Tag Archives: dc comics

Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

The Flash
The Flash is my favourite superhero. He has a simple but amazing power, he’s a scientist and he’s an uncomplicated hero; what’s not to love? So I was quite looking forward to the new TV series, and the extended trailer they released over the summer whet my appetite. Now though, a few episodes in, I’m about ready to call it quits.

It’s worth pointing out that they’ve done a lot right with the series; the special effects are fantastic given the demands of television. Grant Gustin is just right for the role (it’s interesting comparing his frame with John Wesley Shipp’s in the 1990 TV series; it never made sense for Barry Allen to be as bulked up as Wesley Shipp was back then). And I applaud their decision to go for a multi-racial cast. But there are three main quibbles I have with it [SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON]. Continue reading Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

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.