Now, that John Constantine has returned. It happened in the one-shot issue The Sandman Universe Presents Hellblazer, in stores this week, and continues next month in a brand-new John Constantine: Hellblazer ongoing series by Si Spurrier (The Dreaming, Coda) and Aaron Campbell (Infidel).
Heat Vision spoke to Spurrier and Campbell about the new series and got an extended look at artwork from the first issue. (It seemed like the best way to celebrate Halloween, really.)
Constantine is a genuinely iconic character, and one who’s been written and illustrated by all manner of greats. When approaching him, does the excitement of getting to play with him outweighs the feeling of “don’t screw it up”? Or is that something that simply comes with the territory of working inside the Sandman Universe?
Si Spurrier: There’s definitely trepidation. Hellblazer’s one of a handful of titles that I can directly credit with shifting my brain — and thereafter my life — onto a highly comics-oriented track. That said, there’s a strange sort of rightness to it. When I was first trying to get published in 2000 AD, it felt like any writer with more than a passing relationship to bastardliness, especially the Brits, would eventually get their shot at writing JC. When Hellblazer folded at issue No. 300, I figured I’d missed my chance. I packed away all those half-formed ideas, or spun them out into other things, and got on with my career. Then one day I took a call with Neil Gaiman, expecting his usual volley of avuncular yet laser-beam-incisive notes on The Dreaming [a continuation of Gaiman’s Sandman], only to hear, “Actually, first we wanted to ask you about something else…” It feels simultaneously nerve-wracking yet curiously inevitable.
Aaron Campbell: The inclination to be overwhelmed by the responsibility of doing this the right way is absolutely there. Thankfully, the excitement really does outweigh all other considerations. This whole thing is a bit fortuitous actually. About six years ago I did my first work at DC. It was a small six-pager in House of Mystery. I remember telling myself something at the time. It wasn’t even a thing that I allowed myself to speak aloud: One day I would draw John Constantine for DC. I filed that thought away back in my lizard brain and let the notion fester and guide my work down that ol’ left-hand path. My art developed from there, going into even darker, grittier, more intense regions, becoming ever more appropriate for John’s world. And then, early this year, DC editor Chris Conroy just offered Hellblazer to me. This is something I didn’t ask for. I was floored. So this was supposed to happen. Fate always works out. Right? No pressure at all.
When you’re working on a character this well established, is it more difficult to find places to go that haven’t already been explored? The Vertigo version of this character ran across 25 years, after all; that’s a lot of material already covered. What is it like finding the middle ground between something that feels appropriately “Constantine” — in terms of writing and visuals — and something new and novel enough to keep yourselves interested?
Campbell: John is like a lens that filters our world in the moment we live. I think the only way he could lose his novelty and relevance is if we entered some kind of Star Trek-style utopia. As long as people continue to be monstrous to each other, though, Constantine will occupy a much-needed place as an arbiter of our darker nature.
Spurrier: Honestly, coming up with new stories is the least difficult part. There’s always a new con, a new bit of folklore, a new spooky tale, a new act of human revulsion or redemption to glorify. And I think I have a decent enough grasp of who John is — put bluntly, there’s nothing more wretched than a bastard with a conscience — to let him blunder about under his own steam more than I might another character.
The more challenging element is the tone, which has to satisfy the dyed-in-the-wool Hellblazer fan as well as welcoming in anyone who’s discovered the character via one of his more dialed-up, if not outright spandex-y, recent incarnations. The one-off special issue, which dropped this week before the ongoing, has the difficult task of not only laying the groundwork for the new status quo but also bridging the tonal gulf. Hence, it begins in a vein which will feel quite familiar to those who’ve discovered John via his DCU appearances — lots of color, insane things happening and crackly magical explodo — and then via various twists and turns it transitions toward a more nuanced, horror-centric reality of hauntings, slithering half-seen influences and embittered liars getting drunk in pubs. So that by the end of the issue we are entirely in Hellblazer territory.
As you’re saying, the Constantine on show in this series doesn’t necessarily match the version audiences have seen in his most recent comic appearances in things like Justice League Dark, or on TV’s Legends of Tomorrow — but how would you say this one is different?
Spurrier: We’ve deliberately tried to reclaim a sense of what made [the first Hellblazer series] such an influential and memorable title — by which I mean a quasi-procedural drama with a roughly supernatural tone, whose short arcs tend to combine into broader macro stories, in which the fiddly ephemera of magic is far less important than the sneakiness of the protagonist, and which isn’t afraid to combine horror with, at turns, black humor, romance, tragedy and crime. Whereas we’ve tried to embrace all that, it would’ve been daft to just drop back into John’s life and pretend nothing had changed.
S, the biggest difference he’s facing — which will drive a lot of the drama — is simply that he’s been away for long enough that he’s now a stranger in his own life. There are monsters and fools in charge of the world, and where once he had a near-endless Rolodex of old mates and lovers on whom he could rely for help, and whom he would almost inevitably betray for the greater good, he’s now on his own. “I’m not lonely,” as he says in issue 1, lying through his teeth. “I like being on my own.” Oh, John.
We all know someone like Constantine. He’s a collector of people. The life and soul of the party, because as long as he feels like people admire him — as long as he has a circle to make him feel wanted — he doesn’t have to think about all the terrible things he’s done, and all the terrible things he will absolutely, invariably, inevitably continue to do.
