John Constantine is one of DC Comics’ most powerful magic users, and the secret behind his abilities would put Voldemort to shame.
Magic has been an integral part of fantasy storytelling for centuries now, with John Constantine and Harry Potter offering two divergent versions of it. DC Comics’ Hellblazer presented a gritty vision of magic that was grounded in the persona of John Constantine, a working class occultist and magician consumed by his chain-smoking and selfish impulses. The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, went in a more predictable direction with a classic fight against good and evil acted out between its titular protagonist, and the main series villain, Voldemort.
Given the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise in the form of books, movies, plays, video games, and other spin-offs, it is fair to say that it has partly shaped how people worldwide view magic in fiction. Still, even the most evil magic performed by witches and wizards in Harry Potter cannot compare to that in Hellblazer, because of the very nature of how magic works in John Constantine’s world. In this sense, much of the confounding aspects about how magic works in Harry Potter is addressed in Hellblazer, and the specifics of John Constantine’s magic show just how disturbing the Wizarding World’s villains could have been.
Despite the fact that Hellblazer first began well before Harry Potter’s publication, its depiction of magic remains fresh because of its mechanics. John Constantine’s magic works by tapping into the power of existing social bonds or beliefs, allowing him to fight off demons and other supernatural creatures that have escaped from Hell. This stands in stark contrast to Harry Potter, where witches and wizards are able to perform magic without needing to draw from a physical or spiritual force like Constantine. As a result, in most cases, there is no cost to doing magic in Harry Potter, but as Hellblazer stories frequently show, there is always a cost to magic that Constantine or the people around him must pay.
In this sense, magic in Hellblazer is not so much a superpower like in Harry Potter, but rather a way to manipulate people. This is what makes John Constantine so dangerous as a character, because he is reliant on using other people, or even himself, as a power source for his magic. Because his magic is rooted in how people see the world around them and their place within it, there is an existential quality to Constantine’s work as a magician that makes him far scarier than Harry Potter’s foes. Despite the fact that at his core, John Constantine is flawed person trying to do good, his magic is rarely ever used under ethical circumstances because of how it works in the first place.
The ruthless side to Constantine’s magic can be seen in The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1, when scores of monsters have been unleashed in London (written by Simon Spurrier, art by Marcio Takara, colors by Cris Peter, Letters by Aditya Bidikar). In a last ditch effort, Constantine calls on the help of his best friend, Chas, after he tricks him into believing that he created a magical weapon from a pig’s head. Believing that he has a magical bomb, Chas drives the pig’s head and himself directly towards the monsters, unaware that Constantine just sent him on a suicide mission. As he watches Chas head towards the monsters, Constantine thinks, “…magic loves belief. Magic swarms ’round belief like flies to a turd. My best mate thinks he’s off to save the world because–c’mon, why would I lie… Chas, bless his f***witted heart, truly believes he’s packing some sort of magical nuke. So the enemy believes it too.” Chas is subsequently put into a coma after the attack, while Constantine guiltily tries to reason that he had to do it to save the world.
This illustrates what makes Constantine’s magic so much darker than Harry Potter’s, because of the role that deception plays in powering his abilities. Constantine is no stranger to deceiving both people and demonic beings alike. And part of what makes him one of the most powerful magic users in the DC Universe is that he is unafraid to trick his loved ones in order to pull off a particularly difficult magical stunt. While the power levels of witches and wizards in Harry Potter are an innate, static quality, much of Constantine’s power stems from how willing he is to ruin his life, or the lives of those around him. His attack with Chas only worked because Chas believed that his best friend John had vested him with a mysterious and powerful magical object, not realizing that he himself was the bomb that John was using against the monsters.
A difference in power source such as this explains why Hellblazer can never provide the magical escapism that Harry Potter promises. With Constantine so reliant on the sincerity and pure-heartedness of those around him, his whole operation is incredibly destructive. While Harry Potter relies on his friends to support him against Voldemort, who is so obviously a malevolent force, Constantine’s friends often end up as casualties in his war against both humanity’s worst impulses and the universe’s darkest beings. Instead of being something that brings people together, Constantine’s magic destroys the relationships between them.
Hellblazer and Harry Potter are two wildly different visions of magical worlds, and the mechanics of magic in both stories reveal what their objectives are. While Harry Potter was concerned with escaping the mundane through the fantastical, Hellblazer has always been focused on using a magical premise as a means for looking into the most unsavory parts of reality and society at large. With its protagonist powered by people’s belief in the world as they see it, Hellblazer has used magic to challenge those beliefs in the first place, while also never leaving it as an escape from consequences.
Ultimately, John Constantine’s magic is far more disturbing than Voldemort’s, because the latter is just a man who performs evil spells at no personal cost to himself. But for Constantine, whose own dark curiosity as a child pushed him to learn magic in the first place, there is a cost to everything that he does to keep the world safer from its hidden demons. If the fight against the universe’s most evil beings relies on sacrificing the sanctity of the good through magic, then it is clear why John Constantine has no interest in being the same type of hero as Harry Potter.