How John Constantine’s sexual evolution across three decades parallels bisexual representation in mainstream comics.
Unlike some of us, John Constantine only needed seven years to come out.
And then he was shoved back in the closet for another decade.
When you get down to it, it’s all Frederic Wertham’s fault. His baseless bestseller Seduction of the Innocent led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority 1954, which hobbled comic book storytelling under the guise of preserving “standards of good taste.”
Unsurprisingly, “Marriage and Sex” was one of the Code’s longest categories. The seventh (and final) rule in that section states “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.” It wasn’t until 1989 when the Comics Code was finally updated and publishers were allowed to include LGBT characters in their comics. However, it took a few more years before queer characters were allowed to be open about their sexualities from major publishers. As a result, Constantine’s public progression makes him the poster child for the Four Stages of Media Representation when it comes to bisexual characters in comic books.
It should be noted that Indy comics –which were never beholden to the CCAC in the first place– have always been friendlier territory for the queer community. Like so many other cultural shifts, queer representation was originally much more common on the fringes before it came into the mainstream. This site’s own LGBT Comics Timeline is a painful reminder that, prior to the 1990s, the only place to really find queer characters was in smaller books.
For author/illustrator Maia Kobabe, Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise was an early introduction to queer characters in comics. Maia notes this in eir book, Gender Queer: A Memoir, noting that ey devoured the series during eir freshman year of high school.
“I was delighted by them in general and the character Katchoo being bi and not struggling with that at all,” Kobabe said when asked about it. “It was just something fun to read –this sort of angsty bi soap opera– because of where I was [in life].”
Kobabe’s memories of Strangers in Paradise drive home the importance of why representation in comics is so important for some readers: “If you’re representing something that’s not seen anywhere else in media, it can be a revelation… you might not have known that existed if you’ve literally never seen it.”
March 1992 wound up a watershed month for LGBT themes in comics. Everyone remembers Northstar famously coming out of the closet in what’s arguably one of the most cringe-y moments in comic book history, but few are aware John Constantine came out at the same time in Hellblazer #51. Hellblazer was a rare gem of a series, capable of pushing boundaries thanks to its eventual existence under the Vertigo imprint. Vertigo allowed John Constantine to live in whatever weirdness his writers came up with, while occasionally bringing that same strangeness into the DC Universe.
Northstar came out in a big, splashy revelation while he protected an HIV-positive baby from a super-powered Mountie (seriously, that issue is insane). Constantine’s sexuality, meanwhile, is revealed in a moment that’s bleak, tragic, and totally ordinary.
John comes out via an internal monologue in John Smith’s eerie little ghost story “Counting to Ten.” As he sits down in a dingy laundromat, waiting for his friend’s shit-covered clothes to come out clean, Constantine ruminates about how few people he really has in his life. It’s a strange, sad moment that only gets sadder when Constantine notes how every girlfriend and boyfriend he’s had have left him because he’s “hopeless” at relationships.
According to retailer Joe Field, the two issues had very different public receptions. Field’s been a part of the industry for several decades, co-founding WonderCon and creating Free Comic Book Day. His store, Flying Colors Comics, had only been in operation for four years when both came out. “When Alpha Flight #106 was released, it became not so much a conversation about inclusivity (1992 was before that term was in wide use, after all),” he notes. “It was more about the issue becoming a collector’s item. As I recall, Alpha Flight was not a very good-selling series at the time, so the first printings were scarfed up pretty quickly and Marvel did at least one subsequent printing to meet reader/collector demand.”
“With John Constantine, the Hellblazer series was already designated for ‘mature readers’ so content about sexuality wasn’t anything out of the norm.”
Even if bisexuality didn’t veer outside Hellblazer’s mature lanes, it also wasn’t something that became a regular part of the series. Although he’d come out, it would be another decade before we’d actually get to see John being anything other than heteronormative.
