J.M. DeMatteis  John Constantine

If you know comics, you know J.M. DeMatteis. From Spider-Man to the Justice League, you’d be hard pressed to find a character who he hasn’t written at least once. In recent years, though, he’s moved away from the nine-panel grid to the animation cell. Much of his animated work has been on Warner’s line of DC animated features, and this association has most recently brought DeMatteis’s formidable talents to bear on ‘Constantine: City of Demons‘. In some respects it’s a return to form for the writer, who has previously contributed to both the ‘Justice League Dark’ comics and the eponymous animated film, giving him the opportunity to write Constantine in multiple mediums. It’s an experience that gives him a somewhat unusual (but also valuable) perspective on the character, which we had the opportunity to discuss with him prior to the film’s New York Comic Con premiere.

How did they end up bringing you into the fold on this one?

Well, I’ve been doing animation for like, sixteen years now. So I’ve done a lot of animation, I’ve done three of these previous movies, and I think it sort of bounced off the ‘Justice League Dark’ movie somehow. Maybe the fact that I’d worked on these characters in the comics as well. But this was an interesting one because it was done through CW Seed, so it wasn’t done through the usual Warner Bros. Animation channel. It was a whole different group of people, people from Greg Berlanti’s company and from the CW, so it was interesting. I was working with a whole different group and it made the project that much more exciting.

How did the CW Seed angle affect your approach to the script?

It didn’t. That’s the great part! Because I just wrote a ninety-minute movie, and I mean, I had to keep it in the back of my mind that it was going to be broken up into chapters. But scenes have, if you write a scene correctly you’re going to have those climaxes and those endings where you can break them anyway. But I just wrote the whole movie and then after the fact, everyone got together and figured out what we could pull out for these five-minute segments. If I would’ve had to write it in five-minute segments and then put it together and add more for a movie? That could’ve been really complex and difficult.

What are some of the challenges of writing Constantine?

You know, I didn’t find a lot of challenges. Well, I’ll take that back. At first, the hardest thing about Constantine is that he’s got this hard shell on the outside. He’s a bastard and he’s manipulative, and he’s this and he’s that. And if the story’s just going to focus on that aspect of his character, that’s not a story I can write. Because there’s nothing else going on underneath that. The thing I really enjoyed about this story is that it’s about that outer layer of Constantine. And because Chas is there and Chas is so important to the story, it gets to whole other layers of their connection and who he’s hiding behind that shell. And something you don’t hear a lot about when Constantine is involved, vulnerability. His vulnerability. And in a lot of ways, his biggest vulnerability is this guy who was his best friend since they were kids. And that allowed the story to open up emotionally in a way that maybe you can’t always do with Constantine.

Given that you made your name as a comics writer, what Constantine comics influenced your work on this movie?

Two things. One is that I wrote the ‘Justice League Dark’ comic for a couple of years before I started working on this. And then the template, the basic foundation for this story was a graphic novel by Mike Carey and Leonardo Manco called ‘All His Engines’. We used that as our foundation and then built our story out from there. So if you know the graphic novel, you’ll see the basic beats that you know from the graphic novel, but there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on within the story. We pulled from other Constantine stories, I pulled from my ‘Justice League Dark’ run, created some new things, and put it all together into a new story.

How different is it to do a comic script versus an animated script?

The formats are different. And the first time I ever wrote in a screenplay format, you’re thinking a lot about the format because you have to learn it. “Oh, you can’t do that because it’s not a comic book, and I have to do this, I have to do that…” Like you can’t do too much interior monologue because it’s not that kind of thing. But after a certain point, that goes from your head to your intuitions, so you don’t think about the format anymore and it really is just about the story. So whether you’re gonna write a novel, you’re gonna write a screenplay, you’re gonna write a comic book, whatever it may be, you’re serving the story and once you’ve got the form, you don’t think about the form anymore. I’ve been doing comics so long, I don’t think about how to put a comic together. I just put a comic together. Good, bad, or indifferent, I just work with the form naturally. The focus is on the story, not the form.

You previously had the opportunity to write Constantine in ‘Justice League Dark’. With that in mind, how did you approach this outing? Where there any lessons you’d learned?

The difference for me was that I wasn’t coming at the character cold. Once you write a character, you get a sense of them. It’s the old cliche, but they become real to you. You get to know them like you know a person. I think if I had not done my run on ‘Justice League Dark’ and had not immersed myself in Constantine there, I would’ve had to learn a lot. And you know, you have to do a lot of research for these things anyway, because I don’t know the whole history of Constantine for the past thirty-five years. So you’re on Wikipedia, and they’re sending you graphic novels, and you’re burying yourself in this. But having written the character, I felt like I knew him. This particular story, though, is an opportunity – since it really is true to the Constantine that we knew from the Vertigo era – to really go deep and dark and psychological and metaphysical. It took me to a whole new level with the character. But I had that familiarity to allow me to jump into this as opposed to going in cold and going “Oh man, I gotta figure out who this guy is!”

