Declare Yourself A Magician (The Last War in Albion Part 62: John Constantine)

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This is the twelfth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the second and third volumes. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. The third is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: After killing Swamp Thing for the second time in his arc "The Nukeface Papers," Moore brought him back alongside the debut of one of his most important creations, John Constantine.

"How to be a magician: Simple. Declare yourself a magician, behave like a magician, practice magic every day." - Grant Morrison, "Pop Magic!"

Figure 463: The protagonist of Phonogram:
Rue Britannia
, David Kohl, is an authorial
analogue not unlike John Constantine.
(Written by Kieron Gillen, art by Jamie
McKelvie, from Phonogram #1, 2006)
Essentially every significant figure in the War has written the character at one point or another. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis all wrote issues of Hellblazer, as have most of the more marginal powers: Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan both have sizable runs, for instance. The only major figure not to have actually written Constantine is Kieron Gillen, who reacted to DC’s 2012 cancellation of Hellblazer by noting that “part of me also thinks ‘you’re not a real British Comics Writer unless you’ve written Hellblazer.’ So that’s me doomed,” although as Gillen has also noted, his first arc of Phonogram, “Rue Britannia may as well be Hellblazer, of course,” which is accurate enough, and applies equally well to his run on Journey into Mystery. Beyond merely having a long running comic with an impressive array of writers, however, Constantine has also proven a profitable character for DC’s larger corporate owners, who spun out a quasi-successful movie version and, in 2014, a television series based on the character.

It is also notable that for all that Moore is known to spit occasional invective at his former employers for, as he memorably put it in one interview, “going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night” in lieu of actually coming up with new ideas, Moore has never demonstrated any particular animosity over the continual use of John Constantine. As Moore himself notes, “ I understood that when I had finished with [Constantine] that it would just be absorbed into the general DC stockpile,” and even provided a blurb for Brian Azzarello’s 2000 run on the title. “I’ve never objected to that,” he stresses, in an interview where he elsewhere rails against DC’s propensity for doing “crappy Green Lantern stories” that were “based upon an eight page story of mine from twenty years ago,” further highlighting that Constantine, at least, is a character he’s at relative peace with DC’s continual profit from.

Figure 464: John Constantine, dripping
with faint menace on his first appearance.
(Written by Alan Moore, ark by Rick Veitch,
from Swamp Thing #37, 1985)
What makes this particularly interesting, however, is that Constantine is also clearly a character of considerable personal significance to Alan Moore. Although the character certainly was created in part to satisfy Bissette and Totleben’s desire to draw Sting, Moore further explains that he has “an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Someone who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that.” These are words of considerable significance coming from someone who, throughout his entire career, has vocally identified with his working class background and who, in later career, became a self-proclaimed magician. Moore’s later description of Constantine as a “wide boy occultist” furthers this sense, as does Moore’s direction in the script to Constantine’s debut in Swamp Thing #37, where he specifies that the character should carry a “faint air of menace” not, perhaps, unlike that generated by being immensely tall and having mildly terrifying quantities of hair. 

It is, in other words, not unreasonable to suggest that Constantine was always devised in part to effect a permanent alteration upon the landscape of DC Comics. Having by this point spent considerable time playing with the DC Universe’s more mystical and cosmological aspects, Moore inscribed a fundamentally new sort of character and perspective into the comics - one who was enough of a charming rogue to last and thus to provide an enduring approach to comics. If a quarter century of writers follow that approach and continue telling stories about a character whose basic iconography and philosophy are inexorably linked to Moore’s worldview, well, this is hardly something that can be called a problem or a downside. 

