Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Because You Demanded It!

We’re going to take a brief break from the Hellblazer Guide, kids. This is partly because even I can only write about John Constantine for so long and partly because some of you folks out there asked me to take a break because you missed my reviews over the last two months.

Two months? Yes. Two months since I did any quick reviews. It was a shock to me too.

My, how time flies when you’re staring into the maw of Hell.

Just remember, what follows is all...

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Geoff Johns and Richard Donner;
Art: Adam Kubert

I don’t care if it doesn’t neatly fit into continuity.

I don’t care if this is just salvaged from the remains of “What Might Have Been Superman 3”

I don’t even care that Jimmy Olsen and Perry White have been reduced to being parodies of themselves in the one brief scene we do see them in or that Zod and company appear to have gotten matching outfits from Foot Locker of the Phantom Zone.

The simple truth is that this story is one of the most interesting, most exciting and just plain COOL stories to be told with the Man of Steel in more years than I care to think about.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke
Art: Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone

I haven’t read a book that was quite this fun in forever!

The police commissioners of both Gotham and Central City attend a police convention in Hawaii as The Joker, The Octopus and a gathering of the Rogues Galleries of both Batman and The Spirit gather to have a vacation and blow up the hotel after they leave. And of course it falls to the two respective masked detectives to save the day.

The plot is pretty basic stuff but the execution is anything but. The love for the characters is evident in the script and Loeb and Cooke manage the rather neat feat of balancing the sillier Spirit character with the darker Batman without it seeming the least bit unnatural. And the artwork is picture-perfect, looking like something the old master Eisner might have drawn himself.

Cooke has a monthly Spirit title coming out in 2007. If this is any indication of what we have in store, then you can sign me up now. And I’m sure that Will Eisner is looking down from his big drawing table in the sky right now and smiling, knowing that his legacy is in good hands.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Gail Simone
Art: Nicola Scott and Doug Hazlewood and Paulo Sequiera and Robin Riggs

If you had told me that an enjoyable, worth-while title could be made out of Birds of Prey with the absence of Black Canary... well, I still probably would have believed it after I asked “Is Gail Simone still going to be writing it?”

The first thing I noticed about the recent #100 issue wasn’t the story though. It was the art. Specifically, how with the range of female characters that we see in the opening pages that all of them were shown to have realistic body-types with no uber-cleavage even on the characters where it would be expected. Indeed, the only character who looked “off” in any respect was Power Girl, who looked more like a female bodybuilder and less like Darlene Kurtis after some weight training. Still, Kudos are to be given to new artist Nicola Scott. Or whatever kind of candybar she likes. ;)

I won’t spoil who the new Birds team is except to say that there will be a lot of happy fanboys who were worried about their favorite heroine finding a place after her cult title got canceled. Suffice it to say, another one of them made a big impression on me.

But for me, the back-up story with Dinah Lance getting ready to move was the real treat. Not just because it finally ironed out some questions regarding her background in the wake of New Earth but also because it has opened the door to a reigniting of the Black Canary/Green Arrow romance. Way to make me squeal like a teenage girl, Gail.

Grade: A

Company Name: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Tim Truman
Art: Cary Nord

I had to double-take when I looked at the credits page of this book. You see, I knew that Tim Truman was scheduled to take over the writing duties on this title at some point. I just didn’t know it had been two months ago!

Truman has effortlessly and seamlessly taken Kurt Busiek’s place as author of this book and I honestly hadn’t noticed any change in the tone, action or dialogue. Indeed, I doubt I would have ever noticed the writer had changed unless I’d looked at the title page so I’d know who to credit as I wrote this review. Such is Truman’s prowess as an author and his knowledge of the character.

Of course Cary Nord’s pencils are as sharp as ever, so I need not say much about the art. What I do need to say is that this is still easily the best fantasy book on the market.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Chuck Dixon
Art: Derec Donovan

The biggest problem with this issue is that there isn’t enough Connor Hawke.

After seeing him shunted to the background so much in the current Green Arrow title, I had hoped we’d come in to the middle of a big action scene – not a three page nightmare followed by a brief scene of Connor talking to a mook about an archery contest.

And then we spend half the issue going over a list of other mooks who are going into the same contest. Doubtlessly we DO need an introduction to all these people at some point but I can see this being a little off-putting to newer readers who don’t learn much about Connor other than he’s living in a monastery, he has father issues and he’s an archer/martial artist.

The art stuffers a bit from being overly shadowed, looking like a muddier version of Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy. Still, give the coloring team credit – they DID remember that Connor isn’t Caucasian, which is more than we’ve gotten from anyone else in some time. I’ll keep going through the next issue (Dixon does have five more to play with, after all) but things had better heat up fast.

Grade: C

Company Name: Marvel Comics
Writers: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips

I told you all some weeks back that I got to meet Ed Brubaker at Wizard World. What I didn’t tell you was the good news/bad news Ed gave me. The good news is that he reads this column. The bad news is that he wondering “Why haven’t you written about my work lately?” In specific, he asked “Why haven’t you read Criminal yet?”

The answer to both questions was simple. In the case of the former, I’ve never been a big Captain America fan and I didn’t really have much to say about his Daredevil run past “This is way better than Bendis ever was!” I do try not to repeat myself. And in the case of the latter, my comic shop kept selling out of it before I could get a copy. I’m still waiting for them to get a restock on the second issue, but I was finally able to get a hold of the complete first issue. And oh baby, what a first issue!

The plot is the stuff of a thousand heist novels and films, but Brubaker turns the clichés on their heads with some amazing and unique characterization. Career criminal Leo is an amazing anti-hero – a smart (for once) crook who is primarily concerned with looking out for Number One, but still looks after an increasingly senile ex-con named Ivan and allows himself to be talked into a questionable job offered to him by bent-cop Seymour by the needy wife of an ex-partner in crime.

All of this is beautifully and darkly illustrated by Sean Phillips, who I’ve said plenty of nice things about recently in Part Three of my Hellblazer Episode Guide. But I’ll say it again – when it comes to depicting gritty, life on the street amongst the common folk in an illustrated novel, for my money there is nobody finer than Sean Phillips.

Trust me – you don’t want to miss out on this title. It’d be a real crime.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writer: Royal McGraw
Art: Marcos Marz and Luciana del Negro

How soon until we get Paul Dini back?

Don’t get me wrong. This story isn’t that bad by a long-shot. But the Starman fan in me weeps that they couldn’t just create a new Doctor Phosphorus instead of bringing back the old one. Lab accidents happen all the time! Still, give them points for acknowledging my favorite series of all time even if they did sort of undercut Ted Knight’s attempt to finally stop the villain who would have killed him. This story is a good one and the art suitably electric.

Grade: C

Company Name: Vertigo Comics
Writers: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha and Inaki Miranda

The book’s been a little more low-key than usual of late, with The Adversary’s forces plotting how to best invade the mundane world. Still, the lack of high-paced action has not made this title any less enjoyable. Willingham has shown that he is still capable of surprising us all with a series of small, short epilogues that show us some simple day-to-day scenes involving Fables we have not seen before. And Buckingham’s pencils still astonish after nearly five years of publication. Every issue of this book is a wonder to behold. But it is no wonder that this book has secured as many Eisner awards as it has.

Grade: A

Company Name: Vertigo Comics
Writers: Bill Willingham
Art: Various

If you’re looking for a present for a reluctant reader of comics, I can think of no better title to recommend this Holiday Season than 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Similar to Neil Gaiman’s Endless Nights, this collection of stories does not require any familiarity with the series that inspired it. Different artists contribute their talents to illustrating Willingham’s stories in an effect that creates an unadulterated treat.

Fans of the monthly Fables book will no doubt be amused by the origin stories of some of their favorite characters which are revealed here. My personal favorite was the sad tale of The Frog Prince, who I had always thought of as an entirely comedic figure in the series - until now.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Geoff Johns
Art: Ivan Reis and Oclair Albert

Judging by the Comics Nexus Forums, I’m the only one who is currently enjoying this title. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the story dragging on certain plot points and I’ll admit that things have been a little slow to take off.

