When people said that the new Constantine show reminded them constantly of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels, I sat down to check it out, and fortunately my subscription to Hulu means I can watch shows that are on when I’m at work.
Constantine is Harry Dresden with out the humor or the heart. Both characters are mages living in the modern world. Both of them have wry commentary. Both stories touch upon the tales of contemporary mythology, with heavy interactions between heaven and hell. Heck (see what I did there?), both characters start their story arcs off with a well-deserved doom hanging over their head. Butcher’s Harry Dresden is under the Doom of Damocles; as a teenager he killed his evil master in self-defense, and he’s on probation with an immediate death sentence if he breaks any more rules. DC’s John Constantine accidentally sent an innocent girl to hell in an exorcism gone wrong (more on how frakked up that idea is later) so he’s damned to join or replace her because he’s earned it. Both characters are poor, into long coats, they don’t wear hats, and the women around them are constantly in trouble over their head. Both characters have the chance to take more power than is good for them.
The difference between the two characters is the difference between hero and antihero. Dresden, the hero, will accept any punishment in order to save himself and his loved ones. In A Feast of Friends, John Constantine manipulates his friend on hard times into becoming a human sacrifice to save a city. Dresden is about self-sacrifice to protect the others. Constantine will sacrifice other people, but hey, he’ll feel sort of bad about it. I mean, it matters that after you turn your childhood friend into a screaming pile of pain you hold his hand until he dies, right?
Hope is another big difference. Constantine is grim and ugly in his attitude that he knows he’s damned, no matter what he does. Dresden deals with the ugliest and most horrible of consequences with an attitude of hope. He puts his life on the line when a kid who has put a foot into dark magic is about to be executed, because he believes that people can change. Constantine is constantly tearing open pits to hell and throwing demons in, and the demon-possessed frequently right along with them. In Dresden’s world the super-powered semi-Jedi Christian Knights of the Cross don’t exist to destroy their counterparts, the Knights of the Blackened Denarius. The Knights of the Cross have the power to fight the bad guys to a stand-still to give them time to repent.
While I’m an avid Butcher fan, the resonating hope motif is not excusively Jim Butcher’s. Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series, perhaps more popular than even the Dresden files, as killer werewolves overcoming their bloodlust, fallen angels re-earning a chance at salvation, an orc tribe turning into supernatural bodyguards for the good guys, and even the characters apparently damned by their contact with the Old Ones using their powers to support, encourage, and protect their loved ones for as long as they possibly can. This is a group of people who fight side by side, and we understand why they do it. More than that, we wish we could be right there alongside them. Even the people who die do so with their internal victories to make an otherwise outright tragedy a bittersweet moment.
Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels is likewise about an ex-con trying to find inner peace and some personal redemption in semi-voluntary service to the magical establishment. In the course of the three books we see him earn first begrudging gratitude, then acceptance, and ultimately trust from the magical enforcer who originally drafted him to be mere cannon fodder because that was all a criminal was good for. You can go way darker and stay there longer if the dark side is the start of a path to the light.
Constantine’s outlook is nihilistic where Dresden’s is graceful. That isn’t a comment about ballet or “PARKOUR!” It is a comment about the outlook of a human soul. Constantine and the people who act like his friends (though I still can’t understand why because he is never nice, kind, encouraging, or supportive of them in any consistent way) believe in the works-righteousness sort of world. Good people do good, but screw up enough and your damned, and F— you. Dresden lives in a world where some monsters have the heart to become something other than monsters, such as the sexual predator vampire who struggles all the time to become more than his inborn desires.
Both stories have demons and angels ever more prominent in their stories, but their depictions are different. Dresden’s world has the supernaturally good and evil as a balance, but though it is pretty clear that God and angels could wipe the floor with every bad thing, they withhold their hands to give people free will, to give the fallen and sinful people a chance to repent, out of the hope and belief that things can be better. Constantine still fights, but his is the fight of a man who has no hope in himself or love for his fellow man just trying to take down as many other bastards as he can before he goes.
