The 1990s were a transformational time in American comics. Superman died and was later resurrected. The greatest Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, went on a killing spree and tried to destroy the universe. Spider-Man battled a serial killer named Carnage. A wacky merc-with-a-mouth named Deadpool broke the fourth wall on a regular basis. And the first issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn sold over a million copies for the nascent indie publisher, Image Comics. Antiheroes were all the rage in the nineties because of popular comics starring Wolverine, the Punisher, Venom, Lobo, Cable, and more. Beyond those obvious highlights, this era was also a revolutionary time for queer representation, especially when you look at Hellblazer‘s John Constantine.
The eighties planted the seeds for the proliferation of LGBTQ+ characters in the nineties. This was in large thanks to Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol run and the rise of two British superstar writers named Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. The “British Invasion” of American comics in the ’80s led to the launch of Hellblazer. It was a monthly horror series starring the chain-smoking con man and magician, John Constantine. As a working class and deeply flawed occult detective, John Constantine battled the evils of the Thatcher administration in Britain. Constantine remains a deeply singular figure in comics. But he represents both an antihero perspective of this time period, as well as comics’ movement towards queer perspectives.
In 1992’s Hellblazer #51, by John Smith, Sean Phillips, and Tom Ziuko, John Constantine casually remarks that all of his past girlfriends and “the odd boyfriend” end up walking out on him. It was the first time that Constantine revealed to the reader that he was bisexual. While a subtle moment, the reveal of Constantine’s queerness was groundbreaking in the early nineties. The decade would go on to feature the debut of gay couple, Midnighter and Apollo, and a dramatic coming out story for mutant and Alpha Flight member Northstar. But Hellblazer remains unique in its nonchalance about Constantine’s sexuality. If anything, the reveal of Constantine’s sexuality confirmed what Hellblazer readers already knew: he’s a deeply queer character.
Queerness has a political significance in that it represents non-normative and transgressive modes of being. This is precisely what the ethos of Hellblazer had always been. The unsavory aspects of Constantine’s life and personality made him a rejection of the traditional “wise old sage” magicians in British literature. His dabbling with the occult and supernatural led him into horrific situations. And he was often unable to help the people affected. Both the disturbing things Constantine encountered in Hellblazer, as well as his deep flaws, questioned the moral foundations underlying superhero comic books.
Contemporary magic users in comics, like DC’s Doctor Fate and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, captured fans’ admiration. However, Constantine wasn’t someone readers should model themselves after. Instead, the tragic aspects of his life, like his traumatic experience in a mental institution, were something readers could empathize with and relate to. Considering this, it is not surprising that Hellblazer had a starkly different aesthetic from other DC and Marvel books at the time. It took on a grittier and quotidian look despite its supernatural elements. For Constantine, his queerness wasn’t just his sexuality but also his unique perspective and persona.
This idea is especially pertinent with regards to how Constantine stood out from other queer men from ’90s comic books. As opposed to Midnighter, Apollo, and X-Men’s Northstar, Constantine wasn’t buff or particularly attractive. (Interestingly, the character’s aesthetics draw inspiration from singer Sting.) He kept his bony frame hidden under a ratty suit and an even rattier trench coat. While Northstar’s muscular body zoomed the pages of X-Men books, Constantine would rarely punch or kick anyone. When he did, he looked awkward and uncoordinated. There was never an intention for Constantine to look nor behave like a “normal” character in superhero comics. He did not assimilate into the heteronormative image of a comic book hero.
In the same vein, Hellblazer subverted mainstream narratives of ’90s queerness. Constantine’s casual mention of his past boyfriends was a break from the spectacle of coming out. Coincidentally, Hellblazer #51 hit shelves a couple months after the release of Alpha Flight #106. In that issue, Northstar became the first character from mainstream American comics to reveal that he was gay. The X-Men spinoff book, written by Scott Lobdell, features Northstar pouncing towards the reader while shouting, “I am gay!” It takes a much more sensationalist approach to queer sexuality.
The story revolves around Northstar visiting his newborn adopted daughter in the NICU. There, a doctor tells him that “the child has AIDS.” Later on, when Northstar fights a father who lost his gay son to AIDS, he says, “Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I. For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business––I am gay!” The issue’s cover tops off its sensationalism, bearing the tagline “Northstar as you’ve never known him before!” Alpha Flight #106 and Hellblazer #51 came within months of each other, five years before Ellen DeGeneres’ People magazine cover with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.”
When viewed in comparison with his contemporaries, John Constantine becomes an even more important figure in queer comics history. Unlike Alpha Flight, Constantine’s sexuality wasn’t a plot device and did not come from a heteronormative gaze. Considering that Alpha Flight #106’s cover reads, “Northstar as you’ve never known him before,” it is clear that the issue was created without an imagined queer readership. In this context, queerness is a personal thing kept to oneself, away from others “for whom it is none of their business,” instead of an entire worldview and mode of existence. Northstar’s queerness was something to identify and not identify with.
Hellblazer #51 showed how queerness also applies to artistic expression beyond just direct content or subject matter. It is also within established canon. In fact, a previous issue by Garth Ennis, William Simpson, and Tom Ziuko shows Constantine meeting with a vampire king in the middle of the woods. Vampires are certainly an enduring metaphor for queer sexuality in literature. Thus, Hellblazer frequently surrounded Constantine with details that hinted at his queerness.
Hellblazer’s dark subject matter, queer perspective, and political themes laid the groundwork for future LGBTQ+ comics like The Department of Truth, The Invisibles, and the current generation of X-Men comics. Constantine’s antihero elements made him an early example of a queer protagonist who was not bound by the duties of “positive representation.” Instead, Hellblazer gave us a deeply human picture of a queer man living in dehumanizing circumstances. He is someone who wants to do the right thing even when the narrative dooms him. In today’s climate, Constantine’s voice has never felt more urgent.