The next age of John Constantine has officially begun in DC Comics, giving its hero a new lease on life... and no intention of using it to better himself in any possible way. The foul-mouthed spellcaster fans know and love is back on the case in JOHN CONSTANTINE: HELLBLAZER #1 available today.
After October saw the release of The Sandman Universe Presents Hellblazer #1 (which is also available at your local comic book shop), John's doomed mission revealed him at the end of the world, torn asunder in a massive magical war. But after being dropped back into the world he left behind -- thanks to magic, what else -- John is back in London, back to his old tricks, and back on the job. The new series from writer Si Spurrier (The Dreaming) and artist Aaron Campbell (Infidel) wastes no time in conjuring a strange new threat, along with a gun to John's head forcing him to sort it all out. Screen Rant got the chance to ask Spurrier and Campbell what fans can expect from the new series, the Sandman Universe issue 'reset'... even that apparent confirmation that Keanu Reeves' Constantine is part of DC canon. The full interview can be found below.
The most recent one-shot, The Sandman Universe Presents Hellblazer #1 seemed to be something of a ‘reset’ for John’s character, having been given (or traded for) a second chance at life, but retaining the memories of his past stories. That seems like a really clever way to create a starting point where both newer and older readers can feel like the table’s been cleared for their sake. Was that part of the goal for where that issue lands?
Si Spurrier: Thank you! And yeah, that’s exactly it. We needed a way of acknowledging and paying our respects to all the many excellent narratives, which swirl nebulously around the character, but also to cut back the thickets of complication and draw a line under the continuity contradictions.
A completist fan knows there are, by now, several different “versions” of everyone’s favourite bastard, John Constantine. Some have hazy connective tissue between them; others exist in isolation. My contention has always been that a character’s backstory (like all the granularity of a shared-universe’s continuity) should serve as a bonus to the veteran reader, never as an obstacle to the rookie. Our mission with the Special was simply to zoom-in on the particular version of John we most wanted to pursue in the ongoing book (that being a sweary, haunted, guilt-riddled man, with a metric f***-ton of traumatic memories in his head but the sputtering candle of redemptive hope still just about alight).
Equally as important was to bring him back to a recognisably “real” world, essentially our own, and to do so in such a way that the veteran fans didn’t feel we were cheating and the new readers didn’t feel like they had a bunch of homework to do before they could understand what the f*** was going on.
It’s all in service of the ongoing series, basically, which starts this month. We need to be able to dive straight in, with John back on his lonely beat, in London, in the classic Hellblazer mode. And that’s exactly where mine and Aaron’s new #1 begins. With deep, dirty horror in London town.
I think both sides of the Hellblazer style are incorporated within these first pages of Issue #1 with beautiful, horrifying, mystical imagery, before diving into the gutter with John. But when those two sides collide by the end of the issue, they make perfect sense to be coexisting. The result is seamless, but how much of a challenge is it to thread that needle? Is it a case of you both finding that tone together?
SS: I’ll let Aaron lean into this one, because the tonal shifts are one of the many skills that make him so perfect for this book. As I writer I’d simply mutter something about most of this stuff being instinctive (one knows better than to maintain a single relentless vibe in any story for too long, without injecting a moment of levity or action or whatever-it-may, to keep the narrative heart pumping) and that horror is the most agreeably flexible of all genres when it comes to these sharp pivots.
Aaron Campbell: Horror, more than any other genre, IMHO, traffics in the chaotic breadth of human emotion. Of course its ultimate goal is to either simply terrify or illuminate through the vehicle of terror. Either way terror lives within the boundaries of uncertainty and the subversion of security. It plays upon our fears by violating our expectations and revealing our fragility.
Horror, therefore, is dependent upon tonal shifts within the narrative and visual structure of the story. It keeps the reader off balance and that lack of balance is what opens the mind to the shocking, the weird, and the horrifying. I mean you can experiment in ways that would be very difficult in other genres. As an artist it allows me to flex between absolute realism, grotesque abstraction, and the ecstatically fantastic without taking the reader out of the story.
I think the Special also reminds fans a massive magical war isn’t where John Constantine really belongs. Or where he deserves to be, and Chas calls him out on that. This first issue has a character instantly know John is someone who “collects” people, which feels like continuing that condemnation. Why was it so important to you that John be forced to acknowledge his past in that way?
SS: Here’s a little story. I chatted recently with Garth Ennis about Constantine. He said that, whereas he’d come into his (seminal, classic, 100% required reading) run of Hellblazer as an avid fan of the character, by the end of his stint he’d come to question his affection. He’d met too many guys like JC in the real world. Guys who sit in pubs and tell amazing stories. They’re charming and funny and they wear their flaws on their sleeves, and it’s impossible not to be drawn to them. But - if you get to know those guys any deeper? You start to realise they don’t seem to have any other friends. And, actually, if you bother to ask around, you’ll learn that there’s a reason they spend their lives on barstools being charming to strangers. It’s because they’ve systematically f***ed-over, exploited or betrayed anyone who was ever stupid enough to trust them, leaving a trail of devastation and enmity. They are the world’s loveliest parasites.
I know guys like that. Guys you’re desperate to help. Guys you want to spend time with, because they’re smart and romantic and sentimental (in a deliciously unsentimental way), and above all just so f***ing fun. But: don’t you trust them. Don’t you ever trust them.
(They’re always guys, by the way. This is a uniquely male archetype of needy alpha toxicity.)
Well. I realised that when Garth said all this, it wasn’t a surprise. I think, simply because I’ve had the benefit of reading Garth’s run, and all the many other since, that I already knew this about John. And yet somehow I loved him anyway. Maybe I’m just his perfect breed of sucker.
...But I thought long and hard about it, and I realised what really drew me to the character was his utter, devastating self-knowledge. He knows he’s a shit. He feels ohhh, just dreadful about it. But he’ll keep being one anyway, because more often than not the benefits of his betrayals slightly outweigh the personal and emotional horror. He is, in short a bastard with a conscience. And that’s about as compelling an individual -- to write and/or to read -- as I can imagine.
Well, to circle back to your question? I realised that in order to write this character with any honesty it was important that my readers come at it from the same direction. So, yeah, it’s right there in issue #1. An exceptionally insightful woman takes one look at him and diagnoses his particular strain of bullshit. He shrugs it off, lamely, but you can tell she’s got him bang to rights.
The idea is that readers are invited to join me in enjoying John’s adventures, and to help me on my (probably doomed) quest to help him truffle about in the mud and filth of his own soul for some semblance of redemption -- but never to mistake him for a role model.
I do love that you can use Constantine to tell a story about a protagonist who isn’t evil, but isn’t exactly “good,” either. It’s not even clear if he’s fighting a battle out of habit, obligation, or a shimmer of selflessness. Is that going to change along with this new status quo he’s returned to, or is that part of what makes a Hellblazer story?
SS: The latter. I think the one who understands John’s motivations least of all is John. That’s part of what makes him so horribly interesting.
I was really impressed with the pacing of this first issue, in how it swings from the hauntingly colorful, elaborate, otherworldly horror, into John’s incredibly haggard world, and back again. Was that a part of structuring this story, finding where and how those moments are best delivered?
SS: Yeah, totally. See above answer re: instinctive changes of pace, basically. One of the delights of a book like ‘Blazer, with its quasi-procedural, arc-of-arcs style setup, is that you can keep experimenting with tones, narrative tricks and perspectives. There’s no such thing, really, as a formulaic Hellblazer story. Readers will find that either endlessly rewarding -- or intimidating, depending on their tastes.
The issue obviously ends with the suggestion of a new backdrop for a different (but equally disturbing) kind of threat in London. I’m guessing that ‘dark horrors playing out in the UK parliament’ means something different to a British writer and an American artist, so what can you tease about this coming arc?
SS: Not much! I think the key takeaway of that ending -- for readers of any nation -- is that there’s a faint but definite link between the low-down, dirty, street-level details of the main story, with something far grander and more institutional waiting to be excavated.
Goes without saying, Moore’s American Gothic arc from Swamp Thing is the exemplar of this form. Small ripples gradually leading our attention, story-by-story, towards something huge splashing amidst dark and deep waters.
AC: I’m a total anglophile and have traveled quite a bit in the UK over the last five years so this all makes sense to me, at least on a foundational level. But even if I’d never stepped foot on English soil I’m sure there would remain something hauntingly familiar about what’s happening in parliament. I think it would engender the same response if that last image were a similar, yet slightly different building, here in the States. Something, say, in a white marble.
And finally, given the reception from Constantine fans to seeing you and Marcio Takara include Keanu Reeves among John’s ‘other lives’ in that special issue... was that intended as a treat for them, or just yourselves?
SS: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Keanu Reeves? What’s he got to do with anything? You’re weird, you. [koff]
John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 is available now at your local comic book shop. To get the whole story, be sure to look for The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer #1 Special one-shot issue, as well.