Figure 465: Alan Moore meets John
Constantine in a sandwich shop. (Written
by Alan Moore, adapted to comics by Eddie
Campbell, from Snakes and Ladders, 2001)
Certainly Constantine proved a powerful creation within Moore’s own life, in that on two occasions Moore met Constantine. The precise timing of these two encounters is difficult to pin down. Moore first described the initial encounter in a 1993 interview, saying,  “one day, I was in Westminster in London -- this was after we had introduced the character -- and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trench coat, a short cut -- he looked -- no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine.   He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar. I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I'm not making any claims to anything. I'm just saying that it happened.” In a subsequent 2009 interview, he dates this to the “early 80s, when I’d just introduced the character,” which introduces some confusion given that the character was first introduced in the back half of the 1980s, but would nevertheless seem to clearly date the encounter well before Moore’s conscious and active engagement with magic, and, given that Moore, in talking about the encounter, also talks about Constantine’s physical appearance “in the comics at the time” (in explicit contrast to how he may or may not look in the present comics, which Moore suggests he’s not read), it would seem to date it firmly in the 1985-86 period in which Constantine made his first string of appearances. (Moore also talks about the character traveling around the world, as he does in Moore’s Swamp Thing arc.) Moore’s second account of this encounter is even more emphatic, stressing how he did not simply feel that “this is somebody who looks quite coincidentally quite like John Constantine,” but how “it was much more exact than that, I was thinking, ’that’s John Constantine, who is a fictional character that I created.’ At that point he looked at me, smiled, winked, and walked off to take a seat around the corner.” Moore subsequently emphasizes the wink, saying that it had “an intimacy and a knowing quality to a wink. It was exactly the kind of wink that any kind of fictional character might give to their creator.” 

Figure 466: Alan Moore learns the ultimate secret of
magic from John Constantine. (Written by Alan Moore,
adapted to comics by Eddie Campbell, from Snakes and
Ladders
, 2001)
Moore’s accounts of the second encounter are on the whole briefer. His first description of it comes in 1999, where, after describing the initial sandwich shop encounter, he says that “years later, in another place, he steps out from the dark and speaks to me. He whispers, ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’” He follows up on this description in the 2009 interview, clarifying that the “other place” he alluded to in 2001 was in fact a magical ritual he conducted with other people. “I’d just stepped out of the room and popped downstairs to make some tea,” he explains, “and I was just passing through the kitchen when all of a sudden in the darkness on the left side of my head… it’s very difficult to describe this, but it was clearly that somebody had struck a match in the darkness, and this lit up the face of John Constantine in the sudden halo of the match flare. And he, in a typically amusing way, told me the ultimate secret of magic, very memorably, in one very short five word sentence, and then blew the match out and vanished.” He clarifies that while his first encounter with Constantine was “a real daylight event,” this second encounter was “a purely internal event that happened only within my mind, but they both seemed to be John Constantine to me.” Moore does not provide further information for this second encounter, but it must have occurred sometime between the commencement of Moore’s active magical work in November of 1993 and his recounting of it in April of 1999. 

Figure 467: John Constantine raises a glass to Alan Moore.
(Written by Paul Jenkins, art by Sean Philllips, from Hellblazer
#120, 1997)
These two events dramatically heighten the already powerful sense that Constantine serves, if not as a straight authorial insertion akin to, say, Grant Morrison’s King Mob or Kieron Gillen’s David Kohl, as a figure who is intimately linked to Moore himself. But it is also worth noting that Constantine’s life outside of Moore is a genuine one - Moore is his creator, but other writers, most notably Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, are on the whole more responsible for the character as he is currently known. And even within Moore’s life, there is a sense of independence to Constantine. He first appeared to Moore of his own accord, and even his second, more magically significant appearance was not one in which he was deliberately and consciously summoned. But even as he suggests that Constantine independently manifested in a real and literal sense within a Westminster lunch spot, Moore also emphatically refers to himself as John Constantine’s creator. While John Constantine has taken on a life of his own in many senses, then, it is important to note that this life is one lived by someone with numerous ideological and aesthetic similarities to Alan Moore, and one that continues to haunt the corporation that Moore would eventually come to furiously shun, wrecking whatever subtle havocs he pleases. 