John routinely careened between relationships across Hellblazer’s 25-year lifespan, nearly all of them with women. Aside from a laundry list of minor lovers, the series introduced us to a number of women who’d left their mark on the man’s heart. The American artist Emma might have been his true love if she hadn’t been murdered. Zatanna Zatara still seemed to love him like a brother after their on-and-off relationship ended. Epiphany Greaves even married the man. But other men never really appeared. Even Warren Ellis’s beautiful “One Last Love Song” in Hellblazer #142 shows John haunted by the memories of his lovers past, all of whom happen to be women.
“If you’re in a heteronormative relationship, it’s really hard to navigate that,” comics creator Meggie Ramm explains. Constantine’s relationships make it easy to overlook his presence in the queer community, mainly because it happens to a lot of us who are dating members of the opposite sex. “Appearance-wise, it feels like you’re trying to take up LGBTQ space… you want to represent yourself and your identity, but by appearance you seem straight.”
In hindsight, it’s not really surprising that even John Constantine was subjected to bisexual erasure. After all, something that just about every openly bi person has experienced at some point. With his bisexuality effectively erased, Constantine spent ten years in the First Stage of Media Representation (the stage of non-representation).
The 90s wasn’t exactly a subtle decade, synonymous with over-the-top action and gratuitous T&A; so it’s not surprising to hear that superhero sexualities didn’t get a lot of in-depth exploration. But there were small moments acknowledging not every superhero was strictly heterosexual. Occasionally, we’d get treated to sexual tension between characters like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, or clever exchanges like this one in Peter David’s Justice League Taskforce #8 where Wonder Woman gave readers quite a bit to think about.
Put a pin in this, by the way. We’ll come back to it.
After the crash of 1996, the industry slowly pulled itself out from the extreme grave it had dug for itself. Queer characters started getting included in mainstream books, but bisexual characters were sorely missing. Generally, characters were either straight, gay, or sociopaths who’d sleep with anyone to further their agenda (AKA the “depraved bisexual”).
The Second Stage of Media Representation notes that minority characters are allowed to exist, but only as objects of ridicule. The Depraved Bisexual trope also fits into this stage, as it presents bisexual people in a way that invites derision. This is where DC took Constantine the next time his sexuality reared to life. It’d been almost 120 issues since “Counting to Ten” ran when the 2002 story “Ashes & Dust in the City of Angels” was published. A mean noire tale of sex and death, this is the first time we get to see John enter in a romantic relationship with the wizard Stanley Manor. Unfortunately, said relationship was all a part of a labyrinthine revenge plot that ultimately ends with John manipulating his mark into committing suicide.
“A lot of times when people are writing bisexual characters –especially in mainstream comics– they just make all bisexual characters out as these super lascivious sex addicts,” Ramm says. “It’s this stereotype that’s shoehorned into comics the most: If you’re bi, you can’t keep it in your pants. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you want to have sex with everything including the toaster.”
John Constantine wasn’t the only major comics character who weaponized his sexuality during this era. Only a few years later, Marvel debuted its own sinisterly sexual character with Daken.
Wolverine’s villainous son made waves when readers learned he’d kissed a dude during his first Marvel storyline in Wolverine: Origins. Of course, we didn’t actually see the kiss, but we learned about it when Daken’s unnamed girlfriend confronted him over the event. But it turned out that Daken had actually seduced the man in order to murder him and steal his SHIELD identity, as well as psychologically torture the poor woman he was living with before (it’s implied) he murders her, too. Perhaps that was the cruelest thing about Daken during his first appearance: He was incapable of genuine relationships, he only manipulated people into loving him until he no longer has a use for them. Writer Daniel Way famously said: “[Daken is] no more homosexual than he is heterosexual. It’s about control.”
Daken’s sexual nature continued to make appearances, showing him indiscriminately flirting with and seducing people whenever he needs to. Even though writer Marjorie Liu eventually confirmed his bisexuality, it’s always felt a little disingenuous thanks to the revelation that he can manipulate pheromones. Sex is just another power set for him.
It’s around this point when comics entered the Third Stage of Representation (the group is represented but in limited, socially acceptable roles). Peter David’s X-Factor #45 made waves when it ended with Rictor and Shatterstar sharing one of the most famous kisses in comics. The two became an item, and Marvel was actually pretty supportive (though Rob Liefeld was admittedly kind of a douche about the whole thing). While we were starting to get positive examples of bisexuality on the stage, it was regulated so that we only saw it with minor characters.
