More Conman Than Magician: Simon Oliver And Moritat On ‘The Hellblazer’ [Interview]
John Constantine's transition back into the DC Universe has been a bit of a rocky road over the past six years, but recently a balance has been struck and the cheeky and charming conjurer now feels at home once again among the likes of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
This month Constantine returns in a brand new ongoing series The Hellblazer by Simon Oliver and Moritat, launching with The Hellblazer: Rebirth #1. The new series sees John return to Great Britain and come face to face with literal demons from his past. ComicsAlliance chatted with the creative team about their plans for Constantine's return home, and Oliver's enduring hatred of the man the character is based on.
ComicsAlliance: The new issue balances Vertigo Hellblazer and New 52 Hellblazer really well. How do you achieve that balance?
Simon Oliver: Thanks. I think it was actually a little easier for me, partly because I’m English and partly because I’m a bit of a bitter bastard myself. The frightening thing is the “Constantine” Vertigo-era voice is pretty much what goes on in my head all the time anyway (pity my poor children). So I really had that part down, and then I just added some superheroes here and there and “Bob’s yer uncle” as you might say.
I did also read and reread a lot of old issues, starting with Constantine’s first appearance in Swamp Thing all the way up to the New 52, and ending with the recent run, about 250 issues in all. So I have a pretty good overview of who the character is, and feel pretty comfortable about cherry picking from his past.
CA: How do you approach continuity with a character like John Constantine, who up until recently had a very defined and trackable past?
SO: Part of the brief that editorial gave me was to take John Constantine back to his roots, so I suddenly had the luxury of all that great continuity to play with. Which is pretty great. I’m able to reference pieces of his past, like the tree tattoo on his arse, and at the same time not ignore his recent adventures in NYC.
To me it’s all part of that tapestry that came before. I think I got lucky in the “Rebirth” event as I didn’t pick up a character who’d been broken and really needed that much “fixing.” He might have taken a wrong turn or two over twenty plus years, but all I had to do was dust him off, do right by his past, and double down on his Englishness.
Moritat: I think that is a skill set you have to have working in contemporary comics. Read everything, interview fans, discuss with managers of comic stores, observe cosplay. Our job is to respect everything with a vision of moving forward without jumping the shark.
CA: John’s a conman as much as he is a magician, is it challenging to create new grifts for him to worm his way out of the messes he makes?
SO: I agree, but I’d go one step further and say he’s more conman than magician. I think he’s actually quite crap at magic, and it should always be a last resort.
To me the best Hellblazer stories are the ones with the least magic in them. Which is great, because if I only had magic to fall back on, you’d be right, it would be hard to keep it fresh, but as a conman, someone like John Constantine, who survives on his wits and his ability to trick people, that’s pretty much a bottomless well.
M: Simon and I are hired based on long cons we have pulled in the past. So, the combination of stories and snaking out of prickly situations are in good hands with this duo.
CA: How heavily featured is Swamp Thing in The Hellblazer?
SO: He’s a supporting character, but his story will be woven in throughout. So he’ll be appearing and disappearing along the way. I like the yin and yang that’s gone on between them through the years.
CA: Aside from Swamp Thing, will we be seeing more from supporting cast members Chas and Mercury?
SO: Chas, of course, gotta have poor Chas in it. Mercury is an old, old character, just a kid when she was in the [Jamie] Delano run, now all grown up and with her own issues. Clarice is there, and also Map makes an appearance.
CA: Have you got any DC Universe characters you’re dying to bring in for a cameo?
SO: That’s still a little up in the air, I really want to bring Wonder Woman in and have an issue of just her and John Constantine. No magic, no super powers, just John taking her out drinking in London, while she tries to figure out what makes him tick.
I know there is some consternation about Constantine being in the DCU and not just a Vertigo character now. Which yeah, I get it, but at the same time, think of the possibilities? I don’t see it as Constantine in the DCU so much as the DCU coming into his world. Think of the fun to be had with that.
M: I have three that I am dying to play with if DC lets us.
CA: Was it important to get John Constantine back to his roots and bring him back to England?
SO: I liked the recent run a lot. I liked what they did with the character, but I do think it was time to bring him home. There’s something about a damp, depressing country that brings out the best/worst in Constantine. I think the USA is ultimately too optimistic for someone like him. That said, I’ve been here [in the US] over 20 years now and I’m still bitter and twisted, only with a suntan.
M: For me the setting is a main character. The last DC series I worked on [All Star Western] was jokingly referred to as “All Star Eastern Seaboard.” It was great fun taking an archetype and putting him in a strange land. So now I am looking forward to working with John Constantine in his native element. To which I, as the artist, am a stranger.
CA: Constantine’s back home, and in real life Great Britain feels a lot different than it perhaps did when you began working on the series. Are the real world issues and divisions that affect the country going to seep into Constantine’s ongoing conflict?
SO: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy… I really want to touch on some of the politics Delano used to have ticking away in the background of the old stories. I do think that was a big part of the books original success. I have my fair share of Trump references in the first few issues, but it’s all moving too fast now. But yes, as a character he’s always been a reflection of the world he’s in, and his sense of social justice has always kind of redeemed him a little, so as much as I can, I want the book to reflect that.
CA: John Constantine was originally visually based on Sting. Is that a likeness that still holds up today, or was the some refreshing of how modern Constantine looks?
SO: Some couples share hobbies, other have mutual interests, matching leisure wear even, but if there is one thing that brings me and my wife together more than anything else it’s a deep hatred of all things Police, up to and including the lead singer. I despise The Police with the passion and fury of a thousand suns.
M: We went back and studied various incarnations. John Constantine is famous for having very different writer/artist arcs that fans accept rather seamlessly. Visually you have the 'jumper incarnation', the 'Quadrophenia dandy version', and the ‘bearded, tee and jeans phase'. So we are starting with the basic cape and cowl and inventing and creating from there.
SO: Next question.
CA: What is the process of collaboration like between the two of you when it comes to designing the demons and monsters Constantine encounters?
SO: It’s still early days, but I’ll pull a reference or two and a general overview of the demons and bad guys and see where we go with it. I always see the script as a starting point, not an end point of the process; there’s always room to explore and find new angles I might have missed while writing it.
M: Simon gave me direction and some books to read, we discussed some attributes of demons and fallen angels that we like, and I hit the bars and warrens of where some of these beauties can be found.
CA: I don’t want to give the end of the new issue away, but there’s a certain House of Cards feel to it that I wasn’t expecting. Is that going to continue through the series?
SO: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it like that, but yes, I guess it is. I mean, after twenty plus years I feel like we know the character well enough to talk to him one-on-one. I feel like it helps fill in that gap between what’s happening on the page and what’s going on his mind.
And I know exactly the lines you’re referring to, right at the end and without giving too much away, that’s how I feel about the book and the character. As much as anything I don’t want to be wishy-washy about my take on John Constantine; here he is, warts and all. Love him or leave him.
The Hellblazer: Rebirth #1 goes on sale July 20.