But as of issues #14 and #15, the pieces are starting to come together as we see the plot points regarding...

- Hal’s missing year
- Hal’s comrade in arms Cowgirl
- The new Global Guardians
- The new Rocket Reds
- The bounty hunters going after Green Lanterns
- The new Sinestro Corps

Take it from one who slogged through the early issues of Johns’ Hawkman – this will pass. Like Hawkman, this book is like one big set of dominos. It takes a while to set up, but once everything gets moving, it’s quite a sight.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writers: Ron Marz
Art: Greg Tocchini and Jay Leisten

TO: DC Editorial
FROM: Matt Morrison
RE: Ion

I know this is only supposed to be a 12-issue maxi-series... but can we PLEASE make this a regular series? Or at least keep Ron Marz around to keep writing Kyle stories somewhere?

Maybe it’s nostalgia as Kyle was the character who got me into comics in the first place. Maybe it’s the delays on the main Green Lantern title. Maybe it’s because they finally explained Kyle’s powers a little better and allowed him to have a life on Earth again. But whatever this reason, despite some erratic artwork, this title has found it’s way into my heart.

And the most recent issue, where Kyle has to fight a battle without his powers and tries to set an example as a warrior for peace instead of just fighting his way through hordes of minions – that’s something I haven’t seen in a Kyle Rayner story in forever. And I’m glad I got to see it again.

And lets give Kyle props for being the first hero in recent memory who had a naked, hot, willing and “it looks like the parts are compatible” alien warrior maiden ready to offer herself to him... and he turned her down.

Grade: B

Company Name: Vertigo Comics
Writers: Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges
Art: Tony Akins and Andrew Pepoy

Give Willingham and Sturges credit for not being afraid to shy away from controversy. The most recent issue revealed the identity of kindly black-skinned caretaker Sam (a.k.a. Little Black Sambo) and I imagine that had they been less than subtle about it, there would have been a major outcry.

As it is, this is easily my favorite title published by Vertigo right now. What can I say? I have a soft spot for any tale of a hapless rogue who sometimes does the right thing by accident- Jack’s saving of the fairies and the convoluted means by which he concludes that Goldilocks is a spy for the enemy being key examples of this. And Akins and Peopy are worthy successors to expanding the Fables name in picture form.

Grade: A

Company Name: DC Comics
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Art: Ed Benes and Sandra Hope

Now THAT is how you put Black Canary in a fight scene!

I had been worried about the marginalization of Dinah in the wake of Infinite Crisis. She’s apparently no longer a JLA Founder according to new histories in 52 and Birds of Prey. She’s off of Birds of Prey as an active member. And our first view of her in this book was a shot from behind revealing that she’s lost the more sensible boy-shorts of her most recent costume in favor of the more classic bun-exposing bikini bottom. Given that, I had been worried that she would be reduced to an eye-candy role in the new JLA.

No such worries. Dinah still kicks much butt, even in her impractical outfits. And at least it wasn’t that hideous 80’s number with the headband they brought back. For that alone, I’m willing to give this book a little more time to hook me.

Grade: B

Company Name: Vertigo Comics
Writers: Brian K. Vaughn
Art: Niko Henrichon

My library recently got a copy of this new graphic novel in and I was asked to read it and make sure there was nothing inappropriate for the teenagers who get the most use out of our graphic novel section.

Getting paid to read quality graphic novels? Yes. Sometimes my job just plain rocks - And so does this story!

Imagine ‘The Lion King’ but with all the sex and violence of a National Geographic special left intact. That’s oversimplifying it a bit, but the sense of drama in the former is balanced against the realism of the latter in this story – the tale of four lions who escape from the Baghdad Zoo during the opening battles of Operation: Iraqi Liberation. Confused by the battle around them, they struggle to make their way to someplace better, oblivious to the conflict of the “keepers” around them.

Brian K. Vaughn wrote this so that’s pretty much an assurance of quality right there. And the art by Niko Henrichon (perhaps best known for Barnum!) offers a realistic look at the world of animals while still seeming somewhat unreal and fantastic. I recommend it for all libraries, public or personal.

Grade: A

Company Name: Marvel Comics
Writers: Stan Lee and Jeph Loeb
Art: Salvador Larroca and Ed McGuinness

When I first heard about the ‘Stan Lee Meets’ series, this was the one I was looking forward to the most. Simply put, having Stan the Man match his own bombastic attitude against the dramatic and powerful Dr. Doom – why, it practically writes itself! And in the case of the first story, in which Doctor Doom summons Stan Lee to him in order to find out how best to improve his image in the American Comic Book Industry, it almost does.

The second story by Jeph Loeb doesn’t do quite as well, with Stan barely having a presence in the story at all and a punch-line that is far too similar to some of the stories we have seen already. Still, the artwork is crisp and clear in both stories and you get a classic Stan Lee reprint in the bargain. Not a bad investment of your clams, at all.

Grade: B

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Hellblazer Episode Guide, Part Four

For those playing catch-up, here’s PART ONE, PART TWO and PART THREE.

And just so we know what the score is, once again, here’s all the things we’ll keep track of as we go along. Just for laughs, eh?

Plot - What happens in the story worth noting, without giving away too much. Our job isn’t to tell you the story. It’s to help those who read the story keep track of the details. Go buy the comics and read them yourself, you lazy, cheap wankers!

Prominent People - Characters whom we see more than once. First appearances, mentions of reoccurring characters, anything on the hierarchy of Hell, real life figures drawn into the story and anyone else who deserves noting.

Deaths - Any deaths of prominent people or any particularly gory and interesting ways of dying. This is a horror book, after all. Also, a running tally of all the times John has directly been involved in a friend or family member’s death. Deaths of enemies, except where John directly murdered the person in question, are not counted. Instances where it is unclear if the person died (Talbot in Issue #22) or where they probably would have died without John showing up (i.e. Una in Issue #25) are not counted.

John Screws Up - This happens quite a bit, but anytime John is directly or indirectly responsible for some bad thing or another happening, we note it. We advise not making a drinking game of this for two reasons – first, you’ll get pissed very quickly and be unable to keep reading and second, because you might spill lager on your comics!

Pub Trivia - Anything else worth noting that doesn’t fit one of the other categories.

Simple enough, right? So let’s get down to it and discuss...

The (brief) Return of Garth Ennis

Hellblazer #129-133

With Garth Ennis pushing boundaries in both good taste and what the comics medium could do with Preacher, it was only natural that Vertigo bring him back for another go at the character that made him, once the Jenkins run ended.

Son of Man is a serviceable enough a story, but to my mind it (not surprisingly, given when it was written) reads more like Preacher than your typical Hellblazer tale. It’s hard to say what makes this story feel so different but there are several possible factors.

One part of it is the artwork, which is quite different from the more realistic style favored by Steve Dillon during Ennis’ run. Pride and Joy artist John Higgins makes this story very surreal and almost cartoonish in appearance. Couple that with a plot and execution could almost be a West End farce were it not for the amazing amounts of blood, and you have one very silly but strangely dark story.

Another thing that makes this story unusual is John’s usual narration is spoken directly to the reader as he looks out past the fourth wall. While this device works okay in the introduction where John establishes himself as “a right miserable bastard” as he rants about the idea of children being considered sacred (indeed, this bit is one of the best introductions to John as a character ever, in this author’s opinion), it is somewhat odd as the story goes on and John breaks character in order to make a dry comment directly to the readers – though this could be more a fault in the art than the script.

Regardless, this story was a bit like a trip to see your parents during the holidays – different and unsettling, but not altogether unpleasant.

Hellblazer #129 – Son of Man, Part One

Plot - Chas, last seen abandoning John in the middle of nowhere during How To Play With Fire, shows up on John’s doorstep demanding sanctuary and help ditching a car. Little does he know that his run in with the infamous Cooper Mob has reopened a can of worms that John Constantine had hoped to have closed forever.

