Sandman: Netflix’s ‘Johanna’ Constantine Confusion & Backlash Explained
A recent casting for Netflix’s The Sandman series sparked controversy, as complaints arose that the character of John Constantine had been gender-flipped. But the Lady Johanna Constantine character at the center of the controversy is a different character to John Constantine and a well-established figure in the Sandman canon. Unfortunately, this simple explanation was muddled after it was later confirmed that actress Jenna Coleman would be playing both Lady Constantine and a character named Joanna Constantine, who would be unique to the Netflix series.
Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman has been a source of no small controversy, in part due to the creative decision to change the apparent gender and race of many key characters. Chief among these was the casting of Gwendoline Christie as The Sandman’s Lucifer, the fallen angel who rules Hell. However, in the cosmology of The Sandman (and the larger Vertigo Comics universe), angels lack physical gender and genitals, no matter how they may choose to present themselves to others. Also, given that cosmic beings such as gods and the Endless tend to appear as what mortals expect, there is no logical reason why The Sandman’s showrunners should have been limited by race and gender in their casting decisions since the original comics were incredibly diverse and LGBTQ+ friendly even by today’s standards.
Ignoring the confusion spread by online trolls and faux-fans, it is easy to see why the announcement that Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who’s Clara Oswald) had been cast as Lady Johanna Constantine might lead some to believe she was a gender-flipped John Constantine, especially given other casting changes in Netflix’s The Sandman. However, Lady Johanna is a different character who is related to but distinct from the infamous Master of the Dark Arts. It would be foolish, however, to dismiss her as a mere female Constantine, as she’s far more dangerous and capable than John Constantine in many respects.
Lady Johanna Constantine is an ancestor of the more well-known John Constantine. Like her descendant, she is implied to have killed her own twin in the womb. She was also an inheritor of the Constantine family curse, which grants one Constantine in a generation a knack for magic at the cost of losing everyone they ever truly loved to the forces of darkness before their own soul is forever damned to Hell. This is something Johanna and John Constantine have in common.
First appearing in The Sandman #13 and created by Neil Gaiman and artist Michael Zulli, Lady Johanna Constantine was born on October 25, 1760. The only surviving child of Lord George and Lady Harriet Constantine, Johanna was orphaned as a teenager after her parents were convicted of treason against King George III of England. This would be the first of many hardships born of ill fortune that Johanna would face over the course of her long life. The details of Johanna’s youth have gone largely unchronicled, beyond her making reference to knowing well from firsthand experience that « bad things happen to little girls on the streets of London. »
In 1785, Johanna was contacted by agents of King George III, who had need of a special agent to retrieve a magical artifact. They said that Johanna had a reputation as « a woman of uncommon wit and exceptional resourcefulness » with « a knack for the impossible. » More importantly, she could be counted on to be discreet. Johanna agreed to help the Crown in exchange for a restoration of her royal title and a yearly allotment of £5000. She succeeded, and was once again the Lady Constantine, with an estate in the town of Wych Cross that she named Fawney Rig, after a classic confidence game.
Like John, Johanna Constantine is a magician, albeit not a truly powerful one. While she knows a number of rituals and can fashion protective circles against demons and other supernatural creatures, Johanna prefers to rely upon her reputation and theatrics over true magic, which tends to be far less reliable than playing on people’s expectations. In this, Johanna Constantine is very much like her descendant, who, while having some degree of magical talent, prefers to leave people guessing as to just how powerful he truly is, so that dangerous magicians dismiss him as a con artist who dabbles in petty hedge wizardry.
While Johanna seems less adept than John in using magic, based on what few stories she’s been in, she is far better trained than him in most other respects. Johanna was said to be a protégé of Chevalier d’Éon, a real-life French diplomat and spy who once infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by posing as a woman for 33 years. It was under d’Éon’s tutelage that Johanna became a master of disguise and an expert at espionage, apparently serving the Royal family for many years as a spy akin to James Bond, even after reclaiming her title.
While her history would be explored in the Hellblazer Special: Lady Constantine miniseries and the Sandman spinoff The Dreaming, Johanna Constantine was originally created for The Sandman and is best known for her appearances in that series. She first appeared in The Sandman #13 as an adversary to the Sandman, a.k.a. Dream of the Endless. In this appearance, she attempted to ambush him during his once-in-a-century meeting with the immortal Hob Gadling, laboring under the mistaken impression that they were the Devil and the Wandering Jew, respectively. This was later revealed to be due to a prophecy that Johanna Constantine had been given in which she was told that her hunting the Devil and the Wandering Jew would lead her to her heart’s greatest desire.
The prophecy proved true, however, as Dream remembered the remarkable young woman and sought her out five years later in 1794 when he had need of a mortal agent. In The Sandman #29, Dream promised Johanna whatever it was in his power to give her in exchange for her aid in a sensitive matter. Precisely what prize Johanna earned for her aid was never revealed, but she was buried in a place of honor on the Greek island of Naxos near the Temple of Orpheus after her death on her 99th birthday in 1859. Centuries later, John Constantine would be called upon to fulfill a similar function, aiding Dream of the Endless in the search for his stolen pouch of magical sand.
After the initial announcement that Jenna Coleman would be playing Lady Johanna Constantine, it was later confirmed that the original misunderstanding had proved prophetic. Now Coleman is slated to play both the Lady Johanna and a female version of John Constantine named Joanna Constantine. In a post on his personal Twitter account, Neil Gaiman explained John Constantine’s absence from Netflix’s The Sandman, maintaining that the decision had nothing to do with diversifying the cast and everything to do with the theatrical convention that it was tidier to have the two related roles played by a single actor.
Gaiman also discussed how the decision to have Coleman play two Johanna Constantine versions did allow them to avoid dealing with the complications caused by using John Constantine for a single-episode cameo. These complications stem from the fact that the character rights for John Constantine are tied up in the Constantine reboot currently being produced for HBO Max by J.J. Abrams. The same rights issues recently led to John Constantine’s character, long played by actor Matt Ryan, exiting the Arrowverse in anticipation of Legends of Tomorrow season 7. While fans of Ryan’s take on Constantine were disappointed that he would not be recreating the role for Netflix’s The Sandman, it seems highly unlikely that Jenna Coleman will disappoint in putting her own spin on the infamous warlock.
Confusion over the dual Johanna Constantine role aside, the backlash to Doctor Who and Victoria star Jenna Coleman being cast as a female Constantine actually has no ground to stand on. As often happens when shows and films cultivate diverse casts, there’s been outcry on the Internet over how the author’s original intent is being changed just to satisfy the progressive agenda. But aside from the fact that Coleman and all The Sandman’s gender- or race-swapped actors play their characters phenomenally well, the argument about subverting Gaiman’s original intent doesn’t apply at all in this case. Gaiman himself originated the Constantine gender-swap and created Lady Johanna. This move on the series’ part is therefore in direct keeping with the source material.
This once again illustrates that outrage over diverse casting is nothing more than sexism and racism under a very flimsy veil. The Sandman season 1 played host to some fine performances, and this is a testament to the actors’ skill and good writing, none of which is inherently tied to race or gender. And as some additional exciting news, there’s been talk of Joanna Constantine getting her own spin-off series, which would deliver even more of Jenna Coleman’s stellar character.