Friday 16 November 2012

The Face Of My Father

My father is currently about halfway through "The Song of Susannah" by Stephen King. It’s the second-to-last part of the seven part epic "The Dark Tower". And when he gets to the end of that, it will mark the end of a strange and personal journey for both of us.

My family is very close generally, and I love them very much. I could write a book about how awesome my Mother and Sister are, but I’m very specifically aware how lucky I am to be so close with Michael Brosnahan. Not everyone has their father as a regular part of their lives, and even fewer get on with theirs in the way that I do. Tragedy stopped my Dad from being able to get to know his own father, as he died in a work-related accident at the age of 25, when my Dad was only five years old. The few pictures I’ve seen of my Grandfather, James Brosnahan, show a handsome young man.

One thing this has meant for my father is that he’s never had the experience of seeing how similarly to his father he would have turned out. Many people witness themselves growing to look more like their parents as they get older, especially if they take particularly after one parent. And Michael very much took after James, judging by those pictures. But he never got to see him grow older, and watched his own face change over the decades without being able to compare it with the original.

On the other hand, I have grown up with this. Even if I wanted to get away from it, I wouldn’t be able to. I look terrifyingly like my Dad. To the point where pictures of us together look disturbingly like a before-and-after hair dye commercial. I used to complain about that, but somewhere along the line, I quietly acknowledged that it was a good thing. He’s a good role model, after all – what Conan Doyle would likely refer to as a “capital fellow!”.

Dad and I get on particularly well partially because we share a lot of the same tastes. He’s responsible for my love of a number of my favourite things, ranging from The Marx Brothers and Casablanca through to the soft spot I will always have for Elvis and The Beatles, and including Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. We don’t share all the same tastes, mind – I stopped following football in any meaningful way when I left home, and I’m not convinced he’ll ever get past his complete disdain for Quorn products.

When I was 15, I lived in the middle of Ireland with my family (almost literally. Stick a pin in the middle of a map of Ireland, and you pretty much have the village I grew up in). My Dad commuted to the outskirts of Dublin, where he primarily worked with young adults with behavioural difficulties. We got a phone call from his work one morning, lightly reminding him that he’d been due in work an hour ago, and had he forgotten? My Mum answered and told them that he’d left on time. Which he had. But it was a long commute, and cars break down.

Another phone call a little later and Mum started to get worried. And more worried with each phone call over the next couple of hours until eventually we received one from the hospital asking if this was the home of Mike Brosnahan.

For unexplained reasons, he’d become paralysed down one side of his body. He’d managed to pull the car over and get someone’s attention for medical help. The doctors diagnosed it as a blood clot. After a while, he was put on medication to thin his blood and released, at which point my sister promptly went into intensive care due to illness. She recovered quickly, and we were told that chances of reoccurrence were remote in both cases.

They both ended up back in intensive care in hospitals in different parts of the country within 24 hours of each other, both of them relapsing. They both stayed in for a while this time, and my Mum drove the two of us to visit both of them regularly.

They both recovered, but until they did, I did a lot of reading. It was my coping mechanism, and I got through the final book of “The Lord of the Rings”. Another thing my Dad got me into. Meanwhile, I managed to convince him, for the first time, to read some Stephen King while he was in hospital. I gave him a copy of “The Stand”, which is one of King’s best. It’s the story of a virus that wipes out almost the entire human population and about how the survivors start having dreams about either an old woman in the fields or a dark man, and then they… ah, but that would be telling.

He loved it. Partially, it was a heavy, entertaining book to get properly absorbed in while he was recovering, but he was also blown away by King’s writing. Indeed, both of us agree that Stephen King is, if anything, underrated as a writer. It gave him something to distract him, and it gave us something fun to talk about while he was ill.

It wasn’t a blood clot, by the way. It turned out, strangely enough, that he had an extra small bone that had formed in his neck and was pressing against a vein. He had to have surgery to have it removed, but recovered completely.

He read some more Stephen King, and we chatted about them, but obviously, that time stands out. It was one of the first times I introduced him to something that he ended up loving as well.

In 2005, he ended up in hospital again. This time, basically, with a broken back. Two discs in his lower back had fragmented and eventually shattered, driving shards deep into the nerves surrounding his spine. He had to have surgery to remove and replace the discs. The worst bit was removing the shards – you see, while they’d been embedded into the nerves, they deadened them. When they were removed, the nerves woke up again. And those bastards screamed.

