By Ashley R. Lierman
Constantine, new to NBC this season, has already gotten so roughed up in the press that it hardly seems worth saying anything else negative about it. For those not familiar, the series is an adaptation of the long-running comics series Hellblazer, and as noted on this blog, there was controversy early in the life of the series around remarks the creators’ stated intentions not to address the fact that the main character, John Constantine, is canonically bisexual. Probably more damning in the network’s eyes, though, is that since it actually started airing, the series just hasn’t been a critical success, with ratings apparently to match. At last, after thirteen episodes of the new series, NBC has halted production of new episodes for the first season, and though it’s still in the running for renewal, the show’s fate looks grim.
But I sometimes enjoy being angry at my television, and my wife is a sometime fan of the original comics series and has read the whole thing at least once, so we decided to sit down in front of the first five episodes – all that’s aired at this point – and see for ourselves. What we found was both profoundly expected, and ultimately indicative of one of the largest problems at work in geek culture at this difficult, contentious moment of awakening.
Hellblazer itself started as a retort to the horror trope of the elegant, urbane, wealthy conjurer; John Constantine is a working-class Londoner, a countercultural, amoral, occult detective of sorts, good at cheating and manipulating to keep himself from harm but a little too good at getting friends and loved ones killed instead. The NBC series isn’t the first time it’s been adapted for screen, of course: a film version of the same name came out in 2005, starring Keanu Reeves (of all people) and loosely adapting only a couple of specific story arcs from the original. The show, however, has taken a different and, in many ways, much more faithful approach. Writer/producers David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone have expressed a commitment to adhere to what they consider the most important parts of the series and the character, including fighting dreary battles with network standards to be able to include evidence of Constantine’s smoking habit. And thus far, the content of the series has stuck fairly close to some of the storylines of the early comics series.
In fact, it’s sort of in these efforts at faithfulness where the problem lies. The series has made its share of changes, certainly: some characters who are white in the comics have been portrayed by actors of color, which is at least a nice gesture in the direction of diversity (though not one borne out by some of the show’s other cringe-inducing choices around race, but I could say enough about that for another column), and some storylines have already been softened up to portray Constantine as a more heroic character rather than the comics’ often nasty antihero. That part is fine too, I suppose, and understandable for a television series that seems to be trying to court the younger audience collected by shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf – even if that choice is a little bafflingly ironic for a series that originally needed the launch of an “adult” line of comics to do some of its most famous story arcs. (I couldn’t help but notice the Hulu ads attached to the series focused around kids’ stores and Halo for Xbox, amusingly enough.) But watch the series with a veteran and do some reading online, and you’ll find the few episodes that have aired to be littered with obscure references, easter eggs, and tidbits of fanservice referring not only back to the original comics but also their original DC Comics connections, including to Swamp Thing, The Spectre, and others. The telephone number on Constantine’s business card is a working number, leading to a recorded message with hints about where the show may go with regard to the original canon. Bits of multiple Hellblazer and other DC storylines have been carefully crafted as props and littered around Constantine’s working space in the pilot.
But it doesn’t matter that John Constantine is bisexual.
John Constantine is a smoker. That’s an essential part of his character. To get around broadcasting standards, the series shows Constantine holding a cigarette and a lighter, but not actually combining the two. It shows him walking along from behind with a plume of smoke over his shoulder, but not the lit cigarette in his mouth. Every possible workaround is in place to express that one taboo detail, so vitally important to fans of the original.
But it doesn’t matter that John Constantine is bisexual. It’s “not a crucial aspect of the character.”
Crucial to whom? To whom is it crucial that Constantine smoke? The creators? Fans of the original? Is it not crucial to fans that Constantine’s sexuality be equally represented? Surely it is to queer fans. But queer fandom is not “real” fandom; queer fans’ concerns aren’t the concerns of “real” fans. We get told this over and over again. We get told it every time every single other detail is more important than identities that we share. Constantine is not the only queer character in the original series by any stretch; he is a denizen of countercultural spaces, which in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the series began, were the home of LGBT culture as well. A substantial subset of Constantine’s friends and allies in the comics were queer, but even in the unlikely event that the series lives a long healthy multi-season life, I doubt we’ll be seeing any of them around, either. There are many characters to choose from in order to populate an adaptation, certainly, but it already seems clear along what lines the series is doing its picking and choosing of what’s important and what can be left behind.
This isn’t the first or the most egregious time David S. Goyer has faced a controversy like this, after all. Discussing his series Da Vinci’s Demons, Goyer claimed the show’s representation of Leonardo da Vinci (yes, Leonardo da Vinci) as anything other than heterosexual would be “gratuitous.” There’s some very good analysis of that claim via the link, so I’ll keep it simple here: what it says is that straight sex, tiniest tidbits of reference that fans can catch and feel superior over – these things are important, they give the viewers what they want, but queer identities are always gratuitous. They don’t matter. They’re “not crucial.” They’re a niche point of interest, not necessary for the average person and of no consequence.
It seems to me from his projects and interviews that Goyer is a comics fan, and that should be a good thing for his adaptations, but I don’t think it is. And that’s because of the kind of fan he appears to be: obsessive about detail, devoted to the content of the text above all else. There’s nothing uncommon about this in geek circles; fans are known for their immersive approaches to the “reality” of their canons, their pride in comprehensive knowledge down to the smallest detail. But the problem with this pedantic culture is that it treats the rules and details of fictional worlds as an immutable reality, rather than things that were created by real, fallible people living in the real world, subject to error and possible to change at any time. More to the point, it treats the minutiae of fictional realities as more important than the problems of actual people in the ordinary world that we all have to share. The fact that a mythical order of knights doesn’t permit women, according to its creator, becomes more important than the status of women and the lack of strong female characters in fiction out in the real world, for an imaginary example. More often than not, this immersive treatment of fiction also serves to conveniently disguise from fans their own biases and bigotries, and those of the creators. Creators make choices about what is of value and what isn’t, but those choices can be obscured behind how that’s “just how it is in canon.” There can be no minority characters, women, or queer characters in a given storyline because it “wouldn’t be accurate to the setting,” while deflecting attention from the fan’s disinterest in and discomfort with reading about those groups of people anyway. Treating fiction as its own reality does more than provide an escape from the real world; it evades accountability for the fiction’s messages.
I’m not saying fantasy fiction has to be a joyless morality play about equality at all times, or that there’s anything wrong with using it as an escape from reality. Far from it, actually. I think escapes from reality are pretty underrated in our culture at large, and we could all probably use more time alone with our imaginations. What I have a problem with is the subculture of mostly straight cis white male geeks that treats fictional canon like fundamentalists treat the religious kind: infallible, unchangeable, literally true, and divinely inspired. I have a problem with how insisting on a character’s cigarettes is a laudable act of loyalty, but insisting on his sexuality is at best “gratuitous,” and at worst lets the foul air of real-world politics into someone’s pristine escape from reality. The problem is that some of us here in the real world don’t get the choice of not thinking about the politics of gender, of race, of sexual orientation and sexual identity. And we need our escapes from reality just as much as people who do – if not more.
So at the end of the day, I’m not going to be broken up if Constantine doesn’t get renewed for a second season. Leaving both the original and the quality of the series aside, it’s a kind of adaptation we don’t need more of: too focused on getting details right for its internal world, not interested enough in making things better for our external one. It can fail; we can let it go. It’s time to walk away, and try making something new.