When the announcement of DC Rebirth hit there were immediately several characters I was excited to see given a fresh start, John Constantine being one near the top of my list. Fortunately for myself and Constantine fans everywhere, I was recently given the opportunity to interview the man behind The Hellblazer: writer Simon Oliver.
This interview is a must for Constantine fans everywhere. You won’t want to miss Oliver divulging some of his warm fuzzy feelings for the character, what we can expect from Constantine in the future and his dislike for a certain British musician.
AiPT!: What was your reaction when you were first asked to write The Hellblazer for DC’s Rebirth event?
Simon Oliver: Well yeah, I was pretty excited. Despite having no superpowers, being a bit of a wanker and a dodgy morality at best, John Constantine is kind of a comics icon and exists in his own separate dark little corner. I think any and all comic book writers (in particular, English comic book writers) kind of have the same warm fuzzy feelings about him.
AiPT!: With the recent DC Rebirth event, you’re in a unique scenario not a lot of writers find themselves in with preexisting characters they inherit: you get a clean slate. Have you been given the freedom to show the world a new John Constantine or should we expect a reestablishment of his roots?
Simon: Actually when they first called me I was supposed to just pick up the mantle from the last run and go with that, which I would have been fine with. Only later did the “Rebirth” thing come up. It’s one of those rare occasions when you get a job and it kind of gets better after you take it.
As for my overall approach, I really wanted to take him back to his roots and hit on a lot of the early mythology. There was this great 300-issue run to pull from, and I’d be crazy not to use some of it to build on. So in the first arc at least, there’s a lot of visiting old characters and places, to ground him in the Vertigo run, and then from the second arc and on we’re going to be building on that and taking him in some new directions, new places and new characters.
AiPT!: What’s the biggest challenge when writing a character who’s known more for their wits than they are for their abilities?
Simon: It’s all in how you view the character. My golden rule is “solving a problem with magic is a last resort”… and if Constantine has to use magic it has to be supporting the bigger con. A means to an end, rather than the other way around. I’d be totally fine if I never had him drawing a spell and banishing a demon. I know I kind of did it in the first issue, my excuse was that it was only after he won playing chicken with Mercury.
None of the classic (and my favorite) Constantine stories really used magic that much, and in my mind he’s kind of s--t at it. Way more Ron Weasley than Harry Potter. So to me, everything has to be grounded in the characters, what they want, and where the cracks are that Constantine can exploit to get what he wants.
Reading the other characters—that’s what a con-man does and that’s where Constantine’s real skill lies.
AiPT!: Did you know Moritat or his work before The Hellblazer?
Simon: I did not, but then again I don’t get out much.
AiPT!: Is working with him a structured collaboration process or do you have the freedom to simply float him ideas and watch what he comes up with?
Simon: Nowadays I like to write a looser script than I did at one point. I don’t want to totally lay out pages, I want the artist to have as much freedom as I can give them. I might do more of a detailed breakdown on more dialogue-orientated scenes, but the action stuff I’ll give the broad strokes and let him have at it.
I overwrite, especially with the dialogue (my scripts often run 35/40 pages), and then generally cut about 25% of the dialogue on my lettering pass, when I do a rewrite to art. My feeling is if the art conveys a piece of dialogue, I’ll cut it. And if something comes up, inspired by the art, I’ll run with it. It took me a while to figure out and it is quite time consuming, but that rewrite to art is very important to my process now. I don’t like the idea of sending a script in, and getting it drawn exactly as per my instructions anymore—I like the back and forth.
AiPT!: It’s well known that you have a special connection to the Chas Chandler character from writing the series Hellblazer Presents: Chas – The Knowledge. Is there anything you wanted to do with Chas during that time that got left on the table and you’re looking forward to incorporating into The Hellblazer?
Simon: My Chas book was a while ago now, so if I had any great ideas left over I’ve forgotten them by now. But I’ve always felt that Constantine is at his best when he’s interacting with his friends from the “real world,” he’s a grounded character and it’s those scenes that ground him to the world as I know it. In the spin-off, I never really got to write Chas and Constantine together so I’m loving the hell out of doing that now. It’s a super simple, not high concept thing, but I could write pages and pages of just those two bouncing off one another with nothing really ever happening. In my mind it’s those relationships and moments that make Constantine a special character and gives him that unique place in the DCU.
AiPT!: I love Swamp Thing and I’m really excited to see him featured in the first story arc. John and Swamp Thing share a Vertigo heritage and long-standing deep relationship. Are there any other characters with that type of relationship with John that you’re hoping to include in the series?
Simon: Yeah I think next to Chas, Swamp Thing holds a special place in Constantine’s world as “frenemy.” That’s another relationship where I could write those two going back and forth all day as well, there’s so much great backstory and history between them.
As for other characters from the DCU, I’m at the stage of finding out what other characters I’m allowed to bring in. I think in the past, the readers (particularly the Vertigo era fans) haven’t liked the handling of his character in the DCU so much. I think there’s a way to acknowledge that and to take some steps to rectify that in the future. It’s something I’m working on.
AiPT!: Alan Moore claims to have met John Constantine on two occasions. Several other writers who have had their run on the Hellblazer series have also claimed to meet John. If you were to meet him, how would you handle it? Is there something you’d have to ask him?
Simon: I saw Clark Kent driving an Uber the other day, does that count?
Nah, not really, Clark Kent is a comic book character, that would be crazy, but as for John Constantine, yeah I agree he’s out there somewhere for sure…
And if I ever met him, I’d ask him if it bothers him that they based his look on Sting? Because as a life-long [The] Police hater, it would bother the s--t out of me. After thirty plus years of “jazz improv,” bad acting in bad movies, Jag car ads, and boasting about tantric sex, it’s got to piss John off a little.