He had to go through what’s known as ‘pain therapy’. This isn’t something that helps to reduce the pain. Oh no. Instead, pain therapy just helps you learn to deal with the amount of pain that you’re in. It’s roughly about as much fun as it sounds and takes twice as long as you’d think.

The pain caused him difficulty sleeping, which wasn’t something he’d really had problems with before. Over time, not being able to sleep causes you to exist in your own little vacuum packed existence, with the rest of the world a little muffled around you. Everything feels a little like watching your own life on fast-forward and sometimes pressing ‘play’ randomly. Putting together the exact path that led you to be doing whatever you’re doing at any point feels hazy and ill-defined. (Yes, I’ve had my own problems with it over the years).

This time around, and nothing to do with me, he ended up reading Stephen King’s “Insomnia”, the tale of a man who begins to experience different planes of reality and meeting strange doctors due to a lack of sleep. He didn’t just love this one – he lived it. The fact that he was reading it while on a slightly different plane of existence made it a strange experience that stuck with him for a long time.

Again, he recovered completely, but more slowly. Back injuries don’t heal fast or easy. But he worked at it, and he got there. One quality that my Dad has is a certain level of stubbornness. This thing wasn’t going to kick his arse, even if it did manage to make it rather uncomfortable.

Last year, for his birthday, I bought him the Dark Tower series for his Kindle. It was a bit of a gamble, even though I knew he liked King, as it’s a hell of a commitment to read. It had taken me years to get around to, but I’d adored it, and hoped he would as well.

He’s now coming up for sixty, and has been working as hard as ever. And earlier this year, he was diagnosed with a case of shingles. When he phoned me up and told me, I didn’t think too much about it. It doesn’t exactly sound serious, after all. It actually sounds more like a 60s folk band that I can’t be bothered listening to. He may as well have told me that he had a dodgy knee. “Ouch, that doesn’t sound fun. Anyway, did you see Question Time last night?”

I looked it up a few days later and called him back. Shingles is related to chicken pox, and is a painful and exhausting illness, and that’s if you don’t get a bad case of it. And unfortunately for him, he’s had a bad case of it.

No matter what he’s been through, Dad’s always made family engagements. He’s always done his best to do as much as possible, whether it’s advisable or not. This time, though, he’s just not been able to. There have been long periods of time where he’s just not been able to do anything except sit and read or watch TV. And he’s missed two trips to England for family events. He’s just been in too much pain or not had the energy. Or both.

So he’s been spending a lot of his time reading the Dark Tower series, following the gunslinger, Roland, on his quest to find the Dark Tower and what lies within. From the first line, he was hooked. “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed”.

And with very little else to do, he’s powered through the books. Again, during recovery, he’s turned to Stephen King, and again, we talk about it during just about every phone call. And I’ve absolutely enjoyed hearing about how involved in it he’s become. Again, it’s been something we’ve shared. And again, it’s something to distract him from pain and exhaustion and just enjoy.

And that’s important for both of us. It’s an odd connection, but it’s one that has brought us closer over the years. And there’s something very fitting about that, not least since The Dark Tower actually incorporates both The Stand and Insomnia into part of one huge uber-narrative.

Although now, I think that he’s going to be terrified if I buy him another long Stephen King book. He may not survive another epic. And besides, it begins to look suspicious, even if it would be a convoluted and complicated way to aim for any inheritance money. Besides, he’d twig eventually.

But, on the off-chance that Stephen King ever does read this, I’d like to pass on a small message and request on behalf of me and my father.

Sir, we’re both very big fans. In fact, we both regard you as one of the best and most important writers of the last hundred years, and will fight anyone that says different. But could you concentrate on short stories for the rest of your career? We’re both beginning to suspect that it would be good for his health.

Assuming you see your way clear to doing that, and not actually trying to bring any more pain his way by selfishly writing any more brilliant long books, thanks for bringing a father and son closer together.