Ultimately, whether you call your good things angels and your bad things demons, Constantine represents the ultimate path of the occult worldviews: There are supernatural powers out there. Supernatural good can’t or won’t help you, so you have only your power and your allies against all the darkness in the world. Ultimately, though, this outlook comes smacking up against the fact that human power is never going to be enough. So we need more power. That’s where the sacrifices start, when we start to sacrifice things to get enough power beyond our own to make reality what we want. In animistic and pagan religions like my own tribe’s darkness before Christianity, that meant sacrificing to divine the future, to change the natural balance in our favor, to hold off the things that go bump in the night and are just too big for us to handle. So, in A Feast of Friends, the ONLY hope is to con your oldest friend into becoming a human sacrifice to trap a demon.
In Dresden’s world, which is much more heavily influenced by someone who at least at some point was an active Christian (Mr. Butcher went on a missions trip to Brazil at 19 years of age and has an interesting story or two to tell about it), hope comes from many sources. Love is more powerful than despair, and true love is the great saving grace for the vampire I mentioned. While there is life, there is hope for change, improvement, escape from dark deals and improvements even while the world seems to be going to heck. It isn’t that Dresden kicks more ass than Constantine in terms of mystical might, though it’s hard to say, it is that Dresden does it with a goal and in an author’s world where positive, hopeful change is worthwhile and lasting. Dresden’s victories improve the lives of people around him, changes them for the better, makes them grow into better, stronger people, and over the course of fifteen novels we witness him weave a community that is able to stand up and fill his shoes once he leaves Chicago. Maybe not as well or as efficiently as he did solo, but he accomplished the holy grail of teaching: to render oneself unnecessary.
Constantine mostly leaves a lot of dead bodies. Also, because Constantine believes he is damned, he does whatever he wants to whomever he wants. He invades the minds of people, hypnotizing them whenever he needs to.
In terms of writing craft, it isn’t enough to make your hero clever, snarky, powerful, and effective. Both John Constantine and Dresden do those things all the time. The critical problem of characterization is empathy. I care a lot more what one pig-headed blue-collar plumber of magic does because he wants to protect the innocent, right wrongs, and hold to his own chivalric code than I do about someone so cold that they lose at least one old friend every other episode. Constantine does not generate empathy for me. I gave him four episodes and I still can’t tell you why I should care if I see him in another show, or if he lives or dies. That is the crucial, epic failure of the character. It’s the difference between Batman (a crime-fighter who is about protecting the innocent and bringing justice) and the Green Arrow (an almost identical crime-fighter whose main view of justice is progressive socialism, or as Batman puts it in the second Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, “He’s just a Communist with a bow.). Batman is among the top five most beloved superheroes of all time. The Green Arrow has had a bit of a revival, but only insofar as they have changed his character to reflect Batman, not vice versa. We care about childhood trauma, the quest for justice, and a hero who doesn’t kill way more than we care about a killer on a class-warfare vengeance kick every other novel or so.
In the same way, Dresden lives dirt poor because he won’t take advantage of anyone with his magic, he’s a sucker for a damsel in distress, he’s a terrible liar, and he won’t back down no matter what the odds if there’s someone to protect on the line. John Constantine takes advantage of people all the time if it’s convenient, he kills women and men equally (and doesn’t our gut reaction put the lie to feminist equality right there), and he will spend half an episode setting up to torture a friend to death if that’s what it takes to stop a demon too powerful for him alone.
If Harry Dresden’s catchphrase is “Chivalry isn’t dead, dammit,” then John Constantine’s is, “The people who are around me die, and if you can’t deal with that you had better leave.”
Advice well taken, John Constantine. I’m done with your cold-hearted, murderous, scheming, friend-sacrificing creep-tastic self. Next urban fantasy, please.
As a historical note, I would like to say that the one good thing that I get out of shows like Constantine and the martial arts flick Ong Bak, where occultism (magical self-worship) and idolatry (worship of inanimate objects) lead to a desperate sacrifice for self and desperate search for more power.
What confidence and grace we have with the Dresden Files way, the concept that even our ongoing struggles are a sign of patience, a chance for things to get better, where the heroes’ victories count for more than they can know because there is a power out there strong enough and involved enough to work behind the scenes, where the bad guys can become good, the good guys can change others for the better, and if the world survives the long dark night, it can be a better place.
And hey, outside of fiction, we constantly face dark things more powerful than ourselves. But we don’t need to kill our friends, or offer up our children to Molech (though Planned Parenthood does a passable imitation if you substitute Molech for prosperity/ease). The Sacrifice that was made was Infinite, one for all people, all places, and all times.