Campbell: As Si said, John is now a stranger in his own life. This is probably the first time he’s been truly alone for the first time in his adult life. He has to rebuild everything. That includes his image. I’m conscious of going back to basics while understanding that Constantine will have a palpable response to his situation. If you were finally allowed some rest from a restless life and then suddenly drawn back into the shit show, what would that look like? Probably something quite haggard. So that’s where I’m starting. Every moment at this point could easily be captioned with “Oh, bollocks.”
How does this new series interconnect with the rest of the Sandman Universe line? Constantine has a relationship with Tim Hunter from Books of Magic, of course, but beyond that?
Spurrier: We’ve been careful not to overload it with crossover tendrils. I’ve always been of the view that when continuity is handled right, it should feel like a bonus for the veteran readers rather than an obstacle course for rookies. So yes, the sneaky narrative trick we’re playing in order to restore our John to his rightful turf hinges on events first chronicled by Neil Gaiman in the 1990 Books of Magic miniseries. But we’ll be replaying those events through John’s eyes — during the special one-shot this week — in such a way that you really don’t need any prior knowledge to understand what’s going on.
After we’ve got the dour old sod back into the “real” world in the present, the only lingering thing that’s really bugging him is, “What became of Timothy Hunter?” So I co-wrote an issue of Books of Magic, it’s No.14, I believe, with regular series scribe Kat Howard. That’s a really nice tale in which John sits down with Tim to basically figure out whether he really is a nice little kid or an apocalyptic evil waiting to bloom. Which is a lot of pressure to put on a teenager’s shoulders. The issue makes use of a very neat narrative gimmick of which we’re all rather proud.
Si, I’m trying to think of a way to say “You’ve written a lot of bastards in your time” that doesn’t sound like an accusation and failing completely. But from Lobster Random and Jack Point to, say, Aphra, you seem to have an affinity for writing people who are very aware of number one, shall we say. Did all of that prepare you for writing one of comics’ most well-known bastards?
Spurrier: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess so. At the risk of generalizing, I think the background radiation of the British cultural consciousness is more comfortable around flawed heroes, antiheroes and outright bastards than an average sampling of the U.S. psyche. We Brits tend to get very awkward around anything unadulterated — sincere displays of emotion and suchforth — so all those “do good because it’s the right thing to do” spandex guys can feel either ridiculous or suspicious. Like: what are they really up to?
My feeling with John — and, actually, this is true of most of the characters you’ve mentioned — is that he’s weirdly honest. Oh, not to the people around him, whom he’ll thoughtlessly lie to, cheat and swindle, but to himself. He knows exactly what he is. He doesn’t pretend to be a hero. He’s never wanted or expected to be anyone’s role model. He’s betrayed, killed or damned just about everyone who ever got close to him, and — the tragedy — he knows he’ll probably keep on doing that. Yes, sure, you could argue he’s always doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but the point is, he’s riddled with guilt. As I said before, a bastard with a conscience. Doomed to keep fucking up, no matter how much he might wish he was a better man.
A tradition for Constantine stories, and something that makes him different from a lot of long-lived characters, is to be additive and create new friends, enemies and acquaintances for John with each new creative team. You’re adding a particularly notable character with your run with the introduction of K-Mag. What can you say about him, without spoiling the story?
Spurrier: He’s the top dog in a gang of juvenile drug dealers operating out of Peckham Rye — a patch of south London very close to my heart. Whereas most youth gangs tend to form along racial lines of one sort or another, K-Mag, which is a contraction of his full title, King Magpie, has an almost egalitarian approach to building his crew, the Ri-Boys. He sees himself as offering a refuge against the snobbery, hatred and racism of modern London. Of course, he’s also an evil crack-dealing fuckhead who sends teenagers out on suicidal knife missions, so let’s not get too excited about his progressive politics.
Like most things in John Constantine’s world, K-Mag comes complete with a sinister dose of occultism in his own right. He’s a practicing Haruspex; a scryer or seer who gets his visions of the past, present and future from the arrangement of the blood, flesh and guts of…well, let’s say “animals.” For now. He needs John because, whereas his skills allow him to see far and wide, when something even worse than he is moves onto his turf and starts murdering his dealers, there’s not much he can do about it. Quite why John Constantine would choose to help such a horrible individual is, I’m afraid, something you shall have to learn for yourselves.
Being cynical and terrible, I have to finish with this: What should THR readers expect from John Constantine: Hellblazer as a series? What can you say to lure unsuspecting — and suspecting, of course — minds in?
Campbell: Johnny boy is back.
Spurrier: We launch with a three-part arc about some plucky young crack dealers getting skinned alive by a bunch of utterly terrifying angels, which sort of sets our stall for this whole “mature content” thing. The first panel of the first page is literally a big plate of guts, which somebody’s using as a scrying medium. That arc’s titled “A Green and Pleasant Land,” drawn by the incomparable Mr. Campbell, with colors by Jordie Bellaire and letters by Aditya Bidikar. A curious mix of literary elements, gangland crime and street-level occultism.
The second arc will be a little more blackly comedic (I love that under the auspices of “horror” one can pivot in so many directions), being a two-parter called “Scrubbing Up,” drawn by my old Coda brother Matias Bergara. Expect evil ravens, hipsters performing pun-magic and John getting drunker than you’ve ever seen him before. Fun.
And that’s quite enough tidbits for now.
John Constantine: Hellblazer No. 1 will be available in stores Nov. 27.