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Art & Literature

A few months ago, I mentioned my admiration for the work of illustrator Victor Ambrus.

While helping my mum move house (at last!), I've just rediscovered a book I had as a kid – Favourite Tales from Shakespeare by Bernard Miles (Hamlyn, 1976) – with glorious pen-and-wash Ambrus pictures on nearly every page!

For example, here's carpenter-playwright Peter Quince and his black and white cat:

The King of Denmark's ghost:

and oh baby, Lady Macbeth:

There's so much more – duels, shipwrecks, fairies, Theseus and the Minotaur – it's almost unfair to pick these out. But aren't they gorgeous?


Art School Controversial

George's Hangover. Oils, 12"x16", 2006

George the Mod was a musician I was pals with for a while in my student days, a veteran of Glasgow punk bands like the Humpff Family and The Colostomy Bags. The original sketch for this picture was done the morning after a memorable party in about 1989 or so, at his girlfriend's flat on Garnethill, which had its own secret door into the Glasgow School of Art sculpture studios. Long thought lost, it resurfaced after I moved back home last year, whereupon I decided to make something a bit more permanent out of it.

I don't tend to get to parties like that anymore. The friends I have now are much too well behaved.

Original pencil sketch, circa 1989.

Digital graphic version, 2006



At the tail end of last year, I became briefly obsessed with Hellblazer.

I'd been following the adventures of John Constantine since he first showed up in Saga of the Swamp Thing over twenty years earlier, but was finding recent issues less than captivating. This was odd, as they were written by Denise Mina, whose Garnethill Trilogy I'd thoroughly enjoyed for its tense, sordid drama and picking-at-scabs gruesome detail – qualities I'd thought (like DC's editorial staff, no doubt) would translate well to a comic about a struggling middle-aged demonologist with nothing left to live for except beer, fags and the fact that he doesn't dare die because he has too many enemies in the afterlife. I practically jumped for joy when I heard she'd got the job; but a year later, as her overextended storyline about a Glasgow planning application plodded unenthusiastically towards its conclusion, I realised I didn't care how it ended, as long as it ended soon.

Thinking about what had gone wrong with my favourite comic, I reread all my old issues and came to the conclusion that what it needed was more variety of tone: shorter stories, stories where the fate of the whole world wasn't necessarily at stake, stories in which none of Constantine's close friends or relatives were brutally murdered, stories where Constantine took the initiative or turned out to have had a plan all along rather than being constantly manipulated and crawling from the wreckage by the skin of his teeth. All of these were quite common in the early years of the series, and the fan-favourite high-stakes-hard-luck stories stood out more strongly in consequence. Not any more.

Mike Carey, the writer prior to Mina, had given us a 41-issue rollercoaster ride through the established mythos of the title with a half-dozen new baddies thrown in for good measure, all collapsed into six months of tight continuity in which Constantine barely got to draw breath between crises; and prior to that, Brian Azzarello had had him wandering around America under the supervision of a maverick FBI agent; which meant that in publishing terms, by late 2006 it had been seven years since John last poked his nose into a one-issue mystery out of sheer curiosity. I felt that was too long.

I also felt that his fiftieth birthday should be marked with a special story, as his 35th and 40th had been – and what better opportunity to kick off a change in direction?

So I wrote a script – at least, I wrote most of a script before I got distracted by Christmas and a couple of juicy job applications. And even the words "I wrote" overstate my agency in the matter: with my head buzzing with twenty years of continuity and characterisation, it was more like I put four characters in a room together and just let them talk.

I'm not going to post the whole thing – there were a few good lines in it, but it was basically a conversation in a pub, and I knew at the time that it was a pointless exercise anyway: DC would already have commissioned their next writer, and it would be someone with a better track record than me. But my writing muscles were itching, so off I went.

The treatment came in three parts: the initial 5oth birthday issue, a series of short unconnected adventures with a subplot running underneath, and finally a multi-issue showdown with an old rival that would resolve the subplot and put the title's basic premise back on track.

The key to it all was the timeline I'd worked out through rereading all my old issues. The textual evidence was pretty clear that all Mike Carey's stories followed each other in one apocalyptic six month period, and that John's trip to Glasgow took place a couple of months later, while he was still shaken by his experiences. Matching that up with other bits of continuity gave me the following sequence of events:
  • Autumn 2002 – John returns from America and gets embroiled in a whole heap of trouble.
  • Spring 2003 – Only a couple of months after swearing off magic for good, John is lured to Glasgow.
  • 10th May 2003 – John turns fifty.
  • Later in 2003 – the events of Swamp Thing: Bad Seed (ST Vol.III #1-6)
  • Autumn 2004 – the events of the graphic novel All His Engines
  • 11 July 2005 – the events of Hellblazer #223.
It all fitted together nicely, and the structure of a twelve-issue run set in 2003-04 just sat there staring me in the face. As it turned out, the conclusion of Denise Mina's story would throw this chronology to the winds, by anchoring John's Glasgow trip in summer 2006 for the sake of a cheap deus ex machina involving the World Cup; but I didn't know that at the time, just as I didn't know it would leave John back on speaking terms with his few remaining friends, or that DC already had other plans for the final antagonist I had in mind.


