10 Nov 2012

Thought Balloon: John Constantine RIP

Rob N: During the 1970s I used to buy a fair few British comics in addition to my regular supply of imported American titles. Back then we had a thriving and innovative comics scene that in certain respects was more daring than the American equivalents. But every nine months or so I would go down to my local newsagent on a Saturday morning to find an ominous message emblazoned on the cover of one of my favourite titles. Invariably it would read: 'Exciting news for all our readers inside!' And once I'd settled down with a Curly Wurly chocolate bar (price 3p) I would read the announcement that (for example) Tornado was being combined with 2000AD, or Action was being combined with Battle. From next week the editor proudly announced the two titles would be replaced by one with the best from both comics in an exciting new format! Practically speaking what that meant was you'd lose 2/3 of the ongoing strips from the title that sold the least, and those strips that remained would be significantly changed in order to make for a better fit with the parent title. Exciting news indeed.

And so we come to the announcement this week that issue #300 of Hellblazer is to be the final one. But there's exciting news for all our readers from Dan Didio (a man whose only purpose in life seems to be to grin in a disturbing manner and try to persuade you that you're excited about something that you're really not excited about) who happily informs us that “and no one should worry that John is going to hang-up his trenchcoat - he lives on in March, in the pages of the all-new DC Comics New 52 ongoing series, CONSTANTINE, by writer Robert Venditti and artist Renato Guedes.”

Aside from the fact that it's going to be 'all-new' and 'New' at the same time, this is obviously good news in the same way that the Ministry of Plenty (in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four) telling you that your chocolate ration is being increased from 12 grammes to 8 grammes is good news.   

Traditionally, in any form of entertainment (be it movies or comics or music), there is a cyclical pattern of power switching between Creative and Editorial. You can point to periods in mainstream comic book history where the power (or rather shall we say the 'direction') resided with Creative, and Editorial simply tried to keep up. The Watchmen/Dark Knight period in the ‘80s is a classic example. As are the glory years of Vertigo. You can similarly point to a certain period in the early ‘70s when young aspiring film directors were given the green light to take risks with movies. But there are also periods when Editorial says “enough is enough” and takes over control, usually when a sufficient number of creative ideas have failed to set the cash registers ringing. Because Creative and Editorial left to their own devices will provide you with very different things. The artists and writers will offer you innovation and originality, but editorial will deliver the cash bottom line. And this is because the sad truth is that innovation and originality doesn't necessarily equal sales. The average comic reader doesn't care too much for radical art. He simply wants to have an uninterrupted supply of his favourite characters punching each other in the face over and over again. Recently the signs have been there that Marvel and DC are entering a period of Editorial-led direction. An endless stream of sales-promoting crossovers, the steady trickle of writers leaving due to 'creative issues' (i.e. being told what to write by an editor who can't do it himself, but nevertheless is going to dictate the overall plots for the next 12 issues), the reboots, the relaunching comics as number ones, the variant covers, many multiple titles for popular characters, and of course the shameless Watchmen spin-offs against Alan Moore's wishes, have all pointed towards a new era of Editorial dictates in response to the creative led directions of previous years. In part this may be down to the large corporate machines that now own Marvel and DC respectively, and the filtering down of traditional corporate 'bottom line' policies. When once upon a time certain comic characters could be left alone to do what they were good at doing, now it seems the question is: “can we make some more money if we change things?” Making money is of course what a business is about, but in the same way that corporations donate to charity, it is often thought to be good PR to have a few award winning titles alongside the money making ones. If you have a title that is critically acclaimed (even if it's only breaking even) that often looks good, as opposed to only having a line of titles bleached to the point where they will all appeal to the lowest common denominator of reader.

That Vertigo is being bled dry of its DC owned creations is obvious ever since the likes of Swamp Thing, Zatanna and Animal Man returned to the '52' DC universe. Certainly if I were Neil Gaiman I would be wondering how long it will be before the Sandman joins the ranks of the Justice League of America. And I'm not talking about the 'new' White Sandman who appeared at the end of the series when the previous one died, but the original 'Black' fan favourite Sandman who will no doubt be brought back to life when Superboy flies backwards three times round the world to undo his death. But whereas the likes of Swamp Thing and Animal Man had long established roots in the mainstream world long before they received an Alan Moore/Grant Morrison twist, John Constantine was always a product of the DC British led New Wave of the ‘80s. That he is now being bleached out to fit into a mainstream continuity is sadly a fate worse than simple cancellation. Because we've already seen the new DC universe John Constantine in the pages of Justice League Dark, and let's be honest, it's not very good is it? It's like someone has made a check list of John Constantine clich├ęs (smokes, wears a trench coat, is sarcastic to people), ignoring the subtleties from Jamie Delano's seminal run onwards that made the character a three dimensional and realistic person rather than an anti-hero caricature. For the Justice League Dark version of Constantine is worrying on two levels. Firstly, that it is pretty bad, but secondly, because it was pretty bad while being written by Peter Milligan. Peter Milligan, the regular ongoing Hellblazer writer, who simultaneously was writing one of the best runs of Hellblazer that has ever been published. So in that case how could the Justice League Dark version be so inferior? The only logical answer (unless Milligan is some sort of Jekyll and Hyde writer) is that the mainstream version was subject to heavy Editorial control. Which is an indication of what we can expect in the future.    

So goodbye John Constantine. I was 21 when I first met you in Swamp Thing #37, and I'm 48 now. In retrospect we've had 300 issues, plus numerous miniseries and one-offs and the original Swamp Thing run, so that's a lot better than I ever expected when Helblazer #1 first appeared in my local comic shop. You'll no longer age in real time, or have a rich back story that has never been retconned. From now on you'll forever be 35 years old and stomp around snarling and being unpleasant to people for no particularly good reason. You'll be greatly missed.


Andy H said...

Oh this is bad. Years of consistantly good writing have kept this on my pull list and one of my first reads off the pile. I'm going to miss this book it's had so many outstanding moments, for me mostly courtesy of Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis but the Milligan run has been a fine addition to the legacy. I'm saddened and angry that a John Constantine 'lite' will replace the one true HELLBLAZER.

Ian said...

I was gutted when I saw this announcement. It's not even as though the new version is going to be one of the "dark" DC books like Animal Man or Swamp Thing, it's going to be full on New 52 DCU and that is no place for John. I'll probably still have to buy it to see what it's like though......