Monday, 19 January 2015

Constantine < Hellblazer?

Back in the dim and distant, I had a few issues of Hellblazer. To be honest, I was too young for them. Not in the don’t look at the nudity and smoking and blood and slashy knives and naughty words kind of way, but in an I don’t get it kind of way. I was barely twenty, and the comic was just about four years old at this stage. I wasn’t ready.

Skip to about... Ooh, five years ago. I happened to catch sight of a cover to Hellblazer #300 (the last ongoing issue) on Tinternet. And I thought, wait a tick, that bloke looks familiar. It wasn’t till a while later that I realised it was the end to something I had started long before.

Skip to last year. I was doing the Thursday Shop, otherwise known as Comics Wednesday in the States. (With the time zone as it is, I shop for new comics on a Thursday.) What do I see? A new collection of the first nine issues of Hellblazer, which may or may not be considered Jamie Delano’s best work for the title. He did pretty much invent it, off the back of an arc in the Swamp Thing.

I was older, I was more cynical, I was deep into comics and constantly looking for ‘new’. Bored of the usual straight white American dude saving the world, my weekly Thursday Shop consisted of titles like Saga, NextWave, Captain Marvel, Trillium, Young Avengers, and the like. Faced in this climate with the prospect of finally getting to grips with John Constantine, I thought I might as well.

It’d be more accurate to say that John Constantine got to grips with me. The sweeping story arcs, the way he was so down-to-Earth Scouse, the one-liners that covered a desperate lurch for salvation, the constant threat of losing everything if he just let the facade slip enough for people to realise he didn’t actually have all the answers; it was intoxicating. I went through nothing less than five issues in a sitting. Sod work and getting back late from a lunch break - there were literally hundreds of issues on my iPad, goddammit, and John wasn’t going to read himself (except that one time with Ellie and the priest with the talking door).

As poor John lurched from one skin of the teeth pyrrhic victory to the next, I slowly fell in love with the comic. So many issues, so many artists, so many writers, so many subtle differences in how they saw his character - there was a never-ending Pandora’s Box of adventures. Once it was opened, and I ripped through three hundred issues, I realised that one thing had indeed been trapped inside: Hope. All I wanted was to believe that there was more, that what transpired in Hellblazer #300 (the last scene of which I still debate), was not the end. It couldn’t be, right? There had to be more.

I found graphic novels. I found specials. I found DC’s attempt to fit him into their Justice League line-up. Sadly, for me, these DCverse comics were just not right. They did not gel. It was the fact that John was no longer the focus of the book - now it was him against a pantheon of DC people, set against DC places and names. Gone were my trips to Liverpool, or Australia, or Northern Ireland. Gone were my Kit, Epiphany, Gemma. In their places were things I did not know because they were not of Hellblazer; the comics took me twice as long to read, as I spent equal parts reading the comic, and searching Wikipedia to find out who the apparently famous person was that John was up against. It became a chore - like their New 52 Constantine title. It wasn't John; it was a shiny ret-conned blonde bloke who occasionally talked like him, but shared none of the actual real secret of magic with him at all.

It was not my John.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Let me just say in my defence: my favourite Doctors are Two, Five, Nine, Ten, and the beginnings of Eleven. It’s true that I have turned my back on New Who, but that is not down to the change in actor or personality, it’s down to my hate-hate relationship with Steven Moffat’s writing. I like Star Trek the original series and The Next Generation, while my first love is DS9. I liked the 2009 reboot of Star Trek (Into Darkness not so much), because in my head it was a compromise - if you liked the original and not the reboot, the original had not been overwritten. Conversely, if you like the reboot but had tried to watch the original but not liked it, you still had your own version that did not overwrite the original. That’s why I’m perfectly fine with Into Darkness failing on a lot of levels; Wrath of Khan still happened (and is still better), just in the other timeline. Long and short: I like change. Change is good - mostly.

So back to John Constantine.

Still reeling from the ending of Hellblazer, and finding that there were no more issues, I heard a rumour that Warner Brothers were looking at making a TV series called Constantine. I was intrigued. Then I was worried; would they be able to pull off some of the storylines from Hellblazer? Were they even going to bother? And who the bloody hell were they going to get to play John? Because if it was another Keanu Reeves, pretending to be English or not, then I was definitely out.

Skip to late last year. I had seen new series come along - caught up with Game of Thrones, tried watching The Flash (no-go - who wants yet another secret identity secretly in love with his best friend but can’t tell her oh and did I mention they stuffed his mother in a fridge to give him daddy issues about rescuing him from prison? Blah blah blah.), tried Arrow (yeesh - but I have been told to ignore season one and head straight to season two. Seeing as I stuck with it for about seven episodes and then decided I was done torturing myself, I don’t know if I’ll bother) and Forever (really good, but in such a nice quiet way, it’s sure to get cancelled). Gotham started, and I’ve enjoyed that more and more. Agents of SHIELD continues to improve, so I’m glad I stuck with that one. Supernatural has come back with a triumphant tenth season, which I’m still addicted to and still enjoying. So what was I going to get with Constantine?

