Like John Constantine, Simon Oliver is a man who’s been around the block. He’s penned series such as The Exterminators with Vertigo and Gen¹³ with Milestone. Recently, he worked on FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics with artist Robbi Roderiguez. Now, as part of DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative, Oliver is taking on The Hellblazer himself, teaming up with artist Moritat to bring John Constantine back to England from exile in America.
Oliver is the first British writer to pen The Hellblazer since Peter Milligan’s run ended back around the time of the New 52 launch in 2012. Recently, in celebration of issue #3’s release on Wednesday Ocotober 26, he sat down with Alex Lu and Kyle Pinion of The Comics Beat to discuss what his background adds to the voice of John’s character. The trio also explore the mythological and religious themes behind the current arc’s story and what’s ahead for the great occult detective. We even have a special extended preview of the book!
Editor’s Note [AL]: There are some light spoilers about issue three towards the end of the discussion. The spoilers are in the preview though, so fair warning!
Alex Lu: Reading your run on Hellblazer has been interesting to me, Simon, because I’ve never actually read a Hellblazer story before. What steps are you taking to make sure the series is still accessible to new readers who are less familiar with Constantine’s character?
Simon Oliver: That was going to be my first question to you as someone who hadn’t read it before. I think — and I hate to use the word Easter eggs, for some reason it’s one of those phrases that kind of bugs the shit out of me — but I think a lot of it is, particularly in these first issues. I was literally just having this conversation a couple of hours ago, my ability to ride the line where the long time Vertigo readers are going to be like, “hey, cool, he put the mark on Constantine’s ass,” but then someone who doesn’t know what that tattoo means can still enjoy the book.
This first arc, which I think is six issues, was very much about re-establishing the character and hitting all those marks, but at the same time, if something from the old continuity is super important, it was important to me to set aside the space to kind of explain it in a way. I think probably the best analogy is how classic Simpsons episodes work. My nine-year-old son can really enjoy them on some level. He doesn’t get all the references that an adult might get, all the cultural references, but he’s still going to enjoy it. I think, like a classic Simpsons episode, what I’m aiming for is if you don’t understand something, that’s okay. Maybe you want to go back and read it or something like that, but you’re not going to be wondering what the hell just happened. So most of the references to the old run are more character building things, but hopefully the story is still accessible without knowing 300 issues, 350 or whatever it is, issues of this book.
Kyle Pinion: Was there ever any thought to trying to create some reference or tone that might appeal to the viewers of the much missed television series?
Oliver: No. Maybe if the TV show — and I know it’s popular, and I know a lot of people are picking up the book because of that TV show, so it definitely has something going for it. I think maybe if the show had got picked up and was still going like The Flash, I would probably be getting those kinds of notes from DC. I didn’t think that the TV show was bad at all. I didn’t see all of them. I saw a few though. I think Matt Ryan did a really good job, and I definitely think the Constantine DNA was definitely running through him. I think that Constantine is probably not really that suited for network TV because it has a monster of the week network act structure and I don’t really see Constantine’s story like that. I think Constantine works better when you’re telling a bigger story. Occasionally, yes, you can have those standalone monster-of-the-week issues, but I think it’s better with more of a slow build. I think it would be much better suited to the cable structure. It’s tough though.
When I took Hellblazer, originally I was going to pick it up from the previous arc. Then, once I started working on that, [DC] was like “oh no, we’re going to do a rebirth,” and I had the opportunity to just pick Constantine up and take him back to London…kind of re-establish that character there.
Pinion: Oh, so just to make sure I got that right, you were slated to jump onto the book before DC’s Rebirth became an editorial mandate?
Oliver: Yeah. They had e-mailed me and asked me if I was interested in doing it, and I was like “yeah, sure.” So they sent the Ming Doyle & James Tynion run, which I super enjoyed. I think they did something really interesting with the book and I was perfectly happy to kind of pick that version of the character up and just add a few changes of my own. I don’t really want to copy somebody else’s writing, but I was happy to continue that. But then they’re like oh no, we’re going to rebirth. I was like alright, okay. Alright. So that kind of gave me the chance to you know, take him back to his Vertigo roots, because it always seemed a shame to not really use 300+ issues and 20+ years of history.
I went back and read — I think I’m up to like 220 or something of the original run. I reread them in order just to kind of refresh my memory and also to give me the confidence that I could go toe to toe with any Hellblazer fan and at least you know, at least give as good as I was getting in terms of continuity and who people were.
