This is the fourth in a five-part series. To start at the beginning, jump here. If you like my posts, please visit my personal page, associated with the fantasy series I'm developing, Fire of Norea. You can find that here.
Today's article: Mystery and subtext.
This is a big one for John Constantine.
John is a con artist. A mage. A man of mystery. Jamie Delano's initial run on Hellblazer included "clips" from local newspapers showcasing the various sides of John's personality to demonstrate the myriad ways his peers perceived him. As a comic book character, John Constantine has always been a bit like Batman: his true power derives from who he is perceived to be in contradistinction to who he really is.
Of course, in a narrative in which he is the main character, it is difficult to balance the two sides of John's personality for the audience. How do you introduce an enigma to a new audience and make him relatable at the same time?
Early on in the season, Constantine writers obviously struggled with this. In ep3, "The Devil's Vinyl", John bursts through the glass wall of Ian Fell's recording studio in order to catch him by surprise and frighten him into telling the truth about the record. But he's John-frigging-Constantine! As a long-time fan, I was kind of offended. What I would like to have seen was this:
Ian, engrossed in recording his music, turns around and is startled to find some bloke in a trench coat standing in his personal studio, casually smoking a cigarette.
Ian: "Who are you? How the hell did you get in here?"
John simply smiles and says, "You've been busy, Ian."
THAT'S John Constantine! That is the character the writers should introduce to a novice audience! Now, don't get me wrong, Matt Ryan is John Constantine. He was a proper asshole when he made Manny mortal for a day ("Angels and Ministers of Grace"), yet filled with regret for betraying his junkie friend Gary ("A Feast of Friends"). Possessed by a powerful demon in "Saint of Last Resorts Part 2", John took over the prison, attacked gangbangers, insulted his friends, begged Chas to kill him and failed to sound genuine when he offered an apology at the end. Matt Ryan makes John Constantine real in all his many forms. As such, Constantine is closer to an on-screen version of John we could ever hope for, but, as a fan from the beginning, I still wanted a bit more.
With all due respect, of course, the writers presented this side of John more effectively as the season progressed, and certainly seem to have been heading in that direction as a whole. For example, in ep5, "Danse Vaudou", John is locked in the "boot" of Papa Midnite's car, only to be waiting for him in the backseat when he returns. No explanation needed, he's John Constantine! Similarly, in the final episode, "Waiting for the Man", John tricks Midnite with a "glamour spell", trapping the more powerful mage.
The season started out trying to define and explain everything, however. In the first episode, "Non Est Asylum", Liv stands in for the uninitiated audience and John explains everything to her, taking the naive and vulnerable young woman by the hand and leading her along a narrow path of safety through a world of utter darkness. Luckily, the showrunners quickly abandoned this tact (as John Constantine may be many things, but "wise sage" is not one of them). Even so, throughout the season, John often explained things to Chas and Zed, who stood in for the audience as stronger, less naive versions of Liv. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Fantasy and sci-fi stories have to build their worlds and show how things work in order to draw the audience in. Still, I'm not sure this tact is appropriate for John (who sometimes talked a little too much for my tastes).
There are two possible alternatives.
One: first person narration. At heart, John is a bit of a noir detective. Up until the late 90s or so of Hellblazer (and intermittently afterward, as in Diggle's run), John narrated his inner world for the reader (of course, it was the 90s!). Doing so effectively demonstrated his duplicitous nature, as he would often lie or play coy to the people around him, while his internal dialogue would reveal his true thoughts. This was especially effective when he met Kit (during Garth Ennis' first run), who could see through his lies. Their relationship was so true and powerful simply because John could not lie to her as he did to everyone else. Lying is an important part of who John is; his duplicitous nature makes him a mortal superhero, someone with a public persona and a private identity. Kit was his Lois Lane. If he is not duplicitous, the relationship doesn't work.
Now, obviously, this is difficult to do on television. First person narration is seen as hokey and outdated these days, yet Kevin Spacey (in House of Cards) has proven that by simply turning and speaking the truth into the camera, duplicity can be effectively communicated. I think Constantine can do the same, and it would be awesome!
Two: subtext (and this is trickier). Alan Moore's Constantine never spoke to the reader (although he also wasn't the main character in the story, which worked very well for him). Brian Azzarello's run (which Moore reportedly approved as closest to his personal vision for the character) also never got inside John's head. The way to demonstrate duplicity and complexity through subtext is through interactions with various, well-developed secondary characters, so that John acts differently in different situations with different people, raising questions among his peers about whether he can truly be trusted. Constantine attempted to accomplish this efficiently, so that every person from John's past would tell Zed not to trust John, but she saw Chas's unwavering devotion to him and decided to ignore the warnings. There were also times (like the wonderful "A Feast of Friends") when John outright betrayed people who trusted him, and that worked perfectly!
And of course, given the title of the article series, I would be remiss to not use an example from Justified. In the first episode of the series, Raylan shoots a Mafioso and gets transferred back to Kentucky as punishment. At the end of the episode, he shows up on his ex-wife's patio in the middle of the night, drinking her husband's beer. It's obvious he wants (or needs) to talk, but it's also obvious what he did was neither appropriate nor effective. His reasoning remains a mystery. In the next episode, "Riverbrook", Raylan and Tim are tracking an escaped bank robber. They visit the man's ex-wife, who introduces her "cousin" and says she hasn't seen her ex-husband. As they leave the woman's trailer, Raylan asks Tim what he got out of the conversation. Tim says that, whether that man is the woman's cousin, they're definitely sleeping together and lying about something.
And then he says: "I gotta think, no matter how long you've been divorced, seeing your old lady shack up with someone else, that's gotta annoy the shit out of you."
Tim casually gets in the car, leaving the camera on Raylan who stands silently for a moment, stewing over Tim's words. We don't know what he's thinking and we don't know for sure whether Tim was simply talking about the con or using the conversation as a slight against Raylan. Yet, we know how deeply the words hurt Raylan, just by the look on his face: whether his secret nightlife has been exposed, he certainly feels that it has, and now he's vulnerable, which angers him. (If it had been on the CW, the conversation would have gone on for another five minutes, until each character said exactly what was on his/her mind). All that comes out of a bit of dialogue, the turn of a phrase and a silent look. But it mostly comes from audience participation, my interpretation of the narrative subtext.
I started out this article pointing out how the comics demonstrate the many public aspects of John's character through the eyes of other characters. For me, the most effective use of this technique was in "Danse Vaudou", when John and Midnite became uneasy allies, Papa accusing John of being a dabbler in magic, a jack of all trades and master of none, with no respect for its power. We don't know whether to trust this characterization, but it certainly deepens our understanding of John as a character. Comparing John to Frank Cross (House of Cards) is apt, because I think we are ready for a show about a conniving liar we can't help but love.
For a show about magic, mystery and demons, Constantine has to use subtext effectively to communicate John's duplicitous nature so that we never know what he might do: so that we are surprised when he does it, yet not surprised that he is capable of doing it. Again, I felt that John, at times, explained too much, serving as guide in this strange world of his. Yet, the true power of the magician, the mage and the con man is misdirection. If all the cards are on the table, the magic disappears. When John appears from the darkness, all cool and witty, with a cigarette in his hand, this is how Alan Moore envisioned him!
Even if that isn't who John truly is.
Tomorrow, in the final article, I'll look at the impact of compelling villains on heroes and anti-heroes. Until then, Save Constantine!