Hardly Keanu: Introducing John Constantine

In 1985, on the cusp of the modern comics renaissance, Alan Moore introduced a new character into his well-regarded reinvention of the “Swamp Thing” horror comic, for no better reason than his collaborators John Totleben and Steve Bissette were huge fans of Sting and wanted a guy who looked like him.

So went the birth of John Constantine. Twenty years on, the trenchcoat-clad, spiky blond-haired, ex-punk, con-man and Liverpudlian magician is still meddling with satanic forces in his own trademark “Hellblazer” series, as well as striding through assorted other titles from time to time, Silk Cut smoke in his wake – and the comics world is all the richer for it.

Mike Carey and Leonardo Manco’s “All His Engines” (Vertigo, $24.95) is a handsomely bound hardcover “Hellblazer” graphic novel that came out a couple months ago, right around the release of the film Constantine – which makes the character over as an Angeleno (not British) fellow who looks a lot like Keanu Reeves and not at all like Sting.

This story takes Constantine from his usual London stomping grounds to the City of Angels on the trail of a demon who’s made thousands of people slip into mysterious comas, including the daughter of his best mate, Chas. Upon arrival in Southern California, it doesn’t take the veteran demon-hunter long to figure out that something is amiss: “A taste in the air, like hot iron. A fingernails-on-blackboard noise, too high even for dogs.”

The resulting showdown will have Constantine waging a complex battle between a number of demons (some of which he knows by name) and an ancient god who’s been haunting him since childhood, with nothing much to use for bargaining power but his already far over-mortgaged soul. Some of the book may lean a bit too heavily on gore and sub-Lovecraftian conjurations, but this is a horror comic, after all, and an unusually well-crafted one for all that, with a hero who’s always good for a sarcastic bon mot at the right time.

Constantine shows up again, but as more of a supporting player, in the sublimely baffling Book One of the new “Life During Wartime” series (Vertigo, $9.95), Si Spencer and Dean Ormston’s revamping of Neil Gaiman’s venerable “Books of Magick” line (done under his supervision). Although not all is made clear in this mystery-cloaked opening volume, the gist is there’s a war raging in an alternate universe between a bewildering array of combatants – the Faerie Queene and her subhuman armies have fought the multi-race Coalition to a standstill, and besieged the last remnants of mankind in a fortress commanded by Constantine, whose normal world-weariness has been transformed into a brutal militaristic heartlessness.

The Coalition’s only hope rests in the hands of master magician (and veteran “Books of Magick” character) Tim Hunter, who’s been hidden as a clueless nineteen-year-old punk in yet another alternate universe, initially similar to ours but ultimately quite different. It’s a fantastically rich tapestry, rife with dark humor and queasily dead-on real-world parallels like suicide spellers and magic fanatics. Although “Life During Wartime” features a different Constantine than the hard-boiled bloke beloved by “Hellblazer” readers, it’s ultimately a much more rewarding read, opening a new doorway into a beguiling new fantasy universe.

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