Pinion: I greatly enjoyed what James [Tynion IV] and Ming [Doyle] did in the previous run, and of course, you know, what Ray [Fawkes] and Jeff [Lemire] did before that, but how important do you think it is to have a British writer putting words in John’s mouth and scripting his adventures?
Oliver: I’m in a funny position because I have dual nationality and I’ve lived in the States as long as I’ve lived in England now — I grew up there for 22 years. I’m not saying that an American writer can’t write Constantine, but there is definitely a certain cadence to his voice and certain references that would make it harder. Not to say that I’m a genius or anything close to it at all. He’s so quintessentially English, so I do think it’s hard to do what I’m doing with the character now; it’s really hard to do that voice without actually being English. To me, he’s very much rooted in the England. His life is shabby pubs and markets and old me. It’s friends you bump into down at the pub who you’ve known for 20 years but all you know them from is at the pub.
You know, he’s very much a part of that England that I’m trying to tap into when I’m writing it, and I just think it’s very hard. If it was me having to write a book about the American South, it would be all but impossible for me to do. You can read about it, and you can ape that in a certain way, but at a certain point it’s going to sound like an English person pretending to be from the South. I do think it’s really hard. Not to say that Americans can’t do it, and there have been some very good runs, you know, like Brian Azzarello’s, and you know, like I was saying, Ming Doyle’s and James’ run on the book I think was really good, but I think the voice is different coming from an English person.
Pinion: No, I agree. As a matter of fact, sometimes while I’m reading the issues, I’ll have to pause to look up a reference or a bit of local dialect.
Oliver: Yes, like jokes about Ronnie Corbett! When they do their censoring run on me, even the legal department has to get Google out. There was one bit that I nearly managed to slip through — nearly went to press, but they finally Googled what a gnat’s chuff was, and they’re like “no, you can’t do that.“
Pinion: You know, another thing you’re doing in these issues is as we discussed at the beginning with the political stuff, you’re sort of bringing back that strong political slant I don’t think we’ve seen since the, you know, Jamie Delano’s run back in the beginning, the anti-Thatcher stuff. Do you find that sort of anti-establishment figure to be an important one for John to strike?
Oliver: Oh yeah. Definitely. And I think it’s kind of an integral part of him. My wife will attest to this as well, but I’m very similar. Like I’m very — I don’t want to say a Democrat, because they’re not even far enough left for me. I’m very much into that end of the political spectrum, but at the same time, I’m kind of an asshole in the same way that he is. It’s like you want to stand up and do the right thing, and you want unions, and you want certain things happening in the world, and you want a level of equality, but you’re still kind of an asshole, and that’s very important to me. I think it’s a really interesting that Constantine will screw his friends over and you know, do fairly despicable and questionable things, but at the end of the day, he’s going to go on — particularly in a Delano run — a march against racism. He’s going to fight back against Thatcher.
Deep down, I think John Constantine believes in the human race. He believes that if we’re left alone long enough from the devils, demons, and various supernatural things in our world that keep interfering that mankind will eventually do the right thing. That contrasts against the bad guy in my arc [Marid] who thinks that, yeah, mankind needs some help. They need leadership. These two opposing worldviews drive my whole bigger story forward.
Lu: I think it’s interesting that you bring up this duality within Constantine. He’s the outer asshole but the inner good guy. He’s a misanthropic, almost degenerate figure but he’s also very socially aware. He has a great grasp on politics and an in-depth knowledge of classic poetry. In your mind, what is the source of this contradiction between the way Constantine presents himself and his internal life?
Oliver: That’s a good one. I don’t know. I think part of it is this world. I mean, I don’t know where John Constantine would be if he wasn’t the magician and living in this world that we’ve given him. I often think about that. It’s like asking “if Superman didn’t have powers, who would he be?” If Constantine hadn’t fallen into this magical world, I don’t think he’d be that dissimilar from whom he is now.
He’s like one of those guys you would meet at an English pub. Sometimes you go there and you meet these incredibly intelligent people sitting at the bar that could achieve so much but for some reason, never did. They’re kind of stuck in life, and I think John’s one of them, you know? John Constantine is someone who could sit down at the bar stool next to you, have this insane conversation with you, and leave you wondering “who the hell did I just meet?” You know what I mean? He could be anything in the world, but he’s not. He’s sitting on this bar stool. Maybe that’s where he wants to be. Maybe he doesn’t care about things.
Lu: So he’s a bit like one of those like arm chair politicians or like keyboard warriors who is forced to actively leap into action?
