Burning In Hell: Mike Carey Talks 'Hellblazer'

[Hellblazer #179]If you pay attention to the buzz surrounding DC's mature imprint, better known as Vertigo, one might assume that it's only "Y- The Last Man" and "Fables" that are striking a chord with fans. But DC-exclusive writer Mike Carey has been drawing in rave reviews of his own with his epic work on the Eisner-nominated "Lucifer" and has recently taken over the writing chores on the cult hit "Hellblazer," which has maintained a steady fanbase due to high profile writers such as Warren Ellis and Brian Azzarello of late. Though Carey has a lot on his plate, he spoke to CBR News extensively about his newest endeavor and was excited to share with readers all the details regarding "Hellblazer."

"'Hellblazer' is very much a character-driven book," explains Carey. "It centers on this guy, John Constantine, who lives in London most of the time, and who's sort of equal parts sorcerer, con man, fixer and outright meddling bastard. He's got a lot of knowledge of magic across dozens of different cultures and eras, and more importantly a lot of knowledge of the other people in the magic game. He always knows everything that happens before anyone else gets a whiff of it, he knows everyone's past form and guilty secrets, and he's drawn to trouble like crows are drawn to corpses. In the terms of the book, John is a hero - but very much an anti-hero, because he's ruthless and manipulative and he'll use anyone and everything to get the job done. The first time John ever appeared it was in the pages of 'Swamp Thing,' where we saw him more or less feeding all his friends, his acquaintances and his girlfriend into the flames to avert the attempted murder of God by a brotherhood of South American sorcerers. In the pages of his own book he's stitched up as many people as he's saved, and it's very much an open question in the end whether he does more good than harm. But that makes him a fascinating character. He's got enough of a conscience to be fully aware of all the people he's hurt, but not enough to make him hesitate when it comes to setting up an old mate as a decoy for a demon, or putting an innocent bystander in the line of hellfire. And yet, paradoxically, he feels a sense of obligation to the people he's known and cared for. He can never just walk away from someone else's suffering if there's something he can do about it. On the surface he's incredibly flip, sardonic, cynical and untouchable, but there are layers of pain and guilt and terrible unease underneath that surface.

"For most of the book's run, John has been pitted against supernatural opponents - including ghosts and demons and vampires of all shades and descriptions, but also including the hierarchies of heaven and hell. In this sense 'Hellblazer' is what you might call a humanist book, because the yardstick of real value is always human - your friends, your family, the web of relationships that you weave around you as you live - and both hell and heaven are seen as unfriendly powers fighting an ancient grudge war in which people are expendable pawns. John has defeated the First of the Fallen (the devil) on many occasions, but he's also choreographed the fall of the archangel Gabriel and offered aid and comfort to a succubus with an angelic lover. He's a neutral power in the war between hell and heaven - or to put it less charitably, a loose cannon."

Carey's devotion to "Lucifer" keeps him mighty busy and it wasn't till he got a call from DC that he was aware that it was even possible for him to write "Hellblazer." "Will Dennis called me up and offered it to me," says Carey of how he got hired on "Hellblazer." "He'd been talking to Brian Azzarello about what would happen when he left the book, and my name came up because of 'Lucifer.' Brian thought I'd be able to make a good fist of it, and Will agreed. So he called me around about last November and asked me if I was interested. I was, very, but I was also trying to get a couple of film and TV deals off the ground and I was scared of taking on a second monthly book. So I asked for time to think, and then Brian came up with the idea that we could alternate story arcs. I jumped at that - it would give me the flexibility if I needed it, and it would be a fascinating (if scary) experience to write back-to-back with the author of '100 Bullets.'

"So I pitched an idea to Will for a six-month arc that would comprise two stories - 'High on Life' and 'Red Sepulchre.' But Brian ended up with many other commitments, and I was working up what I felt was a good head of steam, so I just carried on. We've got a year's worth of scripts in the can now and I'm having the time of my life."

The fact that Carey's enjoying himself on "Hellblazer" comes as no surprise to the writer- he's a big fan of John Constantine and this is one character that he's always wanted to tackle. "Well, the big attraction is John himself," says Carey of why he agreed to work on "Hellblazer." "He's a character I've always loved, through his many former incarnations. The best writers in the business have taken turns to shape him and add to his myth, and he's become (for me anyway, and for lots of other people I know) as iconic as the Batman. I really wanted to have a go at writing him. I was also attracted by the idea of writing a horror fantasy series that would be so different from 'Lucifer' - operating on a street level rather than a cosmic level, and with ordinary men and women as the central characters rather than the backdrop. 'Hellblazer' at its best is the most powerful and scary horror book on the market. Over the years it's done some fantastic takes on vampire stories, ghost stories, selling-your-soul-to-the-devil stories, demonic possession stories, and all the other staples of horror. And it's added some strands of its own to the genre as well.

