By the time it published its 300th and final issue in early 2013, the DC Comics/Vertigo series "Hellblazer" had established one of the most complex, nuanced antiheroes in serialized fiction in John Constantine. Debuting in the pages of "Swamp Thing" #37 by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben, the mysterious sorcerer would go on to star in his own series originated by writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgeway and eventually drawing industry stars including Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Warren Ellis, Peter Milligan and many, many more to tell his story as he aged in real time through nearly thirty years of comics.
Put simply, John Constantine has a bit of a history. The latest chapter offers a new take on his early days, as DC prepares to bring "Constantine" to television on NBC this fall. At Comic-Con International in San Diego, CBR News spoke with actors Matt Ryan, Angelica Celaya and Charles Halford as well as executive producers David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone. The roundtable discussions about the show often returned to comics, where the cast and crew spoke about the distinct relationships between the characters.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" said executive producer Goyer when asked whether "Constantine" would be accessible for viewers who had never read "Hellblazer."
"You know, I've had a hand in some comic book adaptations before," Goyer continued, referring to a resume that includes the recent "Dark Knight" franchise, the forthcoming "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," as well as older films including the "Blade" trilogy and "The Crow: City of Angels." "The trick with all of those, even using a relatively obscure character like Blade, is to stay true to the character's DNA so that the comic book fans appreciate it and don't turn on you, but at the same time open it up to people like my wife, or my mom, who don't give a crap about comic books."
Executive producer Daniel Cerone added that the television audience will be introduced to John Constantine in much the same way that readers of the Alan Moore and Jamie Delano comics would have been. "Before Constantine was introduced in 'Swamp Thing,' nobody knew who John Constantine was. The entry point for the TV show, he's the same guy, at the same point, immediately after Newcastle, that comic book fans met," he explained. "It's that Constantine that our viewers are going to meet and we're going to build his story out. There's a lot of talk when we were pitching the show, is he going to have demon blood in him? Is he going to trick the devil? There's so many great things that happen in his evolution, but we're starting from a character that everybody can get to know."
With a the current renaissance of supernatural horror and drama series on network and cable TV, Goyer spoke about what sets Constantine apart. "I've said John Constantine is one of the great characters of modern literature. He's unique, he's very funny, he's a bastard," Goyer said. "You know we joke that if he can solve a problem with a spell, he'll do it; if he can't solve it with a spell, he'll try a con; if he can't do it with a con he'll kick someone in the balls. He's just a unique character that people are going to fall in love with."
"Constantine" has not been without controversy, though, with the latest test to its authenticity coming with word that John would not be seen smoking on screen. But the producers take issue with this somehow implying Constantine doesn't smoke. "We never said he wasn't smoking; we never said that. Far from it," Goyer clarified. "We have said, emphatically, that he's a smoker on the show."
Cerone said the creators are "limited by the FCC" as to what they're able to show, but "he carries cigarettes on the show, he lights up, he stubs out. And we play with it, too. We have one scene where he goes to light a cigarette and it starts raining."
"I would say this: we were obviously not surprised," Goyer said of fan reactions to the news. "We knew this was an integral part of his character, his vices. I think that, when fans get introduced to Matt and start seeing the show, it's a very faithful interpretation."
Welsh actor Matt Ryan, who plays John Constantine, said he sees the titular antihero as quite relatable, despite his many faults. "I feel like the fact that he's a tormented soul that's harboring so much guilt, and counteracts that with this cynical look on the world and humor; that juxtaposition of someone with so much shit going on inside them that they seem irreverent to it, and it's buried so deep inside them that they come across as if they don't give a shit," he said. "But actually he's a humanist at heart."
Throughout three hundred issues of "Hellblazer" comics, Constantine was a character who could grow but never quite win, and Ryan noted a similarity to "Rocky" in that John's challenge is "how long can you get beat down and still get up again." "But then, he's always compelled to. No matter how much society kicks him in the teeth, he's still got to go out and save them," he said. "That's the interesting thing, that compulsion to do right by humanity. That's why he's a humanist at heart. But most of the time, the way he goes about it is completely and utterly wrong. Which is the fun way of playing it, you know?"