10th May 2003. In a quiet country pub, John Constantine meets up with what remains of his inner circle: his lover and protege, Angie Spatchcock (who is also his daughter, though neither of them know it yet); his niece Gemma; and his oldest friend, Chas the taxi driver. They've all been through the wars lately, and none of them are sure they want to be there. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Chas is the only one who has bought him a birthday present: vouchers for a course of driving lessons. "Fuck up your test and I'll get you some more for Christmas," he says, "and that's the only fucking reason I ever want to hear from you again."

John has brought them here to apologise for everything that his lifestyle has cost them. He got into magic when he was too young and reckless to realise what a bad idea it was, and the people around him have been paying the price ever since. He doesn't expect, or think he deserves, forgiveness: he just wants to get it on the table that he knows it's all his fault.

Things get emotional, and he retreats to the toilets to compose himself for the second half of what he has to say. While he's there, his excised demon-self appears to him in the mirror, taunting him and mocking the haggard, drunken, hysterical wretch he's become. John dismisses the demon by scrawling a sigil on the mirror with liquid handwash, and allows himself a smirk: he's still got it...

Back at the table, John gets to the point. As screwed up as his life is, magic is all he knows. He's fifty years old, and he can't go back and change anything. Even if he quit, he has a reputation and he has enemies: sooner or later, someone's going to come gunning for him again, just like Evans did in Glasgow. That being the case, it's time he pulled himself together and started playing for keeps again: he's tired of being pushed around. So his friends have a choice: they can walk away and never see him again, and live quietly for a few years until some cosmic buggly or two-bit occult gangster slaughters them to prove a point; or they can stick around, probably end up dying the same way, but just maybe stop a few even worse things happening along the way. It's not much of a choice, but it's the best he can do.

Angie and Gemma opt to stick with him; but Chas has had enough. John promises the girls that everything's going to be different from now on.

Cut to a few months later, London gleaming in the autumn sunshine. In a plush office in a Georgian terrace, a man explains the predicament he finds himself in: a doppelganger has taken over his life, and his wife, family, friends and workmates no longer either recognise him or understand a word he says.

Final splash page: John by the window, sporting a new look...

"Alright, I'll see what I can do. But it'll cost yer."

That thing round his neck is Sargon the Sorcerer's Ruby of Life, a 4000-year-old mystic artefact which came into his possession at the end of Andy Diggle's 2004 Swamp Thing relaunch. And that's where the fun begins...


Constantine makes a spectacular comeback to the world of professional occultism.

These are compressed, done-in-one stories, each structured like a Bond movie: a punchy 2- or 3-page opening sequence, which may or may not relate to the story that follows; a powerful title splash page; then cut to an exotic location – Venice, Calcutta, Tierra del Fuego, Moss Side – where John Constantine and his glamorous assistants Angie and Gemma arrive to do their stuff. Each situation is different – a haunting, a curse, a hunt for a magical artefact, a ritual murder being investigated by the local police; but there's an introduction, a cagey meeting with the antagonist, a deniable attempt to scare the Hellblazers off, a chase of some kind, and finally a spectacular conclusion across at least one double-page spread, followed by an epilogue in which our heroes enjoy the spoils of triumph.

This is Constantine on top for once. Magic is still a dangerous way of life, but with Sargon's Ruby in his possession he has never been better equipped to deal with it. He's no longer John-from-the-pub-wot-does-the-magic; he's the Hellblazer, the Mod Magus, Occultist Number One. He's living large and loving it.

It can't last.


Summer 2004. Constantine's ghostwritten and self-aggrandising autobiography has just been published, and a TV series is airing in which he performs astounding feats of hypnosis and conjuration amid hermetic and satanic trappings. The final, spectacular, death-defying episode is about to go out live, and John is on all the chatshows making Jonathan Ross do a striptease and Lorraine Kelly crawl on all fours like a dog.

Gemma is worried. This isn't the Uncle John she knows. He's gone beyond sarcasm and flamboyance, and she's not convinced it's an act anymore. He seems to really enjoy humiliating people – even Angie, who always seemed so sassy and confident, has become little more than a sycophantic minion. Could it be the power of the Ruby that's turned his head? Her investigation into its history and properties leads ultimately to Bavaria, where she enlists the aid of Sargon himself, returned once more from the grave to carry out his final task...

The finale is a no-holds-barred magical battle at Constantine's live TV broadcast. The show collapses in disarray; the secret of Angie's paternity is revealed; Sargon reclaims the Ruby; and it turns out that it's not the real John who's been prospering for the past year, but his excised sins and weaknesses – the so-called Demon Constantine. When John banished him in the pub toilet, he drew the sigil in the mirror the wrong way round, and they swapped places! Sargon swaps them back, wipes John's memories of his year in hell, and flies off into the night.

The crisis is over, but so is John's relationship with Angie, and the ignominious end of his TV career is likely to leave him bankrupt.

Back to bloody normal, then. Where's the nearest pub?