Friday, January 23, 2009

John Constantine as Byronic Hero

Last semester I taught British Literature II (which begins at 1800 and goes to the present day). Very early on in the year, we were talking about Byron and how he ushered in a new type of hero. It was a character type based in part on his own persona (he "debuted" this new kind of hero in his semi-autobiographical work Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), but it was one that rang true for a great number of people. Audiences of the time really responded to Childe Harold because the main character felt a bit more real than the heroes of yore. And because it resonated so much with readers, it is an archetype that has been repeated in several varying forms ever since, as it is seen by many as a precursor to the anti-hero, perhaps a slightly more altruistic version of such.

As I was reading the textbook's definition of this character type, a thought struck me. I read the following passage (which comes from page 608 of the most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of British Literature, vol. 2):

"In his developed form ... [the Byronic hero] is an alien, mysterious, and gloomy spirit, superior in his passions and powers to the common run of humanity, whom he regards with disdain. He harbors the torturing memory of an enormous, nameless guilt that drives him toward an inevitable doom. And he exerts an attraction on other characters that is the more compelling because it invokes their terror at his obliviousness to ordinary human concerns and values."

We then started discussing more modern examples of this archetype as seen in British literature, and a perfect example from comics came to me: John Constantine. This might not come as a surprise to some people but it was a revelation to me in that moment, and I had to reign myself in so as to not steer the discussion off-topic too much. But in my mind Constantine, especially as written by Garth Ennis, seemed to tick all the boxes.

Mysterious? Definitely. Few people really know his character deep down because he doesn't really have friends beyond Chas. Superior to the common run of humanity? Yes. He knows more about the secrets of the world than most people and in fact is more than a little arrogant about his superiority. and guilt? Man, he has it in spades. He is haunted by the ghosts of those whose deaths he was indirectly responsible for, and he blames himself for many of those incidents (even when they weren't completely his fault).

If you look at the checklist on Wikipedia of what it takes to be a Byronic Hero, there are even more characteristics that stand out: cunning and able to adapt, disrespect of rank and privilege, a troubled past.

It's unfortunately been too long since I've reread my run of Hellblazer, so I can't think of any particular examples off the top of my head of his exhibiting any of these behaviors. Obviously his guilt can be traced back to the Newcastle incident (detailed in Hellblazer #11), and in Ennis's run his self-criticism is at its highest when Kit leaves him. If anyone would like to chime in with a few more examples, I'm all ears.