With five acclaimed crime novels and several short stories under her belt, Denise Mina's already proven herself in the world of prose. Now she's stepping into the weird world of comics, starting with a 13-issue run on John Constantine, Hellblazer. James Wilkinson investigates.
Legend has it that you told Hellblazer editor Jon Vankin you'd eat your own guts to write the comic. Where did you first come across Constantine and what is it about Hellblazer that makes you so enthusiastic?
My boyfriend has been a fan since almost day one and bored me to tears about how great it was. Finally, I think it was around about Dangerous Habits, he just said you've got to read this, it's everything you're into. As well as being a fan I was keen because the narrative form is fairly similar to what I usually do: most of John's story lines are really detective stories. The added bonus is that you can rewrite history and make up new laws of physics and I love that.
Yeah, both Ellisí and Azzarelloís runs were very much like detective stories. Will yours still have supernatural elements?
Very heavy supernatural emphasis. It's a bit of a holiday from gritty reality for me and a change to mess about with the history of the Catholic church and develop ideas about connectedness and the death of Socialism. So it'll be abstract but still set on this plane. Apart from all the near-death experiences. Did you ever wonder if the benign white light at the end of the tunnel is a trap?
I always thought it was surgeons taking the piss with a torch. Now, over the last 15 years John's been portrayed as everything from an angsty poet to a cold and bitter recluse. How would you describe your own Constantine, and what drives him?
In my run Constantine has a run in with empathy, which is weird and turns out to have a sinister genesis. Johnís been through a bit of a hard time recently and I wanted a contrast with the mythic super hero arc that Carey created, make him look inward to why he's such a bad friend to Chas and everyone else. Also I didnít think I could compete with Carey, whose run has been brilliant, so I thought I'd distract attention by doing something different.
Speaking of doing something different, a theme which runs throughout much of your work is the abuse and exploitation - sexual or otherwise - of women. Is this something you plan to continue during your Hellblazer run?
No, I'm leaving that strand of politics behind for this run, I think. In the detective novels I try to introduce themes that are specific to the form but subvert them, so instead of a trail of dead prostitutes as props we meet real prostitutes, whole women with feelings and kids and star signs and so on. In Hellblazer I though it would be fun to play with the strand of the lone figure seeking justice by imposing his will on others and undermine that by introducing the possibility of self sacrifice and utilitarian good.
You told the Evening Standard that writing Hellblazer was "different to writing emotive stories". What did you mean by that?
Well, in detective novels what you do is scare the shit out of the reader and make them care whether the case is solved or not. In Hellblazer, because it's an ongoing run, none of us are going to fall half in love with JC and worry about him until the next issue comes out. I'm always pretty sure he'll be okay, but I'm wondering how the old bastard will put it off this time. It's a more cerebral intrigue than a detective novel.
In an interview with Newsarama, you said that you hoped to turn your tenure on the title into a "Preacher road movie arc", so it sounds like you've got a pretty good idea of where you're heading with it. How many of your 13 issues have been planned so far and do you plan to leave the story open in case you want to sign on for more work?
I'm working towards a definitive ending and I'll tell you why: the first time I get a commission for something I've never done before I get obsessed and think about it as I fall asleep, on trains, out shopping etc. But past the first flush I'm a bit of a lazy bastard and start just meeting deadlines, getting my dog to do my home work etc. I hope by making things finite I'll stay with the buzz, keep the momentum going and not get caught out. The Preacher road movie thing was really about that feeling of impending doom, knowing the characters are moving towards a destination and that big stuff'll happen there. They come to Glasgow, basically.
So once those 13 issues are up, will that be the end of the line for your run?
Well we'll see, but I'd rather just stop there unless something specific occurs to me, which it probably won't. I'm possibly unhealthily excited about the project and destined to be disappointed at my inadequacy. Probably best to get out quickly at the end with an embarrassed cough and an apologetic smile or else on a smug smirk.
Itís a bit of a tradition for each writer to introduce a new supporting cast, with maybe the odd old-school character here and there. How heavily will you rely on previous cast memebers? Can you give us examples of some of the new characters that youíll be bringing in?
Well, where Mike takes JC to leaves him with very few of the previous supporting cast for a lot of my run. I donít want to spoil it for anyone but he takes him to a pretty desolate place but there are appearances, very important ones. New characters include St Oran, a painter called Chris Cole who goes to John for help with an empathy curse and becomes a mate, also Steve Evans who is a mysterious local council official who spends a lot of time in the office toilets resisting the urge to slaughter everyone he works with. Steve Evans is my boyfriend's name - I felt it was the least I could do given that he'd introduced me to Hellblazer in the first place.