The funny thing is that even though bi existence in mainstream Aughts comics wasn’t great, it was still better than what we were seeing via TV and movies. In 2006, a study of popular television revealed that gays and lesbians were hovering somewhere between the third and fourth stages of representation. In contrast, the study was unable to find any bisexual characters. Will & Grace, which is lauded for thrusting LGBTQ+ characters into the mainstream, didn’t seriously feature a bisexual character until its 2018 season (until then, Karen’s orientation was only addressed as a joke).
“Bi representation in the media is usually sensationalized, brief, uneven, and unexamined,” Jonathan Alexander notes in 2007’s Bisexuality in the Media: A Digital Roundtable. “Visual media tend to treat bisexuality as the love that dare not speak its identity. Film and TV characters who happen to be bisexual, while far from rare these days, are almost never labeled as such.”
It’s only recently that bisexuality in comics has entered the Fourth Stage of Representation (“Respect”) and really been addressed in any direct, positive way. Even so, bi characters’ sexuality has been revealed by innuendo much of the time, or after the fact by creators who worked on them.
- In 2010’s Hercules: Fall of an Avenger, it’s implied that the eponymous hero had a sexual encounter with Northstar, though the latter runs away from the godling’s funeral out of inexplicable embarrassment.
- Deadpool co-creator Fabian Nicieza has gone on the record saying Wade Wilson was always meant to be a sexually fluid character.
- Secret Six frontman Catman was confirmed as bi by Gail Simone via Tumblr.
But that’s not to say we’ve only gotten representation via innuendo. Although Catman’s sexuality was originally established outside the comic by writer Gail Simone –who was single-handedly responsible for the character’s recent renaissance in the DC Universe– she officially made it canon in 2014’s Secret Six series. Kieron Gillen revealed Prodigy was bi in Young Avengers. Al Ewing turned Loki into a bisexual, genderfluid anti-hero in the delightful Loki: Agents of Asgard. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy came out as non-monogamous girlfriends in 2015 (which, let’s be honest, was something we all knew since 1993). Catwoman came out as bi in 2015. And just this year, Marvel (finally) made Destiny and Mystique a canon couple.
“The comics industry, from publishers and creators to retailers, is really one big happy melting pot of everyone under the sun,” Field notes. “Don’t let the loudest negative voices online lead you to believe anything different. One of the great things about the continually developing comics market is that comics really are for everyone— regardless of how anyone identifies. The comics market is wider and more diverse than ever and that’s a beautiful thing from a content and reader perspective.”
Likewise, Constantine’s relationships with men and women have become more and more of a regular thing in comics, kicking into high gear with DC’s “Rebirth” event. Constantine: The Hellblazer pulled no punches and gave us someone who’s intensely comfortable with his sexuality.
At the same time, Constantine’s television presence has become incredibly queer since he officially joined the CW’s Arrowverse. After Matt Ryan sauntered onto the screen, he immediately started flirting with anyone who caught his eye. Then, once he became a series regular on Legends of Tomorrow, the entire fourth season revolved around how Constantine’s queer identity.
Constantine might soon be overshadowed as DC’s premiere bisexual by one of the biggest characters in superhero culture: Wonder Woman (remember how I said we were going to come back to this?). Even though she’s been interwoven with queer culture since she first appeared in 1941, her explicit canon relationships have always been with men. But all that changed, when Greg Rucka’s 2016 Wonder Woman series officially established Diana fell in love on Themyscira with another Amazon named Kaisa. Now, rumors are swirling that Wonder Woman 1984 might even include this relationship.
Things have improved quite a bit since Constantine came out 28 years ago. Bisexual characters in comics are still under-served and under-represented, but the past decade has provided our community with a number of characters to identify with. Although we’re starting to be represented seriously, there’s still a way to go before the community will be fully represented. That said, the progress that’s been made over the past couple of years seems to be making up for lost time, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
Mike Thompson is a writer living in Northern California. He spends much of his time running, baking, and desperately scrounging for another cup of coffee. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and Instagram.