Review: Constantine Vol. 1: The Spark and the Flame trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 21, 2014

It's an acknowledged hole in my personal DC Comics library that I've never read a volume of Vertigo's Hellblazer (I'll get there one day, promise). To that end -- and only having a Swamp Thing repertoire through Alan Moore's volumes -- I lack the ardent affinity for one John Constantine that many readers have. If a Vertigo figure is to be transferred back to the DC Universe, I want to see that done right, of course, but my bar is only as high as whether writers Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire are telling a good story and not which four-letter words Constantine is allowed to use under what imprint. And for my money, Fawkes and Lemire get it mostly right in Constantine Vol 1: The Spark and the Flame.

[Review contains spoilers]

The New 52 John Constantine first appeared in Peter Milligan's Justice League Dark and I was significantly underwhelmed. Trash-talking Constantine might have bullied some of his teammates, but there was hardly the roguish anti-hero the legends spoke of. Fawkes and Lemire, however, know what makes Constantine great (or terrible, in the story, but great as a character to read) and they bring it in the first issue. Constantine recruits young friend Chris on a quest for pieces of a magic compass, and then literally sacrifices Chris so that Constantine himself can escape from Sargon the Sorceress. Indeed that's what Milligan's Constantine was lacking -- Constantine letting one of his allies die so that he could live for the "greater good."

The "greater good" is a constant theme, especially in this book's early issues. In the fourth chapter Constantine argues with rival magician (and, as I understand it, constant Hellblazer foe) Papa Midnite, both that Constantine stealing from Midnite was an effort to help "protect" him from other enemies and also that the two should stand together against those enemies. Earlier, Constantine had run afoul of the Spectre, but managed to avoid his death by convincing the Spectre that Constantine is the lesser of two evils -- that the evil Constantine does is less than the evil he ultimately helps prevent. There is an arrogance to Constantine here, that if he does something wrong it must actually be right, that's eminently appealing in a character irrespective the universe.

Constantine's explanation to the Spectre is hardly an apology, to be sure, as not an issue later Constantine causes a monster to put out an old man's eyes, again to defeat his foes. If Fawkes and Lemire mean us to understand Constantine holds any guilt over his actions, it's only subtly, in the fourth, quieter issue, in which Constantine's "day off" reveals he really has no friends to speak of. (One can't help but see Dotty, Constantine's landlady, in this issue as akin to Una Stubbs's Mrs. Hudson in Sherlock, and it's not a far stretch to see some of Constantine in Benedict Cumberbatch's character and vice versa.)

That Constantine generally takes place in New York and not London is most likely a writer's conceit, though the idea that Constantine couldn't have his adventures in London and still run afoul of the globe-spanning Justice League seems like overthinking it. Nevertheless, in the three-part initial "pilot" story, the writers do take us to London and show why Constantine can't be there -- that the city itself has cursed him. If such explanation was necessary, I thought this fairly clever. The London issue also offers some good horror elements; the DC Universe proper doesn't tend to do horror well, always conflated as it is with superheroes, but the sub-London of hanged bodies was pretty disconcerting.

I know Fawkes mainly from a couple issues of Batgirl that I felt were too formulaic; I was bound to change that opinion with with the first four chapter of Constantine that Fawkes wrote with Lemire, but I do note that the final two issues by Fawkes alone are the least strong of the book. I appreciated that the sixth issue brought back Chris in ghostly fashion; I expected that storyline was done with the third chapter, so I was genuinely surprised to see it brought back up again. However, the chapter has by my count over a dozen pages of less interesting characters, like the villain Tannarak or Constantine's bartender fighting werewolves and demons, and only three or four pages actually featuring Constantine. This is a trend I sensed a bit in Fawkes's Batgirl, focusing on characters other than the book's main character, and I hope that's curbed in future issues.

The fifth chapter is the Trinity War tie-in issue, amusingly called (for an old JSA fan) "Stealing Thunder," and teaming Constantine with Shazam nee Captain Marvel. I remember the classic LEGION "War of the Gods" issue where Marvel fought Lobo, and the humor of the issue was seeing Marvel's extreme innocence contrasted with Lobo's sheer filthiness. Geoff Johns's new Shazam is quite a bit more of a brat than previous incarnations, and so there's an amusing but different interplay with Constantine, in that they're both jerks being jerky to one another.