And in the meantime, my Dad’s a book and a half off the end of the Dark Tower series. And I can’t wait for him to get there. Because while it’ll be a shame for it all to be over, I'm impatient for him to get to the end so I can find out what he thinks of it. He’s already been through Captain Tripps and the revelation found within the bookshop in the fifth book. And I've enjoyed his thoughts on both of those
But very soon, Roland will end up at the foot of that tower. And I already know what happens. And I can’t wait to find out what my Dad thinks of it.

It’s been a journey, either way. And while we’re a close family, and while Dad and I would be close anyway, I’ve been very grateful that we've had this odd thing that we've been able to share when he’s not been at his best.

“I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I aim with my eye.

I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I shoot with my mind.

I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.
I kill with my heart.”

― Stephen King, The Gunslinger

Saturday 10 November 2012

Wake for a Bastard - John Constantine

Let me point this out from the start – this is an overreaction. I’m not going to deny this, and I’m also not going to deny that this is a somewhat self-indulgent post. So be warned. Because this regards the cancellation of my favourite comic book, ‘Hellblazer’.

DC Comics has had a very successful sub-brand for mature readers called ‘Vertigo’. Vertigo has published some of my favourite comics of all time. The kind that have been a huge influence on me in many ways.

As much as I love superhero comics, I would have likely given up reading and collecting comics some years ago if it hadn’t been for Vertigo. Or at least cut down fairly severely. Or a little. I may have read one less X-Men spin-off comic, anyway. But comics like Preacher, Sandman, Transmetropolitan and Hellblazer re-sparked my interest when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

The only surviving comic of that list is Hellblazer, which has been running since the 1980s. Hellblazer stars John Constantine (pronounced as in ‘wine’, not as in ‘wean’), a middle-aged scouser, who is a talented magician and con-man. He’s been indirectly responsible for the deaths of just about everyone he cares about and his most redeeming feature is the fact that he’s not a total bastard.

The comic got the attention of Hollywood, where he was played by… Keanu Reeves. But that’s more than enough about the Hollywood version.

Why do I like Constantine so much? Because he’s a cynical, arsey but realistic and hopeful character, rooted in British horror fiction in a believable setting. Also, and pretty much uniquely in mainstream comics, he aged and matured in something close to real time. He loved and lost, he reinvented himself time and again, he crashed and burned and he regularly outwitted the Devil himself.

Crucially, he didn’t do all of this because of some overlying plot. He didn’t outwit the Devil in the name of God, nor did he do it to retrieve some books of magic or anything like that. He just went about his life, and mostly wanted a somewhat easy life with an occasional bit of excitement.

The cream of British comic writers have dealt with him at some point or other. He was originally created by Alan Moore as a backup character in ‘Swamp Thing’ that was an enigmatic occultist based on Sting (which instantly becomes the coolest thing that Sting has ever been anywhere near other than the song ‘All For Love’). Jamie Delano redefined the character for a solo title, and Garth Ennis hit new heights with it. Mike Carey, one of the most solid writers in modern comics, took over for a run that felt a little choppy month-to-month, but read brilliantly when collected. Warren Ellis had a short but memorably nasty run, as did Denise Mina and Andy Diggle. Paul Jenkins’ run is the one I’m least familiar with, as it hasn’t been collected. Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have also contributed stories, and he’s the only comic character written by Ian Rankin. More recently, Si Spencer wrote a mini-series that was the best the character has been handled in years.

I first came to Hellblazer during Brian Azzarello’s run, which is not the most popular amongst fans. It kept John Constantine at arm’s length, keeping the reader in the dark as to what he was doing for most of the stories. For me, it was a great introduction – John was a smirking Devil, running rings around everyone with a smile and a bastard’s attitude. It was scary, unpleasant and memorable stuff.

Currently, and for the last few years, Constantine has been written by Peter Milligan. While I generally quite like Milligan as a writer, on a personal level, this run just hasn’t worked for me. It’s been a little too fast, and a little too silly at times. That’s not to say there haven’t been good stories in that time – a few stand-alone stories have been superb.

But that’s the thing about Constantine. Writers seem to like writing for him. It’s partially because he’s felt more real than most comic book characters. It’s partially because, for many of us fans, he feels like an old friend – and some of the best writers have been fans themselves.

