He survived injury, demonic possession, damnation, torture, lung cancer and even marriage, but in the end it was something much more mundane that got the best of John Constantine: comic book cancellation.
It was announced last month that the current long-running creative team of Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Simon Bisley will be sending “Hellblazer” to its final resting place this February with the release of issue #300. Milligan’s run, the longest in the Vertigo title’s history, saw John Constantine meet the love of his life (twice!), hold a reunion with Shade the Changing Man, lose his thumb, travel to India to solve a colonial ghost story and head back in time to reconnect with his punk roots.
Cover and occasional interior artist Bisley, who affectionately refers to John Constantine as “JC,” spoke with Comic Book Resources about the end of “Hellblazer.” Bisley discussed how originally came to the title, his surprise at the re-launch of “Constantine” in the New 52 DC Universe, the inspiration for the bound-to-be-iconic cover for issue #300 and more.
CBR News: How did you come to be involved with “Hellblazer” initially?
Simon Bisley: I got a call from [Executive Editor of Vertigo] Karen Berger and [editor] Brandon Montclare. He got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to do covers for “Hellblazer.” I said, sure, will do. He also asked me to do interiors for a short story or something and I said yes to that, as well. I wasn’t doing anything at the time. I was out of the mainstream, and this was a way back in to it, back in to DC Comics.
Did you think you’d end up becoming one of “Hellblazer’s” longest-running cover artists ever?
I thought it’d be short. Then after the second cover, they asked me to do all the covers, and I thought that was great. They also wanted me to pencil interiors every few stories, which was amazing. As time went on, I was getting behind because I was working on other projects as well, so I was doing less and less interiors. It ended, though. I’m glad it ended the way it did, because at least I didn’t get fired or I didn’t have to walk away from the job. It was painless for everybody.
Your “Hellblazer” work gave a hard, punk edge to John Constantine. What do you think set your run apart?
It was the grit and grittiness of it. The whole punk thing rose from a poster I drew. I think John Constantine was in a garage, and I did a picture of Sid Vicious in the background. That sparked the idea for the “No Future” arc. We grew up with punk rock, even if we grew out of it, so it’s inevitable that that aspect was going to come out.
I saw Constantine like a Marv from “Sin City” type of character. A cross between that and Mickey Rourke in “Angel Heart.” I wanted him to be a bit older, pissed off and scarred. Always getting in to fights. Drinking. Smoking. That’s how I saw it. I pushed it as far as I could go. I even wanted to make him fat!
It’s very important not to take things too seriously. To not be afraid to push back and go against the grain. I don’t want to do a character if it’s safe. Maybe that goes back to the anti-hero thing we discussed before.
Did you use a John Constantine reference for your art?
It was based on Marv from “Sin City,” Mickey Rourke. The way that Marv moves, that scarred up feeling. He’s scarred and a bit patched up. But I used my own face as reference, with my own features.
Which of your “Hellblazer” covers are your favorites?
I think the one I was most happy with was the one with the plastic mask and skeleton smoking [for “Hellblazer” #298.] That was real weird. Also, the last one with the cigarette [for “Hellblazer #300, the final issue.] That one was cool.
What was your inspiration for that final “Hellblazer” cover?
“I’m leaving the book, and so is JC.” I liked that feeling of just stubbing a cigarette and going, “I’m out. See ya later. Bye. Had a good time, but never again.” It was a bit of a rebellious thing. Karen Berger liked that one. It was her decision to use that cover.
Are there any unused cover ideas for issue #300?
Yes, quite a few. It’s interesting because Karen chose the first cover on my run [“Hellblazer” #256] from a very simple sketch I did, and the last one was just a little scribble, as well, of John Constantine walking away in the rain from a cigarette. She has a good eye and just knew it was the right one. She can see this little doodle I do is going to be the way to go.
JC’s gone. He’s left now and that cover is my way of saluting him. It’s so symbolic of him, really. All that’s left is a cigarette. All he did was fucking smoke all the time.
In the original drawing, he was walking away with Epiphany and all you could see was their bottom halves. JC’s hand was on Epiphany’s butt. It also had the whole cigarette packed crushed. I had another one that was just Constantine flicking a really big “V,” his fingers going out of the page with a grin on his face. He had a watch on his wrist and it was just falling to pieces for some reason. There was another with the devil laughing behind him. I did quite a few.
I was very, very happy that Karen chose the one she did, though. I was very pleased. It’s a simple cover with a lot of power behind it. And remember, the first cover I did, he’s walking towards us with a cigarette, and now on the last one, he’s walking away with the cigarette on the ground.
Is there a chance we’ll ever see a book collecting of all your “Hellblazer” covers?
I hope so. I bloody hope so. A friend of mine has all the images in his computer, scanned, and he’s helped me out with that. He has all the material. I deserve to have a book with all that stuff. It was a good book. It was honest, good work.
When did you find out “Hellblazer” had been cancelled? Was the writing on the wall, or was it a shock?
I love it! I’m out of work! [Laughs]
No, I’ve got plenty of work, I’m just joking. I was told three covers before the end. Shelley found me and told me. I was surprised. It’s a bit like being dumped by your girlfriend. You know it’s coming. I wasn’t fired, of course, it just came to the end, but I had a feeling in my stomach it was coming. It’s like losing a friend.