Oliver: Yeah. I think there’s definitely — I think there’s definitely a little bit of that, but I think [inaction] is his default. You know, I think he’s kind of a lost soul in a lot of ways who doesn’t really have to get his shit together because every time he looks like he’s going to do it, we throw another story at him. I think, you know, going back to that like early ’90s London, I think he would be that guy who is kind of on the dole and scraping by and doing a couple of painting and decorating jobs for cash every now and again and just underachieving. But then again, I don’t think he cares.
Pinion: One of the most welcome elements in this new run is the appearance of Alec Holland. He’s one of my favorite characters, and I think the relationship between he and John is one of my favorites in all of comics. How would you define their relationship? Secondarily, given all the changes to DC continuity over the years, how much of their shared history is still canon in your mind? You’ve given references to like John sleeping with Abby at Alec’s behest, and of course references to that tattoo, but is there sort of this indeterminate amount of friendship between the two that still exists?
Oliver: Yeah. I think there’s a huge amount of baggage between them. I thought it was funny when they called me to do the book because I was like, “yeah, you know, out of all the characters in the books and world, Constantine is the one that I feel most affinity towards.” I feel like I can write him. The rest of them…I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it and read it up. That’s what happened with Swamp Thing because after I took the book they then wanted him to at least start off being in the story. I found that intimidating because I didn’t know Alec the way I know Constantine so I went back and re-read these stories with a new eye to doing something with it.
Alec and Constantine have such a great relationship. They really were frenemies before that term even existed, and they just play off each other so well. Most people in John’s immediate world — Chas being the perfect example — are those John tricks, cons, and drags along, but Swamp Thing really exists on his own there as John’s equal. They complement each other and really bring the best and the worst out of each other. Swamp Thing is such a genuinely compassionate, empathetic creation, whereas John is the opposite, at least on the face of it. I think there is definitely a streak of one another running through them that comes out when they’re together.
I’m kind of bummed because I have to lose Swamp Thing at a certain point. He’s going off to do other things in the DC world. However, I had a whole scene planned out where they come back together in God knows how many books’ time that was going to be great.
Pinion: You’ve answered the question about whether this will continue to be a John and Alec co-starring effort.
Oliver: Yeah. I really wish it was, and they were like, you’ve got to drop him by a certain issue, because he’s going off, and I’m like you know these things aren’t real. They could exist in two places at once.
Lu: Yeah, but then you get that one guy who is obsessed with the timeline coming at you.
Oliver: Yeah. No, it’s true, it’s true. But I’m trying to bring back — and it’s funny that I’m the one fighting to bring in more DCU characters to a Hellblazer book because it’s sacrilege for a lot of the fans, particularly the fans of the original run, but I’m really convinced there’s a great John Constantine DCU story that the fans from the Vertigo run would actually enjoy and not be scornful about. I’m trying to find a character and a story I can use to bring the DCU into John’s world a bit more because I don’t honestly think it’s been done yet with this snarky English version of the character. I’m sure someone will want to crucify it because they’re like John shouldn’t be doing that. He shouldn’t be with superheroes.
Lu: I noticed in a couple of interviews you’ve kicked around the idea for a story where Constantine and Wonder Woman go out for a night on the town.
Oliver: I know. Wouldn’t that be fabulous? It would be so much fun. I really think that Wonder Woman would be genuinely kind of fascinated by Constantine — not particularly in a sexual way or a romantic way — but she’d want to know what makes him tick. I think it would be so interesting to have an issue of her coming into his world, him taking her out and getting her drunk, and them both playing off one another backwards and forwards until it’s kind of a draw at the end of it.
Lu: What do you think Wonder Woman sees in Constantine?
Oliver: I think she’s kind of fascinated by him in the same kind of way that Swamp Thing is. Constantine is so far off the scale of anybody else in the DCU. I think he inhabits his own little dark corner of it. I see him as kind of the necessary evil. When I first got the assignment, I thought a lot about how to mentally position Constantine in the DCU in a way I could navigate around because I’m not a superhero guy at all. I really don’t know very much about them. In the end, I decided that Constantine wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him — particularly a superhero club. He would make fun of them the whole time. He would be the outsider that they turn to when they literally have no other choice and have to deal with supernatural things. So I really was like, “okay, I can just write John’s attitude toward superheroes as my attitude toward superheroes.”
He’s basically the turd in their punchbowl.
Pinion: What was the source of inspiration for the Djinn? This classical take on the species is rare, if not brand new, to the DC Universe.
