The Horrific Return of John Constantine to the Sandman Universe

John Constantine returns in the appropriately titled Sandman Universe: Hellblazer. Si Spurrier tells us all about it.

John Constantine Sandman Universe

John Constantine is on his way back to the Sandman Universe. Simon Spurrier (The Dreaming, X-Men: Legacy) will be writing a John Constantine book for DC’s Black Label imprint with art by Marcio Takara called The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer, which arrives on Oct. 30. Neil Gaiman kicked off his curated Sandman Universe label last year, and since then The Dreaming, Books of Magic, House of Whispers, and Lucifer have been continuing the tradition that Gaiman and his bevvy of dream-come-true-artists started decades ago in the pages of Vertigo’s Sandman. And now everyone’s favorite con man, chain smoking wizard is going back to the dark realms of a DC mature label imprint. Writer Si Spurrier told us about what dark dreams await John Constantine… 

Den of Geek: So what drew you to Hellblazer? It kind of feels like you should have already written the book. And it’s going to be very difficult not to say the word “Vertigo” during this interview. 

Si Spurrier: People will understand what we’re talking about if we accidently Vert. Hellblazer, it’s the character I fell in love with when I first started reading comics. There was a time when I was a teenager that any sufficiently ambitious British writer of comics would sort of expect to get a go there. But I never got my chance, and I felt cheated for many years. I never expected to get my opportunity. 

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But John is a character I’ve accidently written in other places. What I love about John Constantine, and this will sound strange, is that he’s extremely honest. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s an honest person when he deals with other people, because he’s not; he’s a liar and a cheat and a con man and a nasty piece of work. But he’s honest with himself. He’s self-aware. He knows who and what he is and doesn’t pretend to be a hero. He doesn’t pretend to be good as gold. He’s utterly guilt ridden because he knows he’s done all the wrong things for all the right reasons and he will continue to do so because he can’t stop. So he’s a bastard with a conscience, and I feel like that describes me (laughs). So, that’s what has always drawn to the character.

You’re not going to pick my pocket or turn me into anything, are you?

Maybe. No. (laughs).

So talk about how you got the Constantine gig. He was on the DC side of things, now he’s on the, well, not Vertigo side of things. Were you involved in pulling him over to the Sandman Universe?

So the Sandman Universe is four titles based on ideas that Neil had when he decided that there were more Sandman stories to be told. So he handpicked four writers, myself included, to come up with the directions. A new editor came in to what was at the time still Vertigo, and part of the demand, this was Chris Conroy, amazing guy, his dream was to bring back Hellblazer. That was part of the deal. In doing so, they asked Neil if he had any thoughts on that. And Neil, quite rightly, identified that as a result of the character and the continuity he went through, like Hellblazer #300 which ended many years ago on an ambiguous note, the character shows up in many different versions and different forms in the DCU and in many series that might or might not be in the DCU. And it’s very difficult to, if your stated goal is to launch a Hellblazer series that returns to traditional Hellblazer continuity, which is mature, horror-centric, character led, nuanced fiction…

British.

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Yes, British with all the swear words and grimy as fuck. If you want that, than you have to start accepting that there’s a whole lot of hurdles to jump over first. There’s a real tangle of continuity. So Neil’s idea was: he recalled that over 20 years ago Neil did a book called Books of Magic. In one of those issues, a young character named Timothy Hunter, a young wizard, is taken on a tour of the future. In one of the visions, Tim encounters a magical war to end all wars. Tim found out it’s sort of his fault. It’s a future version of himself causing all this. In the midst of that, he finds an older, angrier, more exasperated version of John Constantine who is dying. He’s sitting in a puddle of his own blood, blaming this little kid for causing all this chaos. Neil realized that what this particular potential version of John Constantine represents is the same John Constantine that was in all those amazing Hellblazer issues. A little bit older and going through some stuff which sidesteps all continuity, if we just take that character, pick him up, and pop him back into our world. So that’s what the special does. It’s my attempt to acknowledge and untangle some of the tangley continuity of Constantine’s life, and then move, in quite a neat way, into the ongoing tone of the book, as we said, back in London, with a nuanced horror theme.

How does this new title fit into the Sandman of it all? It seems that Hellblazer was Hellblazer, Neil used John in one memorable issue of Sandman, and Joanna Constantine was kind of a recurring character in Sandman.

