Tag Archives: dc comics

John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.

Why Barbara Gordon should stay in the wheelchair

So it turns out that my article about the DC ‘reboot‘ was pretty offbeam. DC are now making it clear that it is merely a relaunch and won’t apparently result in a significant shift in continuity. So essentially ignore all my guff about Geoff Johns’ Corps Wars and Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated storylines coming to a close and Damian Wayne possibly being written out of continuity. Not going to happen. I will still stand by the significance of DC’s switch to same-day-as-print for its digital output, a move which is far more significant than any passing continuity change in any case.

Just to compound matters though, in the comments I poured cold water on Andrew Hickey’s suggestion that Barbara Gordon might suddenly be ‘healed’ and return as Batgirl. Well, the precise details are still yet to be confirmed, but it looks as if I could not have been more wrong.

One reading of this decision is that it is actually quite positive. Gail Simone, who will be writing the new series, is responsible for kickstarting the debate in comics fandom about Women In Refrigerators Syndrome – the tendency for comic writers to maim, abuse and kill off female characters in the interests of (male) character development. Anita Sarkeesian gives a pretty good overview here (transcript here):

From a feminist perspective then, it could be interpreted that this move to restore Barbara Gordon’s spine is actually a positive step: she’s being ‘defrosted‘. So why am I, and others, less than pleased? Four reasons:

Firstly, if there are precious few positive female role models in superhero comics, there are even fewer positive disabled characters. And Barbara Gordon, in her guise as Oracle. was very much that. Here I take issue with Sarkeesian [1]. Sure, Gordon is crippled and very possibly raped in a heinous way – the Killing Joke is a highly problematic story – but her story arc ever since is that of a survivor.

Secondly, if you look beyond the superficiality of assessing characters in terms of their physical capabilities. Gordon-as-Oracle is a far more powerful character than Gordon-as-Batgirl. The latter was a second-stringer; she didn’t even count as a proper sidekick. She is defined by male character: Jim Gordon’s daughter; Dick Grayson’s girlfriend; Batman’s copycat.

Oracle, by contrast, is a central character in the DC Universe, one who works closely with all the heaviest hitters. She’s the character Batman and Superman go to when they need help. She’s played a central role in saving the world on more than one occasion. You’d have to be pretty superficial indeed to see it as anything other than a massive demotion.

As a character, Oracle was not defined by her disability: yet, ironically, as Batgirl she will inevitably be defined by her physical prowess. Will she be able to survive as a just another poutingly gorgeous female acrobatic martial artist? Throw a rock in the DC Universe and you’re liable to hit one of those; very few have ongoing series that last very long.

To cite a related example, Cassandra Cain is the fourth character to assume the identity of Batgirl. A radically different character to Barbara Gordon, she could best be described a 5-foot mute ninja in a gimp mask. When she first appeared, she was an immediate fan-favourite. Then someone had the bright idea of ‘curing’ her muteness. As a result, she was sidelined and was eventually replaced. Just another boring epitome of physical perfection. In this particular case, it was made slightly worse in that one of DC’s few Asian characters was replaced by a blonde white girl.

Thirdly, this would appear to be filling a vacancy that doesn’t exist. Even leaving aside the fact that Stephanie Brown only recently took on the Batgirl mantle, the comic about a red-headed female Batman-copy that fandom is currently waiting for with baited breath is J. H. Williams’ Batwoman #1. Unlike Batgirl, Batwoman is a character with her own, independent continuity – only tangentially connected to Batman’s. And, having only sporadically appeared over the past 5 years, she’s got plenty of story to tell.

Fourthly, if it emerges that she gets to come back because of some kind of time paradox (this isn’t mere speculation, this whole relaunch is being precipitated by Flashpoint, which is all about a villain’s attempt to muck about with events in the past), it’s boring. There’s a reason that DC have flirted with the idea of bringing her back on at least two occasions and rejected it. It is the ultimate lazy plot device. One of the things we were promised with the Blackest Night saga was that there would be no more, or at least fewer, incidences of characters ‘recovering’ from death. True, Gordon isn’t dead, but this is just as much of a cop out. It isn’t remotely interesting from a dramatic point of view.