"The most fun would be the dialogue, I guess - especially in the encounters between John and the various evil characters he comes up against. He's the king of the put-down. His face just naturally quirks into an 'is that the best you've got?' expression, and nobody ever gets the better of him verbally. They may torture him, betray him, chew up his body and soul, murder his friends and fuck up his life, but they can never get one over on him in an argument. It's also great fun writing some of the supporting characters who've been around since the early days of the book - people like the much-abused Chas, John's sister and brother-in-law, and of course the Swamp Thing, whose relationship with Constantine goes way, way back. One of my favorite comic lines of all time is 'How do you baffle a vegetable?' but you have to see it in the context of the Swamp Thing story ('American Gothic,' I think) where it appeared.

"The biggest challenge - as with all horror - is trying to find things that are genuinely scary, or to present them so that they're genuinely scary. I tend to make a distinction, in the horror I read myself, between stuff that's fun and clever and interesting and stuff that genuinely makes me reluctant to put the light out. There isn't all that much in the second category."

With all the comparisons that Carey is making to his other well-known series, "Lucifer," it might make some wonder what exactly makes "Hellblazer" such a unique comment and the British scribe explains that in fact "Hellblazer" has more in common with the classic "Sandman" series than with Carey's own "Lucifer." "I guess it has the same advantages that 'Sandman' had, in that it can cross genre boundaries at will. In 'Sandman,' Gaiman created a mythology that subsumed all other mythologies, so you could have Norse gods and African demons and Chinese ghosts and so on, and they could all interact with each other. Nothing was out of bounds. 'Hellblazer' has something of the same freedom, because the central character is a student of magic who is actually pretty jaundiced with the paraphernalia of magic, the pretensions of magicians and the huge arrogance of supernatural beings. He uses the tools of the con man as much as he uses the tools of the sorcerer, and his usual haunts straddle the criminal underworld as well as the demonic one. So you've got a book with a very unique feel - a sort of a nexus between different literary reference points, that sometimes tastes of Lovercraft or Poe and sometimes has more of a flavour of Chandler or James Ellroy."

[Hellblazer #180]When it comes to writing "Hellblazer" and "Lucifer," Carey says that because of the very nature of the characters whom act as the protagonists of each books (he's careful not to call them "heroes" per se), he has to change his writing style. "I think one of the things I managed to do with some success in 'Lucifer' was to produce some strong self-contained stories - the one-offs that act as buffers between the longer story arcs," explains Carey. "When I went into writing 'Hellblazer,' I was always thinking that I'd follow the same model, and do some neat little horror one-offs interspersed with slightly longer - but still essentially self-contained - stories. That hasn't really happened. Really there's a common thread running through all the first year's stories, which will become clearer as we go along. I found to my surprise that I was writing a novel, with the individual stories as chapters.

"John and Lucifer are very similar in some respects, but the differences are just as crucial. Basically, if you saw through Lucifer, all you'll see inside is solid Lucifer. He's all of a piece, and although he's consummately sly and manipulative it's very much a case of what you see is what you get. No underlying weaknesses or vulnerabilities, no hidden motivations, no self-doubt, and no capacity to change. John is human - and human beings aren't like that. When John manipulates the people around him, which is often, there are consequences for him as well as for them. He's haunted by his past. For Lucifer, the past is dead and beyond consideration."

If you're one of the many people who did try the first couple issues of Carey's "Hellblazer" and found them to be a bit too impenetrable, the writer explains that you're not alone, but that things are also becoming a lot clearer. "People curse me out for this, and I guess it's a fair cop," admits Carey. "So yes, we'll have recaps. On the other hand, I think there's an awful lot that you can pick up as you go, because John's back story isn't at all complicated. If you just think in terms of "okay, this guy is an old friend, and that one's someone he carved up once, and he slept with her when he was in his teens" then you've probably got most of what you need."

Even if you're a longtime "Hellblazer" reader, it'll be obvious that Carey is making Constantine's magic much more subtle as opposed to the elaborate and ornate magic that fans are used to seeing in comic, something that Carey explains helps to differentiate the lead character from other comic book personalities. "John isn't Doctor Strange - and there's never going to be a 'Hellblazer' story that ends with him zapping some demon with the crismon bands of Cyttorak or the all-seeing orb of Amagotto," laughs Carey. "His ultimate weapon is knowledge: knowledge of magic, yeah, but also knowledge of human nature and the people he's dealing with. Some old 'Hellblazer' readers feel that the magic is too centre-stage in the three issues so far. It's important, I think, to stay with the central concept of John as the sly, slippery bastard who can win a hand of poker even if his cards are face-up and he's wearing a blindfold. That's much more important to the book than his ability to cast spells. So in 'High on Life,' for example, I have him beating Gladys by figuring out the magic she's using and sabotaging it. But he doesn't sabotage it with a counterspell, he does it by wiping out her veves, her chalk marks, from the doorposts of her flat. We've seen him do a divination earlier, but in the showdown his mind is his main weapon."

The cast of characters appearing in "Hellblazer" are mostly derived from the Warren Ellis era, a favorite of Carey's, though he says you'll be seeing some fresh faces very soon. "The only character I've brought in so far who's all my own is Angie Spatchcock - the waitress from Uncle Joe's cafe who's read up a lot on magic and now wants to get her feet wet with the real thing. I created her to be a foil for John in a lot of ways. She's going to be someone who can help him in ways that Chas and company can't (and I didn't mean that to be as sleazy as it sounds), and who can give as good as she gets when it comes to sardonic comments. John has the last word in their first encounter - 'If I ever want a teenage sidekick, I'll know where to come"'- but when they meet up again it's not all going to go his way.

