Or: why David ‘Red Riding‘ Peace would be my perfect Hellblazer writer.

I really just want to post some of these pictures off the telly, they’re smashing:


So, 1983 didn’t end so well – I mean, logistically it did, emotionally it was kind of a relief, I suppose, that kind of beatification after a good six hours of largely pummelling, thrillingly blunt-nosed television. Bit like taking the squid out of Watchmen, ennit though, reaccenting the piece? The author is a man whose idea of a happy ending is wrists slit in bath.

The little girl is saved by the protagonist/the little girl is not saved by the protagonist:


The little girl is dead, and it’s all the protagonist’s fault and now he’s going to a mental hospital.

Newcastle. Leeds. Merseyside. West Yorkshire.


It’s all the bloody same in the end, the North of England:

Longcoated, bowed men.
Once were socialists.
Fat bastards.
Bad teeth.

I should probably clarify for any American or non-British readers we still have left: David Peace is, ostensibly, a crime novelist – fêted by your George Pelecanos’, your James Ellroys. So, literary crime, then; only, not all crime because two of his seven novels are not crime. So. More broadly. An “occult historian“, a writer of (hideous neologism, this) faction. Short, metronomic sentences. Ponces about with structure. Repetitious, a drillbore. Hard rhythms.

It’s also very much here in the UK his month, March 2009, in terms of dominating the mediasphere, because four novels have been transposed to a visual medium. Hurray. Three of the four Red Riding quartet, 1974, 1980 and 1983, made into probably the most ambitious British television production – certainly, I think, in the Zeroes, from 2000A.D. onward. Only thing we could conceivably stand beside The Wire without being laughed out of town. It’s all people can bring themselves to talk about regarding telly, anyway, these days. And the (association, if you must) football novel documenting the greatest failure of a manager who occupied probably the central part of British sporting life from the mid 1970s to early 1980s made into a motion picture, released 27/3/09, starring Frost/Nixon‘s Michael Sheen, The Damned United. (Book’s called The Damned Utd, a distinction that matters to me but probably not, Mindless reader, to you. Worry not thy fair head.) Everyone in football is very upset about it, because they do not understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It’s all people can bring themselves to talk about regarding football, anyway, these days.

Anyone left? I know all proper geeks hate sport. Improper, I don’t. Let’s turn this car around:

Peace attended Batley grammar school, then sixth-form college in Wakefield, but says he spent as little time as possible at school. He was more interested in DC and Marvel comics: “I definitely would have wanted to be a comic-book writer if I could draw.”

Admirable rigour, that; the best mainstream scriptbots can all draw, certainly. Whether Peace would translate visually, whether he has the visual imagination and capability is kind of opaque; the televisual translation did rely heavily on location scouting, I think, the intimidating facade of the Griffin Hotel but his sense of time, of pace, would translate wonderfully in the hands of someone who really can draw. They certainly recreated oppressive mood, in spades, the series’ directors, particularly I thought 1974 – a Tarkovskian tarpit. Not enough?

S: All of the rave reviews that often accompany your work tend to say that you’re a great “crime” writer, that you are rewriting the “crime” genre – crime this and crime that, basically. It’s not something I wholly agree with – there are crime elements to your novels but I think your work is more literary than its given credit for. I just wondered if it irked you at all, the tag you have of being a “crime writer”?

DP: Not really – Dostoyevsky wrote crime; Kafka wrote crime; Brecht wrote crime; Orwell wrote crime. Dickens. Greene. Dos Passos. Delillo etc. But anyway, to me, these days “literary” just means British writers with their Creative Writing MAs wanting to write the “Great American Novel” and filling bookshops with unreadable shite, with no plots, no characters, no balls, no heart and, above all, no British Voice. The best work is always done in the margins and the genres: Burroughs and Ballard in Science Fiction; Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore; and I’m proud to share the same section of a shop as Ellroy, Mosley, Pelecanos and Rankin.

