For 300 issues, Hellblazer stood as one of DC’s most consistently acclaimed comic series, with many of the industry’s greatest talents telling the brutal and bizarre adventures of beloved antihero John Constantine.
Now, writer Simon Spurrier and artist Aaron Campbell team to bring Constantine back to his (very) mature readers roots with John Constantine: Hellblazer, a new series debuting this month as part of the Sandman Universe. DC Nation talked with both Spurrier and Campbell about what they’ve got in store for the “bastard with a conscience.”
John Constantine has one of the most impressive creative legacies of any DC character. What excites you about taking him on? What qualities of the character are you zeroing in on?
Simon Spurrier: This’ll seem an odd thing to say about a notorious cheat and dabbler in the dark arts, but it’s his honesty I love. By which I obviously don’t refer to the way he interacts with other people—he’s a prolific liar—but to his unshakeable self-knowledge. He knows exactly what he is. He doesn’t pretend to be a hero, doesn’t claim to be perfect, doesn’t presume to represent or inspire anyone. He’s done awful things and he knows he’ll do a bunch more. He’s riddled with guilt. In short, he’s a bastard with a conscience, always doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and that’s an utterly compelling combination.
So, I’ll be zeroing in on that side of things quite a bit, in amongst all the occult horror you’d expect. One of the cool ways we’ll be dragging John through the emotional brambles is to make him feel lonely. He’s always had a seemingly limitless supply of old friends and contacts whose help and support he can beg (and whose loyalty to him is generally rewarded with betrayal). Well, not this time. Due to the circumstances of his return, he’s on his own. A stranger in a strange land. So, we’re going to watch him struggle with that, trying to collect new people in the worst possible ways.
Aaron Campbell: Much of my take focuses on the long shadow of his past and the anxiety of his present. John has been gone for a long time, and the world has moved on quite dramatically. I have a feeling he’s going to have a bit of a hard time adjusting.
We catch a glimpse of that right off the bat. He wants to be better, but can he? John is someone continuously scrambling to catch up, struggling to just pull it together. So, with all that in mind, I just think about what that person would look and act like if they could also summon demons and had a penchant for trench coats.
How does it feel to be working on the first mature readers Hellblazer series in years?
Spurrier: Breathtakingly perfect. Insanely difficult. And long overdue.
Campbell: It’s utterly humbling. I know there is an expectation from our readers, an intense expectation. The original Hellblazer series was always concerned primarily with deeply human fears and its creators always confronted that idea fearlessly. It is what made the series so compelling and broadly accessible. In these troubled times, I believe Si and I are ready to charge into the fray.
What can you share about where the series finds Constantine—and how it fits into the Sandman Universe?
Spurrier: It’s quite a trick. In order to bring John back to a classic Hellblazer vibe—mature-content, character-led horror, grounded in the real world—you first have to acknowledge that there are conflicting versions of the character and his continuity getting in the way.
Our approach was to go right back to a scene in the original Books of Magic miniseries Neil Gaiman wrote in 1990. That story’s young protagonist, Timothy Hunter, is taken on a tour of various potential futures. In one of them he witnesses an apocalyptic magical conflict, in which an older and wearier John Constantine has been mortally wounded, bleeding-out while the world burns around him. Neil proposed that that version of John Constantine could be our way into the story. He’d have all the memories and experiences of the Hellblazer version of John, plus a few horrific extras to boot, and his existence in that potential future sidestepped all the uncertainties about John’s fate. If we could figure a cool way to basically pick him up at the moment of his death and drop him directly into our own real world, then hey, presto—we’re up and running.
I won’t spoil quite how I’ve done it, but it involves John striking a deal with a mysterious stranger, with his soul as collateral. He never learns, does he?
Anyway, that transition, from magical warzone to modern day London, forms the backbone of the Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer special drawn by Marcio Takara. What’s really lovely about it is that it also acts as a sort of tonal segue from the color and craziness of a superhero universe to the far more grounded horror of our Hellblazer reality. So, when we launch Hellblazer #1, we’re right back where we belong with the dirty, real-world, street-level occultism.
There’s one other major crossover right at the start. I’m co-writing Books of Magic #14 with Kat Howard, which deals with a moment shortly after John’s return to London. Having witnessed the horrors of that magical war—which, by the way, was caused by an older, tyrannical version of Timothy Hunter himself—John’s obviously keen to check-in on the little brat to see whether he’s going down that dark path or not. So that issue essentially takes the form of an Are You Evil test. It’s a lot of fun, with some very neat storytelling trickery built in.
How do you describe the overall tone and feel of the series? What flavors of horror are you exploring?
Spurrier: One of the beauties of a series like Hellblazer, which is made up of an endless series of short arcs, is that there’s a huge range to what we can do. For instance, the first arc is a three-part story called “A Green And Pleasant Land,” which revolves around some truly creepy manifestations happening in a London park after dark—a park which happens to be the turf of a local drug gang. It’s a sort of unique melding of literary gothic horror, body terror and street crime, with John Constantine caught in the middle.
But then the next arc along will pivot towards a more blackly comedic tone for a couple issues, then we’re into a whimsically poetic one-shot, and so on and so forth. There’s no limit to what you can do when the only connective gristle is the presence of a tired occultist.
Actually, I say “the only connective gristle”, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn—in the best traditions of the “American Gothic” arc in Swamp Thing, which first introduced Constantine all those years ago—that there are subtle threads linking everything together…building towards a horrific climax...
Campbell: I think what we’re creating is social Hammer horror. It’s got that vibrant Victorian sensibility of classic horror mixed with an unhealthy does of urban decay, all the while speaking truth to power. And what could be more dreadfully fun than that?
Aaron, what’s it been like working with Si on the series?
Campbell: Si’s scripts are incredible. They are like gonzo fever dream nightmares and I f*cking love it. There’s never a dull moment. Nothing ever drags, even in the quietest sequences. It’s overwhelming, but in the best way, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing right now.
Aaron Campbell and Hellblazer is a match made in…heaven? Si, how have you enjoyed collaborating with him on this series?
Spurrier: He’s perfect for it. Precisely the right balance of realism and nuanced horror. His London feels like a haunted city, with something terrifying lurking in every black shadow. And a book like Hellblazer lives or dies on the acting of its characters. Aaron’s facial beats and body-language game is second to none. We got really lucky getting this guy on the book.
Constantine debuted nearly 35 years ago. What makes him uniquely relevant today?
Campbell: He fearlessly speaks truth to power and we need that now, desperately so.
Spurrier: I think he’s a great (cracked) lens through which to see the world. Having been away for a long time, he’s kinda startled to see what our world is like—who’s in charge, what’s on the news. We’re living through some truly extraordinary times, but we’ve mostly normalized it for the sake of our own mental survival. John, seeing it all with fresh eyes, doesn’t have that luxury.
As for what he can do about it…well, look out the window. There are no heroes to save us. Maybe it’s time we gave the bastards a chance.