Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hellblazer: End of the Road



Last week I found out that Hellblazer, one of the first mature comics I read way back in 1994, will end publication early next year with issue 300. The news provokes mixed feelings in me, to be honest. John Constantine parted company several years ago, at the end of Mike Carey's run; not because I hated the character but I felt that I'd travelled as far as I could with him. I was worn out and needed a change, especially with the downbeat ending of Carey's run.

Nonetheless I have fond, strong memories of the book. At the point where I picked up (finding it in a newsagents in Ormskirk of all places), I had abandoned superheroes, in part because my sister had convinced me that nobody at university would be reading comics - how wrong she was - and in part because I was tired of superheroes and their stupid, pointless battles. My first issue was number 84, the chain smoking chimpanzee in drag, automatically drawing my eye because it was so distinctive.

  

It told a dark, delicate story that resonated with my new interest in horror and dark, modern fantasy. I'd played some World of Darkness games and the comic seemed to chime with it beautifully. But it was John's voice, his cool, dark, sarcastic voice that hooked me and made me want to know more. I began to buy the book regularly, picking up back issues where I could and discovering John's destructive history.

Writers brought slightly different facets of Constantine into the light for the reader to enjoy. Jamie Delano's slick conman shares qualities with Garth Ennis' version of the character but Ennis undermined the character's roots slightly more, sending him into more dangerous territory, always threatening to pull the rug from under his feet. Other writers brought their visions to us, with an ever changing cast of the supporting characters; being John's friend was always a dangerous occupation and most writers ended either killing or alienating their own creations to clear the way for the next writer. The title of the book gave it a manifesto, we could see John royally fucking up, we knew that if Hell exists then he was slowly inching his way towards it.

The main draw of the character has always been who he is, unlike most of the spandex crowd, he was never defined by his opponents, in the way that Lex Luthor is necessary to cast Superman into a context, and he was grounded in history and politics. Jamie Delano's issue with demon yuppies caught the character wonderfully as a left wing anarchist who's schemes led him astray. His efforts to keep ahead of the pack often proving to be his undoing (at the same time we know his cons and magic are successful, the fact that he keeps being banned from betting shops is testament to that). Ultimately he successfully defeated his enemies, it's only in the case of the exceptional ones like Papa Midnight and the First of the Fallen that he suffered the indignities of recurring villains and they never felt like they were in the same category as the Joker or Dr Octopus; somehow bigger, more important; never just another encounter.

The other thing that I always felt was innovative was that the character aged in real time, we could see him growing older, and got the idea from the book's tenth anniversary issue that what we learned through the comic was only what the character himself recounted to us, as if we really did meet him down the pub and listen to his stories over a pint of beer. One issue even exploited the idea, with John leading a gullible idiot up the garden path with stories about the royal family being lizards, David Icke style. Is that what we were? Idiots to be told tall tales, I'd like to think not but Constantine was a fox; trusting anything he told you was a dangerous tactic.

I must confess that whilst Ennis' run was enjoyable, I prefer his early issues before Steve Dillon joined him. The stories seem darker, less grand guignol and have a tenseness that pleases. In the same vein, I quite enjoyed much of Paul Jenkins' run, even if it limped to the finish line.  Oddly the Brian Azzarello run, the first to be written by an American (Constantine is a quintessentially British character, his blood is stained with Liverpool and London), was one of the strongest, with a fish out of water meta-plot that served to show Constantine as an everyman, as he explored America's freakish backwaters. In contrast Warren Ellis' run was something of a disappointment, as if his heart wasn't really in writing the character even if he did introduce interesting concepts like Map, a living version of London who collaborated with John on a number of occasions and counts as one of the few survivors of an authors run.

Now the series is ending and the character will be folded fully into DC's "New 52" as a younger version. Some facets, the trench coat, the rumpled corporate look with the askew black tie, the ever present cigarette, remain and the character is already established in the new universe as part of the Justice League Dark. The new series 'Constantine' will follow this younger version's adventures.

It's an understandable move in some regards; the down side to letting John age in real time is that sooner or later he has to die, you can't keep him forever young. Also Hellblazer has shed too many readers even for the notoriously low sales Vertigo imprint to keep going, especially for the character who for a long time has been seen as their flagship character, even more of an identifier than Dream of the Endless.

It doesn't do anything to assuage my fears that something important will be lost. John has always been so English (like the Doctor), so tied to the UK and its culture and history that it worries me that a rebooted version will lose far more than he gains. Sure he's younger but what happens to his history? Was he ever in Mucous Membrane, did the horrific events of his childhood still occur? These things are so tied to the history of the UK that its hard to see how a new version could carry them across without ringing a fraudulent. Like real life though, they can't just be deleted without cheapening something.

A sad day. I think I'll dig out some of my old Hellblazers and enjoy them all again.