John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 from DC Comics hits your local comic book shop this Wednesday, and Monkeys Fighting Robots was able to speak with writer Si Spurrier and artist Aaron Campbell about the new Black Label series.
About the book:
John Constantine is back in London, back to his old tricks-and just in time, as things have become very dark indeed in his old stomping grounds. A small-time gang lord has found himself dealing with a big-time outbreak of supernatural weirdness…and without any allies to call on and nothing left to call his own, John doesn’t have much choice about taking a paycheck from one of London’s worst, or accepting the help of one of the gang lord’s would-be foot soldiers. But what should be an open-and-shut exorcism turns out to be nothing but…and the author of this madness may just be getting started on their terrible masterpiece!
Rounding out the creative team: Jordie Bellaire handled colors, letters are by Aditya Bidikar, John Paul Leon worked on the cover, and Charlie Adlard brought the variant cover to life.
John Constantine: Hellblazer #1 starts off a new ongoing series spinning out of the Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer one-shot that dropped in October. Spurrier and Campbell talk about that below, as well as storytelling building blocks, and the bond between writer and artist.
Monkeys Fighting Robots: What are the elements that make up John Constantine that if you removed any, it would cease to be a Constantine comic?
Si Spurrier: Conscience.
Take that away, and all that’s left is a toxic user and manipulator who can’t escape his addiction to the darkness, and can’t stop betraying the people he loves.
Leave the conscience in place, and you have one of the most compellingly fascinating characters ever created. A bastard who knows he’s a bastard and hates it, but keeps being one anyway.
Aaron Campbell: This is pretty much the same thing as conscience, but I would narrow in specifically on the idea of regret as well. Regret is a potent force in John’s life, so much so that it acts like a beacon for the spirits of all those he ever screwed over. It keeps him tethered firmly to his past, forcing him to face his crimes whether he wants to or not. But I believe his regret isn’t just focused on the rearview. I get a real sense that John deeply regrets everything he knows he has yet to do.
MFR: What’s your reaction when you see a page colored by Jordie Bellaire for the first time?
Spurrier: A bruised chin.
She’s good. She’s really, really good.
Campbell: Jordie is amazing. It took her no time to figure out how to color my work. It’s pitch-perfect. And when my stuff gets weird and more experimental, she really lets loose, and it is spectacular.
MFR: There are a few silent panels in the first issue. Can you talk about the relationship between artist and writer when there are no words to convey the story and or emotion?
Spurrier: Silent panels are a ridiculously important part of the storytellers’ kit. They do a dozen different jobs depending on the story or the vibe — increasing tension, inserting pauses, creating the illusion of time passing, and so on — but whatever the goal they really do speak to a total trust in the artist’s ability to convey information. As writers, we often have to fight the tendency to overwrite or over-explain, or – conversely – to lean into the juxtaposition of narrative text and imagery to an overwhelming degree. I’ve been guilty of both, at times.
A smart artist who totally gets the story and instinctively channels the correct mood – an artist like Aaron, in fact – mitigates the need for, or risk of, either.
You can always tell when an artist doesn’t get it, or when a writer doesn’t have enough trust, because you’ll find the text and the art both delivering exactly the same message. In fact, that’s become so perniciously prevalent in mainstream comics — constantly handholding the reader to make sure they definitely get what’s going on — that I’ve noticed some editors have learned to abhor silent panels, as nature abhors a vacuum. They’re wrong to do so.
Hellblazer is not the sort of comic that holds your hand.
Campbell: Panels, whether they are silent or filled with dialogue and exposition, all exist within the broader vocabulary of comics. A silent panel is like a punctuation mark. It creates a shift in pace.
So I’ve never really noticed much of a difference in terms of the relationship we share to the page. A panel with no text simply gives me a good chance to connect directly to the viewer. Without words, they are forced to really observe the artwork, take a beat, and process the surrounding narrative. It’s the closest I get to being able to look at the reader directly in the eye. So in those moments, I try to really ramp up the tension and emotional impact in a desperate attempt to get them to linger in that space for just a little while longer.
MFR: We have the first appearance of K-Mag in issue one. Can you talk about the process of creating a new character, especially a villain? Comics have been around for just a bit; how do you stay original?
Spurrier: Switch on the news. Absorb. And when you’ve finished puking your guts up, recontextualize and recombine to make something new. Remember: there’s nothing so awful in aaaaallllll of fiction that it hasn’t been out-awfulled by something real.