Firstly, the pilot was pretty bloody shaky. I’m glad that they decided to drop the companion-cum-storyline there and go with Zed a few episodes later. However, two things struck me from the outset: one, they’d picked a winner with Matt Ryan, and two, they weren’t going to shy away from certain subject matter, even on their timeslot.

I was intrigued. They even went with one of the best story arcs from Hellblazer a few episodes later in the form of Gary Lester and the hunger demon. It was racking up to be a vast improvement, but pretty much nothing was going to stop me watching it once I’d got used to John’s somewhat clean trenchcoat (part of me is begging them to do a version of The Devil’s Trenchcoat story arc. I would die happy). They were making it a little darker without sacrificing colour; where Supernatural tends to bleed the colour out and whack up the contrast, Constantine is all about colour and bright spillage of blood and make-up. One thing I do like is the cinematography and the way the editing is handled. A lot of gore is performed offscreen for your imagination, and even if it just to get round the programming rules, it’s still a neat way for you to get your gore on without getting taken off the air. They may have changed a few elements about the characters - I thought Chas was darker in the comics, and obviously his penchant for Jack Harkness’ing his way out of permanent death is a new one. But hey, they’re rolling with it and they’re making it more interesting. Take Zed Martin, for instance. Not the bird we were given in Hellblazer, past her ‘gifted’ roots and her talents, but definitely a change for the better. They’ve developed a women on screen who, one, is not white, two, is not dependant on anybody, and three, can literally take care of herself, despite hiding that side of herself. Her attitude and the fact that she’s a capable character, instead of being just a hanger-on or a sidekick, makes me watch for her - the woman with her own life and agenda - as much as for John. Try saying that about any other series.

AngĂ©lica Celaya, then, should be headed for big things. When this series is cancelled, as inevitably all good shows are by large networks who worry too much about instant ratings gratification and not enough about long-term merchandising rights and blu-ray sales, then I look forward to seeing what she does next. Charlie Halberd, the ever-present Chas, is also going to become a staple of US TV, I hope. Harold Perrineau, as the argie-bargie angel Manny, already has a long list of telly credits under his belt (not least of all the wonderfully sublime The Unusuals), but I know he’ll be back.

Matt Ryan, though. He’s the best not-John that ever John’d. They may have had to bleach his hair and they haven’t bothered covering up his own tatts, but he fills John’s shoes like they were made for him. He was seven years old when Hellblazer first started, but that hasn’t stopped him from apparently being told by his comic-shop-owner-mate that if he gets John wrong, he runs the risk of not waking up the next day. He seems to have taken it to heart - the swagger to his walk, the shoulders that pin themselves back when he’s about to cast a spell, the sneaking-in of the network-forbidden cigarettes, the borderline dodgy/creepy look he gives people when he’s working through how to get out of the jam he’s in - he is to John Constantine what David Tennant was to the Doctor for many people. When I go back to read Hellblazer comics now? Yep - he sounds like Matt Ryan’s soft Scouse / hint of his own Welsh.

One thing I will say is that he’s Shakespeare trained. So when you ask him to act like he’s possessed by a demon and just wants to terrorise and hurt people, then that’s what you get. He is a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of actor. He puts his back into every scene he’s got without having to chew scenery, often accomplishing more with a single shifty look than lines of dialogue. I cannot stress enough how much he deserves an Emmy for his performance in episode nine’s ‘Saint of Last Resorts, part 2’.

The episodes themselves do not back down: you will see kids possessed and people in the wrong place at the wrong time dying, and other people scammed into a plot twist you didn’t see coming. You will get more bodily fluids than a Farscape snot-fest. You will get John giving people lip (apparently insults like ‘wanker’ and ‘tosser’ and ‘pile of wank’ get past US censors. It makes me wonder if they know what they mean), you will get Angry!John raging at people, and Zed being quietly amazing, and Chas just trying to hold everything together. You’ll probably enjoy it, too.

Understandably, I’m upset that it’s going to get cancelled. We can vote online and petition and beg and make noise about this show as much as we like, but I know it’s going to get cancelled. Because the good shows always are. I will still keep making noise and telling NBC how much I want the show to continue, but seeing as all they look at is instant ratings, I have my doubts about it working.

My parting shot? Watch this show. Watch it before it disappears. You’ll be glad you did.

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