Figure 468: A regrowing Swamp Thing develops a mouth to talk to
Abby, although his first message is not entirely welcome. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch, from Swamp Thing #37, 1985)
Given this, it is significant that Constantine’s first appearance in Swamp Thing #37 (ironically drawn by Rick Veitch, given that it was Bissette and Totleben whose desire to draw Sting led to the character’s creation) corresponds with the second of three times that Swamp Thing comes back from the dead within Moore’s run. Just as the first return in “The Anatomy Lesson” served to fundamentally reconceptualization of Swamp Thing, so too does “Growth Patterns” alter the character. Part of the alteration is of Swamp Thing’s own making - his plan to come back involves growing himself a new body, and thus much of the issue, set over the course of just over two weeks, consists of Swamp Thing slowly reforming under the care of Abby, who finds his tiny bud-like form in the swamp and brings him home to water him. These portions of the issue consist of charming and sweetly loving interactions between Swamp Thing and Abby, such as a scene in which Swamp Thing finds himself frustrated at deficiencies in Abby’s lawn care, complaining to himself that “she should water the soil and not me. If the droplets magnify the sunlight, I shall burn,” and that the insecticide she uses to get rid of the aphids (which he finds annoying in their own right) hurts. “Perhaps,” he muses, “I should concentrate on developing vocal apparatus so that I can tell her where she is going wrong,” which, the next day, he does, leading Abby, with a small smile, to quip “well, pardon me. How about ‘thanks for all the water?’”

Swamp Thing’s rebirth is narrated in parallel with sequences introducing John Constantine as he visits a number of friends and allies in pursuit of information about some unknown apocalypse, described by each of them in differing terms, which will prove to be a major feature of Moore’s run going forward. Finally, on the thirteenth day of the story, Constantine journeys to Louisiana and confronts Abby, blackmailing her into letting him talk to Swamp Thing. There he highlights the greater potential of Swamp Thing’s regrowth, pointing out to him that he can “let your body die in one place” and “regrow it in another on the other side of the country,” thus allowing Swamp Thing to instantaneously travel across the world. In doing so, Constantine suggests a much larger and more substantial conception of Swamp Thing that goes far beyond just being a mass of vegetable matter that mistook itself for Alec Holland, calling him the “last plant elemental in the entire bloody world,” a claim that also sheds light on the “Abandoned Houses” story that reprinted Wein and Wrightson’s original Swamp Thing story, and Abel’s claim that “Alec Holland was not the first thing to walk the swamps.” 

Figure 469: Swamp Thing tediously travels
by freight train. (From Saga of the Swamp
Thing
 #3, 1982)
This newly established power of transportation is on one level simply Moore accomplishing one of the revisions to the character concept he decided was necessary from the start. “Another point that struck me,” Moore says, was “that we had to come up with a better way for the Swamp Thing to travel around, rather than constantly moving around the country upon freight trains or in the boot of a car or in some truck. It was tedious.” Giving him the ability to effectively teleport is, in other words, part of the steady transition away from the Wein/Wrightson approach towards the character. Even without an extended explanation or definition, the phrase “plant elemental” is evocative in terms of its potential. But that potential is a world away from “swamp monster.” The implications of this are as intriguing to Swamp Thing as they are to the reader - he’s quickly hooked by Constantine’s apparent knowledge, and agrees to Constantine’s deal that if Swamp Thing meets him in a town called Rosewood, just outside of Chicago, he’ll tell Swamp Thing more about what he is.

This serves as the beginning of the so-called “American Gothic” arc (the name was never actually used in the comics), a storyline in which Constantine leads Swamp Thing on a tour of the United States to confront various classic horror tropes like vampires and werewolves. The timing is apropos - Moore had taken his first trip to the United States in August of 1984, midway through the Arcane arc of Swamp Thing, and the same month that Marvelman ceased publication in Warrior. There he had hobnobbed with DC executives and gotten variously praised and treated as a bit of a golden boy. He hit it off some of the DC staff - particularly with his editor, Karen Berger, and with Julius Schwartz, a long time DC editor, who impressed Moore by having the signature of H.P. Lovecraft in a scrapbook, having served as his literary agent late in Lovecraft’s life. [continued]

Comments

Eric Gimlin 3 years, 2 months ago

The "American Gothic" title was never used in the stories, but was regularly used in the comics if you count the letter column and the "Meanwhile" house ad page. The next issue blurb in #36 calls 37 'the prelude to "An American Gothic"'; and a quick glance at the issues shows the name (minus the 'An') in all but 3 issues from 37-50, including half of a house ad in 50 promoting 'The anxiously-awaited cataclysmic conclusion to the "American Gothic" saga'. And that's just editorial use, not what letter writers were calling it.

With that said, it does make it odd that the title was never used in the stories themselves. But I think "so-called" is not quite the right turn of phrase, either.