Sounds like there wonít be many of the old guard. What about John's niece, Gemma? Her progression from idolising John to understanding how messed up he is has been one of the highlights of Careyís run. Do you plan to continue their relationship?
It's too good to leave behind, isn't it?
Absolutely! Okay, worst case scenario: for whatever reason, the editors decide to pull the plug on Hellblazer and give you carte blanche to end the series however you want. Do you see John riding off into the sunset or dying a horrible death - or something else entirely?
Well, he's JC so he could ride off into a horrible death in the sunset and then come back and bite anyone's arse off.
You mentioned that your first storyline has John visiting Glasgow; what made you decide to send John up there?
It was really because of Mike Carey's run, as I say, I wanted to make mine as different as possible because he's an intimidating man to follow. Setting it in a real city and making it about that city seemed as far from a journey through Hell as I could get.
That depends on what you think of Glasgow. Speaking of which, I've spoken to Glaswegians who've been impressed by the use of Glasgow slang in your novels. Now that you're writing for a largely American fanbase, do you feel any need to tone down the colloquialisms? Have the editors made any demands to that effect?
I think the most important thing is to be understandable and Vankin lives in NY so he can tell me what makes no sense at all to him. I've run into a problem with 'neds' which are Glawegian chavs or scallies (Note : kids who wear Burberry, drink in public and harass passersby). There isnít a universal word for them so we're just going to have to define them in a conversation.
Now, this is the first time you've written something using someone else's characters. Do you find it restrictive?
Taking on JC is hard because he's such a strong character and so familiar to so many people. I like that fact that heís a bit of a bastard but that's not what everyone thinks of him. What I think is immutably John isnít what everyone thinks of him so, although it seems obvious what he's like, it's tricky to actually pin him down.
One of the aspects of your novels that stands out is the quality of the prose, but in a comic you can only use it sparingly. How easy was the transition?
Ah, you're kind. I miss prose but luckily I'm writing a novel at the same time. With comics the limitations are what make the medium for me. It's completely different, not least because you have to describe what you see and all scenes have to be static, no one can run anywhere or pull out a gun and point it. When I'm reading comics I actually feel different bits of my brain being used to take in information. I heard Alan Grant say that comics use both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. I donít know how he knows that but I wouldn't like to see his kitchen.
What about the change from long-term book deadlines to a regular monthly deadline?
It's okay. I've written a newspaper column before which was weekly and that was hell on earth. But this is fun. I've got rough drafts of most of the first half of the run done already. I got too excited.
With comic books the script is only one part of the finished product. How do you feel about sharing creative control with artists and colourists?
Well, sharing creative control is a relative thing isn't it? Part of me is excited about what they'll make of it but a lot of the comic is set in very specific places and architectural settings in Glasgow. Instead of taking stills which might determine the frames, I got a camcorder and filmed for Manco the areas and buildings and parks and streets and even the pubs mentioned in it. I picked out Cole's flat, it was being done up at the time, and then bribed workmen to let me in. I was very heavily pregnant at the time, it was a bit undignified to be honest. Does that make me a terrible control freak? I'm afraid it does.
Do you think you'll return to the comic book medium once you're finished with Hellblazer?
Yeah, Iíve loved the process so far and canít see me getting bored. But I'm writing a short film, a novel and play at the moment so I should be careful how much I take on.
What are they about?
The play is called LadyMag and is based on Take a Break Magazine. Perhaps youíve seen it in your nan's house. It has all seven archetypal story forms in it and word puzzles. The novel is called The Dead Hour and is number two in the Field of Blood five-parter, should be out next year. The film is called Ida Tamson and itís about a granny bringing up her three grandchildren. And that's about it, I think.
Right now you're about a month away from giving birth. Without wanting to sound astoundingly selfish, how will this affect your Hellblazer run?
You are an evil, selfish man. Don't you know that children are our future? Seriously, I'm a very shoddy mother and that frees up a lot time for work.
So is the nipper going to change you at all?
Well, I've already got a son of eighteen months and I donít think I've changed much apart from eating healthily and trying not swear as much. Work-wise I'm much more productive, which is weird. I donít spend time playing computer games or wishing I was finished.
Denise, thanks for taking the time to chat. Good luck with the baby.
Thanks very much. Please donít tell the social workers how bad a mother I am.
Denise Mina is the author of the Garnethill trilogy - Garnethill, Exile and Resolution - as well as Sanctum (released in the US as Deception) and The Field of Blood. She has also written several short stories for crime anthologies.
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