April 24th, 2009
Hellblazer 251-253, by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, Jamie Grant
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.)
Both of these chaps, Pete ‘n’ John I mean, are by now the grand old men of the Vertigoverse. That their paths haven’t crossed much before the current run seems… unlikely, as if someone’s been reaching into the past and editing memories you thought you were sure of. On the surface, they’re a match made in [insert exotic word for hell here] – the similarities our two old chums share are obvious: clever-clever, crop-haired Londoners what came up hard under Mrs T. (fnarr). Shared interests include the stranger, sharper twists that language can take, what it can do to build and cover and obliterate people. With their own obsessions and addictions too: John’s is obvious, fags mainly, also complimentary flavours booze, nags, dead friends etc. Pete’s got a couple, a few, a plethora, a surfeit nearly – Nietzsche, identity politics, sexual becomings and goings, and in particular a fondness for crosswords, anagrams, thesaurus-dredging, and every manner of curious word puxxle.
SCAB (the caps, like a placard, seem inescapably appropriate, so apologies for shouting) is about the memories and hangover of the last time the British union movement died in a final unrecovered sacrifice of principle to usher in the years of Neo-Labour. It’s not, as the resonances with the Red Riding trilogy would indicate, about the Miner’s Strike, whose beginning celebrated its 25th anniversary between parts 2 and 3 of this story, but about the forgotten Liverpool dockers of the mid-nineties. For anyone who cares, the case of the Liverpool dock workers was the final dinner knife in the guts of decency delivered by the departing Tory party in 1996-7, which went conspicuously unhealed by Tony ‘I killed a million Iraqis and all I got was this lousy religious foundation‘ Blair. Should have known. (The soapbox always comes out when it’s Hellblazer time, for which I won’t apologise – when it’s going right, it’s impossible to separate Jo-Con’s ongoing travails from the contemporary street-level concerns of your pissed-off, pissed-up and pissed-upon Brit – it’s difficult to imagine what the comic would mean without the fire in the belly. Answer to that semi-rhetorical question at the end, maybe.*)
P-Mil and Johnny’s new era of codependency arrives at an interesting time. Now old and wise, the political and psychic landscape of right now is collapsing into that of their heyday, maybe arriving just at the right time to redeem them both, following some largely unremarkable years. The false optimism of the last decade suited neither of them. How are these two crafty chancers going to cope with the neverending 80s revival (key styles this season: police brutality, unemployment, blue coming back in for unlovely rosette-wearers everywhere), now they’re that much older?
When all’s said and done, the sensible answer is the one you get: business as usual. A crueller man might say that these two most excellently favoured gents never recovered from their salad days 15-20-25 years ago, still playing the same tricks now they were then. (Not me, you understand. I’m silly enough to consider Human Target and X-Force as recent, current even, works that I’m happy to hold up next to Skin, Rogan Gosh, and that seriously offbeat third book of Bad Company.)
What does business as usual mean today? From the dashing Mr. M. it’s all a bit familiar from Shade The Changing Man, Milligan’s classic serial from Vertigo’s Uranium Age, where JC himself visited for a while. We’ve seen the sentient skin diseases before, and the aborted fetuses, returned to menace mum all peeved instead of vengeful, almost grateful to have been spared the weary pressures of embodiment.
A demon who helps for a bit is also seems off the peg at first, a parodic cutesy-emo girl from 2004 looking thing, until she tells us she hung with Boudica, who’s still a national treasure all these years later, and casts all those bigboot black-clad teens in a new light. That’s when you remember that this is Milligan’s best routine, a showstopper, the way he can take a flat old genre piece as a platform and suddenly leap from there right onto your doorstep. Making magic mundane, and, importantly, vice versa – thaumaturgy as a sordid suburban tryst: There’s a bit in the third chapter where the main storyline is basically all wrapped up, and all that JohnCon needs to do is chuck a couple of spells around to sort everything out. It could all happen off panel, but we get a hilarious page where you realise that maybe the scary bit about being the big dark urban mage is when your uncle catches you naked and hollering in the spare room with a strange man. The horror here is acute, and familiar to everyone: embarrasment, humiliation, the danger of exposure to harm in pursuit of the things that are important to you.
So a few of the more prominent features may be a bit recycled, but we also get an originality of insight, agreeably playful subtext and trenchant trenchcoated commentary. Stir in some domestic horror, delivered with the deft touch of a Mike Leigh, and somehow – magically – it all combines into what amounts to a bold new direction, a proper breath of fresh air.