Prominent People - First appearances of Detective Inspector McNab (a bent cop), Mr. Fronts (John’s deranged next-door neighbor), Billy (John’s downstairs neighbor, a WWII veteran) and Sylvia (John’s downstairs neighbor, a non-militant lesbian)

Hellblazer #130 – Son of Man, Part Two

Plot - As The Coopers hunt for Chas, John tells the story of how he ran afowl of The Coopers himself and the dark secret he’s been hoping to forget for over a decade.

Prominent People - First appearances of Harry Cooper (a crime-lord), Norman Cooper (Harry’s brother, a gangster and a gay man), Ronnie Cooper (a dead boy, son of Harry) and The *uckpig (a demonic manifestation of the act of rape made flesh). Cameos by Brendan Finn, Ric the Vic and Header in flashback. Also an appearance by the ghost of Sid Vicious.

John Screws Up - John spells it out for Chas in detail, but basically he summoned a demon to possess the dead body of Harry Cooper’s son Ronnie since bringing the dead back to life magically is impossible. Granting that this was the best thing he could think of at a time when he was a) not at his best due to having just been sprung from the asylum and b) under pressure with the lives of Gemma and Cheryl at risk if he didn’t do what the Coopers wanted, this still resulted in an uncontrollable demon eventually being released upon the world.

Hellblazer #131 – Son of Man, Part Three

Plot - As the Coopers continue to search for the people responsible for the hit on Norman, John begins investigating the plans of the demon living inside Ronnie Cooper.

Prominent People - First appearances of “Little Ronnie Cooper” (in the flesh as it were), Carol (John’s downstairs neighbor, Sylvia’s very militant lesbian partner), Fessenheim (a psychic grifter and friend of John’s) and Gestapo (a psychotic thug in the employ of The Coopers).

John Screws Up - We find out that John missed Gemma’s birthday, much to her annoyance.

Deaths - Rather a horrific scene as John is buried under a horde of dead babies.

Pub Trivia - Famous for being “the one where John shags a lesbian”.

Hellblazer #132 – Son of Man, Part Four

Plot - As all-out war erupts between the gangs of London, John nurses a black-eye and finds himself the unlikely savior of Norman Cooper.

Prominent People - Cameos of Ric the Vic, Brendan and Header.

John Screws Up - John tries to talk things out with a confused Sylvia only to get a black-eye for his trouble when Carol walks in on the two of them in her bedroom. Also, in flashback, we find out that John’s skimping on his research wound up resulting in his summoning a REALLY bad demon to stuff into Ronnie Cooper’s body back in the day.

Hellblazer #133 – Son of Man, Part Five

Plot - “Little Ronnie” unveils his plan to bring about the birth of a Satanic Messiah and it’s up to John to save the world, assuming he can save himself first.

Prominent People - Cameos of Ric the Vic, Brendan and Header.

Deaths - Norman Cooper is rather roughly sodomized to death by the *uckpig after it leaves its’ shell. Gestapo is similarly ripped apart. Inspector McNab blows his own brains out before the *uckpig can get its’ hands on him. And Harry Cooper dies shortly after giving birth to the Demonic Messiah, which John kills with a fireaxe. Chalk up 30 on the Death Tally for that last one.

Pub Trivia - This marks another one of the few occasions where we see John directly kill someone.

With the end of Son of Man, we come to the beginning of a brief but important part of the Hellblazer Chronology. This run would be cut short by creative differences between the writer and the editorial staff of Vertigo comics. Whether you agree with the reasons behind the argument or not, it cannot be denied that this run has proven popular despite its’ brevity.

The Warren Ellis Era

Hellblazer #134-143

More than any writer before him, Ellis came onto Hellblazer as a rising star who was expected to do big things. Already a big name at Vertigo thanks to his work on Transmetropolitan, he would launch the mature-readers series Planetary and The Authority at about this same time in early 1999.

Sadly, while these series would go on to become legendary and build Ellis a devout fanbase, it was not to be with Hellblazer. Ellis came to blows with Vertigo editorial over one storyline, the now infamous Shoot - a story about the motivations behind school shootings that came out shortly after the Columbine High School shootings in the United States.

While Vertigo originally intended to let the story run as Hellblazer #141, they eventually decided the story proved too “insensitive” (some would say victim-blaming) and they decided to err on the side of caution (some would say chicken-out) and not run the story.

The entire issue of Shoot is available for reading, script and finished pencils and I urge all of you to take a look at the story and decide for yourself.

Angered by what he saw as an act of censorship, Ellis resigned his position as the writer on Hellblazer and racked up a run that proved, despite its’ brevity, to be popular enough to warrant collection in two trade-paperbacks; Haunted and Setting Sun.

Hellblazer #134 – Haunted, Part One

Plot - After reading about the death of an old girlfriend in the paper, John begins investigating her mysterious, magic-themed death only to have her ghost appear before him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Isabel (one of John’s old girlfriends), Watford (a police officer who John is blackmailing), Sanjay (a shopkeeper, from whom John buys his silk cut), Clarice (an old sorceress) and Albert (a ghost, and one-time court magician to the Cray Twins)

Deaths - 31 on the death tally. Though he hasn’t seen Isabel in years, John blames himself for her death as he was responsible for getting her interested in magic, which no doubt brought her into contact with her killer.

John Screws Up - See above: John blames himself for Isabel’s death, though he won’t learn who her killer is until next issue.

Hellblazer #135 – Haunted, Part Two

Plot - John starts using his contacts to track down Alister Crowley wannabe Joshua Wright, only to have his men find him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Map (a magician with a unique bond to London), Dareen (a “crack magician” who uses drugs to do magic) and Sparrowfart (aka Hawkstorm, a pimp, electrician and amateur magician)

John Screws Up - John walks into a rather obvious trap at the end of this issue – meet me alone someplace dark and secluded and all that.

Hellblazer #136 – Haunted, Part Three

Plot - Beaten to near death by Joshua Wright’s thugs, John calls Chas for help and sets about getting his revenge on Sparrowfart, who he figured ratted him out.

Hellblazer #137 – Haunted, Part Four

Plot - Recovered from his beating, John starts calling in favors as Map kills two of Wright’s men who come for him.

Prominent People - First appearance of Haine (an old psychic)

Deaths - Josuha Wright kills Sparrowfart and a bloody if generic manner.

Hellblazer #138 – Haunted, Part Five

Plot - John pulls more and more favors together, as he gets ready to turn the tables on Joshua Wright.

Prominent People - First appearance of Joshua Wright (a dark magician and Isabel’s killer)

Hellblazer #139 – Haunted, Part Six

Plot - With Wright in police custody, John and Watford set about instituting a very special punishment for Joshua Wright.

Hellblazer #140 – Locked

Plot - Watford calls John in on a most unusual homicide case involving a room that inspires people to commit murder.

Hellblazer #141 – The Crib

Plot - John winds up on the doorstep of writer David Niles, who fears he has become possessed by a cursed box that holds the aborted corpse of the Anti-Christ.

Hellblazer #141A – Shoot (Unpublished Story)

Plot - John journeys to America to investigate the secret causes of school shooting and winds up telling the truth nobody wants to hear to an investigator working for the US Senate.

Hellblazer #142 –Setting Sun

Plot - John is called to the scene of a haunting and must put the ghost of a Japanese war criminal to rest.

Hellblazer #142 –One Last Love Song

Plot - Leaving the bar three sheets to the wind, John thinks of all his old girlfriends.

Prominent People - First appearances of Mandy (a drama student), Annabel (a colonel’s daughter), Tess (a girl John met in a club once ) and Keeley (a girl who apparently married up and became a vampire). Cameoes by Emma and Isabel.

Pub Trivia - For some odd reason, Kit and Dani don’t seem to be in the group of girlfriends at the end of the story.

Hellblazer #143 – Telling Tales

Plot - A general writer asks John Constantine to tell him of the secret history of London, including a famous maker of artificial phalluses, the Royal Family being aliens and how the Kennedy assassination really happened.

Pub Trivia - Most of John’s secret history is taken whole from the theories of conspiracy theorist David Icke, particularly the bits about the British Royal Family being lizard-like aliens.

