By Michael Eckett

I’m silently sitting on the floor of my infant daughter’s room at 2am as we try (again) to get her to sleep and I’m concerned that this is the point where this piece has clicked in my head.

I’m feeling the deep, dark pull of things that reach into you in the middle of the night and lodge in your brain. I think about aging and becoming out of touch. I’m worried life is a collection of aches about the things you’ve lost and the wrongs you’ve done. And I’m worried that I’m not even that old so there will be many more of those pains to come, and that those troubles could be all I’ll focus on. Sitting on the floor, someone to look after, and a head full of worries and ghosts.

I’m worried I’ll calcify into John Constantine.

By the second arc of John Constantine: Hellblazer, we have a pretty solid sense of the themes the book is focusing on and the politics it reacts to. We recognise the weaponised bigotry and toxic pride festering in a country where conmen can briefly consolidate power and make a quick buck. So then in this story we get more of a sense of Constantine’s place in the bigger picture; lines of prophecy are tossed off about something in Parliament and John’s approaching death, yes – but also it’s a chance to step back, assess the character and have some fun.

Alongside Matias Bergara’s brighter art, the tone is wackier; we have excrement demons and digs at Millennial/Gen Z hipsters. Yet there’s something buried at the core of this issue which starts undoing Constantine and his world weary worldview.

Tommy Willowtree (née Spuggs) continues to be our optimistic, vegan, pun-magician who is in way over his head. He’s the target of Constantine’s scorn throughout, alongside Si Spurrier’s light jabs at clean living and meditation. Tommy’s a sweet, extreme parody of that certain kind of London hipster whom we’re comfortable with being ridiculed.

I have a very telling soft spot for Tommy:  whilst my veganism was never robust, and I can’t pull off a manbun, in my early twenties I did stage a handful of Off-West End plays imbued with sigils and aiming to save the world. I feel like I didn’t succeed. I had a righteous sincerity which, if I saw in a person now, I would probably be discomforted by. I can’t tell if I’d be bolstered by Tommy’s optimism or side with Constantine and feel the urge to show this kid how the world really is.

Very early on the issue reframes John’s mocking. As it goes on, his snipes move from being an obviously correct viewpoint to being, perhaps, out of touch. Constantine actually seems slightly taken aback and uncharacteristically at a loss for words upon finding out that Tommy is polyamorous and pansexual. Constantine’s bisexuality would have been progressive in the 90’s comics, but now he’s the one out of his comfort zone; facing the concept of boundary-pushing sexualities. It suddenly throws into question whether Constantine’s other barbs and sneers are justified; that John’s perspective might be outdated. There’s a chance Tommy could be right about some things. There’s a chance Tommy could be better at some things. 

Except for eating moss shavings; you should never eat moss shavings.

So when Constantine is incredulous at Tommy’s decision to give money to a good cause, should we view Tommy’s charity as naive and simple or has Constantine become too broken by the world to think of genuine acts of kindness and unselfishness as appropriate? Of course Constantine is a better magician than Tommy Willowtree; he is older and wiser, with a cunning sharpened through the mistakes that someone with youth hasn’t had the time to make. But when does hardened experience become disillusionment? Do we all eventually live long enough to see enough horrible things that we can’t help but burn out? 

Tommy Willowtree feels like a counterpoint to the comics’ themes of the toxicity of pride and patriotism. Taking the Merlintrove and trying to live up to the impossible concept of Magelord of England really does transform Tommy into someone better. In trying to live up to the ideals of something bigger than himself – something which doesn’t even properly exist – Tommy manages to help people and do some good. The concept of a great Britain is incredibly flawed but perhaps it’s the people who have corrupted English pride; maybe, maybe there is potential, a hope that something good can be done in the name of this country.

As the series launched, Spurrier’s interviews mentioned wanting to “return Constantine to his first and natural state: as a cynical, manipulative and deeply flawed trickster – a bastard with a conscience”. As with many Hellblazer stories, this issue shows Constantine’s cynicism as a strength. He easily sees through Clarice Sackville and Map’s bullshit of the “Guardians of the Merlintrove” (who pop up to show us that death or retirement waits for us all) and he doesn’t hesitate to punish anyone who deserves. But this issue also shows the end result of Constantine fully embracing cynicism without any redeeming qualities. If cynicism actually was all John had, he’d be Old Constantine.  

The older Constantine is a threat: not because of the unease that’s slowly crawling through this early part of the run as he continues to scheme and build toward a plan the readers don’t understand yet. And not just because of his torture of Tommy. It’s because he’s the threat of what Constantine could easily become … or perhaps unwittingly already has. A glimpse of a future; the ageing, embittered conservative we’re often told is our destiny. The cunning and self-preservation instincts of Constantine seemingly without any shred of empathy.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that this is a story from a recent father; someone else awake in the dark hours with too much to think about. And there’s a lot more to come in the series specifically about fatherhood. But it feels like someone assessing a viewpoint on life, and it comes at an interesting time in Spurrier’s wider career. Spurrier’s cynicism, and gallows humour, has been on display in earlier work: that’s probably unavoidable when you’ve worked extensively on 2000AD. Yet John Constantine: Hellblazer #5 feels like an assessment of cynicism and its consequences if it goes unfettered; what happens if Constantine is willing to use everyone? What happens if everyone is expendable to you? It’s here you can perhaps see how this same creative team of Spurrier and Bergara would reunite to bring us something like Step By Bloody Step

A baby moans. I remember someone I hurt a long time ago. I wonder if Constantine is doomed to become the older Constantine, if there’s anything he can do to escape that fate and if my time in this darkness is leading me to an inevitable cynical future. I rub her back and think about one of the horrible things said and done by the people in power within this country. I shush and sway as I think about the hurt people are facing. I stroke her hair one last time before backing out of the room, not knowing for sure who I’ll eventually become but hoping I get to be who I want to be for her.

John Constantine: Hellblazer #5 “Scrubbing Up, Part Two”
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Matias Bergara
Colourist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar

Michael Eckett is a London based writer and podcaster whose work includes the comic book Forged, the children’s book Leaves are Green (Except When They’re Not) and the Comic Book Classroom podcast. You can find him on Twitter here. 

He takes being silly very seriously.

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