For me, the trick — and this is why so many spandex villains just don’t do it for me — is to remember that nobody thinks they’re evil. (At least, very few people, who aren’t also objectively mentally unwell.) “Villains” always have a reason, or at least an excuse, or at the very very least a fuck-ton of retrospective guilt, to psychically sidestep anything so simplistic as a Manichean concept of Eeeevil.
In K-Mag’s case, he’s constructed this flimsy savior complex built around years of resentment and persecution he’s faced, which allows him to see himself as the protector and educator of a group of young delinquents and outcasts, who are shunned and hated by an increasingly racist, biased and loveless world. Which, y’ know, makes him sound like a pretty great guy.
Except that, in practice, he’s the leader of a gang of teenage crack dealers, who frequently sends his young wards out on territorial bloodletting missions to expand his turf, and who practices a particularly vile form of magical scrying involving copious amounts of gore. Also, he has cool tattoos.
Campbell: In reading Si’s description of K-Mag I found myself considering John Landis approaching Rick Baker and saying something to the effect of, “yeah so if you could just create the most realistic on screen depiction of the transformation of a werewolf in the history of cinema that would be great. And make sure we get lots of good shots of individual, I mean thousands of individual, hairs growing out of pores in highly realistic-looking flesh, that would be nice also.” And then I imagine John Landis just leaving and Rick Baker staring blankly into the middle distance for quite some time.
At least that’s the head-canon I made up when I saw that I was going to have to design and then wrap a tessellation pattern of magpies around a human form covering every single square inch of K-Mag’s body and I would have to do this over and over again through many panels. But who doesn’t like a challenge!
MFR: Simon, with a Black Label book, does this change your writing style?
Spurrier: I mean… not really? Part of the job is to understand your audience will be different depending on publisher, character, and tone. Brainstorming never happens in isolation. The process of coming up with ideas to suit a world where people wear leotards and fly, or a world where rusty spaceships have laser beam dogfights without being troubled by the laws of physics, or a world where people use prayer as currency, is exactly the same as coming up with ideas to suit a world where people drop c-bombs like punctuation and every shadow has something horrible lurking in it. You start with the context, you remind yourself of the possibilities and boundaries of your project, and then you just think really really hard until either you have a story or your brain explodes. That’s writing.
MFR: Aaron, is there one panel or page from the first issue that you are most proud of, and why?
Campbell: I have to go with page two. I just love the way the Blake Angels came out. I imagined their faces like masks covering something that possesses no understanding of humanity. They don’t even realize that the eyes they wear should be directed toward their target and maybe blink every once in a while. It’s the vacant, over-the-shoulder look of absolute disregard. They still give me the creeps.
MFR: Because I loved the film since the beginning, and now it’s starting to grow on people, do you want to see Keanu Reeves make another Constantine film?
Spurrier: Ha. My sense is that, whereas that’s a decent film, it’s not the Constantine I grew up reading in Hellblazer comics. (In the same way that I might opine that whereas the John Constantine who’s been seen lately in various roles within the DCU is hugely enjoyable to read, and has featured in some really cracking stories, he too is not the same Constantine I grew up reading in Hellblazer comics.)
So. I would watch and enjoy another Keanu Constantine film, without for one moment caring that it bears remarkably little relationship to its supposed source material.
An aside: as consumers, we’re a lot better at performing these sort of mental acrobatics than content-providers give us credit for. We’re born with a need for good stories, but we have learned this unhealthy and fussy urge to taxonomize every story relative to every other. Who cares if Wolverine is on three different teams? Who cares if it’s literally impossible for Batman to be investigating five different crimes on opposite sides of the planet all in the same week? Are the stories good? Most of us instinctively think like this and relax into the fiction. A few unhappy souls get so hung up on the minutiae that it consumes them when things don’t perfectly tally.
So it goes with Constantine. You either pick the version you love the most, or you read/watch them all and enjoy them on their own merits. For what it’s worth, our version is as close to the one from the classic 300-issue run of Hellblazer as we can make him, walking the streets and getting in trouble amidst our own highly fucked-up real world. But we’re not claiming he’s THE Constantine, any more than is dear old Keanu.
Campbell: What I would love to see is… [It was at this point that the hideous unknowable THING that had been tittering and worrying at Aaron’s studio door burst forth unleashing its nameless primordial appendages and dragging him into some audient void from whence no words could escape.]
MFR: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time and best of luck with the new series.
John Constantine was created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Jamie Delano, and John Ridgway.