by Jarrod Jones. Simon Oliver hates The Police. To put a finer point on it, he has a particularly hilarious angst about Sting, former frontman of The Police.
The idea that the character, John Constantine, would be based on that musician — of all people in the wide world — is a fact that baffles him to this day. “[…] out of all the characters, all the musicians of that time, he was never cool,” Oliver said to me on a rainy Chicago afternoon in November.
Skype interviews have a tendency to be these stilted, incredibly stiff affairs, so when he said that it caught me off guard. Because Simon Oliver was not wrong. The Police have always stunk. John Constantine, forever salty, entirely anti-establishment, and eternally hellbound, based on this guy? Naw.
Before long, I found myself nodding amusedly to the music that was a South London-born writer taking the piss out of Sting. And it was glorious. “He was a fucking school teacher and like a jazz fucking aficionado. […] I can’t imagine why somebody would want to base their character on him.”
That’s the most reassuring thing I could ever hear from a person who happens to be writing one of the more acerbic and cynical characters in the DC Universe. At the moment, The Hellblazer is enjoying an exceptionally engaging post-Rebirth run. Titled “The Poison Truth”, Oliver’s first arc concerns itself with John Constantine finally heading back to London, where old enemies, former allies, and of course, Chas Chandler, have been dreading his inevitable return. For long-time readers of Constantine’s notorious antics, Oliver’s run, with artist Moritat, would most certainly feel like coming home.
Simon Oliver sat down with me to discuss The Hellblazer, his affinity for string theory, and yes, our mutual animosity towards Sting. Because who the hell does he think he is, anyway?
1. One striking thing about your run on ‘Hellblazer’ is that Mr. Constantine doesn’t just regale us with the requisite interior monologue, every once in a while he’ll go one further and break the fourth wall. Is this your way of claiming this era of Constantine as your very own? Will John’s Reader Chats affect the story — or maybe even the reality of the book (a la Morrison’s ‘Animal Man’) — at some point in the future?
Simon Oliver: Yeah, that’s a good question. I like it when characters break the fourth wall. I know it drives some people nuts, but I kind of like it. I did it a few times in the first few issues, but it was always in my mind to drift away from it a little bit. I was trying to establish John’s inner voice, his sense of humor, and I was trying to put a stamp on it right at the beginning — that was something I tried to introduce literally at the last moment to lay down the gauntlet, because some people are going to like the run, some people are going to hate the run, you can’t keep everybody happy. This was my way of saying, “This is how the character’s gonna be; if you like it, great. If not? Yknow, that’s fine.”
Not to say I might do it again in the future, but it was definitely my way of establishing his inner voice early on. Who he is, my approach to the character, which is definitely more of a throwback to the Vertigo-era John than the [New] 52 or the last run that we had.
2. In those interior monologues, I can’t help but notice you getting really cheeky — that “Every breath I take, every move I make” line in issue #2 was an obvious dig at Constantine’s roots. Artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben really wanted to draw a character that looked like Sting —
SO: [Laughs] That was something that — I tend to write a pretty fleshed-out draft, but then when the art comes in, I do another pass through. I don’t just do lettering placements on the art, I actually kind of rewrite a little bit to the art. Hopefully, if you and the artist are on the same page and it’s gelling, there are definitely things that come up when you’re looking at the visuals and you think, “Oh this would be cool,” and you play off an expression that’s been drawn in, or something. And that was one of those moments.
It’s funny to me because initially I basically had no dialogue at all on that page — which, as a writer, it’s really great when an artist can carry a page without any dialogue, because it’s a comic book — but then, as a writer, you’re like itching, like, “Oh my god, I can’t let a page go like that without putting something on it.” [Laughs]
And the Police thing. It’s also funny, because I have an absolute aversion to Sting and The Police and everything to do with — they literally make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I despise them. [Laughs] Me and my wife, we’ve been married for a million years, but one of the few things we’re absolutely in 100% agreement about is our mutual dislike for The Police.
In recent issues of ‘Hellblazer’, Moritat renders John to look more like a young Gérard Depardieu.
Justin [Norman, aka Moritat] knows about my hatred for Sting, it’s kind of been an ongoing joke. To me it’s funny that they did base the character on Sting, because out of all the characters, all the musicians of that time, he was never cool. [Laughs] In my mind, I remember The Police when they were around in the early Eighties and when they split up, and they were always so incredibly uncool. I can’t imagine why somebody would want to base their character on him.
3. It’s only inevitable that Alan Moore would get a mention in a conversation about John Constantine. Moore once described the character as a “blue collar warlock,” which inspires thoughts from me of a perpetually on-the-job practitioner of the occult. One that’ll take any job so long as the money’s right. So far in this series we’ve watched John reenter London in a multiple issue arc. That may be trade-friendly, but do you think we’ll ever see a procedural ‘Hellblazer’ again, where John can engage in all sorts of cases in done-in-one single issues?