Oliver: Years ago, I did a bunch of research on the original legends of the Djinn. I was fascinated by it and tried to do a project, which ended up going nowhere. I ultimately put it away but those books were sitting on my shelf the whole time. Thus, when the Hellblazer thing came up, I was like, you know, he’s done a lot of Judeo-Christian type stuff. God knows how many times he’s seen, dealt with, and tricked the devil. I wanted to turn that on its head a little bit and do something a little different. That’s when I saw those books again. I knew enough from the research I did before that I could put something together and it kind of went from there. The djinn are going to be the bad guys for quite a while.
Basically what I have envisioned is you know, these six issue arcs building up to tell a bigger story over a longer period of time that moves around. Actually now I’m writing — the next arc is all going to be set in Paris.
Lu: Something along the lines of a new war for Earth between the Djinn and the humans?
Oliver: Yeah. I find the original legend kind of fascinating because God, or whatever you want to call Him, created these creatures before humans. They had the Earth to themselves and had supernatural powers. They were powerful and just fine on their own, but then the creator made humans and dumped them on Earth as well. We were supposed to live at peace together but the Djinn ended up getting pissed off with the humans because they saw them as lesser beings that were breeding out of control; much faster than the Djinn did. The Djinn started then leading the humans astray, and you know, basically led them from the Garden of Eden. At that point, the creator banished the Djinn to another realm and gave Earth to the humans, leaving the Djinn pissed off.
In Hellblazer, the leaders of the Djinn have realized that the creator is obviously not paying attention. There’s nothing to stop them from coming back now and taking the Earth over and putting these humans back in their place. They think “It’s our Earth. They shouldn’t have had it.”
Lu: The role and morality of the djinn is quite complicated. You paint them as a race out for blood, but when we first encounter Marid in issue one he tries to stop the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, an action that seems totally benevolent to humanity.
Oliver: Yes. It is. I think it’s important for me that any bad guy in a movie ultimately has good intentions. I think it’s very unusual unless you’re a James Bond villain with a cat on your lap– most bad people think they’re doing the right thing. In that moment, Marid is trying to protect the humans from themselves. In our current story 100 years later, he’s trying to do the same thing. Marid sees humans like children. We need to lead them. They need a strong leader. They need somebody to protect them.” In some ways, that could well be true, but the question is: do you need a dictator or is it best to leave humans to make their own mistakes and screw up in the hope that they’ll eventually find their own way?
Both Constantine and Marid believe humanity is a mess. However, Constantine is like “yeah, you embrace the mess, and you embrace the mistakes and eventually somehow you can end up doing the right thing.” On the other hand, the Djinn and Marid are like “no. People can’t be allowed to make mistakes. They’re like children. They need a dictator.” So, arguably, Marid is doing the right thing, but in the end his methods don’t really justify it.
Lu: Right. And the methods have been getting progressively more brutal. However, with that in mind, Constantine himself is also an asshole. He’s ostensibly our hero but he’s willing to bet all the souls in London against his own. What are the challenges presenting morally gray characters like Constantine and Marid as hero and villain, respectively?
Oliver: I think a lot of the story, especially through his interactions with Mercury, is going to force Constantine to face that darker side of him over the next few issues. There’s definitely a lot of backwards and forwards in the story about who John is and how far he’s willing to go. He does another fucked up thing in the last issue of this first arc to get what he wants, but it’s somewhat justified at the same time. The conflict is definitely in him, but Mercury is definitely that character that’s going to help kind of bring it out and balance it a little bit.
Lu: While we’re on the subject of Mercury — she’s changed quite a bit since her original incarnation. She’s isolated herself. She holds some level of resentment towards Constantine, but she’s also willing to endanger herself to help Alec. What’s motivating her in this story?
Oliver: It’s funny that it happened to be Mercury that I ended up using because “The Fear Machine” arc is not one of my favorite Constantine stories from the Delano run. It jumps out — Constantine hooks up with this kind of peace convoy and these skanky hippies. It was a strange little detour in the book. However, I really wanted to find a character that I could take from Constantine’s past and bring into the present, and so it kind of made sense to me to take this girl and to update her and to make her grown up.
I had a really good think about what’s happened to [Mercury] in the 20 years or so since we last saw her; I think “The Fear Machine” arc had an effect on her. I think that, as she grew up, as comfortable as she was in those early issues when we first met her, she started to resent her abilities and fear them a little bit. Her experiences with the outside world led her to kind of isolate herself a little bit. I think of her like a kid who is a child prodigy– a lot of those kids end up kind of resentful and reclusive. The Bobby Fischers of the world are not going to grow up to be normal and I think that’s what ended up happening to her.
Lu: I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk a bit about Moritat. He has a wonderfully emotive style that really distinguishes the book from the other DC titles on store shelves.
