Thursday, November 15, 2012

Drinking to the End of an Era, & Saying Goodbye to my Favorite B*stard

One of my favorite scenes in a comic book involves Satan and Guinness.

A man had sold his soul to Satan (the First of the Fallen) in exchange for being able to use magic. Sadly, as this man’s life was coming to an end, all this mage did was live in a room under an abandoned church and turn Holy Water into Guinness. So long as a candle on the table stayed lit, the Guinness would not turn back into Holy Water. John Constantine was dying of lung cancer and he met this mage friend of his for a few drinks and to BS about the old days.

As Constantine and his friend sat there drinking, the Mage dies. Satan had to claim this man’s soul by midnight, or the Mage was out of the deal with the Devil (one of three running Hell), and therefore could escape eternal torment. Constantine sticks around to meet the First of the Fallen for the first time. Satan walked into the room with a definite smugness and warned Constantine that nothing would stop him from getting the Mage’s soul.

Constantine told Satan that he would not dream of trying to stop him, and poured himself and the Devil two pints of Guinness. He proposed to Satan that they should have a toast over the dead Mage’s body because in that one moment Constantine would have shown up his dead friend’s entire life by doing so. Satan knew of Constantine’s reputation and informed him that he likes his wicked ways. Both drank their Guinness.

Before Satan acquires the Mage’s soul and begins his journey back to Hell he has a laugh about how the Mage squandered his gifts by turning water into Guinness. Constantine grinned his wolfish grin and informs Satan that it was not water, but Holy Water. Satan does not have time to react before Constantine has put out the candle.

The Holy Water began to melt the physical form Satan took, and the melting Devil started to curse John Constantine. For his effort Constantine calls this Devil an “Arsehole” and broke a bottle on the Devil’s face, knocking him into a pool of Holy Water. Soon Satan is on his way back to Hell.

Midnight comes and goes, and the Mage’s soul is free. Constantine swore he could hear two glasses clink together in a cheers, a sign of thank you from his friend from the great beyond. This scene plays out in writer Garth Ennis’ first arc on Hellblazer, and illustrated artist Will Simpson.

John Constantine was always a bastard, but he was our bastard. He has tricked Devils and Angels often, and he knew how to manipulate people to get what he wanted. He was an alcoholic, chain smoking, womanizing, magician conman, and he was the very example of the antihero. Hellblazer as a book recognized that even among monsters and demons that people were the source of real horror, and the title did this long before The Walking Dead made it cool.

I have been a fan of Hellblazer and of John Constantine for a very long time. Over the years writers like Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Brian Azzarello, Warren Ellis, Jason Aaron, Andy Diggle, Mike Carey, Peter Milligan and many others took a stab at the character. Artists like Will Simpson, Sean Phillips, Simon Bisley, Leonardo Manco, Tim Bradstreet, Steve Dillion, Sean Murphy, David Lloyd, and many other talented illustrators took a pass at the world of John Constantine. And let us never forget the character was creator by Alan Moore during his seminal Swamp Thing run.

DC Comics announced this past week that Hellblazer would be coming to an end in February with issue #300, but that same month Constantine #1 will debut using the version of the character from Justice League Dark, set firmly in the new DC52 universe. To say I have mixed feeling about this would be an understatement. It makes me want to drink lots of Guinness and fight Devils.

On a positive note, I know very few comics ever make it to issue 300. Hellblazer debuted in 1988 and has been ongoing ever since. That in of itself is quite the feat. Though traditionally Vertigo single issues sold relatively lower than most mainstream DC titles, Vertigo titles usually sold well as trade paperbacks, and as a result the company often allowed the lower numbers for the monthly books. In the last few years, however, DC Comics has required that Vertigo sales improve on the monthly basis, and no longer allowed long-term trade sales to keep a series alive. Hellblazer’s sales have been pretty low for some time now, and unfortunately there is no information available on how well the trades sold. Comic series do not last forever. Hellblazer had a good run. Though I am sorry to see it go, the cynic in me understands why it was ending. DC does not see it as good business anymore.

The problem with ending the series is that DC is launching the new, younger version of John Constantine set firmly in their mainstream superhero universe. When they launched the DC52 line, I did not mind that they had Constantine on Justice League Dark because they were still allowing Hellblazer to coexist. Constantine in JLD is a bit of a conman, knows lots about magic, but is in no way the beautiful bastard he is in the Vertigo series. In Hellblazer the character has no limits, would sink to any depraved lengths to get the job done, and would absolutely not join a merry band of heroes on a super quest. He once had a conversation about the Constantine legacy with the resurrected corpse of his father before he chopped the corpse’s head off with a shovel. There was that time he shagged a lesbian and in the middle of the act broke the fourth wall and looked at the reader of the comic to ask, “Do I win a prize?” And he once acquired a bible made out of discarded foreskins. I doubt we will ever get those things in the PG13 Constantine book.

