Constantine, NBC’s new supernatural-spun series based on the iconic Vertigo and DC Comics character, debuts tonight, and John Constantine fans are likely setting their DVRs as we speak. Yet as any fan of the trench coat-wearing magician knows, over the course of his thirty year history, Constantine’s gone through a few changes and different interpretations. There’s the original Alan Moore-penned manipulator who made his debut in Swamp Thing, the former punk rocker paying a high cost for past mistakes in early issues of Hellblazer, the brazen con man who tricked the forces of hell into allowing him to keep his doomed life in Garth Ennis’s “Dangerous Habits,” the American, trench coat-less take embodied by Keanu Reeves in the Constantine film, and the power playing schemer who’s gone toe to toe with some of the most popular characters in the DC Universe in the current Constantine New 52 comic.
So which version will we see onscreen? We spoke with Constantine Executive Producer David S. Goyer and Writer and Executive Producer Daniel Cerone recently about the comics that served as their inspiration, and we think their answers will make fans of the darker, more extreme Vertigo take on the character extremely happy.
“We draw heavily from the comics,” Cerone reveals. “The fourth episode is called ‘The Hunger Demon.’ It’s straight from the comics. It’s ripped from Hellblazer.”
“It’s the first issue of Hellblazer,” says Goyer. “It’s just a damn good hour of television, but also, it’s a really good Hellblazer episode. Hellblazer fans are going to be surprised once we get a few episodes under our belt at how true to the comics and the character it is.”
Yes, while the show presents its own unique take on the character and his world, it’s a take that’s very much fueled by Hellblazer, the long-running Vertigo title that really shaped the Constantine character as we know it today.
“One of the things that I’m proud of is is a morally complex show,” Goyer says. “It’s cable complex in terms of the characters and their motivations. It’s not just white hats and black hats.”
“This is a guy who sells out his friends,” Cerone continues. “He leaves a trail of death behind him. If you get close to him, it’s a sure sign that your days are limited. By episode eight, we’ve seen at least two or three instances—hardcore instances—of him doing exactly that.”
Readers who largely know Constantine from The New 52 or from the film can expect a spin on the characters that’s much heavier on the horror, with a mythology that’s derived largely from Judeo-Christian beliefs. In other words, expect angels and many, many demons. The premiere episode opens with an exorcism and touches on the demon who tragically changed Constantine’s life forever.
“The defining moment in Constantine’s life was the Newcastle incident,” Cerone explains. “That’s very much the seminal event in our series as well. We’re meeting John Constantine in our series at roughly the same place that we met him in Swamp Thing. They’re roughly the same age and at the same point in life, just shortly after Newcastle. He had, like, five or six friends that were part of the ‘Newcastle crew.’ One of them is Richie, who’s played by Jeremy Davies in the pilot. Every couple of episodes, we slowly meet these characters from John’s past. We meet Anne Marie, who’s become a nun. We meet Gary Lester, who’s in the Hunger Demon episode. It’s great because they’re standalone stories that we can build, but they’re people who knew John before and have a history with him. We’re leaning heavily into that.”
While many episodes will be wholly original, fans can look forward to occasional adaptations of comics or storylines from Hellblazer. “The Hunger Demon” is an early example, but Goyer and Cerone promise more.
“We’ll kick around original ideas and different writers are fans of different arcs, so they’ll ask, ‘Can we do an iteration of this story? Does it make sense at this point in our storyline?’” Goyer explains.
“The challenge is fitting that within our mythology,” says Cerone. “We don’t want to just take the name Constantine and just slap that on it and do our own thing. We have Zed and her back story’s the same. We want to take her on that Resurrection Crusade arc. The rising darkness is ripped from the pages of Alan Moore. It was the first arc that Constantine was involved in with Swamp Thing.”
“There are some storylines later on that are really wild in the books,” Goyer continues. “We’re dying to do them. We just knew that we probably couldn’t do them in the first six episodes because they’re just so nuts. But that’s where you hope that you can get a second or third season, where you’ve really built up your audience and you can start taking some chances.”
Many fans wonder how big those chances may be seeing how Constantine airs on network TV rather than under the more relaxed standards of cable. Cerone doesn’t believe they have any reason to worry.
“We’re on a network and in a timeslot where Hannibal, arguably the most aggressive show in network television history, airs,” he says. “When we start turning in material, we actually have the network telling us to push more. They’re saying that they want to see more. There really are no limits.”
Not even smoking. Despite rumors to the contrary, John Constantine does smoke on the show, albeit within the limits permitted on a network.
“He can’t ,” says Goyer. “But he lights up, he stubs out, he’s got a cigarette in his mouth walking around. Honestly, I think once people see a couple of episodes, they’ll see he smokes and it’ll be, ‘What were we freaked out about?’”
Yet, despite the smoking, the callous attitude, the willingness to sacrifice his friends, viewers may still find themselves siding and sympathizing with Constantine. Much of this is due to the sense of humor the writers and actor Matt Ryan have given the character, but it goes deeper than that. While Constantine may be willing to sacrifice people he’s close to, it’s not an easy decision. It carries a lot of weight with him.
“John makes a lot of hard choices in the show and he throws a lot of people under the bus,” explains Goyer. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel it, and you see that pain in his eyes when he has to make these decisions. From his point of view, he’s fighting this war where we’re these extreme underdogs and in order to fight the war, he’s going to have to do a lot of dirty tricks.”
Or as Cerone sums it up, “We want to freak people out. We want to challenge them morally. We want to scare them. But we also want their hearts. We want people to pull for this character.”
Considering their choice of source material, it sounds like they’ll have a lot of Hellblazer fans in their corner.
Constantine premieres tonight at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. CST) on NBC.