Burroughs and Ballard. Sinclair and Moore. It’s a quartet to play with, really, and I don’t think it’s overstating to say Peace’s own Red Riding foursome reeling is very much of a lineage with From Hell, very much of a lineage with Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings: a lurid, brutish psychogeography. Particularly noteworthy for the proposed protagonist here, too, in addition to the fact that the latter of the aforementioned is the character’s creator, during the midst of Thatcher’s dark reign (‘John Constantine. Hellblazer. 1985′) is Peace’s heralding of the British Voice, big caps. John Constantine is the de facto king of Brit comicdom because, look: the guys, chaps, lads that actually wear the heraldry? Jack Staff, Captain Britain. Bit embarrassing, really. Bit arch. We don’t go in for it. When it comes to the fantastical, probably best off with a trenchcoated (is a hell-blazer like a trenchcoat, I find myself wondering, often? I know it was supposed to be Hellraiser and then that bastard Barker ruined everything, wouldn’t change it now) smart-arse who sorts things, bad situations, with an unravelling blether, mostly. A retinue of other-Britons, but the lead is English. Cup of tea, lovely. You know the type, aye:

John Constantine is so effing quintessentially British as a character that a photocopy of him is Captain Britain’s boss, nowadays.

But it’s not just that, not only that which led to this project of claimstaking for the world’s most hated form of storytelling:  just like I don’t think it’s a coincidence that George Pelecanos named two of his protagonists Strange and Constantine, and aside from his sterling scripting (he’s not the best though; Ed Burns is the best) on The Wire, this was the siren screaming ‘one of us, one of us!’ that drew me into his orbit. Just like I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I don’t think that Red Riding‘s prime recurring character is Maurice “The Owl” Jobson. Or “Maurice Jobson. The Owl.” Or:

Maurice Jobson.
The Owl.

as it – as he – appears, variously, throughout, behind thick-rimmed glasses, peering. Not much like the Daredevil and Spider-Man villain, admittedly, not really, crap villain anyway but it’s the sort of thing grabs yer attention reading the Daily Record telly supplement. My attention. These elements of fantasia seeping into novels of purest black (Peace talked a little on a BBC documentary last month about this as his preferred genre descriptor, just “black” in a flat Yorks accent; it’s apt to describe him, certainly, and a fucksight better than “Dewsbury noir“) just make it all the more horrible – bad bits, like half-remembered Alan Garner: the Underground Kingdom. “The wolf did it.” Giant, rotting swan wings; some lost, retarded angel maundering about the task of justice over nine long years.

Warren Ellis’ work on Hellblazer I was perhaps a little surprised  to find was pretty much by far the best on the title during my recent refresh; the Ennis stuff has some great character work, the Morrison, Gaiman and Smith shorts have nice, salient bits of social commentary, unlike Jamie Delano who’s never knowingly undercooked a steak, but basically it’s been pretty fallow since the Tories lost power (back soon, though, eh,) and gone up it’s own arse with continuity buggery, aforementioned Ellis and Brian Azzarello aside. Ellis, though: in terms of providing insight into the terrain (London, here, although most writers will tend to relocate Constantine to their own patch or at least bring as much of said to him otherwise – I’m surprised to see Peace’ contemporary Ian Rankin isn’t apparently having much to do with Edinburgh in his upcoming Dark Entries graphic novel), in terms of wry, bleak humour and the demotic (“You’ll never find a more complaining bunch of bastards than cabbies”/”Shut up, Chas”) and – for the most part, although Azzarello probably did this even better, in the representation of the supernatural, which is to say being pretty much nonrepresentational with it, because magic’s a load of bollocks, a string of coincidence that you can make a narrative of. That’s how I like it – you can maybe have a few angels and vampires or that, but don’t baldface it – they are really us, because the comic’s basically about the urban diaspora and bad bastards and the shitey, revolting things they do and maybe how you deal or don’t deal with it. ‘Haunted’, a decade ago (#134-139, I’m sure there’ll be a trade paperback) does all this whilst apparently ripping I Was Dora Suarez off, so I’m told; in fairness, Ellis talks about this conjunction between the Crime and Horror bookshelf and the character in the back of Vertigo Secret Files: Hellblazer:

…speaking of dead bodies, there’s a certain strain of British crime fiction that’s not been seen in American comics, a kind of murder writing that’s blacker and sadder than Ellroy. Derek Raymond’s Factory [of which said Dora is the fourth] novels  are the obvious touchstone, brutal things without a chink of light in them. A very English kind of urban fiction, a perfect fit with John Constantine’s world of shabby magic.