Recently, DC had their Zero issue month and we were treated to the DC52 version of Constantine’s origin. This marked a major turning point for me in regards to what I see now as a watered-down version of the character. In JLD #0, Constantine travels to New York to learn about magic from some guy named Nick (who wears Constantine’s signature trench coat). He meets Zatanna and the two get romantically involved even though she is with Nick. When Nick finds out Constantine and Zatanna are interested in one another he lures both into a trap, Constantine uses his skills to get out of it, Nick “dies” as Constantine takes his trench coat. Ultimately, this origin is generic and makes Constantine become who he as a result of a romance with Zatanna. Christ, they should just make Constantine the new Doctor Fate or something. It’s goddamn RUBISH.

In the Hellblazer comic Constantine was in a punk band when he was a teenager. He gets involved in the occult, hangs out with others that do the same, and the group comes across a monster who lives with a little girl. Constantine and his magic group summon a demon to deal with the monster, but it backfires. The demon kills the monster and drags the little girl screaming to Hell. Constantine has a nervous breakdown and is put into a mental hospital till he is broken out later. This origin not only cautions against the use of magic that Constantine indulges in, but it lays the groundwork for the guilt the character deals with as he tries to do good work while being a questionable human being.

The DC52 Constantine lacks the set of balls the Hellblazer version has, and his depiction in the new DCU does not make me excited to see the company mainstream him in lieu of the Vertigo series. Warren Ellis, who wrote Hellblazer for a number of issues, joked on Twitter that DC was cancelling Hellblazer to put out a PG version of the character. He is not that wrong.

Robert Venditti (The Surrogates, X-O Manowar) is writing this new Constantine series with art by Renato Guedes. They are a pretty good creative team, and Venditti noted on Twitter that he respect the character, the character’s rich history, and he will do his best to honor both. This is enough for me to give the book a try I suppose, but I honestly do not have high hopes for it. Fans new to the character will like it better than I will. Fans of Hellblazer will probably feel a lot like me. I love Jeff Lemire’s writing and his Animal Man run has been a great mainstream horror book for the DC52. That being said he wrote JLD #0 and even he could not save what I see as a fundamental change in the character. He is too likeable, too mainstream now, and lacks the harshness of the Constantine I have known for the better part of two decades. I do not think Venditti and Guedes will be able to tell those kinds of stories in a book meant for kids thirteen and up. I think they will give us solid, but ultimately safe stories. Hellblazer could be called many things, but safe was not one of them.
Fans are left wondering what this means for Vertigo as it shuts down its longest running comic. On the one hand I understand DC’s reasoning for doing this. Animal Man and Swamp Thing have been big success stories for the DC52, and both were lifted from Vertigo. Of course neither one had an ongoing series any longer like Hellblazer. I now think allowing both JLD and Hellblazer to coexist was only to allow the latter book to reach 300. I also believe Constantine will outsell the current run of Hellblazer, at least on the outset. I find it difficult to believe, even with the creative team it has, that a mainstream, more likeable Constantine will work long-term. I genuinely hope it will be good so that I can still get my monthly fix, but I am not overly optimistic about it. I would rather them relaunch the series under Vertigo if they had to do it at all.

You know at Marvel they had a mainstream Punisher series and the Max Punisher book running side by side without a problem. I wish they would keep Hellblazer or relaunch it. I cannot help and think of the Supreme Power Max series by J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank. It was fantastic and after its initial run Marvel relaunched the book as Squadron Supreme, moving it from the adult Max line, and making it a mainstream superhero book. It died after that move. Say what you want about the violence, adult themes, sex, and the like. Once they made it “accessible” to teens it took a nosedive creatively. I think I am going to see that happen with DC’s move for Constantine.

Hellblazer had a good run. Three hundred issues plus specials is nothing to shake a stick at. I am sorry to see it go. I may pick up this new Constantine book to give it a try; however, the current state of the character in the DC52 does not make me feel good about it. Do I fault DC for trying to make more money off of the character? No, it’s a business. But if they continue to water down Constantine, he will not be recognizable to me. And I am not part of their company, so my tastes are not subject to what’s best for the bottom line, as they are for what’s best as a comic.

In many ways seeing Hellblazer come to an end is like witnessing an end to an era. There was a time in the 90s where my favorite books were coming out of the Vertigo imprint, Hellblazer included. It was the only title left of the old guard as it were. So the loss of the title crushes me twice as hard.

These days I am wondering if comics are trying to tell me that I am a dinosaur, and the books l like do not matter anymore. If it were not for Image Comics there would be few comics I was crazily excited for. I still like some DC titles, but the company seems intent on taking the books and characters I like away from me. Hellblazer was one of a few books I would have loved to write one day. I suppose even that dream is gone, like a candle being put out.

And the Guinness turns back into water.



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