I may be wrong. It could be that Gail Simone has gone something pretty spectacular up her sleeve and Gordon will be coming back in a way that doesn’t leave the reader short changed. It may well be that she manages to retain what is best about Oracle with the added bonus of the main character being able to literally kick arse once again. This could be the most genius, misunderstood move yet in the twisty-turny life of the character. But on the face of it, this appears to be a very poor choice, not just from a feminist and ableist perspective, but from a dramatic and commercial one as well. And with 51 other new DC titles to choose from during the month this makes its debut, why risk it?

[1] I actually take issue with Anita Sarkeesian in one other important respect. In one crucial aspect, she is factually wrong: Stephanie Brown is actually an example of a character whose “death” actually results in her coming back more powerful than before as Batgirl (and with her own series): she’s actually an example of a female character who “defrosts”, to use the jargon. Ironically, with Gordon now taking that mantle back, she’s now just another bit-player.

The DC Reboot: new dawn or twilight?

Cover to Justice League #1 (2011)The news that DC will be rebooting its entire superhero line with issue 1s from September has been whizzing through my mind all week. It’s going to have profound ramifications, not just for the DC Universe but for the so-called comics ‘industry’ as a whole.

This promises to be DC’s biggest stab of the reset button since the start of the Silver Age. The Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in a number of titles going back to basics, most notably in the case of John Byrne’s Superman, but for most of the line it was little more than a hump in the road.

Zero Hour and its Issue Zeroes promised much but ended up being a damp squib. The Infinite Crisis and One Year Later was far better handled but only really offered a jumping on point of existing storylines.

By contrast, the post-Flashpoint DC Universe looks like it may end up more closely resembling the Ultimate Marvel line – and the launch of that line didn’t result in the existing Marvel Universe cancelling at the same time.

Personally speaking, it feels a little too soon. According to Dan Didio’s introduction to the collected Infinite Crisis, Julius Schwartz told him that all comics lines need to refresh themselves every 10 years or so and that sounds about right.  Certainly, DC left it too long last time. On the other hand, ending the current continuity on a high is arguably no bad thing.

And, thinking about it, the series I have enjoyed do appear to be coming to a close. Geoff Johns’ complex ‘Corps Wars’ storyline has pretty much run its course. Very few mysteries remain. Grant Morrison’s Batman run similarly seems to be running out of road; he’s done a good job at answering the question: where do you go after bringing Batman back from a timespanning cosmic odyssey, but does Batman Incorporated really have more than half a dozen issues’ worth of storyline to go?

Better this I suppose than what happened to Superman post-Reign when, having run out of story to tell the strip ended up just recycling plotlines from Lois and Clark and, a little later, Smallville. The setting that John Byrne had established was quite radical in its own way but it ended up collapsing under the weight of its own self-imposed restrictions.

More broadly, the same could be said of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe. They had established for themselves a clear set of rules on time travel and parallel universes all of which fell apart quite quickly for the simple reason that this is a line of superhero comics and they were attempting to tell them with an arm tied behind their back. One hopes that they won’t repeat this mistake with the latest reboot. Somehow I doubt they will (they’ll make all new mistakes) and the fact that they are launching with 52 new number ones may be a clue. I doubt they would be as radical as to set each of the new first issues on a different one of DC’s alternative Earths, but neither do I see them scrapping the multiverse any time soon.

The crucial question though is to what extent the new “main” Earth resembles the current “New” Earth (are you lost yet?). The real problem isn’t so much the main guys: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al won’t be going anywhere. But what of the sidekicks? Specifically, what happens to Robin? Will Dick Grayson be donning the green tights again? Since he grew up and became Nightwing (let alone Batman), we’ve had Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and now Damian Wayne.

