i may have mentioned this before, and anyone who has been following the adventures of John Constantine doesn't need me to repeat it, but here it is again anyway: every writer brings his own brilliance to John Constantine. i've never read Alan Moore's original, but there is an identifiable essence that ties each incarnation to the others.
still, each version is distinctive: in Neil Gaiman's hands, Constantine was always the Laughing Magician, a man of undeniable charm, unflappable humor and salty if obscure power, wielding a magic that seemed hardly typical of the word in fantastic fiction; in Jamie Delano's hands, he was a working class mystic, with a handyman's approach to magic, though his manipulations of synchronicity were more recognizable as the stuff of occult fantasy; Garth Ennis gave Constantine a harder edge by making his desperate entanglement in the war between Heaven and Hell more personal, more intimate, more visceral. Ennis also revealed the secret to Constantine's power: more than your typical magician, he is a confidence artist, and a bastard; Ennis' Constantine rarely cast spells, unless it were to bluff, preferring less occult means of deception. Warren Ellis portrayed a more typical hardboiled character with his almost stereotypically noirish story arcs; Azarello--i hear, not having read his run--made Constantine almost unlikeably ruthless.
i may have mentioned this before: Mike Carey struck a fine balance between Delano's mystic and Ennis' bastard confidence trickster. it is almost redundant to say that each time we run into Constantine, he is at the end of his tether, but while it may seem Ennis had done the ultimate 'John-at-the-end-of-his-tether' story with Dangerous Habits, it seems to me we feel it more acutely with Carey: while Ennis practically ground Constantine into dust during the course of his almost sadistic run in the comic, Carey's Constantine seemed ground from the get go: Carey's Constantine had already gone through everything Ennis and the other writers had thrown at him, seemed barely emergent from that dust--and he goes on to live through much more.
Carey's Constantine fit perfectly into the past--the life story--other writers had built for him. while he seemed to follow most naturally from Ennis' Constantine, it is easy to see this JC as the end result of everything he had gone through throughout the comic's life.
Carey's first Hellblazer story, All His Engines, seemed to me almost pitch-perfect in its portrayal of John Constantine and his world. from the very beginning, Carey had made the comic his own, as if he had been writing Hellblazer all his life. it doesn't seem surprising, then, that in the course of his run, it seemed at times almost as though he were only rushing through it all, racing through issues fast as he could to hit certain beats in the narrative, or only beat his deadlines and ultimately get to the end. almost as if he were bored with the comic, and only wanted to get it done so he could move on to other things--Lucifer, presumably, or his Felix Castor books. still, it pays to stick it through; if there's one thing Carey's good at from the narrative standpoint, it's in giving his readers a jolly good pay-off at the end of each story.
exemplifying this apparent impatience, Reasons to be Cheerful often read to me like a laundry-list of old characters, as John Constantine's children eliminated everyone who had ever known or only just met him--no matter how fleetingly. but more than this, as Carey approached the end of his run, he seemed almost hellbent on wiping the slate clean--in fact, he seemed headed in that direction even earlier, with Staring at the Wall, which ended with Constantine's memory wiped, the man wandering aimlessly through London without even his name.
in his final story arc, R.S.V.P., Carey even dealt a fatal blow to John Constantine's relationship with his one remaining friend, the one person who'd stuck through everything with him.
but Carey, thankfully, did more than simply 'wipe the slate clean'; with The Gift he laid down the bare bones of John Constantine the character, presenting a template for future writers; here is the 'identifiable essence' that comes through with each successful incarnation of the character. The story is now one of my three fave Hellblazer short stories--the other two being Gaiman's Hold Me and Ennis' Forty. in The Gift, Carey shows us just how well he understands John Constantine as a character, and, more than just a beautifully dark, darkly subtle coda to the tragic Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go, it is also a good place to begin for someone who has only just met the man both Heaven and Hell love to hate.
The Gift also shows us what magic is all about, what Constantine has always known magic to be all about, what--one suspects, one hopes, given the the subtelties of his Voice of the Fire--Alan Moore had always intended the character to say about magic: it isn't about casting spells, throwing bones or cheating the devil. ultimately, magic is legerdemain, sleight of hand; smoke, mirrors, turning tricks--perceptions. magic is about revealing the truth in the world by what appears to be the only truly effective means: deception.
in the end, we must face the fact that Constantine's talent for magic doesn't come from studying spellbooks, old religions, apocryphal texts, etc.; nor does it come from the blood of Nergal coursing through his veins; in the end, Constantine's good at magic for one reason: he's a right bloody bastard, innit? and the best bloody liar you're ever likely to meet.