SO: Maybe. I’ve picked the character up and I’ve moved the story on, and now the issues I’m writing are taking place in Paris with this Mercury character. So they’re an extension, they’re all part of the a bigger story I’m writing at the moment. I’m not averse doing the “monster of the week” type issues with John.
But I think with a lot of them — I went back and re-read literally a couple hundred issues, at least, right from the beginning — and actually in a lot of them… the runs that people remember and are most fond of are probably the earlier ones, the Ennis runs, the Delano runs… And particularly in the Ennis run there were a lot of issues, I think people forget, it was him down at the pub getting drunk with his friends and nothing happened.
4. We’ve enjoyed the appearances of notable ‘Hellblazer’ characters, like Clarice Sackville, Chas Chandler, and of course, Mercury. When you were plotting out your first batch of issues, which characters did you decide you wanted to explore? Which characters from John’s past would you like to see in future issues of Hellblazer?
SO: I think I’m pretty open to using any of them. When I took over the book, it always seemed — particularly when I read the New 52 issues — it always seemed such a shame that they had abandoned all the existing mythology, all those characters. To me, as great as John is, and he can support stories by himself, he’s always firing on all cylinders and at his best when he’s surrounded by his supporting cast. I was really surprised to enjoy writing the interactions between him and Swamp Thing, for example. Those are two characters that really bring out the best — and also the worst — of one another.
It’s always with John, depending on who he’s with, it always brings out another facet of his personality — whether he’s with Chas, who is somebody who isn’t really involved with that world; or the guys from the pub, who only have a vague inkling of what John gets up to; or someone like Clarice, who’s as deep into it as he is — I think all those characters bring out something different in him. So it seemed a shame not to use them.
5. Just four issues in, and you’ve already taken a few pokes at political figures — Boris Johnson, David Cameron, and Nigel Farage were all thrown into a stirring horse racing analogy in issue #3, for one example. Even President-elect Donald Trump got a well-deserved swipe in the ‘Hellblazer’ Rebirth issue. You have a clear political stance; we don’t have to go digging too deeply to find the subtext here. Considering that ‘Hellblazer’ is set in the proper DC Universe, where superhero comics rarely delve into these sort of things, do you ever get any editorial tsk-tsking over political jabs?
SO: No, I haven’t! The horse race I had to do a bit of rewriting on, because I used words that [DC] was not particularly happy about. Like, I’ll try to sneak in a very English insult, and nowadays, in the days of Google, the legal team will look it up and say you can’t use that because it’s an euphemism for, y’know… this or that or the other. And it was funny with the horse race — the things they wouldn’t let me use — but it wasn’t about the political content, it was more about me using words they weren’t comfortable with, which is kind of funny.
To me, the book has always been — and I look back on the Delano run, which was when I last lived in England, when [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was in power — it was always a very political book. Those politics, and John’s sense of right and wrong is an interesting side to him. That he can be such an out-and-out asshole but at the same time he believes in Socialism, he believes that fascists are bad… If he could see what was going on now, particularly here in the States, I think he would be absolutely appalled. I can’t think of anyone who is more of a polar opposite to John Constantine than our President-Elect.
6. So far in your run we’ve found quantum physics, bovver boys, family politics, Police lyrics, good ol’ fashioned Gen-X posturing, and a heartfelt hat-tip to almost every run of ‘Hellblazer’ and ‘Constantine’ that’s come our way yet. What demons are you exorcising with this character, and what kind of line do you toe to make this character feel as familiar as ever, but more intriguing than ever before?
SO: I’m tapping into that — and I just did it with the last issue I did the lettering on, which will be coming out soon — I’m trying to, with the bad guy he’s coming up against, the djinn, the Genie, this character Marid, he believes that the human race needs guidance. That they need a dictator, let’s say, to put it in those terms. That they need a firm hand, they need to be shown the way, and they need a figure like that in their lives, which will be Marid. But John Constantine believes that if mankind were left alone long enough, eventually we will do the right thing. That it’s through all this interference that we’ve had over the years, this supernatural interference, that has kind of led mankind on the wrong path… that’s ultimately where he stands.
As bitter as he is, at his core, he believes that humanity, in its own strange way… y’know, it mirrors [Pauses] My wife, who doesn’t particularly read comics, when I was talking to her about this character and working it through, she’s like, “Well, he’s like you, you’re an asshole.” [Laughs] I’m awful in pretty much every regard, but at the same time I do believe in certain things, and I definitely don’t — let’s say for example, I’m completely and utterly horrified at what’s going on with the rise of fascism in this country — but in many ways I’m as bad as they are. [Laughs]
I say to my kids, y’know, don’t be prejudiced because once you actually get to know people, you’ll find plenty of reasons to dislike them other than the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. [Laughs]
7. That, beyond all superficiality, all people are monsters.
Yes, exactly. We’re awful, humanity is awful, but there is something in me that does think that eventually we’ll find our own way. And it’s interesting that at the moment, with everything that’s going on — and I live in Los Angeles, California, and particularly where I live in Los Angeles is a very liberal bubble — but it really makes you look at your surroundings. That I live in here, and that makes me want to fight to protect it. It makes me reflect on those things which you might take for granted — the racial mix, the sexual orientation, and everything else that we very much take for granted. All of a sudden I’m willing to fight for that because the moment is under threat.