All this is of fascination to the plans but does rather highlight why it all needs paring down. Something tells me that the current Dick and Damian Batman and Robin won’t be making the cut, which is a shame because they’ve been fun. I’m sure many more fans out there feel a lot more strongly about it than me.

But is it worth getting that energised about? One thing that comic fans don’t appear to have noticed is that just because a character or plotline becomes out of continuity, it doesn’t mean that the comic itself suddenly disappears – plenty of wives and mothers will testify to this fact. The Dark Knight Returns and All Star Superman weren’t any weaker because they were out of continuity.

Regardless of its official status, only real way to understand DC continuity – and comics continuity more generally is Hypertime. I’m quite confident that Damian will be back sooner or later, just as I’m entirely unsurprised that DC are currently publishing a Batman Beyond comic 9 years after that animated series ended.

The final question is: will I stick along for the ride? The risk with jumping on points is that they serve as terrific jumping off points as well. That was certainly the case for me with Zero Hour. Can I really face going through it all over again or should I, as a 36 year old, really use this as a convenient point to move on?

Clearly it depends on what exactly DC have to offer. I’ve become a bit of a fan of Geoff Johns’ work and the creative way in which he manages to weave old and new together, so that is a real plus point for me, so I’m currently inclined to pick up the books with his name attached. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I am however extremely inclined to stop buying the floppies, in favour of going entirely digital. DC’s decision to simultaneously publish online has the potential to be the real game changer here, and that’s what makes this reboot more significant than anything else.

I’ve been reading an increasing amount of my comics online over the past year-and-a-bit and despite the fact that I’ve been reading it all on a non-HD iPod Touch, I have to say I’m a convert. Up until that point I had associated online comics with sitting at my desktop; comics were the things I wanted to read when I wasn’t at my desk. It was clear from the word go however that the iPad was going to change this completely: in terms of both size and function, the thing seems tailor-made for comic reading (far more so than reading prose, which the Kindle does much better).

DC have been experimenting with same-day-as-print since they went onto Comixology, and it would appear that they have been happy with the results. I’d like to be able to reassure Gosh! Comics that I won’t be ditching them to embrace digital, but I can’t. Not only is it more convenient, but it means I can keep my collection in my back pocket rather than in an ever growing pile of boxes in my bedroom.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on physical comics entirely. I could never abandon my 2000AD sub and there’s nothing better than a thoughfully produced collection. I took the radical decision of buying all the Starman Omnibuses rather than read them digitally for the simple reason that they look gorgeous. The best stuff that I read online, I will no doubt end up buying an all-the-trimmings physical copy of.

With that said, and here’s the rub, I’ll be doing most of that purchasing online where the prices are typically quite dramatically cheaper. So the question remains: what is to become of shops like Gosh? In the short term, there will still be plenty of things for me to buy there but I can’t see myself continuing in five years time. I feel guilty even writing this, but I’d be lying if I claimed I’d stay loyal. Signings have very little appeal to me. Talks, maybe? I hope they’ll figure something out, but at the end of the day, a comic shop isn’t like a village post-office. There aren’t any obvious pro-social externalities worth hanging onto here and it is a type of business that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.

All in all, then, September 2011 will mark the passing of one age and the start of a new one. Whether this new era is a bright, exciting and happy one remains to be seen.

Comics’ Final Crisis?

Just back from my occasional jaunt down to central London to pick up my comics from Gosh!. I have to admit I’m making these trips with ever decreasing levels of enthusiasm these days, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the fact that I generally feel out of touch with the market these days. This problem started about 18 months ago when the UK’s comics trade paper Comics International vanished, only to reappear a few months later under the guise of a new publisher. The transition has not been a happy one, with the magazine struggling to come out on a monthly basis and when it does appear it is out of date, riddled with too many typos and has an amateurish style that I find a little hard to take. I fear that the editor Mike Conroy isn’t really up to the job. Certainly I thought twice about buying the latest issue and having bought it don’t really feel it was worth my while.