That’s what I want, exactly. In the spirit of Jog’s Greenaway Watchmen (spun out of Andrew Hickey’s alternate treatment, which I nodded sagely along to) or Sean Witzke’s Coens’ Daredevil/Polanski’s V; a thing which will probably never be, like books better anyway, don’t trust film, even though the telly provoked me to this. I can’t make up a story, only a background – 1985, the miner’s strike lost, John in Leeds and environs, every internal tension in British life vibrating, thrumming through the wires - race, class, gender… something happened to send him to Louisiana, to scream out of the country. Something fucking dreadful, and I want to know what it is. Even though it’ll do me no bloody good. 



24 Responses to “HB85: Peace and Constantine. Constantine and Peace.”

  1. bobsy Says:

    Ah! Of course: David Peace = Derek Raymond for a world caught up. I’m only just catching up to Derek Raymond myself – read one of the Factory quartet – ‘He Died With His Eyes Open’ – just a few weeks ago, a horrid, beautiful, bleak and bitter thing. A writer of the first class, no doubt – ‘State of Denmark’ is a realist dystopia leagues ahead of Orwell and Huxley, an exact model of The Way Things Work and the perfect NuLabour novel (written 1964).

  2. Duncan Says:

    Aye, rather embarrassingly, I found that Ellis quote and lead onto Raymond after having written 2/3 of the piece (although I’d known about Dora Suarez/Haunted for years;) he seems very much the progenitor of ‘black’-as-genre, and more succinctly put, that is the genre which I would like Hellblazer to be, forever.

    Now I have to go and read all Derek Raymond books as a “penance”, at least after GB84.

  3. The Beast Must Die Says:

    GB84 is very good – dense, dark and thouroughly depressing. Manages to convey the feeling that Thatcher moved us closer towards becoming a proper police state very effectively. Class war = civil war and all that.

    Not a happy read.

  4. bobsy Says:

    I shall probably start with that one, having done ‘Red Riding’ on telly and being an old-skool, PE-skiving kind of geek, it’s probably the one I will get most from.

    [Writes something annoying about Considine/Constantine, imagines Constantine as a mental, bearded, pissed-off ex-commando using party drugs as weapons, hates self, deletes it all.]

    Yeah, always a better critic/cultural watchman/antifashionista-type than an actual writer himself, but interestingly Ellis’ run on Constantine was pretty good as I remember. Hated it at the time, thinking it ‘metal’ where it should have been ‘moody d&b’, but a reread a couple years ago made me warm to it, second best run on the book of the last decade or so. Good to have his basically atheistic take on what magic would mean to various Londoners.

  5. Duncan Says:

    Yeah, the Ellis stuff is actually properly bloody funny and heartbreaking in bits. Wha’d'you think’s the best in the last decayde, b?

    The Azzarello stuff I remembered liking better than I found it, reappraising; he does a lot right (i.e. no bloody nonsense, apart from a golem) but the recondite language sometimes is a bit of a chore, an aggravation. Certainly the most praised by prior scribes of the character, that, proving fanboize know shit.

  6. bobsy Says:

    Yeah, the Azz, no question. Once he gets the Oz plot out of his system, he makes Constantine a frightening, vengeful bogeyman character, lurking in the background of the stories. Not saying that’s how he ‘should’ be done, but it’s an astute take on on how to make Constantine work, having him play something akin to The Spectre’s role, storywise, with added Silk Cut and mystic trauma.

  7. James Says:

    I don’t really know anything about any of this, but I liked it all the same.

  8. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Lot of people had time for the Diggle run, but I just don’t feel his writing really. Carey’s run was all Hollywood monsters and recycled Constantine tropes from previous runs.

    One of the problems with Constantine is that his peculiarly British hardboiled naration, as defined by Delano and Ennis, has become an albatross for future writers. He often sounds like some absurd Dickensian cockney with his theatrical cor blimey-isms.

    The Ennis run for me will always be best, partly because it was such an invigoratingly nasty, visceral horror comic, at a tiime when most Vertigo comics were still caught up in Gaiman’s coat tails, wispy ‘horrors of the mind’, clumsy metaphorical, sub-Goth bollocks.

  9. Zom Says:

    I haven’t read Hellblazer in years, probably not since Ennis’s run, and I suspect I didn’t read all of that.

