Of Constantines new, old and immortal.
THIS WEEK MY OLD ALMA MATER, THE HALLOWED UNIVERSITY OF YORK, ANNOUNCED THE NAME OF ITS NEWEST COLLEGE: CONSTANTINE. While it doesn’t have a ring to it like, picking a name out of the air, um, Derwent, it’s a fine name for a college steeped in the spirit of Ebor. York’s a fine collegiate university, one of the few in the country, and one that manages to retain them on a campus or two at the same time. Colleges lie close to each other on banks and slips of one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe. That rather loose blurring of campus and college got me into some trouble writing about Sheffield University a decade ago, but I think that’s all been brushed off as a Yorkshire thing. In the Northern County of Yorkshire, Constantine will become the third college on the Heslington East campus.
When news broke, in the hallowed pages of well regarded Student paper York Vision (wink, wink), the University was drew the direct inspiration from Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, describing him as no less than the “most significant historical figure associated with the city in its entire history”.
Oh, so it’s really that Constantine? Ita vero.
Constantine the Great, alternately presented as a virtuous and ideal ruler by the early Church or a rather greedy and indulgent emperor by his nephew, had the distinction of being proclaimed Augustus in what was then Eboracum in 306. He was also, rather notably, the first Christian Emperor of Rome. A rather striking bronze statue has sat in the grounds of York Minster for the last 12 years or so. Sculptor Philip Jackson paid great care and attention to the widely regarded work. Modelling on the Emperor a conciliatory look, Jackson mixed the imagery of cross and sword to good effect. It’s proved popular and I think a large part of that is because he looks quite louche.
In size at least, it’s a far cry from the white marble Colossus of Constantine that was constructed in Rome during his reign. That was one of the benefits of defeating Maxentius and finishing the Basilica his rival had already started. Ego. With a 2.5 metre tall head it’s not immediately evident that Constantine had a big head. But then again, the Romans did ‘rechristen’ Byzantium Constantinople in his honour, so he may not have needed to.
Constantine the Great, or rather Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, took his fourth name and a few others from his father, the so called Constantine Chlorus – although all Emperors of the Constantine dynasty shared the name Flavius, it obviously wasn’t their favourite. Constantine derives from the Latin for Constant so it wasn’t a bad brand to stamp on a dynasty and remains good for a University college. The name was in popular use at the time of Constantine’s rule, with direct comparators in Greece and Macedonia and it remains in healthy use in Eastern Europe today. As a surname, Constantine has spread around the world, with notable bearers in many walks of life from racing drivers to computer science pioneers. The legacy of Constantine is alive and well.
However, across the Pennines from Ebor, an explanation for the rather ominous sketch. One of the greatest proponents of the name, John Constantine, died early this year. He died in the most cynical and horrible of ways: the comic book reboot.
John Constantine, the Liverpudlian wizard, working class chain smoker and all round sarcastic bastard hailed from the DC Comic universe, alongside Superman and Batman. Constantine spawned from the mind of Alan Moore when artist Steve Bissette requested a character who looked like Sting during their legendary 80s run on Swamp Thing. On one occasion he even appeared in the swamp making use of a small craft named The Honourable Gordon Sumner. Or that’s what we’re led to think. Moore has since recounted the two times he has met his creation in real life, once earning a conspiratorial wink in a sandwich pub and then years later when the mage whispered the secret of magic in his ear…
Such tales not only add weight to a character who you may suspect sits smirking on top of the fourth wall, but also indicates how much he was an archetype lying in wait. Increasingly I’ve thought Constantine lay for years in a stone block just waiting for Moore the sculptor to chisel him out – the new Colossus of Constantine. John’s been lying in the pit of English literature for at least the duration of the 20th century. More complicated than piecing together the strands left from Caliban to Crowley, but also channelling the baby boomers and working class Thatcher rage through punk and every facet of British culture. Beyond the English tourism, Constantine has fitted brilliantly into the world of one of America’s largest comic conveyors, unlikely if he was a cypher.
The mage soon broke free from the Swamp and started his own run that lasted from 1988 to 2013 under DC comics ‘mature’ Vertigo line and various comic creators. Moore isn’t the only father of Constantine to meet him. Jamie Delano, who kick-started Constantine’s solo adventures, has also recounted meeting the character in real life outside the British Museum.
Constantine’s series was dark and twisting, majoritively taking place in the UK and helmed by writers from the British Isles but also taken to other parts of the world and scripted by some of the best American comic scribes. As would be expected, the mages’ appeal fell far from his original medium. Ian Rankin even scripted one graphic novel.
The late-1980s timing was a little off for Constantine’s solo outing. Released close to the cinematic (and later comic book) release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser that perfect name for the demon baiting magician was scrapped for the familiar Hellblazer. For 25 years Constantine practised under that moniker, but all things good, bad and sarcastic must come to an end.
Constantine had various unique aspects, innately woven into and from his core. Alongside the trench coat and constant cigarettes, one is that the mage aged in real time – a rarity in comics. Early on in the run he celebrated his 40th birthday. By the end of his run he was in his late 60s, albeit not quite looking the part after some nefarious demon blood shenanigans.
When it came to the fall of the Hellblazer, the writing had been etched into the wall when DC introduced their New 52 reboot. In doing so they reclaimed any character from Vertigo who had originated in the DC Universe. As their play reigns were yanked, Constantine’s peers thinned and the man who literally burns through friends was left looking ever more isolated. While Hellblazer strolled to its 25th anniversary, a younger version of the character debuted in the New 52’s Justice League Dark – oddly both titles under the same pen of Peter Milligan. Justice League Dark suffered some changes, but soon established itself, thanks in no part to Constantine’s key role. It looks like he will continue to diversify more. In 2005 the attempt to bring Constantine to cinema wasn’t quite the indignity it could have been. It retained a large amount of the comic’s even with an alarmingly altered character (Keanu Reeves-altered). Though a tonal heir, it didn’t do the business to warrant a sequel and his stock’s risen in the intervening period that if and when Guillermo del Toro‘s Justice League Dark film reaches big screens, he will no doubt have a blond Englishness reminiscent of Sting.
But. Then. When it reached 25, Hellblazer died.
Constantine, already with his timeshare in the mainstream was sucked back through time and reborn in an eponymous DC title of his own in March. The new comic burst on the scene with a cover you may expect, trench-coated younger Constantine sitting resiliently against his own tomb stone.
If anything one noticeable effect of DC’s New 52 has been the removal of artist Simon Bisley. Bisley contributed many memorable covers to the Hellblazer series, including the finale where the famous camel trench coat strides away from a stubbed cigarette. While Bisley got to lay the covers to rest, the recently unveiled new look of Lobo – a character Bisley did much to define – has unsurprisingly rubbed salt into the wound. That was an edge to keep.
But while Lobo remodelled, somewhere there, something of Constantine, something of Britain and something of comics had died. In the tangle of the comicverse and the mysticism of Constantine, even the events of Hellblazer may not come to pass.
Perhaps this was the only move for a man who uses up every trick he can, who burned through every chance – and again, through every friend. Perhaps there was nothing left for it.
And maybe that’s the power of the character, a skilful self-reinvention in the first person – a character large enough to meet his creator twice and more complicated than all the pages that he’s been recorded on.
But still, there’s a Constantine out there. Constantines change, Constantines come and go, across the millennia, the Pennines and the DC Multiverse. A couple of thousand years on from the Constantine dynasty, it’s a name that remains constant but fresh for reappropriation.
And rather brilliantly, it’s still open to pronunciation.