For a semi-detached comics fan such as myself this is disastrous from the point of view of the industry. I don’t have any desire to go back to the days when I used to get Previews on a monthly basis and apart from ignoring the UK scene, the US magazines are similarly hype-driven. So how do I find out what’s going on? I’m finding it increasingly difficult and that is reflective in the stuff I buy.

Secondly, there are the comics themselves. I’ve always been more of a DC reader than a Marvel one. This is for the simple fact that it was DC that largely lead the UK-brain drain that lead to people such as Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Grant Morrison working stateside and so it was via them that I got my first real taste of US comics. But for the last four years or more, DC has been vanishing up its own fundament. While Marvel has opted to make itself more accessible, spurred on by its successful film franchises, DC has become increasingly inward-looking.

It began with a 1986 12-part maxi-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths (actually, it began before that with various previous “Crises” but this was the focal point), in which the DC “multiverse” of infinite interlocking parallel universes became just one. It is always a bad idea to set a rule in a sci-fantasy setting like “no parallel universes” – look at how Doctor Who and Torchwood has toyed with the subject – and as a result DC spent the next 20 years bending and even breaking it, coming up with complex ideas like Hypertime to explain it all.

This all eventually lead to the Infinite Crisis – part 20th anniversary celebration of the Crisis of Infinite Earths, part second attempt to sort the whole bloody mess out. This directly lead to 52, a weekly series that ran for a year between May 2006 and May 2007 in which it was revealed that the second crisis had lead to a return of the multiverse – or rather a multiverse of 52 parallel universes. Conveniently this allowed DC to incorporate a number of their other superhero universes into “official” canon. And so, the Wildstorm universe is now part of it (glossing over the fact they have been running crossovers between Wildstorm and DC for over a decade now), the various Elseworlds series each have their own world and even old properties such as the Charlton and Fawcett now have their own worlds back. Even the animated series now gets its own “official” universe.

The problem is, no sooner have they revealed this, but they’ve started on a mission to blow this multi-verse up too. Immediately following 52 was another weekly series called Countdown. Already at least one world has been destroyed, and no doubt more are to follow in the now scheduled Final Crisis which writer Grant Morrison apparently describes as “The Lord of the Rings of the DCU”.

We shall see, and with Morrison at the helm I shall certainly be getting it. But the last four years has required a lot of forbearance. I didn’t bother with Infinite Crisis and by all accounts I was wise not to. 52 was good, Countdown has been distinctly average and the seemingly endless Countdown spin-offs have been worse than that. The whole thing has apparently been a hit but I’m left wondering who with?

There are two types of comics I read: things that I actually like, which tends to include 2000AD and pretty much anything penned by Joss Whedon, and stuff I buy out of habit. I’ve been buying far too much of the latter of late. And while DC have been pretty bad here, Marvel are just as bad offenders with their Civil War and Zombie-everything. I’ve already been sucked in but in what way is this accessible to new readers? They appear to have got caught in the same rut that Doctor Who got caught in in the 80s – fans writing for fans, keeping the community blissfully happy but not catering for anybody new.

So much for the superheroes, my other quandary lies in the fact that I find it increasingly difficult to find my way around what is sometimes rather snootily described as the comics “mainstream” – i.e. the stuff out there which isn’t all about lycra-clad musclebound buffoons who periodically blow up planets. A big Sandman fan, I got rather tired of the ever poorer cash-ins that Vertigo devised to milk that particular cash cow. Alienated by all that, I now get the impression that I missed out of some really good stuff. But how do I tell the good from the bad? I got quite into the indie-scene in the mid-nineties and was impressed by the range of good material out there. But the chaotic schedules left me a little lost. I gave up on Strangehaven having completely lost track of when the next issue was due out.

Overall, I’m feeling a little lost. I’m sure there are websites out there which can supply me with news, but it’s tough figuring out even where to start. It seems that the comics industry has found its little niche and is quite content plugging away at it, leaving it to the film industry to occasionally give it a boost. I’m not sure how sustainable all this is in the long term: if a relatively hardcore fan like myself can get alienated, isn’t there a danger this will all collapse on itself in ten or so years time?