Recommended Reading

Son of Man is a must read simply because it’s Garth Ennis writing the character who made his career. It’s not the best thing he ever wrote with John but it’s nowhere near bad.

Haunted is worth reading just to see the first appearances of some characters who would later be used to great effecter by Mike Carey. Otherwise, you can just skip anything else Warren Ellis wrote during this period without fear of missing anything important to the larger Hellblazer Epoch.

The Final Analysis

Many people wonder what might have been and what stories might have come down the pike later, had Warren Ellis stayed on Hellblazer. They wonder what Warren might have written had he kept going and had a 40 issue run, like Jenkins, Ennis or Jenkins. They consider Warren Ellis’ abrupt departure from Hellblazer to be a great loss.

To put it plainly, I am not one of these people. Indeed, I think Warren Ellis is perhaps the most overrated writer to ever work on Hellblazer.

This is not to say that I don’t like anything he has written. I just don’t believe that an extended Warren Ellis run would have been the new golden age of Hellblazer that all the fans were hoping for had he just been given more time.

One of Ellis’ biggest weaknesses as an author is a tendency to shout editorials through his characters. On a book like Transmetropolitan or anything with Ellis’ own characters, this can be done brilliantly. But the way he uses John in most of his one-shot stories is a bad fit to the character.

Most of Ellis’ one-shot stories are less about John Constantine as a man and more about John Constantine as a myth. While the idea of seeing John from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know that he is 90% bluff and bluster is an interesting one in theory, it just doesn’t seem to work in practice in the stories Locked and The Crib.

Haunted also suffers for being too long by half. The third part is about nothing – nothing but John waking up in the gutter, calling Chas, and threatening Sparrowfart. Even for the master of decompressed storytelling, this is a bit ridiculous. This story could easily have been told in four issues and seems to have been “written for the trade”, even though this book came out before “written for the trade” became a rule of thumb for most publishers.

And I’m going to take a stand here and say that it’s a damn good thing Vertigo decided NOT to publish Shoot. I’m firmly against censorship but this isn’t truly censorship. A publisher deciding not to publish something it doesn’t think will sell or otherwise be bad for business is just standard. And releasing this story so shortly after the Columbine Shootings WOULD have been salt in the wound to a lot of people – particularly since John’s conclusion about why school shootings happen is basically that American Kids are too stupid, cowardly and/or apathetic to fight back when their lives are in danger.

Quite honestly, ignoring all the controversy, Shoot isn’t that good of a story. And Warren Ellis’ Hellblazer run wasn’t all that great.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Hellblazer Episode Guide, Part Three

For those playing catch-up, here’s PART ONE and PART TWO

And just so we know what the score is, once again, here’s all the things we’ll keep track of as we go along. Just for laughs, eh?

Plot - What happens in the story worth noting, without giving away too much. Our job isn’t to tell you the story. It’s to help those who read the story keep track of the details. Go buy the comics and read them yourself, you lazy, cheap wankers!

Prominent People - Characters whom we see more than once. First appearances, mentions of reoccurring characters, anything on the hierarchy of Hell, real life figures drawn into the story and anyone else who deserves noting.

Deaths - Any deaths of prominent people or any particularly gory and interesting ways of dying. This is a horror book, after all. Also, a running tally of all the times John has directly been involved in a friend or family member’s death. Deaths of enemies, except where John directly murdered the person in question, are not counted. Instances where it is unclear if the person died (Talbot in Issue #22) or where they probably would have died with our without John showing up (i.e. Una in Issue #25) are not counted.

John Screws Up - This happens quite a bit, but anytime John is directly or indirectly responsible for some bad thing or another happening, we note it. We advise not making a drinking game of this for two reasons – first, you’ll get pissed very quickly and be unable to keep reading and second, because you might spill lager on your comics!

Pub Trivia - Anything else worth noting that doesn’t fit one of the other categories.

Simple enough, right? So let’s get down to it and discuss...

The (brief) Return of Jamie Delano and (too brief) Run of Eddie Campbell

Hellblazer #84-88

Issue #84 marked the start of what would become another tradition among Hellblazer writers – the brief return of an old writer to tell a new story. In this case, Delano explored one of the big unanswered questions regarding longtime Constantine companion Chas Chandler. We had heard John say several times, when Chas complained about John calling him yet again for a ride into some disaster area, that Chas owed him. Now we would learn the story of why.

This was followed by a four-issue mini-series by Eddie Campbell. Campbell was best known at the time for his work as an artist on From Hell with Alan Moore and was an accomplished writer/artist on his own self-published works. His one four-part story, Warped Notions, is a break-neck world-wide romp that, unusually for a Hellblazer story, seems to be require more issues than it was allowed.

Reportedly Vertigo editorial required numerous rewrites of the plot, which was more fantastic than horrific for their liking. Indeed, the story does feature some of the most overt use of magic and the supernatural of any John Constantine story ever and at times it feels more like an issue of The Invisibles than of Hellblazer. Despite this, I can’t help but like the story and wish Campbell might have been given a little more time to develop some of the ideas he was forced to deal with in brief here.

Hellblazer #84 – In Another Part of Hell

Plot - As John waits for Chas to return from the hospital with his daughter and first grandchild, he remembers how he and Chas met.

Prominent People - Bit of a family profile this. We get our first appearance of Chas’ wife Renee, Chas’ daughter Geraldine, Chas’ unnamed granddaughter, Chas’ mother Queenie Chandler and Queenie’s familiar, Stag.

Deaths - 21 and 22 on the dead tally. John strangles/drowns Stag and Queenie dies off camera due to her connection to Stag.

Pub Trivia - Though we have heard her shouting at Chas before in past issues, this is the first time we see Rene Chandler in the flesh.

Hellblazer #85 – The Delicate Power of Terror (Warped Notions, Part One)

Plot - While working on an exorcism for a friend, John is recruited into the latest incarnation of The Hellfire Club to stop the unraveling of reality.

Prominent People - First appearance of John’s friend Sam and her uncle Arthur. (Possible Bewitched reference?) The new Hellfire Club is led by the ghost of Sir Francis Dashwood – the real life founder of what came to be known as the Hellfire Club in England. We also get introduced to Murnarr, a cat demon and the “unfortunate Bona Dea” – an armless and eyeless woman, which seems quite fitting if she truly is the goddess of the positive divine aspects of women, given how badly the feminine divine has been abused in the world of Hellblazer.

Pub Trivia - This may just be me, but I think the possessed Uncle Arthur DOES look a bit like Paul Lynde. Can anyone get a hold of Sean Phillips to confirm this?

Hellblazer #86 – The Everything Virus (Warped Notions, Part Two)

Plot - Gone to America, John meets Ben Franklin and is abducted by The Church of Virtual Reality, who believe a virus unleashed by deforestation is responsible for destroying reality.

Prominent People - The ghost of Ben Franklin (a real life friend to the real-life Sir Francis Dashwood) makes an appearance. We also have the first (and last) appearance of several members of The Church of Virtual Reality.

Deaths - Murnarr kills all of the Church of Virtual Reality members who are holding John, just as they are letting him go.

Hellblazer #87 – The Shout (Warped Notions, Part Three)

Plot - An emergency landing in Australia gets John to start questioning exactly what is causing reality to go crazy.

Prominent People - First appearance of Jeffo, an Aboriginal shaman and The Rainbow Serpent (a major god of the Aboriginal faith)

Deaths - Murnarr is struck by lightning while in battle with The Rainbow Serpent

John Screws Up - John has a revelation here that Sir Dashwood is the cause of reality’s collapse and that John’s helping him has only been facilitating a plan that would allow Dashwood greater power over the world. Ironically, this comes about as he’s watching Murder She Wrote in a pub and jokes that Angela Lansbury’s character must be a serial killer, all the times she keeps winding up at murder scenes.

Hellblazer #88 – Mountains of Madness (Warped Notions, Part Four)

Plot - John ventures into the rainforest, looking for a remote place to confront Sir Francis Dashwood.