8. Mercury and John Constantine are not friends. And yet, by the end of issue #4 it’s clear that they’ll have to work together to quell this onslaught of djinn — no easy task, considering their shared history. John Constantine’s a notorious prick, but he’s got that patented heart of gold that’s kept him from more than a few ass-kickings in the past. What can you tell us about the impending reckoning between Mercury and John?
SO: They haven’t really been in the book too much together up until now; I’ve kind of split their stories apart, went in different directions with them, and now I’m bringing them back together. At Swamp Thing’s urging, Mercury tries to reach out to John and tries to appeal to a side of him that– because she was the one, back when she first came in[to Hellblazer with] issue #14 of Delano’s run, who found John when he was really at his lowest, encouraged the Peace Convoy to bring him in and make him one of them. So she saw something in him all those years ago, which I think, over the next twenty-odd years, has kind of gotten buried, a little bit. Got lost.
She’s really trying to take him back to that time, and explain to him why he’s special. Try to make him understand that above all his other powers, he’s a charismatic person. People see that in him. He has this — and I don’t mean supernatural power — but he just has this power and presence that he needs to tap into again to be able to do the right thing. And, of course, it doesn’t go completely to plan, but she makes it very clear that this is the John she wants to see, the one that she saw twenty years ago when he was scrambling through the bushes, when he was running from the police, when she brought him into the Peace Convoy. They’re gonna be battling back and forth. They fundamentally do not get on, but they do have to find that middle ground to get through this.
9. Can you tell us where, exactly, Mercury went to find Abby in issue #4? She drops some serious M-theory on Swamp Thing before the end of issue #3, M-theory being the rather complex theory that brings all the pertinent components of string theory together, postulating that there are 11 dimensions of time and space present at all times — where, or when, did she go? Is this where the djinn have been hiding all along?
SO: I wrote that FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics — that Collider book — for Vertigo, so I’m in quite deep into the other dimensions thing because of that. This was me mushing it together with the legend and the mythology of the djinn, the Genie. Which I find fascinating, and I’ve kinda sat on this mythology for many years, wanting to do something with it.
So the Creator, presumably God, creates the Genies way before He created Man, and they lived on the Earth alone. And then the Creator got bored and he created Humans, which were weak compared to the Genies, but the Humans bred much faster. Originally the Creator meant for his two creations to live on Earth in harmony, and of course that didn’t happen. Mankind was a pain in the ass, and Genies started to misbehave or were leading Man astray. So the Creator comes back to Earth and says, “Okay, only one of you can live on Earth.” And to the Genies’ horror, He gives Earth to the Humans and banishes the Genies to another dimension, which is the dimension that Mercury goes to visit.
This is the dimension where the Creator has dumped all of His broken experiments. All kinds of weird, crazy creatures the Creator has created and dumped in this other dimension. That whole sequence, when Mercury was in the other dimension? We’re gonna flash back and we’re gonna see what actually happened. In issue #6 we’re pretty much doing a whole issue of her recounting what happened when she went to visit this other dimension. She meets another character in there that has already been in the book… I wanted to leave that as a big question mark. When John and Mercury are on the Chunnel Train going to Paris from London, she tells him the whole story of what happened. Or nearly the whole story; there’s bits that she doesn’t tell him which I won’t get into now. She ends up with her own Genie in the bottle that’s leading her astray for the rest of the story.
10. Least favorite Police song, please.
SO: [Laughs] You know what? The first moment you said that, the first — because there’s so many to hate? I think “Every Breath You Take” might be the one.
It’s wretched. It’s really wretched.
It’s one of those things where every time it comes up on the radio, it [sighs] it just… it just kills me. To me it’s like… if they were gonna — and I don’t mean to go on about the fact that they designed the character [of John Constantine] after Sting, but he was so not punk rock. He was a fucking school teacher and like a jazz fucking aficionado. [Laughs] You don’t like Johnny Lydon? Or any of them, I dunno… Steve Jones! [Laughs] Why Sting?
To me it’s always — and me and my wife we’ll laugh about it; this has come up in the past that we’ve been out and somebody says, “Oh yeah, we went to see The Police on their reunion concert,” or whatever, and we kinda look at each other. It’s our litmus test, our canary in the coal mine as to whether I actually want to talk to these people. [Laughs] To me, they’re like the Coldplay of the Eighties. Was it Alan McGee, the head of Creation, or whatever Oasis was signed to, who described Coldplay as “music for bedwetters”? That’s a description that has always stuck with me. It’s absolutely perfect.
The fourth issue of ‘The Hellblazer’ is available in stores today.