From his opening appearance in a 1985 issue of DC Comics "Saga of the Swamp Thing," John Constantine was a memorable misanthrope. Under the watch of co-creators Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben and then later at the hands of talents like Rick Veitch, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello and many others, the sardonic magician came into comics full of nicotine, wit and the darker side of shared universe stories.
In the nearly 30 years that followed, the character anchored "Hellblazer" – arguably the flagship of DC's Vertigo line – and grew further and further into his own as he went further and further from the superheroes of the DCU. But in March, the character's journey comes full circle by some estimations as DC will wrap the current "Hellblazer" run by Peter Milligan and Giuseppe Camuncoli to set the younger Constantine that's been appearing in DC books from "Brightest Day" to "Justice League Dark" as the solo definitive version of the character. That version lights up in the new "Constantine" ongoing by writer Robert Venditti and artist Renato Guedes.
After word broke of the move, CBR News reached out to Venditti – currently expanding his name with mainstream comic readers due to runs with "X-O Manowar" at Valiant and DC's own "Demon Knights" – to learn more about what will and won't change as the character leaves the dark corners of Vertigo behind for a new run with DC's heroes. Below, the writer describes his history with "Hellbalzer" and his plans for "Constantine," explaining that the new series won't stray too far from the old in tone even as John Constantine moves locations and redefines his mission while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Superman.
CBR News: Robert, before we get into the specifics of your series, I wanted to ask a bit about your history with John Constantine. As some folks were pointing out today, it's actually been decades since his initial appearance in "Swamp Thing." When did you discover the character as a reader, and what stories make up your personal "Hellblazer" canon?
Robert Venditti: I didn’t start reading comics until the year 2000, so as is the case with every comic book character, I haven’t been with Constantine since the beginning. I don’t view that as a detriment, though. It’s actually a luxury to be able to read a nice, thick collection of "Starman" or Peter Bagge’s "Hate" in a couple of sittings. There’s so much great stuff to catch up on.
As for great moments from Constantine’s history, I’ll pick one from the beginning and one more recently. I love the moment (collected in the "Original Sins" volume) when Swamp Thing has taken over Constantine’s body, and his great act of revenge is to get a tattoo of a tree on Constantine’s butt. That’s just flat-out funny.
More recently, there’s a plotline in Miligan’s run where Constantine is trying to get Julian off his back, and he uses one of Epiphany’s love potions to make Julian be nice to him. The unintended consequence is that Julian quite violently murders Constantine’s girlfriend, Phoebe, out of a twisted sense of jealousy. That to me really typifies Constantine as a character. He sees all of the angles, except for the ones he doesn’t see.
That said, the history of the now wrapping "Hellblazer" comic is quite unique for comics in general, but it specifically has a grand history of writers behind it and most often British writers to boot. What can you tell us about how you were approached for this series, and what was your initial reaction to being asked to step into the shoes of so many distinct voices from across the pond who have worked with Constantine before now?
I’d met Matt Idelson at Comic-Con International a few summers ago, and we’d been talking on an off about me doing some work for DC. When DC made the decision to launch the new "Constantine" series, they reached out to me about submitting a pitch. I was acutely aware of the character’s long tradition and the writers who have shaped him over the years. They’re some of the absolute best the industry has ever seen, hands down. I try not to focus on how I’m going to compete with that because, let’s be honest, I’m not. All I can do is tell the best stories I can, and hope readers like them.
Of course, the building blocks from this series will are different from what "Hellblazer" was for so many years. I think one of the comments a lot of folks have made since the New 52 began was how much series like "Swamp Thing" and "Animal Man" have felt of a piece with their Vertigo predecessors even though they're not technically "Mature Readers" titles. In what ways does "Constantine" feel like "Hellblazer," and in what ways is it significantly different?
I think the key is to stay true to what has made the character endure. For "Constantine," that means not only retaining the key elements of his character—his wiliness, his gruffness, his willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve his desired end—but also preserving the overall tone and thematic nature of "Hellblazer." Which is certainly my goal.
In terms of how this will be different, Constantine will be a part of the main DCU now, so what he does will affect the wider tapestry of the universe, and vice versa. Which presents its own set of challenges and opportunities.
Constantine himself is one of the great, iconic characters of the '80s era of mainstream comics. What strikes you as a writer as your favorite aspect of his personality? What about his point of view challenges you in terms of story?
Far and away, my favorite aspect of Constantine is the way he’s able to manipulate those around him—human and otherworldly. He’s an expert at sizing up his adversaries, and you get the sense that even if he wasn’t skilled in the dark arts, he’d be just as dangerous.
Having said that, the only person John Constantine can’t seem to draw a bead on is John Constantine, and that gets him into trouble. His grand schemes often come at a great cost to himself or to others, and I think that’s a wonderful challenge to explore as a writer. How do you make Constantine win and lose at the same time?
We've seen this younger Constantine shape up a bit since his "Blackest Night" introduction and on through to his appearances in "Justice League Dark." How have those stories helped shape what you're doing here, and how will the ability to have the DCU as an active backdrop impact what you do in the series?
I love the work Milligan, Lemire, and Fawkes have done on "Justice League Dark." It’s a great example of how having Constantine play in the same sandbox as other DC heroes and villains can reinforce the character. It seems to me that Constantine would have an intense dislike for characters like Superman or Green Lantern, and they for him. I look forward to having fun with that.
In terms of your first story, how does it set the table for what the series will be long term? Are you starting with mysteries in London, in the U.S. or in some dark, horrid realm we normals can't even get to?
Constantine will be based in New York City. Basically, he’s realized he’s a danger to everyone around him, not just because of the threats he faces, but also because when he’s in a pinch, everyone and anyone is expendable. He can’t exactly count on himself to be ethical. So the best way to prevent himself from hurting the people and places he cares about is to distance himself from them. What better place to go than New York City, where it’s easy to disappear in the crowd? No matter how much he wants to sequester himself, though, it’s unavoidable that he’ll establish new connections and start building relationships again. It isn’t everyone else he needs to hide from; it’s himself. But wherever he goes, there he is.
Art wise, with Constantine as a character having a reputation for an expressive and gritty art style equal to his rep for sardonic cigarette smoking, what does Renato’s stylized photo-real style do to match what’s gone in the past or change things up for the DCU?
Renato's style is a great complement to the tone of "Constantine." The character deals in the fantastic and intangible, but his stories have always felt deeply rooted in the real world. In the real world, pavement is cracked. Clothes are rumpled and stained. Faces have scars and creases. Renato can render all of that and more.
Overall, what's your pitch on this series to longtime "Hellblazer" readers who may be feeling the burn of losing a book they've been with for decades?
You know, I’d love to be able to say, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this. It’s going to be a total homerun.” But the truth is, if you ever encounter a writer who says they have everything figured out, odds are they’re the one person who absolutely doesn’t have everything figured out.
What I can say is that I like the character, too, and I wouldn’t have pitched for the series if I didn’t feel that I could bring something positive to it. Give the book a shot, and no matter what happens, at least it’ll be nice to look at. Because if there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s that Renato is going to kill.
"Constantine" launches in March from DC Comics. Stay tuned to CBR for a farewell interview with outgoing "Hellblazer" writer Peter Milligan.