John Constantine – the City and the Swamp

John Constantine debuts proper in Saga of the Swamp Thing 37

John Constantine is not a typical hero. Grubby trenchcoat and scruffy blonde hair. Good looking (strangely reminiscent of the young Sting). A smoker, who likes a drink and often to be found in the company of the type of woman who likes a bad lad, or thinks she can change him. There are often transformations of various types when you get involved with John but they are not always pleasant.

Another thing that is sadly not typical of comics is that John is a working class character from a Northern provincial city, albeit one that is famous for its contributions to world culture – Liverpool. This is very fitting in many ways as Liverpool has always been something of an ‘outsider’ city in Britain – a port city, it has been multicultural for centuries with long established black and chinese communities. 

I spent a bit of time in the city in the 1980’s and it had a very different vibe to London or Glasgow. Psychedelia was a strong influence and I remember being surprised at the popularity of what I considered to be old fashioned bands like Pink Floyd. It was also the birthplace of terrace casual culture as Liverpool FC fans on European trips discovered Italian fashion – often via the old ‘five finger discount’.

Psychedelic Prole

The story was that infamous Hole singer and Nirvana muse Courtney Love funded her stay in the city and seeded a psychedelic renaissance in the early 80’s via sales of LSD sourced by her Dad, a Grateful Dead roadie. Possibly apocryphal, but “print the legend” as Malcolm McLaren would have said. There is no doubt that a psychedelic vibe ran through such local bands of that era as Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. 

Indeed another JC – Teardrops singer Julian Cope would go on to be a shamanic presence in British counter culture, via his obsession with the mysteries of standing stones and ley lines (I can recommend his encyclopaedic work on the subject The Modern Antiquarian, although copies seem to be rather expensive these days.) There is more than a little Julian Cope in John Constantine.

Liverpool – a fitting place for what Alan Moore described as a “blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics.”

Wizard Magazine, November 1993

Politically the city is firmly on the left, sometimes considered to be the most left-wing city in the UK. From the battles of the Militant led Liverpool City Council in the 1980s to the Liverpool Dockers strike of the 90s and up to the recent strong support for Jeremy Corbyn in the city…the city has the kind of strong anti-establishment vibe that you would associate with Mr Constantine.

A fitting place for what Alan Moore described as a “blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics.”

A familiar face in the background

Our scally sorcerer was born into the pages of Moore’s Swamp Thing, first with a background cameo in issue 25 and then properly introduced in issue 37. The story is that this was just a chance for artist Stephen Bissette to draw Sting and he warned Alan Moore that he better write the character into the book because he wasn’t going to stop drawing him. With this image of Constantine manifesting itself into reality before Alan Moore had even thought of him, it is clear that the character has three creators – Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Alan Moore.

As Bissette noted “I am in no way trying to diminish Alan’s work, merely emphasize that the result of those collaborations were indeed the results of three or four creators working hand in hand in a manner precious few writers in this field would ever invite, nurture, and bring to such rich fruition.”

The Saga of the Swamp Thing

Moore’s Swamp Thing run came as he moved from the world of British comics, where his modest achievements included D.R and Quinch, Halo Jones, V for Vendetta, Marvelman and a memorable spell on Captain Britain. Whilst his hopes for a better deal for creators in the U.S proved naive he quickly made his mark with DC. 

Swamp Thing was the first DC comic distributed to newsstands to be issued without the Comics Code Authority stamp. The code, a hangover of anti-comics moral panics of the 1950s, was on its way out. It is unlikely that legendary Swamp Thing stories such as trippy vegetable sex issue Rites of Spring would have gained approval in any case.

As Bissette noted “I am in no way trying to diminish Alan’s work, merely emphasize that the result of those collaborations were indeed the results of three or four creators working hand in hand in a manner precious few writers in this field would ever invite, nurture, and bring to such rich fruition.”

Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman

Constantine features in the American Gothic storyline, which features a host of familiar horror tropes – werewolves, vampires and witches. Constantine is established as a confident master of the occult. This works well for a supporting character, but when Hellblazer gets going later writers would have to bring his insecurities and weaknesses to the fore. 

Swamp Thing was for quite a while the only DC book that could be classified as ‘horror’ as Alan Moore noted “given that DC had all of this rich history of great supernatural characters, and Swamp Thing was the only one left.” The emergence of the Vertigo line with legendary books such as Sandman and of course Hellblazer, is due in no small part to the breathtaking work of Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing, although Alan himself was quick to deny paternity for Vertigo which he called his “illegitimate child”.

Such was the birth of John Constantine. The decades to come – and the pages of Hellblazer – would tell the story of his life.


Notes

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