Constantine, Vol 1: The Spark and the Flame by Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes and Renado Guedes – Comic Review [Bellarius]
Getting his hands on another DC Comics trade paperback, Bellarius gives his thoughts on the revamped Constantine series by Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes.
“An entertainingly dark tale which fully returns John to the world of superheroics. It’s just a shame what we lost in order to get it.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Of all the comics revamped and rebooted, easily one of the most problematic was Constantine. While some have been rightly criticised for the oversexualisation of their characters, others poor storytelling or art, Constantine carries the stigmata of what was lost. The long running and extremely successful Hellblazer series was sacrificed to bring John Constantine back into the world of DC superheroes, cancelled after twenty-five years of acclaimed arcs. Many writers within the industry heavily criticised this decision, and it was understandably derided as an unnecessary, poorly thought out move on Dan Didio’s part. The truly sad thing is that, for all it will understandably be maligned, the actual comic isn’t that bad.
Following the story of the titular British occult detective and con-man, Constantine is a desperate man. A very dangerous cult is on the move, hunting for artifacts and relics to help it grow in power. With some very old and very powerful figures pulling the strings, Constantine will have to trick, con, bluff and plan his way to victory. Though, with something evil and very dangerous hungering for retribution, the question now is how little time John has left on this Earth…
Having Constantine involved with superheroics is ultimately a move which feels like it’s bringing him back towards his origins. Originally conceived by Alan Moore during Swamp Thing, Constantine is a surprisingly down to earth and normal figure among the flashy costumes and crime-fighting. Much like Jack Hawksmoor, he takes a dim view of superheroics but can at least admit they are useful in the right situations. This sets the tone for the comics, and thankfully the writing team involved sticks to that. Rather than utterly overloading the comic by suddenly having the entire Justice League show up, heroes are used sparingly. They only appear at brief intervals with the majority of the focus sticking to the sorts of stories which made Constantine a great character to begin with.
The majority of the “fights” which take place within the comic are often one sided, with Constantine himself visibly outgunned at every turn. While no slouch when it comes to understanding magic, his approach tends to instead focus upon subterfuge and he is often up against figures who can turn him into a smear with a snap of their fingers. As a result, more than once he is forced to buy time by quickly making deals which cannot be refused, half-truths or even outright lies when the situation requires it. This makes the comic stand out from the crowd, and there is rarely a moment where Constantine himself genuinely throws a punch. As a result, while the setting might have changed and some of the darker elements have been curtailed, the general approach remains the same. Oh, and before anyone gets riled up by the toned down dark elements, there’s still plenty of blood and Constantine himself is still very much a morally grey character at the best of times. Notably being forced to manipulate and sacrifice a friend very early on in order to achieve a long term objective.
The first volume as a whole does a great job of establishing the world in which Constantine lives and the ensemble of allies, figures and a rogues gallery of villains who he must oppose. While the changes to a few figures are definitely going to rile more than a few people (especially the ever dangerous Mister E), the comic does get across an idea of their powers, drives and wills quite easily. Many are quite well rounded, or at the very least presented well enough that you genuinely want to know more about them.
It also helps that the artistic talents of Renado Guedes excellently fit each setting, brilliantly portraying both the occult aspects and unusual environments with ease. There is no definitive change in tone or presentation at any point, but the style in which it is presented easily suits every situation Constantine might fall into. Similar praise also needs to be given to Marcelo Maiolo.
Unfortunately the comic is hardly without its problems in the story department. Much of the quality and entertainment comes from Constantine himself rather than the villainous plan, which is relatively run of the mill. While it’s good the writing team opted to go for something straight forwards to help ease in any new readers, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to give the comic a bit more variety when it came to the main plot. What also doesn’t help is that the story itself reads like something which would much better fit an issue by issue format rather than a trade collection, so reading it all at once might start to make the comic seem samey.
Perhaps the biggest issue however is that the big moment which solidifies Constantine as a part of the DC Universe feels like filler more than anything else. It’s not very interesting when it comes down to it and it doesn’t help that the hero chosen feels entirely out of place in Constantine’s world, even with his new unlikable personality. The whole thing feels more like a mandated tie-in to Trinity War and it’s a definite slight drop in quality before the comic gets back on track.
Is it as good as Hellblazer? Definitely not, and we shouldn’t have lost that series for this one, but it can’t be denied that this is still a decent origin introducing the character to new readers. With great characters, great action and a fast pace, this is a decent start to what should hopefully be a great series. If you’re at all interested in the mystic and darker elements of the DC Universe, consider giving this one at look. At the end of the day, at least it isn’t Keanu Reeves.