See: Some bad-magic feedback hits John with a case of cryptic and infectious psoriasis, in the shape of an ‘L’, giving John a handy few miles of plot just in time for the last episode. John’s inescapable London-centrism, an affliction he could shake, nearly unhooks him. As he arrrives back at his childhood haunts we get some internal monologue which makes it clear he’s forgotten his roots, or has spent too long nourishing them in a compost of tabloid bullshit, with a Beatles ref. and a recap of the official version of the last decade of history: Shit as ever deep down, but at leat we were rich enough to enjoy ourselves throughout.
I’m reminded of a bit from Question Time a few weeks ago, from Croxteth or somewhere, where the pundits and politicos bussed up for the day trotted that spiel out, only to be faced with a crowd of blank Liverpudlian faces. The Labour years didn’t see full employment up there, their houses weren’t suddenly worth a million pounds. In SCAB there’s a poor sod, docker who broke a picket for reasons he can’t explain, nobbled in the nineties by a marvellous stock evil Tory, of the like we haven’t had around for ages, but are likely to be seeing a lot more of, and a bad magician brought in from down South. Constantine owes him something, and the debt drags him out of his cosy, Ikea-furnished new relationship and back to get some fresh, much-needed perspective. It’s a clear statement from Milligan, or as clear as you’ll get from such a gnomic stylist, that an overdue change to the Constantinian status quo could be in the tealeaves.
And yes, he’s got a new love in his life. (New to me anyway. And not dead yet, so pretty fresh, far as these things go.) Phoebe, NHS doctor, nice enough girl, bit watery maybe, but with some sunken steel in there. Has to face down some of her own hidden demons as a result of sharing bedspace with old death-breath. She handles it well enough, kicks him to the kerb first chance she gets, but it won’t be the last we’ll see of her. She feels like an amalgam of Shade’s galpals, sassy and sensible, an entirely useful foil for JC, and another indication that what SCAB is giving us is more than just a good scratch of a fond old itch, but an encouraging sign that Millligan could be hanging around for a good while, to stake out some unfamiliar territory.
So how on earth to build a better ‘Blazermobile? Well, get Jamie Grant in on colours, that’s a good start. Grant doesn’t look like he’s devotng himself to this quite as wholeheartedly as he has other projects, but he’s obviously got some good ideas to bring to the table. The thick muddy washes that have made me put this book back on the shelf more times than I can count have been rethought into something that’s rather else. The browns are there (he’s a a down-to-earth guy after all, the Erl King’s booking agent no less) but now they’re the clear, affectless pine-tones of the modern flatpacked interior, and when the threat surges into view they subtly shift into the hot angry red of raw weals on the skin, slowly burning apart the smooth veneer of post-movie comfort and complacency that our John has found himself in. And Jamie Grant can give a crystalline, cool blue nighttime sky that could hide whole dominions of devils.
All in all then, it feels as if the magic could be coming back, as if John the Con has finally got his old spirit back. His and Pete’s quirks complement each other quite nicely, as it happens. It’s about time someone took a look at him from a new, oblique angle that’s not afraid of whimsy or outright silliness, but understands also how to creep you out by missing the expected beats and surprising you with unforeseen twists of plot and character. Things in John’s life are as bizarre and horrid as ever, but there’s a subtle kind of oddness creeping back into the book itself, and changing how the book and its context mingle and interrelate.
In chapter 3 we get a flashback to the Constantine of the mid-90s, a irredeemable bastard who’s a far cry from the ‘heart of gold’ character readers knew from the book back then. Time is going weird all over the place, with Camuncoli making our unhealthy hero look like a sales rep barely our of his twenties, instead of the pensioner he should be by now. How to explain these weird acts of time travel and revivification without a blue police box? The bad Tory eighties are slipping back into being again, sliding through the nineties and dragging their muck with them, retroactively revealing the corruption cringing in the corners of the smiling cool Britannia years.The world that Constantine was created into as a narrative history riddled with poor spelling and bad grammar, an ugly pun, a fiddled word-game impinging on the neurolinguistics of the British. Maybe me old mucker John, all foul-mouthed and stinking, is the safe receptacle for the inevitable frustration and unrest of the next few years. Like it or not (and, by the way, the answer you’re going to be looking for is NOT), things are looking good for Constantine. That’s got to be shit for the rest of us, but at least we know where to look for some cheap compensation.
*It’s a horror comic and hence, if done right, universal. It’s not necessarily about scare and shocks, gore and gristle, but it’s got to go for you a bit, fuck your head in some way. And this, satisfyingly, we are getting, even if it’s coming from an unexpected direction. This arc resurrects John Constantine’s ability to change and outgrow the clothes he’s been forced into since he became a franchise and got saddled with a run of forgettable writers. And that in itself is enough of a weirdness to stretch David Lynch’s hairduh for now, and will be enough for me for the next few issues at least.