This is a post about Jeff Lemire’s ongoing run on Justice League Dark, but it’s also a post about DC’s “New 52” initiative. More broadly, it’s about how superhero publishers approach continuity issues in ever-expanding fictional universes. I’m coming at this as someone who was primarily raised on Marvel Comics, so I’ll start by getting my superhero comic book biases out in the open in order to get at why the current state of DC seems a bit dull and empty to me.
Jamie Delano notes that his Hellblazer run began during an election year for both the U.K. and the U.S. Revisiting his early issues in a 1992 introduction to the Original Sins collection, Delano notes that he is again writing in the shadow of both country’s major elections. Things looked a bit better in 1992 than they did in 1987:
Over here, it appears that some of the Thatcherite ‘vultures’ may be coming home to roost – or at least to hover patiently over the disabled and whining Tory body-politic. It would be nice to think that Bush and his Republican reptiles might similarly be forced back under their stones. Perhaps such an occurrence would be a tiny encouragement, indicating a minute turbulence of conscience disturbing the blank stare of our culture’s self-righteous myopia.
Reading Delano’s introduction on the eve of an inevitably disappointing election here in the United States of 2012, I find myself wishing for similar signs of encouragement. Laugh all you want at Mitt Romney’s many mis-steps (and I do: believe me, I do): the fact that this presidential election is going to be close at all is terrifying, and should President Obama retain his seat, he remains a watered-down, disappointing version of the candidate who ran four years ago. More locally, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Republicans try to get an MA senator out of a debate by delaying votes in Congress. Said candidate, when he was finally shamed into attending said debate, used the forum to accuse his opponent, a woman, of “scaring women,” and mocked her educational background by sarcastically calling her “Professor.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of terrible that is American political discourse, of course. Overseas things don’t look much more encouraging. Last Monday’s Guardian contained a story titled “David Cameron’s Men Go Where Margaret Thatcher Never Dared.”
John Constantine misses bars unlit by the glow of televisions, the freedom to smoke indoors, the days when “people just pissed in the phone boxes.” Simpler times. The kids of twenty-first century London slink around in “man-bhurkas, masking shame” behind hoodies and oversized baseball caps. “They talk jamockney,” Constantine complains, “that horrible bastard language hybrid of all the laziest and worst of every different culture.” They’re not at fault, not even the ones dumb enough to mug John on a quiet night: they’re just “snot-nose kids brought up to believe they’re tenth-rate citizens,” after all, products of decades of institutional failings and years of neglect, oppressed by poverty, driven by fear.
The opening sequence of Hellblazer #2 seems to be a commentary on the conventions of the superhero team-up. If this were a superhero comic, John Constantine and Papa Midnite would punch each other in the face for a few pages due to some misunderstanding, take a smoke break, then decide to team up and go after the murderous insect terrorizing Manhattan. Here, Constantine heads to Midnite’s club to find a slugfest in progress: two zombies are pummeling each other to undeath in a subterranean arena while a crowd of yuppies laps up the ultraviolence. The two magicians engage in a bit of posturing as they get ready to get their hands dirty, debating the ethical shortcomings of their respective magical practices. Constantine tries to lay claim to a moral high ground, but it’s clear that Jamie Delano and John Ridgway share Midnite’s skepticism.
“Getting to grips with John Constantine is like trying to pin down a shadow.” Satchmo Hawkins, the music journalist responsible for the “Faces on The Street” music column “reprinted” in the back of Hellblazer #1 (1987), seems to think that a direct line to the man himself would clear things up, and he promises readers an interview with John in the next issue of XS magazine. Though it’s a relatively small thing, I really liked the inclusion of the XS column at the end of this issue. It’s a reminder of how contingent our sense of history is on the perspective of the people doing the telling, and in retrospect, it’s a helpful cultural artifact for contemporary readers curious about the ways the 1980s looked at itself and the recent past. The particular architects of this story, writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgway, use Constantine to provide readers then and now with a pretty grotesque image of the 1980s, but they don’t necessarily romanticize earlier decades. They seem as fed up with the current state of the counterculture as they are disgusted by the yuppified antics occupying center stage.
Unless otherwise noted, art on this page is by Neil Gaiman (W), Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg (A), Todd Klein (L), and Robbie Busch (C)
Before I met John Constantine, I read a story about him in an interview Alan Moore did with Wizard: The Guide To Comics. I gave my copies of Wizard to some grad student studying the relationship between pie jokes and the decline of Western civilization, but thankfully the Hellblazer Wiki has the goods:
“One day, I was in Westminster in London — this was after we had introduced the character — and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut. He looked — no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.
“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”