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
I digress. While Delano was the most open with the social commentary (with the possible exception of Azzarello, but the less said about that the better), most of the other writers have tended to go more for the character study or horror angles, and all of them have hewn to Vonnegut's advice to 'make awful things happen' to their characters. The most successful (Both Ennis and Ellis, Marina, maybe Carey) managed to leaven the unrelenting shitstorm that is Constantine's life by having him retain a good measure of wit and rakish charm. The worst (go on, guess) just kind of assumed he's a sex symbol because, well… I dunno. The accent?
Still, at his best John Constantine does exactly what a good anti-hero should, which is make you root for him even though you know he's an arsehole. Even better, he knows it himself, and it's his self awareness which lifts him above run-of-the-mill. I know it seems slightly perverse given the amount of time that's passed since the first issue, but it's actually kind of refreshing to meet a character not in need of a gritty reboot, because they've always been mired in filth. So he's an arsehole, but he's my kind of arsehole, and I'll definitely take that to be getting on with.