Why The Sandman Transformed John Constantine Into Johanna Constantine

Comic book fans can be real sticklers for accuracy, and the casting announcements for the Netflix adaptation of "The Sandman" had some fans getting their "Swamp Thing" undies in a twist. Some of the characters had been gender-swapped, including the fallen angel Lucifer (played by "Game of Thrones" star Gwendoline Christie) and the Dreaming's librarian, Lucienne (played by "The One" star Vivienne Acheampong). Fan theories regarding the casting of Jenna Coleman ("Doctor Who") as Johanna Constantine began cropping up all over the internet. 

Johanna Constantine appears in "The Sandman" comics at one point, but so does her descendant, John Constantine. In fact, John pops up in the first "Sandman" comic book run, "Preludes and Nocturnes," so fans were a bit boggled: Why Johanna and no John in this adaptation? The magician and exorcist is a beloved DC Comics character. He's a bisexual, chain-smoking, extremely cursed individual with a bitter sense of humor, and his fandom is fierce. So where did John Constantine bugger off to in the Netflix series, and why is Johanna there instead?

I had the chance to talk to "The Sandman" comic series creator Neil Gaiman at a press event covering the upcoming series, and he had a very surprising answer to that question. It turns out that sometimes the reasons for casting changes or swaps are much simpler than fans might think.

'It was the economy of filmmaking'

When it came to the matter of John and Johanna Constantine, the fan theories ran wild: Some fans accused the series of "woke casting" and pointed to other gender-swapped characters, while others assumed that there were rights issues with John Constantine since the character is currently being used in other DCEU properties. While there were some complicating factors that Gaiman was unaware of, he was more concerned with the storytelling:

"It was economy. It was the economy of filmmaking. We started 'Sandman' going — anybody watching 'Sandman,' we are going to go, 'You are starting here. This is the first place. You are not expected to have brought any knowledge with you.' When I wrote 'Dream a Little Dream of Me,' 'Sandman' issue 3, I knew everybody knew John Constantine. He had his own comic, 'Hellblazer.' I wanted to bring some of his readers into 'Sandman.' Later on, I had an enormous amount of fun creating Johanna Constantine, his ancestor, and having her appear a couple of times, and it was really nice and solid."

While John Constantine isn't Gaiman's creation, Johanna is, and that gives him a bit more creative control. It also helps separate the character and series from other adaptations of Constantine's comic misadventures, including the 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves and the television series starring Matt Ryan.

One performer, two parts

Instead of casting a John and a Johanna, since they would eventually need both, Gaiman and series screenwriter Allan Heinberg thought it might make more sense to just have the same performer play both parts:

"When we looked at what we were going to do in this whole series, we knew that we were going to have Lady Johanna Constantine meeting Dream in a pub. And if we're going to do that and we want a really classy actress to portray her, then we're going to have to give that actress more to do than just meet him once in a pub. Given that there really weren't many women in the beginning, the idea that we could find one person and have them do both, just seemed nice and straightforward. "

Instead of casting a new John Constantine and dealing with all that would entail, Gaiman and the rest of the team behind "The Sandman" decided to just make John into Johanna instead, so Coleman can portray both ancestor and descendant. There aren't a ton of female characters in the first four issues of "The Sandman," either, so the gender swap provides a tiny bit more diversity until the rest of the cast shows up around episode 5. A gender swap doesn't really impact Constantine's story, either, since the comics version is bisexual and any romances can stay exactly as they are. 

Beautiful but deadly

Gaiman went on to explain that while there actually did end up being some restrictions on John Constantine that he was initially unaware of, the decision to cast a woman was made very early on:

"Later on, I was told there were all sorts of restrictions about using Constantine and that J.J. Abrams had brought these things in, and people were going, 'Ah! You must be doing that because of this,' and I wish I could say, 'Well, yes, we wanted John Constantine,' but no. But actually, the truth was, we talked about that [during] the initial — sitting and having dinner before we pitched it to Netflix and everybody, that was one of the things that just sort of seemed to make sense. It was big and obvious that we were going to [cast a woman]."

The creator had nothing but praise for Coleman, calling her "brilliant" and noting that he thinks she's the best version of Constantine, "including Keanu Reeves, including Matt Ryan." Both Reeves and Ryan have their fans and detractors, but Gaiman shared what makes Coleman so special:

"I think Jenna is the best Constantine on screen so far, and weirdly somehow the truest, because she both has the humor, and the attractiveness, and that sleazy, doomed quality. You know that if you fall in love with her, you are dead and demon-fodder. And you also know that you can't help falling in love with her."

Constantine is a tragically doomed romantic character, so it's important to have someone who is lovable but also has a bit of darkness to them. Coleman has plenty of experience dealing with the otherworldly from her time on "Doctor Who," so hopefully it's enough to help her figure out one of comic history's most complicated characters and win over the frustrated fanboys. 

"The Sandman" premieres on Netflix on August 5, 2022.