A Review of The First Episode of NBC’s Constantine

First, since this is my first review on this blog, a little about my philosophy of reviews.

A: The purpose of reading a review is to discover the odds of whether you, the reader, will enjoy a given work, before you potentially waste your time experiencing it.

B: Therefore, it is impossible to do this without knowing something of the reviewer, their viewpoints and preferences, and possibly even a bit of personal history with the work, if such applies.

C: Reviews cannot be objective.

(More on the impossibility of objectivity – and the undesirability thereof – in media reviews, coming soon in another post.)

So, here’s my history with Hellblazer.

There’s a special experience in being a fan of a long-running comic. I can think of only a few other media that have this kind of opportunity to follow not only a story but the changes in staffing, editing, writing team, evolution of style, and other changes that come inevitably to any work that stretches for sufficient length.

When you participate in this for long enough, it becomes a feature of your life, and becomes something that you can hardly imagine living without. For me, that work has always been Hellblazer. I was born too late to read it in its infancy, and to experience the character of John Constantine in his original context in Saga of the Swamp Thing when those issues were originally published, but when I discovered the character in my early teens, I promptly ran to the library and read everything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until college that I began really amassing my own collection, and it wasn’t until shortly before the series ended that I managed to have a complete set of my own. But John Constantine has been a fixture in my literary life for about twenty years, through ups and downs in media quality, and I have tracked down and read literally every story I can find in any medium featuring him in any of his incarnations. I have read all of the side stories, even the godawful novelizations. I stuck with the series even when I knew the writing was bad.

There’s a funny story there, actually. I have always been able to stick it out through less enthralling arcs of Hellblazer, partly because I know they are temporary. Writers and artists come and go, it’s one of the Great Truths of the way comics work. But at some points it does get hard to keep waiting. (Remember the filler episodes of Naruto, anime fans? Like that.)

And so I talked to a friend one day, and said, “You know, I’m considering dropping Hellblazer

He stared at me as if incomprehendingly for a few seconds, then said, flatly, “But you read Hellblazer.” It was as if he was stating a truth, using it as an incontrovertible argument.

“Good point,” I said, and kept reading.

This same friend pointed out to me when the Keanu Reeves Constantine movie came out, that I would have to watch it, “to keep the universe from unraveling because I didn’t watch the Hellblazer movie” (his words, not mine). I eventually let him talk me into it because he promised I could throw popcorn at his TV.

Oh gods, the Constantine movie.

This movie was almost physically painful to watch. If it had just been bad, it would have been fine. I could have written it off as a terrible film, and moved on.

But… it wasn’t that bad. Keanu Reeves showed all of his usual emotional range, for the most part, and the character was almost unrecognizable, and the plot was a watered-down version of the “Dangerous Habits” arc, but… okay, yeah, it was pretty bad. But it definitely could have been a lot worse.

For one thing, there were these brilliant moments of vintage Hellblazer scattered throughout. But those were really the problem, for me – they kept reminding me of what the rest of the movie wasn’t.

So those were my expectations for the NBC television series. And I was pleasantly surprised.

I’m okay with most of the changes they’ve made. Chas is certainly going to be playing a different role here, at least one person from Constantine’s history has been transplanted to the United States, and John himself seems to be slinging a lot more power than he usually has access to in the comics. But it is an adaptation, and this kind of change is to be expected. A little jarring, still, but one has to accept it when watching this kind of thing.

Even so, clearly, the writers have been paying attention to the canon, and they want to make sure their fannish viewers know it, even if they have relocated the series out of London (all right, it’s for American audiences, I suppose it makes sense, but still – London is one of the main characters of the comic, and I’ll miss the city’s presence). They tried to cram a huge amount of backstory canon into the first episode, to a point that it threw off the pacing. We got Newcastle (the story with the little girl who was damned to Hell by John’s mistakes), and Ravenscar (the asylum), and John’s miserable childhood, and his friendship with Chas, and hints at the band he used to play with (there’s a poster in Rick’s office if you look carefully), some implications that “Dangerous Habits” has already happened (possible explanation for why he doesn’t smoke anymore, interesting), plus all of the actual storyline they’re trying to write for the new series.

There was material for way more than one episode there. Normally, that kind of fast-paced method isn’t a problem, particularly when you’ve got great action and effects sequences like this one does. But I fear that NBC’s writing team for Constantine may have lost sight of one very important fact.

Hellblazer was never about plot, to be perfectly honest.

A summary of the overall plot of the comic: John Constantine is a chain-smoking, bitter, sarcastic, British mystic and exorcist who does crazy awesome things involving demons and spirits on a regular basis that frequently get a lot of people, including him, badly hurt.

Most of this summary is actually character description, and there’s a reason for that. Hellblazer has always been about the character, and if you can’t get into the character portrayal, there’s no real point and no real continuous attraction. Individual arcs can have awesome stories, such as the aforementioned “Dangerous Habits,” among many others, but keep in mind that out of 300 issues plus annuals, specials, and side-stories, that particular one – the most famous for a reason – contained only six issues. Out of twenty-five years of Hellblazer, that story ran for six months. The individual stories can have tremendous impact, but on a series of such longevity they come and go, as do the writers and artists and editors who make them available for us to read. I personally have always found Neil Gaiman’s “Hold Me” (issue #27) to be one of the most affecting of the entire series, along with Paul Jenkins’ “Riding the Green Lanes (issue #91). The two have a few things in common, in addition to being single-issue stories: in neither issue does much actually happen; the focus is on Constantine’s relationships rather than his actions; in both stories, the well-being of a few individuals is at stake, rather than the fate of the world or even the city of London; the reader gets a heartful of Constantine’s emotional pain; Constantine’s personality comes through loud and clear in all its positives and negatives.

I wonder how many viewers came out of that episode really getting a sense of the overwhelming force of John Constantine’s personality.

On the other hand, it’s just the premiere. This is the episode where they have to catch people’s attention, and I think it certainly did that, through sheer information overload if nothing else. I’m glad that most of the description I just wrote for the comic made it into the show. It certainly caught my attention, and made me want to watch the next episode as soon as I possibly can.


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