Prominent People - First appearance of Delvene, an Aussie ship captain.

And now that that brief digression is out of the way, let us move on to the next major author to write a substantial portion of the Hellblazer mythology. I speak of the Yorkshire-born writer/editor for Mirage Comics (yes, the Ninja Turtle guys) and all around loveable guy, Paul Jenkins.

The Paul Jenkins Era

Hellblazer #89-128

If Ennis had a tough time of it following Delano, than Jenkins had the toughest start of any Hellblazer writer to date. Like Ennis, he was an unknown and unproven writer in the American comic book arena. But unlike Ennis, Jenkins had the misfortune to follow after not one but three acclaimed writers. Despite the misgivings some had over Campbell’s brief Hellblazer run, he was still respected for his work on From Hell. Delano’s recent turn with #84 had shown new and old fans alike how it all got started. And Ennis had just recently started a new series, Preacher with frequent Hellblazer artist Steve Dillon that was won acclaim and attention from the very first issue.

Faced with such a legacy and pedigree behind him, Jenkins started his run the only way he could – by building on what had come before. His run would start with a tale using the characters from Campbell’s brief run as John had one more adventure in Australia. Later, he would take the book back to its’ Delano roots by doing more stories based on the unique mythology of England than the more Judeo-Christian themes explored by Ennis. But like Ennis, Jenkins would expand upon John’s past, introducing thus far unseen members of John’s wide circle of friends while utilizing some of the few members of Ennis’ cast that still lived.

Hellblazer #89 – Dreamtime

Plot - John learns from Jeffo that the Rainbow Serpent is planning to bring about the end of the world for “the white men” – unless he can con his way into saving a sacred site from land developers.

Prominent People - First appearance of Kate Grimshaw (a racist Aussie land-owner and right nasty cow)

Hellblazer #90 – Dangerous Ground

Plot - John comes face to face with The Rainbow Serpent and cuts a deal to save the white man and let the Serpent save face before her followers.

Prominent People - JFK’s face appears in a mural of Dreamtime images.

Deaths - A very cool scene here as Kate Grimshaw and her thugs are eaten by the Rainbow Serpent. Or an Earthquake, depending on your viewpoint.

Hellblazer #91 – Riding The Green Lanes

Plot - John runs into some old friends and goes to a punk gathering where a battle with police mixes with a ghostly memory of the War of the Roses. And John puts to rest the spirit of an old friend who disappeared while trying to fly on his bike.

Prominent People - First appearance of Rich The Punk (an old friend from John’s punk-rocker days), Michelle (Rich’s green-haired wife) Syder (Rich and Michelle’s son), Deanie (an old friend of John’s who loved bike-riding) and Muppet (a right nasty man with nasty habits)

Deaths - Quite a few bloody soldiers as the war goes on. John helps Dean to pass-on to the other side.

Pub Trivia - Rich’s nickname for John is “Conjob”. Rich is also reportedly based on Paul Jenkins’ brother. This issue is also somewhat famous as “The one with the ET parody cover”.

Hellblazer #92 – Bait (Critical Mass, Part One)

Plot - As John tries to enjoy a peaceful weekend of ghost-hunting, plans are put in motion to bring The First of the Fallen back to power.

Prominent People - First appearance of Buer (once a contemporary of Aleister Crowley, now a masochist demon lord in love with The First of the Fallen, who sees to all the children trapped in Hell). There’s also a flashback where we see most of John’s friends involved in the Newcastle incident.

John Screws Up - Really, the blame could fall on Rich and Michelle for not doing their job as parents and watching their child themselves, but if John had been watching Syder instead of watching his friends play, Buer would never have gotten a hold of Syder.

Pub Trivia - We find out the First of the Fallen didn’t die at the end of “Rake at the Gates of Hell” but was instead rendered mortal and that to rule Hell once again, he must win the soul of “the one most hated” (i.e. John Constantine). Also, we learn that John’s demon blood bubbles at the presence of true evil in the air, giving him a sort of proximity alarm of bad things coming.

Hellblazer #93 – Troubled Waters (Critical Mass, Part Two)

Plot - Faced with the ultimatum of giving up his soul or allowing Syder to become a plaything of Hell, John goes looking for an answer in the mystic town of Abaton.

Prominent People - First appearance (in this series anyway) of Jack of the Green – a plant elemental, like Swamp Thing, who is mystically bound to the green lands of England. Also the first appearance of Robert the Smith (aka Robin Hood) and Maewren, a seductress fae. Astra, or a vision of her, appears briefly being tortured by Buer.

John Screws Up - Because John has a demon’s blood, he is considered, by the laws of Hell, to be at least a demon on paper and responsible for the debts of the demon whose blood he shares. It is through this loophole that Buer is able to take possession of Syder. In short, it’s all John’s fault.

Hellblazer #94 – The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Critical Mass, Part Three)

Plot - Finding he is doomed to Hell and haunted by visions of children suffering, John considers his bleak plight only to get some unexpected help from... a stranger.

Prominent People - Cameo appearance by The Phantom Stranger, who is amazingly eager to help John given his treatment back in Hellblazer #63. Reference is also made to “The Dream Lord” (aka Morpheus) who allows The Phantom Stranger to visit John in his dreams.

Hellblazer #95 – Coming Up For Air (Critical Mass, Part Four)

Plot - Inspired by a wrong number, John heads to Scotland in search of a legend. But is it inspiration? Or have the visions of children in Hell finally destroyed John’s mind along with his quickly rotting body?

Prominent People - Alister Crowley, an infamous real life magician of referred to appears in the flesh for the first time – apparently alive and well and hiding in a series of magic circles on a lake shore in Scotland for about 40 years. Also, the first appearance of what will become The Demonic John Constantine.

Hellblazer #96 – Hook, Line and Sinker (Critical Mass, Part Five)

Plot - With the soula of Syder and every child doomed to Hell in the balance, including Astra whom he was responsible for damning 15 years before, John pulls the ultimate con on Hell once again. But will there be a happy ending for John even if he can save the children?

Deaths - The First of the Fallen claims Buer’s soul along with The Demon John Constantine. Cameo appearance by John’s succubus friend Ellie.

John Screws Up - John almost pulls off a total victory. He saves Astra from Hell, along with every other child ever condemned to damnation. He gets rid of all the bad parts of his own soul, allowing the darker part of himself to ascend to demonhood in Hell. And he puts the screws to Buer but good by fulfilling the letter of the law if not the spirit (i.e. John’s sins plus his love for Kit grafted onto Alister Crowley’s soul) and bringing the First of the Fallen back but leaving him unable to get to the sweet spots of John Constantine – the only bits of the soul worth having for a demon. Yes, it works pretty well... except the Ellie, who saved John’s arse in “Rake at the Gates of Hell” now has the Devil tearing Hell apart looking for the one who helped John Constantine defeat him. John says it best – “I’ve given myself a chance at a better life – a fresh start with no complications and unnecessary baggage. Two hours in and already I’ve started to bugger it up...”

Hellblazer #97 – The Nature of the Beast

Plot - A chance walk into the woods at night leads John to a most unusual Tarot reading from a most unusual teller.

Prominent People - First appearance of Tom the Gypsy Shepherd (aka the Judeo-Christian God Almighty)

John Screws Up - Though John is attempting a fresh start in life, we get our first foreshadowing here that John is going to, sooner or later, return to his usual wicked ways.

Pub Trivia - The Tarot reading John receives is a basic past-present-future reading that results in The Fox (trickery and deceit), The Butterfly (change and choice) and The Fox.

Hellblazer #98 – Walking the Dog

Plot - John is called in to rid a friend’s flat of the angry spirit of an abused dog.

Prominent People - First appearance of Staff (a huge epileptic man and old friend of John’s), Betty (Straff’s equally epileptic mother) and Lofty (Muppet’s best friend)

Hellblazer #99 – Punkin’ Up The Great Outdoors

Plot - John plans a day trip to Abaton, only to have things go horribly wrong for two of his friends.

