DC Comics is known for its classic heroes, but only John Constantine knows what lurks in the shadows of its best and brightest.
DC Comics has made a name for itself in American comics through uplifting stories of classic heroism embodied by Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, which its resident occultist and disgruntled demon hunter, John Constantine, has long stood in opposition to. Despite having mostly good intentions and a commitment to thwarting evil, Constantine and his Hellblazer stories have provided a compelling counter to the optimism of DC’s biggest heroes precisely because Constantine himself has no interest in being a symbol for good in the world. While many of DC’s heroes are out fighting evil during the daytime, Constantine’s battles are often fought in clandestine and seedy locations, without the glamor or public recognition that members of the Justice League get in their crusade. From this position, Constantine has a much different perspective of the DC Universe, one that reveals its darkest truths.
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This unique point of view that John Constantine has about DC Comics and its heroes is centered directly in a series from Ming Doyle, James Tynion IV, Riley Rossmo, Ivan Plascencia, and Tom Napolitano entitled Constantine: The Hellblazer. The series opens with Constantine covered in demon blood at a suit shop, where he uses magic to subdue the frightened cashier. Assuring her that nothing is happening out of the ordinary, Constantine tells her, “You see wonders every day… men in tights shooting through the skies, caught up in the sun… you see that and you understand, deep down, that the sun casts shadows, and that if the bright’s so bright, you sure as hell don’t want to see what lives in the dark.”
The ethos of Constantine’s Jedi mind trick gets at the heart of an uneasy dynamic in DC Comics. Despite having some of the most heroic figures in fiction, the DC Universe isn’t any less evil simply because it has an abundance of good. In fact, it is precisely because it has so many good heroes that its darkest corners are even more extreme. This is a truth that Constantine is privy due to the fact that he primarily operates in direct contact with the universe’s most evil beings, in Hell and beyond.
Good and evil do not exist in absence of each other, and neither do wonder and terror, which is why Hellblazer stories have been such an enriching part of the DC Universe for more than thirty years. This particular take reveals how the deeds of DC’s most high profile heroes obscure the more troubling facts that ordinary people choose to ignore about the world they live in. While DC’s flagship heroes are busy confronting the loudest and biggest threats to their world, it is up to characters like Constantine to confront the evil that seeps through reality’s cracks. This position not only forces Constantine to adopt a very different viewpoint from most DC heroes, it also reorients the DC Universe from being a site of fantasy and escapism to a place of visceral terror.
What makes Constantine’s perspective of the DC Universe so effective is his acknowledgement of how heroism lends itself a misplaced sense of security. Rather than protecting the masses, the presence of superheroes leaves the public more vulnerable to attacks from the universe’s shadowy corners, because they are lulled into a false idea that they are safe with Superman flying over them. This explains in part why Constantine can barely be considered a hero in comparison to infallibly good ones like Superman–his messiness and refusal to conform to superhero ideals prevents his work as the Hellblazer from being safely placed in “superhero” territory. His distance from superhero norms stops his demon hunting from losing its threatening, thus making him and his flaws uniquely suited for taking on the flaws of the universe that no one wants to recognize.
The fearful reaction he gets from the cashier at the suit shop demonstrates how this dynamic plays out in quotidian life. While Constantine has to resort to violence, much like other heroes in the DC Universe, the visceral nature of his work, coupled with his less than heroic appearance (his “costume” consists of a dress shirt, tie, and trench coat instead of a real uniform), makes him frightening to regular people. As his dialogue shows, that terror lies not only in the sight of seeing a man like himself covered in blood, but also from the idea that the fight against evil is a far more commonplace practice than one would like it to be.
Constantine’s Hellblazer stories may look directly into the darkest depths of the DC Universe, but a unifying theme tying them together is a question of whether or not demons are any more horrifying than humans already are. That is, despite all of his dealings with Hell, some of Constantine’s most loathsome foes have been regular people consumed by their own cruelty. When viewed within the broader DC Universe, this idea gets even more harrowing to consider. Superman is viewed by many as an aspirational figure, a symbol of goodness that inspires humans to be a better version of themselves. And yet despite all of the good that Superman does for humanity and the world at large, there still are those who aspire to be evil. The power that Superman has as a figure of hope casts an equally dark shadow over humanity, and it is in this realm that Constantine operates.
This is ultimately what makes the DC Universe so terrifying to consider, because it demonstrates how the pursuit of all that is good in the world comes with an equal opposite reaction. And as simple as this fact may seem, it is lost on so many people, as Constantine’s awkward interactions demonstrate. This only shows how much better humans are at accepting and celebrating palatable examples of “good,” rather than noticing, and objecting to, casual instances of evil around them. Within this framework, it is easy to see why DC’s Universe is in need of an antihero like John Constantine, whose speciality lies in confronting the pitfalls of accepted heroics.
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