The actor also addressed the accent he uses on "Constantine." "We decided we couldn't do a full-on Liverpudlian accent because it would be a bit strong for television," he said. "So we made it a bit more general northern. It's not my accent, as such. It's very similar, it's quite close, but there are certain vowel sounds that are different. We wanted him to be from Liverpool but traveled."
Though Ryan cites Garth Ennis and Will Simpson's "Dangerous Habits" as his favorite "Hellblazer" arc at the moment, he noted that getting to that stage in Constantine's life requires some setting up and could take a while. "We're starting where the comic started, so we've got a long way to go 'til that point," Ryan said, reiterating Goyer's statement on the show's beginning. "Maybe if we stay on the air long enough, maybe we'll get there."
Ryan admitted he hadn't read every "Hellblazer" comic, but speaking with him and the other cast members it was clear each had taken the effort to acquaint themselves with the source material. "I was familiar with the comic books growing up," said Charles Halford, who plays Constantine's long-suffering friend Chas. "They were naughty comics, so I was lucky to get my hands on them. And always read them blushing. But as soon as [my role on 'Constantine'] became a reality and we were about to start shooting the pilot, I whisked off to the comic book store to buy every 'Hellblazer' comic they had in stock.
"If you saw the pilot, I didn't have that many lines to study," Halford continued with a laugh, "so I spent most of my time reading up on the history of the character."
Halford said landing the role was "a fantastic coincidence, they were looking for a guy of my stature." "I'm six and a half feet tall and it's rare to get a series regular on the casting sheet that says 'we want a really tall, kind of brooding guy with a compassionate heart,'" he said. "I knew the source material, my name's Charles and the character's name is Chas, it seemed like we were all good to go!"
While John Constantine tends to treat his friends as somewhat disposable, Chas was the lone constant throughout most of the "Hellblazer" run, and that loyalty will play out in "Constantine" as well, in what Halford described as a "brotherly kind of friendship" between his character and Ryan's. "There has to be a lot of compassion for Constantine's walk in life in order for Chas to stick by him, because he's a total bastard. He's not easy to be a friend of," Halford said. "So you really have to dig a little to find that familial kind of connection that they have. To convey that on the screen is probably the most important thing, and fortunately in the newer scripts that we've been shooting, that becomes a lot more apparent. The writers are doing an excellent job of bringing that backstory and relationship together."
The newest member of the cast, Angelica Celaya, also spoke about her character Zed's relationship with Constantine. "It's a tug and push. They don't want to admit that they need each other," she said. "They don't want to admit that they're fragile, that they need help. That's what it is. But Zed does need Constantine to show her a couple of things that she doesn't know about, that John knows, that's second nature to him, and Zed has barely discovered."
Celaya said she was attracted to the role by "Constantine's" exploration of "the whole dark world, the fight of good versus evil." "I love Zed, she is someone I can completely identify with because she is someone who feels more than what she can tell other people," she said. "With Zed, I feel myself with her, I feel myself discovering myself with her. That was tremendously appealing."
While she could not reveal any plot details or whether Zed's dangerously fervent evangelical family will factor into her story arc, Celaya did say that "there will definitely be a feeling that Zed is running away." "She's not stable, she's not normal, you can tell that she's running away from something. But we just don't know quite yet what it is."
Like Ryan and Halford, Celaya studied up on her character by reading "Hellblazer," but said she would not be beholden to what had gone before. "If I put on myself the pressure that I have to live up to the comic, I'm going to fail," she said. "If I give it my point of view of who Zed is, then I'm going to present to the world my interpretation of Zed, and that's what I want to do. To present what I feel Zed is coming from. To me, that's keeping more true to the character than trying to be the perfect version of the comic."
"Constantine" premieres Friday, October 24, on NBC.