The issue is problematic only because, as a Trinity War tie-in, it appears to have relevance to the Trinity War storyline, but ultimately the set-up turns out to be a misunderstanding and the issue factors into Trinity War not at all. That's bad for Trinity War, but the upside is that if you accept that Constantine and Shazam walk into a bar in the middle of the Trinity War goings on, there's not much more you need to know to enjoy the issue from a Constantine perspective.

Constantine Vol 1: The Spark and the Flame was, for me, better than it could have been, and I consider that a win though I understand others might feel more strongly. Between Constantine and Phantom Stranger, I think DC's doing fairly well with the "Dark" corner of the New 52, and I'm looking forward to the next collection of each.

[Includes original and variant covers, including the "WTF" two-page cover, character and cover sketches]

Later this week ... Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals Vol. 1 from Image.
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  1. I also enjoyed this book, and the whole dark area of the DCU. Fawkes and Lemire did a good job introducing me to this character with issue one being a very strong opener for the New 52. However, like CE, I've never read any of the Vertigo Constantine so I would be interested to hear from anyone who read both to see how it stacks up?

  2. I've been becoming a big fan of Hellblazer, as the new editions come out.

    While I haven't read the NEW 52 Constantine, hell, I could tell from the cover of this trade that everything is just wrong.

    This statement from the review is a bit shortsighted: "but my bar is only as high as whether writers Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire are telling a good story and not which four-letter words Constantine is allowed to use under what imprint. "

    I'm not sure why you think people love Hellblazer (or Vertigo as a whole), but it isn't because you can curse. It's a sophistication (or at least, a striving for sophistication), and an atmosphere that is unlike any other comic. Hellblazer is great because it isn't so much plot based as it is character. A lot of issues are just Constantine walking around, smoking and having an inner monologue about how miserable life is. It sometimes gets genuinely scary. Sometimes it is hilarious (check out the issue about Constantine's birthday, where he gets drunk and pisses on Phantom Stranger's shoes.) But it always feels outside of the DC Universe, and even comments on that directly.

    Just looking at the cover for this book, I mean...that is not Constantine. He doesn't do heroic poses. He doesn't use his powers in cool action ways. His real power is his cunning and ability to screw people over and then hate himself for years.

    I like Jeff Lemire, but I just can't give this a shot. It just does not look like the Constanine that I've grown to love.

    Please read Hellblazer.

    1. Jordan, I was being maybe a little too flip there, and you rightly called me on it. I think probably some allowances have to be made for the "translation" of Constantine from Vertigo to DC, namely heroic poses, etc., but in all I take your point and yours is a good reply. I'll get to Hellblazer some time.

  3. Some guy from London7/02/2014 08:01:00 AM

    Hello, I enjoyed your review! I have read one or two recent editions of Constantine and thought they were okay, so I look forward to reading this volume at some point.

    I have to admit I don't know what Trinity War is as I tried to get into DC comics around the New 52 relaunch, but on the whole just got a bit pissed off with it and stuck my head back in 2000AD instead. But I think there is a lot to be said for this translation of John Constantine here.

    I noticed that the Comic Book Resources crowd completely dismissed this new version, being unfair to their argument they basically said "it's not as good as Hellblazer".

    The big problem for me comparing this to Hellblazer is simply that in the Vertigo stories, if you read the issues from the 80s and early 90s it is clear that John Constantine is partly an unpleasant person, because he is kind of a socialist who feels badly let down by the British and American governments, especially Thatcher and Reagan. What happens subsequently is that he sort of becomes dismissive of people and more and more cynical as the years roll on. That is my slant on this, I'm no expert on Hellblazer but I find him a compelling and believable character because of his history. He was originally based on a cross between Sting from The Police and Johnny Rotten! In the new DC comics version, there is a big problem that he may not have an analogous back story, meaning he's basically just a bit of a glib character.

    To give you an idea of where I stand on this kind of thing, I completely hated the new versions of Swamp Thing and Animal Man for the same kind of reasons, it just seemed like a pointless fight between a bunch of colours rather than a story which actually meant anything!

  4. Some guy from London7/02/2014 08:54:00 AM

    On the other hand, there is a kind of stylized echo of Constantine's animosity towards high level consumption and wealth in a very recent issue of the comic, number 15, where he meets a kind of secret monarch of Hong Kong whom he accuses of leeching from the urban poor! So, I definitely think it's unfair to simply dismiss this comic book as being 'not like' Hellblazer, although 'not as good as' is still a moot point!