"The London crowd - Map, Clarice and Albert, Josh Wright - are all taken from Warren Ellis's run on the book. I've added one or two people around the edges of that crowd, but for the most part I'm revisiting a milieu that had already been created by Warren. But a lot of the pleasure of 'Hellblazer' has always been in the interaction between John and his long-suffering, sometimes doomed, friends. Every writer has added a few names, and usually taken a few away - permanently. I'll be bringing in some more characters of my own as we go on."

[Hellblazer #181]One cast member you shouldn't expect to see is Lucifer Morningstar, the protagonist of "Lucifer" and whom many might expect, for commercial reasons, to have a crossover with John Constantine. While there are some similarities between the characters, admits Carey, it'd also be akin to a crossover between the current versions of Batman and the Black Panther: someone has to lose, meaning one character is undermined and that means fans won't be happy. "I don't think we'll do a crossover," says Carey. "John and Lucifer have a lot in common in some ways, and it's difficult to think of an encounter that wouldn't leave one of them looking belittled in some way. Cameos are something else, though. John popped up a long time ago, in 'Lucifer#5,' and I can see other subtle cross-fertilizations like this happening in future. But there are no compelling reasons for a crossover besides commercial ones. And by and large, readers don't seem to want it: I started a thread on the 'Hellblazer' message board asking that question, and mostly the responses were negative."

One thing that Carey's learned is to trust his instinct and so far, it's proven to be successful, with his work on "Hellblazer" having been well-received by critics and fans. "I think if you take an overview I've got a cautious thumbs-up," says Carey of his perspective on the response. "There've been lots of positive comments on the DC boards, and also on John McMahon's Straight to Hell site. The responses on rec.arts.comics.dc.vertigo forum have been more mixed, and we've got some good but not gushing reviews from other websites like The Fourth Rail. Sales have stayed very steady, which is good - I'd expected an initial slump as a lot of readers who came on board for Brian's run voted with their feet, but if that's happened then they've been offset by 'Lucifer' readers trying out the book for the first time. So we're doing okay. 'Red Sepulchre' will hopefully set out my stall pretty explicitly. It's a bigger and more ambitious story than High on Life, and it builds to a more powerful and far-reaching climax. It sets the tone for the future, and establishes some plot points for later stories too. People seem to be interested in how it's going to play out, so we shall see. Hopefully there'll also be a trade once 'Red Sepulchre' is complete, and that could get us some wider attention."

Something else that Carey hopes will get "Hellblazer" wider attention is the art skills of Marcelo Frusin, whose work on the series has been blowing away Carey every time he sees a newly completed page. "Marcelo is great at shadow and nuance, so I was expecting some spectacularly moody stuff from him on 'Red Sepulchre.' What I wasn't expecting was a great rendition of London. The settings in the story are realized in a great deal of detail and they work brilliantly - all the way from that glimpse of Piccadilly Circus in #177 to the climactic scenes in... but I guess I shouldn't really talk about them. It really matters in a story like this that there should be that vivid sense of place, and Marcelo delivered in spades.

"He's also produced some truly superb monsters. There's a demonic summoning in #178, and the demon is very, very cool. Sort of classic, but with some very stylish and clever tweaks. It's funny, really. I'm pulling him into areas - both physical and conceptual - that are very different from the work he did with Brian, but he's never missed a beat at any point."

And if you're not sold on Mike Carey's "Hellblazer" yet, the man himself is willing to offer a fistful of teasers for future stories just to entice new and old readers into checking out what's to come. "'Red Sepulchre' ends with an immediate threat being effectively dealt with, but it opens up the possibility of a much scarier threat opening up in the longer term. It leaves John with a dilemma, which will deepen through #181-183, and finally cause him to go off and do some research in other parts of the world. We've got a trilogy coming up in the Spring called 'Third Worlds,' which is kind of our 'American Gothic' - a series of one-offs which are giving us pieces of a bigger puzzle, but which hopefully work by themselves as free-standing horror stories. Then we've got a longer arc called 'Staring at the Wall,' which pulls all the threads together and brings John to a turning point in his life. That takes us into 2004, which is probably far enough for now..."

In the end, Carey is thankful for the support of fans and asks that anyone who isn't sure about the series sticks around for a few more series. "Anyone who's not sure about where the book is going should hang on until the end of 'Red Sepulchre' and see what they think then. As people have already noticed, the tone and approach in my stories are different from Brian's. The magical elements are more to the fore, and there's more of an emphasis on the people around John as well as on Con-job himself. With 'Red Sepulchre,' what we've got is sort of a horror take on 'A Fistful of Dollars,' which of course is one of the most borrowed plots in the history of the movies: John caught in a war between two factions, and playing them off against each other. I like that over-the-top action as an overlay on the horror, so I guess it's a good indication of what I'm going to be doing in later stories too."

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