They’re all quite incestuous and interrelated, all those titles. There’s not a really overt Sandman to the new Constantine series inasmuch it spins out of the Books of Magic which is very part of Neil’s world. It’s very much a mechanism to get John back to where he was. I have ideas about how Hellblazer might end up in some of the stuff we’ve been doing on The Dreaming and other Sandman Universe books, but it won’t be straight away. I feel like we need to focus on what John does best which is short, self-contained arcs of John investigating strange goings on in London while a bigger picture grows in the background. 

Can you talk about the artists on the series?

The special is drawn by Marcio Takara, who is art royalty. He’s got this amazing job of reconciling the Constantine that many readers have been reading lately, the DCU version, with our grimy and dirtier version. The nature of this 48 page special is to take him from one extreme to another which Marcio handles beautifully.

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The ongoing series is drawn by Aaron Campbell who was just born to draw this stuff. He did a book called Infidel which won a bunch of awards; it’s a really good book. He just typifies the buttoned down, something not quite right sinisterness of Hellblazer. He draws London like I imagine London. Living there for years and years, you can’t go out in the drizzle without suspecting things are hidden just out of your sight. That’s what you feel when you see an Aaron page, you’re seeing just the surface there, something haunted for eons of horror and agony. 

Are there any other writers or projects that inspired your Hellblazer?

Not directly. Obviously I’ve done a deep dive on all the previous Hellblazer. There’s some great stuff in there. The Ennis run and the Delano run that gets me every time. Mike Carey did a great run.

How has Neil contributed to the project other than the lead in from Books of Magic?

In the first Sandman Universe Presents, the first four titles, he was quite hands on with inciting events from which are books spun out. With this, Hellblazer, he’s provided the idea that we can have our cake and eat it. We can steal the future version of John from a hero quest 20 years ago. Other than that, he has left me to it. I was extremely honored. Having this conversation with Chris, I had no idea what was going on. Chris went to Neil and said he wanted to relaunch Hellblazer. He asked Neil if he had any ideas, and Neil said, “Funny you should ask; I do.” They both immediately asked for me to write it. 

That must feel good. Are there any other Vertigo characters you would like to get your hands on?

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Oh, endless. DCU, Vertigo, my problem is that I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to do. I can bore you. Things like Unknown Soldier. Haunted Tank. A daft title, but I can do so much extraordinary stuff with that. Name a DCU character.

This isn’t the question you asked me, but years ago I wrote a book for Marvel called X-Men: Legacy with David Haller, Legion. And as a result of the nature of that character, it became a story of mental illness, and, in my view, it became a sensitive and clever story about mental illness, and I’m hugely proud of that. By the way, I’ve never been to one of these shows like New York where someone hasn’t come up to me and thanked me for changing their life. The answer to that is, I didn’t change your life, you changed your life. It’s a story. it’s about empowerment.

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As a result of doing that story, I think I sort of became the cerebral weirdo guy who wrote thoughtful stories rather than heroes punching each other. So I’ve never really been given a chance and I love that stuff and can do that stuff. So that’s sort of the next journey. I’ve got my hands on John Constantine; that’s all my Christmases at once and I’ll write it as long as they let me. But I’ve also got the need to go to a place with the more hopeful and heroic stories. 

Can you talk about how Hellblazer starts off, what’s next for The Dreaming, and the future of the Sandman titles?

So, the Hellblazer ongoing opens, what’s different about it, is that where previously, one of John’s main characteristics is that he has this endless supply of old friends, allies, and lovers whom he can call to get help or seek favors. He usually ends up betraying them or throwing them under the bus. When our story starts he doesn’t have that. He’s almost a stranger in a strange land who doesn’t know anybody. We have to watch him start from scratch, to start collecting people, and he’s not very keen on doing it.

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At the same time, there is a mysterious something happening. In the best traditions of Hellblazer and the “American Gothic” arc, the way it works is small doses of horror, three issues, two issues at a time, all of which contribute to the macro arc. The first three issues is a story called “A Green and Pleasant Land.” It centers on a gang of drug dealers whose home turf in London is haunted by what seems to be a group of angels who skin people. The gang calls in John who doesn’t want anything to do with it, but he’s compelled to investigate and do something about it.

In The Dreaming, there’s a big beat coming where all the stuff that I pitched when I get that gig is sort of coming together and congealing, all the dominos are being flipped. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling a lot of stuff. 

For the future of the Sandman Universe, it’s just sort of ticking away. There are more ideas than we’ll ever get a chance to use. Neil is a benevolent overseer who drops in and says, “You should dial that bit up, or dial that back down,” but absolutely trusts us to just get it done and run with our ideas. It’s the best sort of curating you could ask for. 

The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer arrives on Oct. 30.