Look no further than Peter Milligan’s new Vertigo series, “Greek Street” for a prime example of how the British writer can take an epic tale like the one of Oedipus and re-imagine it for a new generation of readers. And since he started writing John Constantine’s exploits earlier this year, Milligan has brought that same sense of mythic storytelling to the pages of “Hellblazer” each and every month.
Two entirely different books, to be sure, but there are also two constants: the writer and the publisher. Since Milligan re-imagined Steve Ditko’s “Shade, the Changing Man” 20 years ago for Vertigo Comics, the British writer has been nearly synonymous with the DC Comics’ imprint, delivering critically acclaimed runs on an incredibly diverse range of titles, including “Human Target,” “Animal Man” and “Enigma.”
In celebration of Vertigo re-releasing the first 13 issues of “Shade, the Changing Man” in trade paperback this week, CBR News checked in with Milligan to discuss his work, new and old, with Vertigo Comics.
Yesterday, Milligan shared details of what’s to come in “Greek Street,” and today, the writer discusses “Shade, the Changing Man” and “Hellblazer” and revealed that, after 16 years, the man from Meta and John Constantine will be crossing paths once again.
CBR News: Vertigo is re-releasing the first 13 issues of your critically acclaimed run on “Shade, the Changing Man” in two trade paperbacks this week. Can you leap back in time for us to 1990 and try to remember what the experience was like writing such a free-wheeling, freethinking adventure?
Peter Milligan: I loved it, man. It was fantastic. In this country (U.K.), we’re drenched in American culture. Which is both good and bad, but a lot of it is good. But before I started writing the book, I traveled across America, because I wanted to get a more personal take on bits of America that never hit the news. So I Greyhounded it across and took some planes and ended up on the West Coast. That was a real eye-opener. I don’t think actual incidents found their way into “Shade,” but some kind of quality and some kind of feel did. And perhaps some kinds of places and situations in some skewered way found their way into the book.
So the book, for me, became incredibly personal. It was also a way for me to work out some of my thoughts about America through this most American of mediums – comic books.
Shade is not your classic superhero, like Superman or even Aquaman. Why do you think he resonated so strongly with readers? Were they looking for something different?
Yeah, I think it was because he was different. I think the book had some strong supporting characters. I think Kathy and Lenny really resonated with a lot of people – not just women, but particularly women. And I think that Shade was very sensitive, and perhaps he came at a time when there was an age of self-reflection going on in America and he was a character that wasn’t a gung-ho kind of character. He was very sensitive, and he was in trouble, and he was kind of dislocated, and he was often in the wrong place, so that may have connected with a lot of people and how they felt, particularly people who were in the age group that read comics, but also maybe someone who feels disconnected from where he is and feels lost.
It was, in some strange way, one big, long road movie, which is funny, because I was obviously on the road when I traveled across America, looking for this stuff.
But it’s amazing looking back at that stuff. There was some great stuff. I actually re-read some of them recently, and I think it really holds up.
Agreed. I just read the first trade, and there is nothing in it that screams 1990. It could very well be a brand new release.
Well thanks. I take that as a compliment. Some of the things that I was dealing with, like Kennedy and the mid-sixties, had people asking then, “Why aren’t you dealing with current issues?” But it appears to me that these are issues that even now resonate with people in 21st century America. It was the big issues that I was interested in, perhaps because I didn’t grow up in America.
That said, would you like to return to that character? Maybe a new “Shade” series?
Would I like to return to Shade? Well actually, he’s going to appear in a “Hellblazer” storyline. John Constantine is going to be in trouble in such a way that only Shade can really help him. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to that, because Shade and Constantine really work well together. If you remember, Constantine appeared briefly in “Shade” from #42 to 44 and took a slight shine to Kathy. But there seems to be a nice contrast between Constantine and Shade. They’re so different.
So that’s happening in upcoming arc?
Yes, quite soon.
“Hellblazer” has been there since the beginning for Vertigo, and has been written by a veritable who’s who of comic book heavyweights since its debut in 1988. Are you pleased to add your name to a list that includes Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey and Andy Diggle?
Yeah, of course. I’m really having a gas doing it. And you’re right, you have to read a lot of stuff when you come on as writer for the book. But one of the things that you have to do is, you have to kind of eke out your own little territory. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do with it?” There are been a lot of great writers on [“Hellblazer”] with their own vision. And you have to be an adult about it. There’s no point in having this character and trying to compete with all the different versions of him. You have to do something different.
First of all, Vertigo readers are sophisticated enough to realize there will be a slight difference between Peter Milligan’s version and Garth Ennis’ or Andy Diggle’s version, because we’re slightly different writers with slightly different concerns. Constantine is almost like a Greek hero. In the same way Euripides or Sophocles would have taken Oedipus and told a slightly different version of his mythic tale and talked about what they were interested at that time, I think Constantine needs to be approached the same way. Different writers should take on different aspects of his character and tell a slightly different version of the myth. I think that’s what so interesting about him.
And there are some things that I was aware of, like when I picked up the book and everybody said, “He’s such a bastard.” I said, “Well, yes, he’s a bit of a bastard, but he’s not a complete bastard, because he’s more nuanced than a lot of people seem to think.” To me, bastards – real bastards – are people who rape and murder and act out race and hate crimes and this all stuff that Constantine wouldn’t do. I think Constantine is morally ambiguous, but he’s more nuanced. Yes, he’s a bastard towards some things, but actually, when it comes down to it, he wouldn’t do harm to someone who didn’t deserve it. They’d have to do real nasty stuff.
So I more interested in the field I’m trying to plow where Constantine is aware of his flaws. If any character has got flaws, obviously, it’s Constantine. He’s not 30, so if he falls in love, he’s more of a mature man who falls in love. So what are his attitudes towards love, loneliness, all of these things that make him a bit more rounded? As well, the magic stuff is really great too.
In terms of other projects, you also have “Bronx Kill” coming out in 2010, correct?
Yes, that’s part of Vertigo’s black and white crime line. I’ve already finished my work on that. It’s really cool and features art by James Romberger, who is brilliant. His stuff is really scratchy and really emotional.
And I also have a miniseries coming out from Wildstorm called “Zombistas!” It’s a zombie story, but it’s really different. It’s using zombies to examine the situation of Mexican immigration. The artwork is really fantastic. It will really surprise people. I’m working with [editor] Ben Abernathy on that one.
You’ve had a long and fruitful history with Vertigo, dating back to the original release of “Shade, the Changing Man” some 20 years ago. Why are you and Vertigo a good fit?
It’s like I say to [Executive Editor] Karen Berger, Vertigo is my spiritual home for comics. You can do this stuff and have strange ideas. Greek tragedy has always been this thorn in my side, and I’ve been trying to work out what I was going to with it for years, and then to be able to take all those thoughts and ideas and regurgitate it in a comic book that is “Greek Street,” it’s the most amazing thing. And Vertigo allows that. And it’s not just this stable of writers that have grown up there. It’s the readers that have grown up with Vertigo too.
“Hellblazer” #261, the first part of ‘India,’ the title’s latest arc, is on sale now featuring art by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini and a cover by Simon Bisley.