He felt out of place in the super-hero universe he was created in, and seemed so utterly suited to nightmares set in the more mundane world. For 25 years, he’s barely interacted with the superhero world, and was essentially shifted into his own little universe during one of the semi-regular relaunches of DC comics.
25 years of history and growth for a character is somewhat unprecedented, especially in comics. The reason why is marketing.

To put it simply, Peter Parker has to be roughly in his mid-twenties. He’s married Mary-Jane Watson, and they’ve had kids, but that’s all been chopped off at the knees and restarted, because the money is in the version of Spider-Man that everyone knows. Superman can’t really be in his mid-fifties. He has to be eternally in his thirties (and following the most recent relaunch of DC Comics, he’s now in his twenties). Most of these superheroes are not so much characters as they are icons. And you can only allow icons to grow and mature so much before they have to be restarted, reversed or otherwise reverted to the status quo.

Hellblazer was never that commercial. Instead, John Constantine was a more three dimensional character, informed by his experiences in a way that just doesn’t happen in mainstream comics for the most part.
So why is it ending?

As part of their latest relaunch, DC saw fit to reintroduce a version of John Constantine into their main universe, which ran concurrently to the Vertigo version. In this new Constantine’s first story, he interacted with Batman and Superman. Since then, he’s been part of the super-team “Justice League Dark”, and is in charge of the ‘House of Mystery’, which he basically flies like a space-craft between realities.

After a shaky start, the new version is actually quite fun – although he’s A John Constantine rather than THE John Constantine. He’s a version that is toned down for a more mainstream audience. He’s a version that, if he gets into too much trouble, can call superheroes to come and help out. There’s a place for this, but I don’t see why it can’t run alongside the established version.

Instead, DC have now announced that they’re cancelling Hellblazer, and will be replacing it with a new comic called “Constantine”.

I’m not saying it’s going to be terrible. The title itself will probably be quite good – but it’s not going to be the same. It’s pitched more as fantasy superheroics rather than rooted in horror. And it’s just not the same character at the end of the day, and not least because this version wasn’t born in Thatcher’s Britain with punk rock influences. Whether they’ll be killing off the original John Constantine, or whether he’ll be sent off to the sunset with a smile, I don’t know. But I’m honestly somewhat let down by the fact they’re doing it at all.

There are writers out there that I would love to see write John Constantine. At the top of my list are Si Spencer, Paul Cornell and Kieron Gillen – three particularly good British writers. I’d also love to see what current comics superstar Scott Snyder could do with it, not to mention the rather wonderful Joe Hill. While I’ll still be interested in what any of them could do with the new version, it won’t have that same emotional impact as the John Constantine that I’ve been reading for years.

The goal of writing John Constantine has been a dream of mine for a long time. It’s one of the reasons I started writing, and it’s one of the reasons that I have done some work in comics journalism. Everyone needs something to aspire to, and for me, it was a working class con-man magician. I even wrote a short Constantine story which was illustrated by the brilliant Jason Miller as a short portfolio piece, which you can read here if you’re so inclined.

In the years I’ve been reading John Constantine, he’s survived Cancer, outwitted the Devil, lost family, lost his true loves, become a homeless alcoholic, lost all of his friends, travelled to Hell and back, got married, almost died in a coma and saved the world.

He’s not always a bastard. But he’s always been our bastard.

Personally, I think he deserves a little bit of a send-off. So for any Hellblazer fans who are Londoners, or indeed anyone willing to travel to London, I’d like to propose a get-together in a pub on the publication of the final issue in February 2013. The most obvious location is The Angel pub, round the corner from Forbidden Planet, but I’m open to other ideas. Fans can get together, raise a pint and hold a little bit of a wake.

So if you’re interested in the idea of coming to a Wake for a Bastard, get in touch with me via my twitter, and let’s see if we can get this idea rolling.  

The People's Palace - Hellblazer Fan Work

This was a portfolio piece that I wrote to be illustrated by Jason Miller. The idea was to write something to show Editors that showcased our ability to write/draw a short story using an existing character. I put it here as a companion to my blogpost where I propose a Wake for a Bastard.

This is not being done with any attempt to make profit, or to intrude on any copyright by DC comics and nor is any disrespect intended. If anything, it’s fan-fiction, and is only here as a curio. If you like Jason's art (and you should), you can find some of his prints for sale here.Hellblazer Chris Brosnahan Jason Miller 03