What is the main way you feel Chas impacts John or helps him?

One of the things that I love is that we got to go back a little bit in here and talk about their childhood and who they were to each other, and how they kind of complimented each other. In a lot of ways, Chas is everything that John isn’t. He’s sweet, he’s vulnerable, he is decent. [laughs] And yet they need each other for that, because Chas needs that daring, that danger that he doesn’t bring to his own life. And John needs that vulnerability and that decency. And so the dynamic between the two of them is great. And it’s really the emotional thread that carries through the entire movie. There would be no movie without that relationship because without that it’s just a lot of stuff happening. It’s that emotional core between them and the fact that Chas’s daughter is threatened and what John has to go through and what Chas has to go through to get her back. And as you’ll see at the end, I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s some really powerful emotional moments at the end. And I don’t always think of Constantine as the character that you give these big vulnerable, emotional moments, but this story really does give you that.

You’ve spoken very passionately about this movie. When people walk out of the movie, what do you want them to take away from it?

Hopefully, the same things I take from the stories and the movies that I love, which is an experience that first and foremost touches you, that moves you and takes you on an emotional journey, and makes you think as well. But for me, with this story, in particular, it’s the emotional journey. Without giving too much away, you deal with John’s original sin. And part of this journey – aside from the journey with Chas and trying to get Chas’s daughter back – is a redemption arc for John. So there’s a lot of emotional material there, and it really pulls the character apart, I think in new ways, so I really hope people get an emotional journey out of it.

You’re known for really digging into the psychology of the characters you write. On that level, what is it that sets Constantine apart from, say, Batman or Spider-Man?

Kind of what we’ve been talking about is that inner tension. Spider-Man is a very complex and real character. And I’ve written so many Spider-Man stories, I love that character. But he doesn’t have that same tension that Constantine has, that war between the heart and… you know, he (Constantine) is a hardass, manipulative bastard. But he’s also something else that’s hidden behind that shell, and it’s always the tension between those two things. If he was just a hard-edged emotional bastard he wouldn’t be an interesting character, at least to me. Some people like that. But I don’t want characters that are one-dimensional. You want something that’s multi-dimensional with some inner conflict in the character. So he’s selfish, he’s hard, he can be cruel and yet in the end, he always comes out on the side of the light. So there’s something else going on in there. He could just say “Screw it,” make the deal with the devil and give up, you know? But he doesn’t. He never does. And that’s what makes him interesting.

One of the fun things about the ‘Justice League Dark’ animated movie was Batman acting as Constantine’s foil. If you had the chance to pair Constantine with any character, who would that be?

Boy, that’s interesting. I don’t know. Sometimes the danger is when you take characters from one world and you bring them into another. There was a delicate balance, with Constantine and Batman together. You know, Batman is as dark as you’re going to get on the superhero side of things, but it’s still almost another universe than the supernatural universe. And I guess it’s all the approach to the story, really. But what I loved in the ‘Justice League Dark’ comics was the dynamic between John and Zatanna. I really enjoyed playing with that, and their relationship was the same thing, “Oh, I don’t love you. Except that I love you. And I don’t love you!” And there’s that tension again.

Are there any other ‘Hellblazer’ stories you’d like to adapt?

If they ever did another one, there’s one pivotal… I guess they’ve done this? I don’t want to give anything away! But the backstory with Astra Logue, which is really the inciting incident, as they say, of his whole career and life, that he lost this girl to that demon all those years before. And that’s one of the things that going on with him rescuing Chas’s daughter. It’s a way to atone for how he screwed up years before. I would like to see the resolution of that storyline. You know, the journey to hell. Can he finally, after all these years get her back. And I think in the comics they eventually did get her back. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all thirty-five years of Constantine, but I think that would be a great story to tell.

Is there anyone you haven’t written yet that you think would be a challenge you’d like to take on?

That’s a tough one because between my comic book work and the animated stuff I’ve probably written ninety-five percent of these characters, you know? But that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit them. I love the DC supernatural characters. It’s why I was so happy they did ‘Justice League Dark’. That corner of the DC Universe, you know, Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger, Deadman, all these wonderful characters. I would return to any of them. And at Marvel, I love Doctor Strange for the same reason. He’s an interesting psychological case on his own, and then through all these metaphysical worlds you get to play with themes of spirituality and metaphysics and psychology and emotion. So I really love those characters. But the trick for me after all these years, whether you go back to a character or you’re writing them for the first time is trying to find that corner – and it’s hard the longer the character’s been around – find that corner of the psyche that maybe no one has found before. So it’s like you’ve got to get this drill and keep drilling deeper and deeper until you hit something that no one else has hit before and hopefully, you can illuminate that character in a new way.

‘Constantine: City of Demons’ stars Matt Ryan, Damian O’Hare, and Rachel Kimsey. The film is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms.