If there’s one thing you don’t want to let acclaimed British scribe Mike Carey do, it’s let him run free creatively. He’s bound to snag up Eisner nominations, convert critical fans and amass devoted ones.
Oh wait… That’s why DC Comics/Vertigo just announced a new Hellblazer original graphic novel (OGN) early next year called “Hellblazer: All His Engines,” with artist Leonardo Manco, at Comic-Con International in San Diego today. To let fans know a bit more about the project, Carey spoke with CBR News and explained that the series will be reader friendly.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re free and easy about continuity here,” Carey told CBR News earlier this week. “Readers should be able to pick the book up without needing any former acquaintance with John Constantine, or any knowledge of what’s happened in the last fifteen years of the monthly title. This is very much John as I write him in the monthly Hellblazer book, but I don’t use any of the supporting cast apart from Chas – and the John/Chas relationship is pretty much self-explanatory.
“What’s it about? It’s about a guy who plays poker with the devil on a regular basis – and that’s a game that makes the odd chess match with Death seem like a relaxed and civilised pastime. It’s about the magic of the old world and the magic of the new, and what happens when you get caught in between them. And it’s about the different ways in which Hell can erupt into people’s lives.
“To give more of a teaser, John promises to help Chas out when his granddaughter falls prey to a mysterious illness – but then that careless promise gets him mired deep in a whole lot of very nasty shit. There’s a demon who’s setting up micro-hells on Earth, and when John runs up against this demon he has to recruit some even more unpleasant characters in order to defeat him. And every step he takes seems to get him in even deeper, until there’s only one option open to him. But I’d rather not say what that is, beyond saying that it’s very much a John Constantine sort of play. When you’re all out of legal moves, change the rules of the game…”
As the regular writer of “Hellblazer,” Carey’s got a lock on what makes Constantine tick and for those new to the mythos, or who may be interested by the “Constantine” movie, Carey is happy to briefly introduce the cast. “Well the main character is John Constantine – a guy who’s made up of about twenty five per cent black magician and seventy five per cent con artist, and whose self-imposed quest to screw over the lords of Hell has blighted his life and the lives of everyone who’s ever gotten close to him. John is a sort of Jonah figure, a harbinger of doom. Every ship he sails in goes down, and even when he wins it feels like losing. But having said that, he’s smart and cool and sardonic and he’d talk back to God himself. He’s an irresistible anti-hero.
“And then there’s Chas Chandler, who’s his best mate. Which means that he gets used, taken for granted, lied to, false-footed and generally exploited, and somehow always comes back for more. The key to that relationship is that Chas owes John a big, big favour, and John is the one who gets to say when that favour is repaid. He’s kept Chas dangling for fifteen years on the strength of that, and Chas was still hanging in there when last seen.
“When I write John, I tend to think in terms of oil and water. He’s very ruthless and in many ways very self-centered, and he often makes the most appalling mistakes by not thinking about the consequences of his actions. But on the other hand, he’s ultimately a person who tries to do good – a person who can’t walk away from trouble or cross the street when there’s some bad shit going down. That’s the paradox – he’s a mean bastard, but he means well. You have to try to show both sides of that complex, messed up personality.”
In a world filled with Batman, Spike (from television’s “Angel) and other such “badass” characters, one might be tempted to write off Constantine as unoriginal or boring, but Carey contends that Johnny boy has something the aforementioned characters don’t possess. “He’s got a magical crap-detector. He sees through other people’s pretensions and he can cut anyone down to size. He’s utterly unintimidated by angels, demons, gods and monsters, and he always has the perfect put-down. As far as wish fulfillment fantasies go, he’s the bastard of first choice.”
Writing an OGN presents its own set of challenges and it isn’t, as some might think, the same as writing a multi part story and splitting up in a monthly series. “Well the first thing is that it’s a big canvas and you’ve got to rise to the challenge of that,” explains Carey. “You could just write a 110-page graphic novel as if it was five issues of the regular comic, but that would kind of be missing the point. You use the space you’ve got to play out the story in a different way, writing something that’s less like a series of set pieces and more like a novel. Well, at least that’s what I was aiming to do here. There’s a build, a pay-off, and then a much bigger pay-off behind the first pay-off, and it’s all done in a way that wouldn’t work at all as five segmented episodes. It’s an organic whole.
“And because it’s an organic whole, you have to plan it differently too. I had a huge sketch map of the story, page by page, and I used that to decide where I could afford to let Leo off the rein and ask for splashes and spreads. I also used it to hit certain recurring themes and images that foreshadow the ending. I wouldn’t normally do anything so formal for a 22-page story because it wouldn’t be needed. You can hold the whole structure in your head, more or less, and you don’t have to make so many decisions up front.”
While there’s been a strong fan base for John Constantine since his introduction in Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing,” it can be hard to define the driving theme behind the character and Carey sums it up, saying, “‘Hellblazer’ is the quintessential humanist horror book. The central theme is an ordinary guy flipping the finger at Heaven and Hell and everything in between. It’s John’s attitude that’s at the heart of the whole thing – his cynicism and flippancy and refusal to bow down before other people’s agendas. Not only is he not searching for redemption, he’d shove it in your face if you offered it to him. This is the guy who engineered the fall of the archangel Gabriel: he doesn’t take favours from anyone, least of all God or the Devil.
“But having said that, John is always haunted by the things he’s had to do and by the knowledge of his own failings. In that sense, I guess there is something that he needs – a peace that eludes him. He’s something of a tragic character – like a Moses who can see the promised land but never enter it. Well, you know, if Moses was foul-mouthed, irreverent, ruthless and fond of strong liquor.”
With such a strong sense of horror in the series, much of it of the visual kind, Carey’s faced with hard decisions as to how much gore to show, though the “Mature Readers” label does make things a tad easier. “I think the true horror always lies in the ideas rather than in the graphic rendering of gore and monsters,” contends the “Lucifer” writer. “If you’re structuring the story around eviscerations, demonic rapes and people getting their heads bitten off, then in my opinion you’ve probably already lost the plot. I had a story recently in which a demonic entity took over the minds of everyone in the world and used them like puppets. There were thousands, if not millions of deaths going on both on-panel and off throughout most of that story, but that in itself isn’t horror. It’s a kind of raising of the stakes as a backdrop to horror. The horror then plays off that scenario in (I hope) interesting and effective ways – like when a man is chatting amiably to John as he douses himself in petrol and sets himself alight: the Beast using him as a mouthpiece right up until the point where he can’t talk any more because his vocal cords are on fire.
“And bear in mind also what Garth Ennis said about ‘Hellblazer’ when he was looking back on his stint on the book. He said it was possible to envisage a set of stories about this guy who walks through life destroying every relationship he touches – no horror beyond that central situation, no monsters except for the protagonist himself. There’s a sense in which that’s the core of ‘Hellblazer,’ and the horror is just a set of metaphors for it.”
Though Carey may argue that watching Alyson Hannigan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is valid research, one does wonder if he supplements this with “real” magick or if he’s just winging it. The writer was happy to explain how he approaches the magic in “Hellblazer.” “No, I’m not into magic in the way that, say, Alan Moore is. It’s a storytelling tool, and anyway in ‘Hellblazer’ it’s usually a case of less is more. I’ve been accused of putting too much magic into ‘Hellblazer’ (given that Brian Azzarello, in his run on the book, had stripped the magical content right back). I don’t agree with that assessment, but I do agree that you don’t ever want a situation where John saves the day by saying ‘abracadabra.’ Magic is a feature of the world in which he lives, and I like making it a fairly prominent feature, but at the end of the day it’s not even close to being his most important tool. He wins by cleverness and bare-faced audacity, not by spellcasting.”
One can’t forget artist Leonardo Manco and frankly, Carey can’t stop raving about his work, saying this is the best work of Manco’s career. “It’s what I was saying earlier about the big canvas. Leo has used every inch of it. You’re going to see the most assured pacing and the most powerful atmospherics that ‘Hellblazer’ has seen since the heyday of Steve Dillon – immaculate, soaring, assured artwork that I think will define the look of ‘Hellblazer’ for the next few years at least.
“The amazing thing about Leo is how he immediately, intuitively grasps the emotional heart of each scene and renders it visually. You’re drawn in, again and again: he makes you feel the way you’re meant to feel. He’s also got an incredible gift – which again makes me think of Steve Dillon – for capturing realistic body language, facial expressions, gestures, so that even pages where there’s superficially little going on are full of tension and emotion.”
The last OGN seen by Carey fans, “The Furies,” was well-received and while some might feel pressured, Carey is cool under the fire, displaying a William Hung like sense of confidence. “I guess there’s a sense in which the bigger and more high profile a project is, the further you’ve got to fall. I can’t say it’s something that keeps me awake nights, though. What I mainly feel is grateful for the opportunity.”
The next year may just belong to Carey, who is taking every opportunity he can find and running with it, which is evident as he explains which projects are next for him. “I’ve got another creator-owned one-off in the pipeline with Vertigo, but I can’t say anything about that just yet. There may also be a Frankie announcement soon, although we’ve got no plans to do a sequel. The Spanish language edition of Frankie is coming out this October, which is great. And Sonny, Marc and I are all very serious about wanting to work together on another project, so hopefully we can make that happen soon.
“I’m doing a lot of miniseries and short arcs on a very wide range of books at the moment – pushing myself into new (for me) genres and new kinds of storytelling. There’s ‘Ultimate Elektra,’ of course, which comes out next month, and another OGN with John Bolton scheduled for late 2005. I’ve done a short Superman arc, and a very strange back-up series for one of the DCU titles, both of which I’m really pleased with. And I’m already talking to Shelly (Bond) about what I might do for Vertigo once ‘Lucifer’ comes to an end in two years’ time. I love working for Vertigo and I’m very keen to set something up there.
“All I can say, really, is that I’m in an aggressively expansionist phase at the moment. I want to write a lot of different stories in a lot of different formats, and I’m in the very happy position that I am getting to do that. This summer has been glorious from that point of view – I’ve done so many things that I hadn’t done before, and pushed myself so hard.
“Alyson’s still not returning my calls, though. I’m beginning to lose hope there. Maybe she heard this rumour that I’m fat and middle-aged and married and have three kids.”
The real question every fan wants to ask Carey is simple: if he appeared on the popular British talk show “The Graham Norton Show,” known for its raunchiness, what would happen?
“I’d have to call him an asshole on account of some of the asinine things he’s said on political issues, and then he’d probably slap my face or something. I wouldn’t be invited back, that’s for certain,” laughs Carey.