Prominent People - First appearance of Terry and Sadie, two more of John’s friends from his punk days.

Deaths - 23 and 24 on the Death Tally. Because of their breaking the rules of Abaton, reality shifts so that Terry and Sadie – once a happy couple and happier in Abaton where their spirits were free of their troubled life – are less happy. Terry is left drugged out of his gourd, his mind truly in Abaton most of the time and Sadie, denied the same bliss, drowns herself.

John Screws Up - If John had never taken his friends to Abaton, Sadie and Terry might have survived in their slightly less miserable state.

Hellblazer #100 –

Plot - Knocked into a coma as his wicked lifestyle plays havoc on his newly purified body, John’s soul is taken on a tour of a remodeled Hell and to a meeting with his dear damned father.

Prominent People - Thomas Constantine, John’s father, makes an appearance here. He’s been damned to Hell by the hatred of his own son and for causing the death of his wife.

Deaths - It is revealed that Thomas Constantine was responsible for his wife’s death, having forced her to have an abortion while she was pregnant with John. His punishment for this in Hell is to be strung up by a string of wire coat-hangers.

Pub Trivia - The details of John’s birth here seem to contradict those shown during issues #39-40 with nothing being said of “The Golden Boy” (aka John’s healthier twin), suggesting that either John and The Golden Boy both had flawed visions of their respective births based on Thomas’ lies to them OR that when they were reborn in #40 reality was rewritten so there had only ever been one John Constantine in both realities, who wasn’t born in a hospital.

Hellblazer #101 – Football: It's a Funny Old Game

Plot - John is dragged out of his sick bed to go to what promises to be a relaxing English soccer game. At least until the demonic manifestation of football hooliganism shows up.

Prominent People - First appearance of The Football Hooligan Demon (FHD).

Deaths - 25 on the death tally. John picks a random hooligan causing trouble to satisfy the blood lust of The FHD

John Screws Up - John is forced to pick a random stranger so that the FHDwill be appeased and not start a riot.

Hellblazer #102 – The Single Sided Coin (Difficult Beginnings, Part One)

Plot - Feeling bored with life, John starts looking for answers – only to find that he must regain his dark side or be destroyed.

Prominent People - First appearance of Wong- a Chinese restaurant manager and I-Ching reader. First appearance of Mr. Dalton-Brewer, the evil doctor in charge of John’s care in Ravenscar.

John Screws Up - We find out here that in pulling the con he did in Critical Mass, John has screwed up his internal balance. There is no Yang to his Yin any more.

Pub Trivia - John is told by his I Ching reading that to find his balance again he must take a journey to become whole. The places he must go are The Earth (i.e. the forest in #98) A Place of Thunder (Ravenscar Asylum, where he goes at the end of this issue), A Place of Water – and then he will go either to The Mountain (for balance) or The Fire (for a darkening of the light).

Hellblazer #103 – The Trouble With Worms (Difficult Beginnings, Part Two)

Plot - John rides the Synchronicity Highway looking for his place of water, only to uncover the terrible secret of the most evil man in Britain.

Prominent People - First appearance of Trevor Pritchard, a grandfather and bait-salesman whose faked serial killer confession wound up delaying the police investigation of The Yorkshire Slasher, allowing the killer to claim another victim before being caught. We also see the first appearance of The Demon Constantine, as a demon.

Hellblazer #104 – The Darkening of the Light (Difficult Beginnings, Part Three)

Plot - With his bad self refusing to rejoin him, John’s only hope at regaining a dark-side lies in screwing an old friend. Literally.

Prominent People - Cameo appearances by Ellie, Alister Crowley (as the soul at the core of the Demon John being tortured) and The First of the Fallen.

John Screws Up - We find out here that when John created the sigil that protected Ellie from The First of The Fallen (way back in #61), he put some of his blood into the mix. What this means is that when John dies, the sigil loses its’ power. While this does keep Ellie from killing John after he uses her (sex with a succubus being as corrupting a force as any), this will have dire consequences for John later in the Jenkins’ run.

Hellblazer #105 – A Taste of Heaven

Plot - John and Rich take a job as landscapers and John is told a tale of his ancestor, James Constantine.

Prominent People - First appearance of John’s 17th century ancestor, the magus/con-man James Constantine. Cameo by Kubla Khan author Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Pub Trivia - We find out in this story that John’s ancestor was the infamous “Person from Porlock” who interrupted Coleridge as he was writing Kubla Khan.

Hellblazer #106 – In The Line of Fire, Part One

Plot - John investigates a house that doesn’t exist and the ghost of a man who killed himself after he lost the girl he gave his all for.

Prominent People - First appearance of Jack Loudfoot (ghost of a WWII soldier at Dunkirk), Ellen (aka Nellie – Jack’s fiancé) and Bill Greenwood (friend of John and Nellie’s eventual husband)

Hellblazer #107 – In The Line of Fire, Part Two

Plot - John tries to put the ghost of Jack Loudfoot to rest, if not at peace.

Prominent People - First appearance of Weeble – a medium friend of John’s.

Hellblazer #108 – Days of Wine and Roses

Plot - John scores an invite to a high-society orgy with blackmail on his mind. Little does he realize that his fake fertility rite will have dire consequences.

Prominent People - First appearance of The Mendw, “the he and she of wine and flower”- nature spirits connected to The Green that seem similar to the Bacchae of Greek Myth.

Deaths - 26 on the dead tally. John’s summoning kills Jason Carpenter, a total bastard of a man, is ripped apart by The Mendw after trying to rape his own daughter.

John Screws Up - John’s summoning gets a man killed though it is no small loss given the man.

Hellblazer #109 – The Wild Hunt

Plot - John is dragged to the country to investigate a series of sheep killings, finding a werewolf and a sign of bad things coming.

Prominent People - First appearance of Chas’ Uncle Wilf, a shepherd and Phil, Chas’ cousin. More importantly, the first appearance of Danita “Dani” Wright – an American tabloid reporter and eventually JC love interest.

Deaths - While not really a death per say, Phil gets infected by lycanthropy and is forced to join with a tribe of werewolves leaving John to explain his disappearance to Phil’s parents and Chas.

Pub Trivia - This marks the moment John finds out that spirits, fairies and werewolves are, for some reason, being forced back into a world that no longer has room for them and it’s up to him to fix it.

Hellblazer #110 – A Different Kind of Tension (Last Man Standing, Part One of Five)

Plot - John’s found happiness in a new relationship, so the end of it all must be near. Signs and portents fortel the death of England as a Mr. Meardon plots to pave the last sacred sites of England and King Arthur’s knights rise up to search for their lost lord.

Prominent People - First appearances of Arthur’s last knights (Owain, Sgilti, Afagddu and Sandda) as well as Mr. Meardon (aka Merlin)

Pub Trivia - In this issue, John and Dani officially become a couple. And John is formally asked to be Godfather to Rich and Michelle’s new baby. Also, Sir Francis Drake’s drum beating itself and the ravens fleeing the Tower of London are true legendary portents of bad times falling upon England.

Hellblazer #111 – No More Heroes (Last Man Standing, Part Two of Five)

Plot - John learns of Merlin’s plot and that he must find the one true heir to Arthur’s throne to save England. Good news is he finds him easily. Bad news is it’s Rich the Punk.

Prominent People - First appearance of Dez, a computer-geek friend of John’s. (No relation to the now-dead Dez of the Ennis run, obviously)

Deaths - 27 on the death tally. Dez is killed as soon as he is introduced, to prove to John that Merlin can get at any of his friends at anytime. Merlin’s men kill the knights pretty easily but it is, we are reassured, not permanent given the blessing the knights have.

Hellblazer #112 – Human Punk (Last Man Standing, Part Three of Five)

Plot - Stoned out of his gourd, Rich is sent on a spiritual journey to reclaim the casket that Merlin seeks, as John stands buy waiting for an answer.

Prominent People - First appearance of Bran the Blessed (a severed head). Cameo appearance by Geoffrey Chaucer – author of The Canterbury Tales.