Is the series coming to a natural conclusion, or were any of your plans cut short?
No, it’s not jarring. It was already worked out a while back, I think. I was just told later. The covers were a good gig, though. I’m losing a good gig, and it’s a shame. I’m happy the way things did work out, though, because at least I wasn’t fired off the job. You just pick yourself up and crack on, though. You can’t get too precious about it.
I was a little bit hurt, though. I’m over it now. Well, not entirely. [Laughs] I don’t know why they did cancel it. I suppose I’ll know in time, what the reason behind it was.
Have you heard about the new “Constantine” ongoing debuting next year? It’s set to feature John Constantine’s adventures in the New 52 DC Universe. It’s a different version of the character than the one from “Hellblazer.”
Are they really?
Now he can be friends with the Justice League again.
Will he still smoke and drink? [Laughs] I bet not!
I’m confused. I just don’t know. It was probably an executive idea, I don’t know how people think. Maybe they just wanted to make him a more commercial character, I suppose. Maybe what we were doing conflicts with what they want to do.
Do you think they can transform John Constantine into a highly commercial character?
Very much so, yeah. He does creepy stories, similar to “The Twilight Zone.” You also have eerie detective series, too, that are very popular. I could see Constantine in a TV series. All the stories and all the characters are all interesting. Constantine is interesting. I think he’d translate very well in to a movie, as well.
They already made a “Constantine” film.
Yeah they did but — ya know — come on! [Laughs]
I think it’d work better as a TV series, anyways. Very dark and interesting.
Would you consider doing covers or interiors for a future “Constantine” arc?
I don’t know if it’d be the same thing. I mean, of course I would do it, but I don’t know if it’d be the same thing. It’d feel strange, indeed, doing Constantine in that world. It’d feel surreal. All the guts would have to come out of him.
It’d be amusing to see him wind up with all these superheroes while he’s all gnarly and scarred and carrying around a bottle of whiskey. If he was darker and practicing magic on his own, that could work, but a cleaned-up version wouldn’t work. He’s not Doctor Strange, is he? He has to be the mysterious Englishmen on the corner by himself, having a drink muttering to himself. A guy who has to sober up and get his shit together. A misfit among misfits. I’m very interested to see how they portray him, very interested.
My favorite arc from your run is “No Future,” when Constantine goes back in time to confront his younger self while a bunch of crust-punks worship an effigy of Sid Vicious. What was your and Milligan’s inspiration for that story?
The Sid Vicious idea came from a previous issue where Constantine had a poster of Sid Vicious behind him. A Union Jack with Sid Vicious on it. That spawned the idea to do this story Milligan wrote with Sid Vicious as a demi-god. Everybody loves that one. It was interesting as shit, wasn’t it? It was personal for me, as well, because back in ’76 is when I came out of my own shell. Grew some wings, so to speak. Sid Vicious was there at the time, and I loved the Sex Pistols. So I was visiting my past, as well, when I drew it, not just John Constantine’s past. I had a lot of empathy in it and I could put a lot of feeling in to it.
I loved doing that one, I really did. Milligan is a clever writer. Very clever, just subtle things. It invites you to draw in a way with some sensitivity; you want to get it right. You’re not doing action, you have to get subtle things right. You have to get every gesture right. I don’t think people see that in my work.
Those subtle things are often what touch people the most, though. Were there any other stories from your run that you were particularly fond of?
It’s interesting you mention it, because sometimes these stories do touch people. One story like that was “Suicide Bridge” [“Hellblazer” Annual 2011] which I also did the pencils for. I was shocked by what a bastard JC was in that story.
I don’t read scripts, I read them as I work on them. I don’t read each page until I’m ready to draw it so I never know what’s going to happen next. I find that more interesting because that way it’s always fresh because I can’t wait as an artist to find out what happens next. If I’ve read it, I’ve read it and I’m not interested in it anymore.
On “Suicide Bridge,” I got to the last few pages where he just gives that picture to a kid who he knew was going to fall to his death. I thought, “John, you bastard!” I didn’t know he could be so evil. I was standing there in my underpants in my studio one morning when I got to the last page and I shouted out, “John, I can’t believe you! What are you doing, you bastard!” Constantine’s on the train, all the lights flashing by, and it’s all dark. I imagined him thinking about the kid falling from the bridge right then. That cold bridge, that cold night, being forced in to the cold depths of the water. And I put a grin on Constantine’s face. Made him that much more evil. If I had made him sullen and sad-looking, then you might think Constantine had some regret for what he had done. If you draw a straight face, with him thoughtful and reflecting, it’s the same. You put a sly grin on his face, and you can see the evil in him. See the little bit of the devil that’s in Constantine. He enjoyed it.
Finally, with “Hellblazer” ending and the Vertigo version of the character possibly gone forever, do you have any last words for John Constantine?
See ya in Hell, buddy! Keep the beers on ice.
“Hellblazer,” featuring covers by Simon Bisley, written by Peter Milligan with interior art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, comes to a conclusion with issue #300, on sale February 20th.