Oliver: Yeah. I super enjoy it. I don’t know how other writers work and I didn’t used to work like this, but since I’ve started working with Moritat I’ve done a rewrite on the script after the artwork comes in. I call it a rewrite to the art. I didn’t used to do that when I first started but now I don’t think I could do without it. I super enjoy doing the lettering runs on Moritat’s work because I can really appreciate the storytelling at that stage. Sometimes you even get inspired by the art. You get inspired by the facial expressions. You start to put words into their mouths that weren’t there before, because you’re like “oh, he could say this!”
The best example is from the last issue [#2] when Constantine’s being hunted through London and he makes that joke where he uses the lyrics from The Police. That was something I did after I saw the art. You know the partnership is working when you’re starting to do things like that. Yeah, it’s been great.
Lu: Has there ever been a time where his work really surprised you?
Oliver: Yeah, I think it’s — I think he’s definitely got into the groove more in the last few issues. Let me think. I love this bit in issue #3 with Clarice. I originally wrote her as being the older version, but in her first appearance, he drew her young, and I was wondering why he did that. Then, in this issue, when Marid attacks her she starts to age again.
Lu: Yeah, where she just sort of starts to sort of fall apart bit by bit.
Oliver: Right. That was totally not me at all. That came from him. I thought was a really interesting way of doing it. It’s one of those things that make you realize the artist’s job is so much harder than anyone thinks it is. Everyone thinks “oh, they draw this and they draw that.” Good comic book drawing and telling a story through static panels is so much harder than anyone thinks it is. So when someone can understand your script and then take it that one step further, for me that’s always great. When I see stuff like this, I’m like “yes, that’s working. That’s exactly what I want.” I don’t want exactly what I’ve written. When you see an opportunity, go for it.
Pinion: Can you give us any hints about what’s in store for John and the gang, and who might we see coming back from the Vertigo days? Any other old friends that may return?
Oliver: We have Map, from Warren Ellis’ run, making an appearance in issue #3 this week. Then we’re going to leave London behind and move on to Paris. We’re going to introduce a few new characters including a North African kid named Dante who lives in what is basically a housing project on the outskirts of Paris. I just wrote the first issue with him in it. He’s a fun character. I kind of instantly liked him and know where he’s going.
The detour in Paris is going to be this almost kind of noir, femme fatale kind of supernatural adventure in Paris with Constantine and Mercury as they hunt down a long lost book that contains information they need about the Djinn.
From there, we’re going to be hunting for the lost city of Ubar, which is where they think that the Djinn are keeping Abby, the avatar of the Rot, for reasons which will be uncovered. Ubar is based on the real legend of a lost city where the Djinn and the humans lived together. It was a real life Sodom and Gomorrah kind of thing where the creator was so appalled by the degenerate activity inside the city that he cursed it. It sank beneath the sands and now the city is known as the Atlantis of the Sands in Middle Eastern legend. Abby and John are going to be looking for it, so that’s ultimately where we’re going to be heading to. We’re going to get this kind of Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia kind of thing which I think is going to be super fun.
Lu: My last question is in regards to the political nature of the title. I’ve noticed that there are satirical references in the text, such as when you say Hitler promised to “make Germany great again.” However, we haven’t seen Constantine having political conversations or engaging in overtly political conflicts. What decisions factor into making this a little bit more like of a subtle, satirical title than a more overtly political one?
Oliver: Yeah, I would like to make [Hellblazer] more political but it’s tough at the moment because things move so fast. I was caught off guard when I wrote the Rebirth issue because I had Constantine making this comment about a short fingered failed meat salesman or something, you know? That’s why he came home to London. However, by the time the issue came out Brexit had happened so we were all like, hold on a minute? He’s run from Trump to a country that just passed Brexit?!
I think a lot of the problem at the moment [with making the book more political] is in terms of tackling things like that in a way that still feels current because it feels like we’re moving so fast. You know, we’ve got the election two weeks away, but if I write something now it’s not going to be relevant by the time the book actually comes out, you know, four or five months from now. It has to be something that’s written on a bigger scale; in a more allegorical kind of way. You know, at the moment, yes, I’m just poking fun at the Donald Trumps of the world, but yeah, it’s tough. I think when Delano was doing the book when it first started and Thatcher was in, things were moving much slower then, and we kind of settled into it. A lot of what we’re dealing with now, particularly with the Trumps and the election, it’s the threat of something that hasn’t been realized yet. You know, if Trump were president and we were settling into four years of God knows what, I think it would be easier to kind of like roll up my sleeves and go okay, here we go. We’re in. This is it.
Hellblazer #3 is out tomorrow!