Pub Trivia - Bran the Blessed bears more than a striking resemblance to actor Brian Blessed.

Hellblazer #113 – You’re Just A... (Last Man Standing, Part Four of Five)

Plot - John tries to scare his friends off with the truth and a most horrific meal. But Merlin’s plans are easily adaptable and while John may have averted disaster for England, his friends may pay the price regardless.

Deaths - 28 on the death tally, though we don’t find out until next issue. John stews Bran the Blessed’s head so that the knowledge he safeguarded will be spread about all of John’s friends.

Hellblazer #114 – No One Is Innocent (Last Man Standing, Part Five of Five)

Plot - With all his friends’ on the line, John lets Merlin in on his master-plan and King Arthur returns in the flesh to explain all.

Prominent People - King Arthur, seen before in John’s visions, makes his first true appearance.

John Screws Up - John pulls a total bastard maneuver, breaking up with Dani and saying she’ll never see him again only to show up on her doorstep saying he’s changed his mind.

Hellblazer #115 – In The Red Corner

Plot - When Dani’s abusive ex-boyfriend makes a move on her, John sets about revenge as only he can.

Prominent People - First appearance of Lady Jamma (a voodoo priestess) and Greg, Dani’s ex.

Hellblazer #116 – Windershins, Part One

Plot - John and Rich’s gang join in to help a friend move, as the ghosts of a local cemetery suddenly become restless.

Prominent People - First appearance of Solobodan (a Serbian immigrant and ex-soldier) and his daughter.

Hellblazer #117 – Windershins, Part Two

Plot - The cause of supernatural unrest proves to have a most mundane cause. And for once, John is able to fix the signs of the problem.

Prominent People - Cameo appearance by Sir Francis Bacon in flashback.

Hellblazer #118 – Life and Death and Taxis

Plot - John winds up leading two hurried trips to the hospital as Michelle goes into labor and Straff’s mother has a heart attack.

Prominent People - First appearance of Ivy Mae (Rich and Michelle's baby daughter)

Deaths - Betty, Straff’s mother, dies in the hospital at the same time Ivy Mae is born.

Hellblazer #119 – Undertow

Plot - While trying to replace Dani’s dead goldfish, John is suddenly hit by a psychic vision of the spirit of disaster infecting a small airplane above him.

Hellblazer #120 – Desperately Seeking Something

Plot - An exercise in meta-fiction, John, self-aware that he is a fictional character for one story, takes the reader on a personal journey into his world.

Prominent People - First appearances of Archie Fein (who runs a magic shop), Tony (a friend who does a miracle healing scam) and Chas’s Uncle Dave, a ventriloquist who once helped Chas play a joke on the too serious John. As for reoccurring characters, Chripes, who DOESN’T reappear in this issue? Among the confirmed real-life living folks represented are John Constantine writers Alan Moore (in silhouette), Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano and Paul Jenkins (aka Rich’s little brother) – Hellblazer artists Will Simpson and Sean Phillips. – Hellblazer editors Lou Stathis, Stuart Moore and Axel Alonso. Jack of the Green and King Arthur appear and Death of the Endless makes an appearance as the bartender in the bar hosting the Ghostly Horde of those killed because of their connections to Constantine. This includes Gary Lester, Ray Monde, Ric the Vic, Header, Astra, Thomas Constantine, Nigel Archer, Brendan Finn, Kate Grimshaw, Sister Ann Marie and Frank North.

John Screws Up - John botches the containment of the demon he wishes to show the reader.

Pub Trivia - Despite having been freed to Heaven or having died in a manner unrelated to John’s dealings, Astra and Brendan Finn are seen with the ghostly horde. This seems to lend credence to the theory that the ghosts are just figments of John’s guilt-ridden imagination. Problem with that theory is, when we see them in this issue, John is nowhere in sight. Perhaps they get a day-pass from Heaven to haunt John out of sympathy for the friends John was responsible for leading astray. The reader is also offered a bribe by John for keeping his darkest secret – he makes dollhouse furniture as a hobby.

Hellblazer #121 – Up the Down Staircase, Part One

Plot - John travels to American to meet Dani’s family, only to bring a certain unwanted someone along with him. Meanwhile, Gavin, an old associate of Constantine contemplates suicide over the death of his girlfriend, Pam.

Prominent People - First appearance of Dani’s family, including her grandfather, mother Mary, uncle Fred, cousin Terrel, Terrel’s wife “The Zombie” and Dani’s brothers Kyle, Ethan and Eldrick. Also the first appearance of Gavin and Pam.

Hellblazer #122 – Up the Down Staircase, Part Two

Plot - Pam returns to Gavin, hole in her head and all. Meanwhile, The First of the Fallen taunts John with how the consumerist American lifestyle is bringing the whole nation over to the side of the devils as John must ask himself one question to stop it; what is a quiz?

Prominent People - First appearance of Lenny (a hypnotist con-artist) and George (a Vietnam Vet)

Hellblazer #123 – Up the Down Staircase, Part Three

Plot - Pam tells Gavin that John Constantine was to blame for her death, not him. Meanwhile, tensions mount in the Wright family household as John struggles to find out what a quiz is and turns to the unlikely George for an answer.

Hellblazer #124 – Up the Down Staircase, Part Four

Plot - John gets Weeble and Lenny to help him with freeing Dani’s family of the greed and consumerism that threatens to destroy them. Meanwhile, Gavin – spurred on by what he thinks is the ghost of Pam – sets about destroying John Constantine.

Hellblazer #125 – Blowing on the Embers (How To Play With Fire, Part One)

Plot - Gavin and “Pam” put their plans into motion as Muppet is injured in a car wreck and The Demon Beur is summoned to goad Lofty into wrath against John Constantine. Slobodan is forced to relive the nightmares of his time in war, while being told John is the one responsible. Finally, Jack of the Green is forced to remove Abaton from the mortal world, due to Muppet’s injury releasing the power within him. And “Pam” reveals herself to be Ellie.

John Screws Up - While John’s actions in Last Man Standing helped to stop Merlin at the time (i.e. take the poison meant to destroy all the immortals on Earth), here they lead to the accidental poisoning of the fairy realm of Abaton when Muppet is injured. Also, it is worth noting again that had John been straight with Ellie about why he needed to sleep with her before, he might well have avoided spurring her to revenge.

Hellblazer #126 – Fanning the Flames (How To Play With Fire, Part Two)

Plot - Ellie’s plans continue to unfold, as Bauer bargains with Crowley to remove Weeble from the picture and end his own personal torments. Straf becomes lost in his own torments and the Masters family become haunted by images of Thomas Constantine’s torture in Hell. John finds out the Demon Constantine is now suffering the full pain of Hell, with Crowley having won his freedom. And Ellie breaks up John’s relationship with Dani, after framing him for cheating on her.

Hellblazer #127 – Burning Down The House (How To Play With Fire, Part Three)

Plot - Faced with no other options before him, John sells his soul to The First of the Fallen to save his friends and then goes to God for some answers.

Deaths - 29 on the Death Tally. Ellie may not be technically alive, but John does set about making her eternal state of existence awfully unpleasant.

Hellblazer #128 – Sifting Through the Ashes (How To Play With Fire, Part Four)

Plot - John has a chat with God and tries to bargain his soul back with the threat of his taking over Hell.

Prominent People - Triskele, Wyrm Queen of the Succubae makes an appearance torturing Ellie. Beur is also back in Hell, being tormented by The First of the Fallen AND The Demon Constantine.

John Screws Up - John says it himself as he reflects on how he saved his friends, but can’t ever see most of them again. “In the end, it didn’t work out too terribly. Really. I mean, nobody got hurt too badly. Nothing that can’t be fixed, given enough time. Nobody died. Except me.”

Recommended Reading

All of Jenkins’ multi-part stories are worth checking out, in my humble opinion. Critical Mass compares quite well to Ennis’ first ‘John Outsmarts Hell’ tale Dangerous Habits and How To Play With Fire is every bit the equal of Rake At The Gates of Hell as far as conclusions go. Indeed, I actually find Up The Down Staircase to be a superior Brit criticism of American culture than Ennis’ Damnation’s Flame.