    How’s Milligan doing? He’s writing it now, inne?

  10. Sean Witzke Says:

    I’m really gonna have to see this Red Riding show.

  11. Zom Says:

    I only saw one episode, which I enjoyed but probably didn’t enjoy as much as BB appears to have. Strong aesthetic though, that definitely seems to be coming from the same place as the best of Hellblazer (or perhaps the place where my idealized Hellblazer hails from).

    I keep meaning to get me hands on the other two eps…

  12. Duncan Says:

    I think you’ll be into Red Riding, Sean – it’s bleak as fuck, fittingly, and really the only Brit drama (bobsy makes a case for The Thick of It, but I bracket that as comedy) I’ve ever nursed a sense of civic pride over. Certainly in the last decade.

    Books are better, mind.

  13. Sean Witzke Says:

    Civic sense of pride – yeah I understand that, I’ve gotten into internet arguments where I say “Yeah, well America made the Wire”.

  14. Christian Otholm Says:

    I thought Jason Aaron’s two issues (Gasp! An American!) were a pretty solid Constantine story. It’s traditional, but good.

    And yeah, glad to see some appreciation for the Ellis run. Has everyone here read Shoot! (his unpublished last issue/the issue that got him fired)?

  15. Zom Says:

    The Thick of It is brilliant but in a very different way

    Will be picking up the books, BB, that’s for sure

  16. adam aaron Says:

    Why not just make John Constantine the Specter, if it just a matter of a dark atmosphere, some social commentary, and the punishment of evil then? Stick him in a green trench coat and make him look vaguely albino. Then just have the villians punished by the industrial background, ran over by buses, caught in the gears of a bridge or the parts of an old textile mill, or drowned in the water works plants. Have the doorways turn into mouths and chew a guy to death, etc.

    I not sure that there is anything new to this approach, but it would make for some damn excellent artwork.

  17. Zom Says:

    Nah, Constantine needs to be much less powerful. That’s where the drama is: in his desperation

  18. adam aaron Says:

    Nah, your argument doesn’t fly. The desperation needs to be in the investigation and in the existential inability to connect with the dead (a la, the scene in the Raymond novel describing a necrophilia-tinged kiss).

    The desperation should not be in the danger of the situation.

    Yes, Constantine needs to have desperation, but it must be the soul crushing kind (like a more morrisey Dr. Manhattan) for the aesthetic and feel you desire to work.

    If you want a good example of something close to what you want, look at the ghost cop issue of Planetary (it is geographically and tonally different, but shares the same theme).

    Personally, I think that John works better as Carter from “Get Carter,” except for that he is victorious at the end.

  19. Zom Says:

    For the aesthetic I desire desperation arising from fear is exactly what I want to see. That and soul crushingness too*. All my favourite Hellblazer stories come from that place. It’s Constantine’s humanity, his fragility that lends immensity to the threats he faces and dark depths to the tragedies that befall him.

    I can absolutely guarantee that were Constantine to become the Spectre I would cease to be interested, because I don’t see how you could tell the stories I want to see with a character who angsts on a cosmic scale and can do anything he likes (except stop angsting).

    I could go on, but I feel a post lurking in the background so I should probably control myself

    *What I saw of Red Riding featured humanity strung out on just about every limb possible

  20. adam aaron Says:

    I can kind of see where you are going, but there just isn’t that much in post about the actual character of J.C. (lol) beyond his significance as a cultural icon. It is more about the environment, setting, tone. I’d love to read more about how John would function in this environment.

  21. links « supervillain Says:

    [...] Duncan of the Mindless Ones on Red Riding (which I’m going to watch all of this weekend) and how he would relate it to a [...]

  22. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Heck as like Says:

    [...] David Peace (& Derek Raymond’s ghost) aside, Peter Milligan has to be the last best hope for finding John Constantine’s ideal writer. So far he’s had a promising, indicative five-pager in the Christmas Special Issue #250, and these three issues, comprising a single arc – SCAB. (And a new issue came out this week – will have a look at that over the weekend maybe.) [...]

  23. Duncan Says:

    Bonus! Now you can witness David P sharing a taxi ride with (and I’m told Ian Rankin’s effort’s a rival) worst Hellblazer writer ever, Denise Mina.

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