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Jack 3 years, 2 months ago

Was beaten to the punch here, but yes, clearly it was known at least editorially as American Gothic, and the current comics press at the time (such as it was) called it that. Whether Moore himself called it that is a question for debate, but DC called the run from 37-50 American Gothic. And given the content of the stories, it did fit at least.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

I wonder if Milligan was thinking of figure 464 when he decided that Shade the Changing Man needed a jacket.

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Bob Dillon 3 years, 2 months ago

OK now I get the reference to constantine in the Shadows of Avalon

Bob

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Sean Daugherty 3 years, 2 months ago

Huh. I had no idea that Julius Schwartz was H.P. Lovecraft's literary agent. That's kind of amazing, actually.

Beyond that, I only just read the entirety of Moore's Swamp Thing run over the past two weeks, so all of this is pretty fresh in my mind. That makes this much easier to follow along with than the earlier chapters on exclusively British-published material, which is nice.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

The arc has really disappeared into the trade structure at this point, though, not least because it was never that consistently American or, for that matter, Gothic, containing as it did side-trips like Windfall and Bogeyman, and an entire back half that had fuck-all to do with America and was instead invested in an ever-so-slightly racist fight with what's basically a Lovecraftian cult followed by a weird inversion of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

As I sort of steadily allude over the course of the chapter, I think it's much more sensible to divide Moore's run on the book into three arcs defined by Swamp Thing dying and coming back from the dead. That ends up with an understanding that's actually rooted in what the book's artistic concerns are at any given moment, and highlights a major structural element that nobody pays attention to, which is that *Moore kills the bugger three bloody times*.

Alternatively, if you must define 37-50 as one thing, call it the John Constantine arc. Then you only have a problem with Windfall. Pity it's the best issue of the stretch.

(Which is to say that I've taken a self-aware and conscious editorial position with that "so-called" that subtly argues that DC never entirely *got* Swamp Thing. See also "why the hell is My Blue Heaven in Volume 5" (among other curious splits) and "should we include Loose Ends?")

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

Ha. Yes, it's quite a coloring job. I should probably double check that it's Wood, and add her to the credits for that figure, actually. I always debate about inkers and colourists versus credit length. I try to make sure to mention them occasionally in text, at least.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

I should perhaps warn you that Julie comes in for a rougher ride on his next mention, where I get around to mentioning the whole "multiple accusations of sexual assault" thing.

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Eric Gimlin 3 years, 2 months ago

Fair enough on most of that. The back half does have large chunks set in South America, however; I thought part of the point was to set us up with America = USA and then smack us over the head with the wrong assumption. That does require Moore being responsible for the "American Gothic" title. I'm leaning towards that being the case, as I don't think Karen Berger would have pushed the name so much if Moore wasn't responsible for it, or at least if he didn't approve. (That doesn't account for the Meanwhile pages or house ads, though.)

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Eric Gimlin 3 years, 2 months ago

Wood's coloring on the book is always incredible; I sometimes wonder if Moore wrote "My Blue Heaven" in part to let her show off.

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Ice 3 years, 2 months ago

I've been re reading Moore's Swamp Thing again and just hours before reading this latest post, I was pondering what Mr. Moore thinks of the post Swamp-Thing life of Constantine. So, thank you for the great write up on his thoughts on the character. And, I absolutely LOVE the idea that he created a character that's just still wreaking havoc within the DC universe and DC corporate offices. That's so very definitely what I'd expect of both Moore and Constantine, really.

And, also, while I'm writing this, I should say I've really been enjoying this series since I found out it existed. I love the critical analysis of these early books and I especially appreciate all of the literary and comic book industry history. So, thanks!

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

"It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Someone who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics."

As above, I also love the idea that this character that Moore created is now alive and well doing his own this in the DC universe, I can understand why Moore is pretty happy about that! A punk, working class mystic, love him.

Additionally, interesting to read about the three-death arc in Moore's Swap Thing as I hadn't picked up on that before. Threes of course have quite a history in the world of myth and magic, with the triple death of a historical Merlin in Stobo Valley by the town of Peebles in Lowland Scotland where I live; and the thrice-born magical initiation of the boy Gwion in the Welsh Taliesin tale.

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Elley 10 months, 1 week ago

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