2005 will definitely be the year John Constantine makes his impact felt. With a feature film starring Keanu Reeves opening February 18th and a slew of Constantine/Hellblazer related specials from DC/Vertigo, fans of the character have been handed a number of treats this year. One of those is a new five-issue mini-series, "John Constantine - Hellblazer Special: Papa Midnite," in stores today. The series tells the origin of Papa Midnite, New York's kingpin of voodoo and crime, a character introduced back during Constantine's earliest appearances. The series is written by award-winning novelist Mat Johnson ("Hunting In Harlem," "Drop") who's joined by artists Tony Akins and Dan Green. CBR News caught up with Johnson to learn a bit more about this series.
"'Papa Midnite' takes a look at the character of the same name, from the 'Hellblazer' series, and his unknown origin, based not in the West Indies, but in British colonial New York," Johnson told CBR News Wednesday morning. "Midnite was cursed because his part in sabotaging a slave rebellion in 1712, and tried to organize his own in 1741. Both rebellions actually happened, as did much of the details that are woven into this fictional story."
The story opens in modern-day Harlem as Midnite begins a vision quest that returns him to his boyhood of 300 years ago. As he organizes this slave revolt, Midnite also sees an opportunity for profit, but that drive causes a catastrophe that haunts him to this day. Johnson hopes with this origin finally being told that it brings some new depth to the character.
"I'm a 'Hellblazer' fan, too, and I'm black, and I was always disappointed with Midnite, particularly his original incarnation," admitted Johnson. "I have an immense amount of respect for Alan Moore and the 'Hellblazer' writers come and gone, but to me Midnite was this two dimensional archaic black stereotype- the Noble Savage. Wearing a grass skirt like out of a 1930s Tarzan movie, with a top hat and tails over his naked body just to emphasize through contrast how primitive he was, how uncivilized, how less than human. I love the series so I wanted him to be a fuller character, not just a racist fantasy.
"I tried to make this character more human, give him motivation that, while not always benevolent, are understandable," continued Johnson. "And I tried to add to the idea of his power as well. In comics, Voodoo, or Voodon, is often dismissed as an evil, inferior religion/magic. I want to reveal more about what it is: an amalgamation of ancient West African religion, particular from the Yoruba and Akan peoples. What we see today is still a leftover of the idea that if something is African, or black, it is corrupt and inferior.
"I think ['Papa Midnite'] adds a lot of depth to this odd character individually, as well as a dimension to his relationship with John Constantine. We find out, for instance, that Midnite was the associate of one of John's distant ancestors, Hugh Constantine- a character based on an historical character involved in the 1741 conspiracy."
Papa Midnite, the character, features prominently in the upcoming feature film, but this origin series is an extension of "Hellblazer" the series with no relation to the movie. Johnson noted that the cover to the first issue references the clothes Midnite wears ("…that was just because they are cool clothes," said Johnson), but beyond that reference there's no tie-in to the film.
This is Johnson's first comics work and getting to work on this project has been exciting for the admitted life-long fanboy. It being his first work, he found the process challenging, especially tieing fictional characters in with real event.
"Often, when we wrote the script, my editor [Jonathan Vankin] asked me to consider certain points, because of realism, that actually did happen," explained Johnson. "The revolters in 1712 did have a 'magic powder' that was supposed to protect them from bullets, given to them by a free black. Conspirators were burned at the stake, etc. The hard part was making these real events actually believable. Most people don't even know that NYC had the largest slave population in the north, with a 1 to 10, slaves to free ratio."
Johnson came to write "Papa Midnite" by way of a friend.
"I'm a novel writer, of what gets cast as literary fiction," said Johnson. "A friend, David Hyde, left after being a publicist at Vintage Press to go to DC, and he cracked the door for me. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I went in and pushed ten ideas to Karen Berger, so of course when that was over she asked if I had anything else. I just wrote a nonfiction book on these slave revolts for Bloomsbury Press, had just come from that meeting, so in desperation I started talking about that idea. Karen said that might be the perfect setting for 'Midnite,' and it all just clicked in. And here we are."
Having worked in both book and comics publishing, Johnson noted that editors in each field are really quite different.
"First, when I write a book, it begins and ends with me. I'm responsible, and in charge, of the entire vision. I don't have to pitch ideas, I just come up with them and then reveal the finished product. And the artistry comes down to the prose, not simply the story or dialogue. Comics, these types, are collaborative projects, I clear my ideas with the editor, then I basically write the instructions for five other people to put it together."
And now that he's had a taste of the comics world, Johnson definitely would like to return for more.
"I'm talking with Jon Vankin about some ideas and we'll see what happens. Vertigo has been a favorite of mine for years, so to be there, to be writing for them, it's a fantasy alive. Hopefully, we can keep that alive. I've learned so much, I'm looking forward to applying that knowledge as soon as possible."