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.  

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