Some of the single-issue stories are hit-and-miss, but not particularly bad if just not as epic as one expects from a Hellblazer story. Windershins is perhaps the most most anti-climactic Hellblazer story ever, as John stops a supernatural invasion by turning a directional sign around.

Issues #100 and #120 however, should be required reading for any fan of the character and indeed, should be collected in a TP edition along with other brief stories of note.

The Final Analysis

Most Hellblazer writers can have their vision of John Constantine divided into one of two camps – Good-Hearted Fool or Total Bastard. Jenkins’ John Constantine is easily one of the former. And this is why I believe many fans late to Hellblazer eschew the Jenkins run.

Many of these fans, coming to the book from the fandom of the other works of Ennis, Ellis or Azzarello do not want to read about a John Constantine who has any emotions apart from guilt and contempt. They do not want John to have any motivations for what he does other than self-preservation and the curiosity of a child poking a chained dog with a stick. And then certainly don’t want John to contemplate, however briefly, the idea of settling down and trying to have as normal a life as possible. Perhaps this is why Jenkins’ work continues to be the only major part of the series not collected in trade-paperback form?

Or perhaps it is simple marketing - all the other major authors on Hellblazer, who had their works made into TP format wrote acclaimed works for Vertigo and Wildstorm Comics. Perhaps their stories were traded only to take more money out of the fans of 100 Bullets, Preacher and The Authority?

Or perhaps it is simple politics and the fact that after his Hellblazer run, Jenkins was signed on by Marvel and went on to become a popular writer on Spider-Man?

Whatever the case, the fact that such pivotal stories as Critical Mass and How To Play With Fire go uncollected while rather lackluster stories like Freezes Over are put into TP format is nothing less than criminal.

This is not to say that Jenkins’ run was entirely flawless. But I do not believe it is all as bad as its’ critics claim. Their main beef with Jenkins’ work seems to be that it is not Garth Ennis’s Hellblazer.

Some claim that Jenkins work is too derivative of Ennis’ while lacking the stomach to be as gruesome. While it is fair to say that Jenkins did borrow a lot of characters and concepts from Ennis’ work (and indeed, Delano’s run), I believe it was more to continue a legacy than to steal from the ghosts of the past - to stand on the shoulders of giants to see further, as Sir Issac Newton once said.

As for the charges that Jenkins was never gruesome, I don’t recall Ennis’ John Constantine tricking his friends into committing cannibalism. But then again, my sense of gruesome extends past vomiting blood and gaping wounds.

As for the supporting cast, while it is true that Rich, Michelle, Dani and company were not quite as colorful as Brendan, Ric the Vic and Header, they were never meant to be. Jenkins run introduced a sort of mid-life crisis to John – something he had never truly had despite his worries about growing older in the Ennis run – hence the more low-key and domestic characters to show John another path taken by the people he once lived the wild life with.

I think perhaps the problem is that Jenkins made these characters too complex compared to the rather broad supporting cast Ennis and Delano favored. Great as all these characters are, it took a lot more time to set up family-man punk Rich than it did to set up the stereotypes of Ennis’ hard-drinking Irish magician Brendan or Delano’s Rastafarian hippie Errol. To the mind of many fans, this difference was bad, though Jenkins is now celebrated for his ability to create such nuanced supporting characters.

The one bit of criticism I do agree with is that Dani was a rather poor choice for a Constantine love-interest. She was a good character but she was no Kit Ryan and her whirlwind courtship with John was too much, too fast compared to the slow courtship Kit and John had under Ennis. But given the trauma that John had come though, his falling for a more openly loving, more “normal” woman made an odd sort of sense for a rebound relationship.

In conclusion, Jenkins run is the buried treasure of the Hellblazer series. It may not shine as bright as the golden age of Garth Ennis. But it shines like sterling silver, nevertheless.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Wizard World Texas 2006

Okay. Still no part three on the Hellblazer Episode Guide.

Mind you, there is a good reason for this.

Somehow in all the hustle and bustle of Halloween, a rush of unexpected job interviews and all the work I was doing on The Hellblazer Episode Guide, I somehow forgot that Wizard World Texas was happening this past weekend.

Funny how these little things just slip your mind when you’re busy, eh?

Actually, I know exactly why it slipped my mind. Despite being possibly the biggest convention in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I have only ever been to Wizard World once- the very first year it was held.

The second year I had planned on attending but my manager at the time quit the day before the convention. This left me as the only person capable of opening and closing the store that weekend. Not only did I have to miss the convention – I also had to work the open to close shift for four days in a row.

The third year, I was in little mood to make merry in a geeky fashion. My friend Sam had died the week before. And not even the presence of Summer Glau of Firefly fame was enough to take me out of my funk.

I confess I was somewhat worried about this year. Not because I was afraid of being unable to attend but because there didn’t seem to be much worth getting excited about this year. The first Wizard World Texas – oh that was the stuff of legends. Paul Dini, Kurt Busiek, Paul Jenkins, George Perez and Kevin Smith – all great writers and all among my favorites.

This year, there were only two major professionals I cared much about meeting. One was Ed Brubaker, whom I place at the top of the short list of the people at Marvel who are doing anything worth reading these days. The other was George Perez whom I spent a pleasant half-hour chatting with three years ago at Wizard World Texas. I’ve gone to conventions for less, but given how Wizard World has a reputation for being as huge as it is the idea of going to Wizard World for just two guests was anathema to me.

Well, let me let you kids in on a little secret. Often times, all the fun in a convention is there for the making. It isn’t about what pros you meet or what swag you buy or what exclusive Uber-Kewl Limited Edition Promethium Sketch Cover of Ultimate Redundancy #1/2 you get just for walking in the door. It’s about the people you meet and the experiences you share with your fellow fans.

With that in mind, let me tell you the tale – with photographic accompaniment where appropriate – of the places I’ve been and the people I met. And how this column wound up being about something more than a list of Top Ten Things To Do At Wizard World When You Are Broke.

I arrived at the Arlington Convention Center an hour early and lined up for entry into the grand hall. Good news! George Perez, ready to meet and greet his public, worked his way down the line before the doors officially opened. I already had a few comics autographed by him the last time I was at Wizard World but I still got him to sign my program.

I ran into George again later that day at the booth for The HERO Initative (AKA The charity formerly known as ACTOR) where he was doing sketches. The price was a bit rich for a librarians’ salary but it was still heartening to see so many fans supporting the cause and getting nice Starfire sketches in the bargain.

A rare sight: critic and artist, together and at peace.

Of course even on a librarians’ salary, there is much fun to be had in looking at the plunder you cannot afford. One such place for such plunder is Vividvision - makers of many cool toys and collectible holographic prints. I’m not much a die hard Trekker or Trekkie or – whatever name the folks who love Star Wars have, but those who are will doubtlessly find some colorful wall decorations here.

Oooooh... shiny!

And speaking of decoration, I caught the beauty below as I was walking past the booth for The International Fight League. You may wonder, as I did then, why such a thing would be appearing at what is mostly a comic convention. Well, riddle me this - what else does Gareb Shamus run besides Wizard Magazine?

No, she isn’t one of the fighters. I checked.

I wondered even more why, when I asked about said business, they told me about a fitness training camp they offered as well as their shows. I know I have the look of a hardened criminal but I’m much more at home with a sword or a longbow than my bare fists. Shame that ‘romantic highwayman’ is not a viable occupation these days.

What is a viable occupation is "peddler of Heroclix" – a role I briefly assumed this week after discovering Strikezone Online. If you have a bunch of old cards or game-pieces to clear out of your closet or are looking for that one special card, they are by far the best dealer that I have ever dealt with. Not only did I make an amount of money considerable enough to not worry about my sundry expenses at the convention – I made enough to pay rent!

This may, I believe, make me the first person in recorded history to ever walk out of a comic book convention with more money than he started with.

La pièce de Danger Dans la miniature

Now that I had money, I decided to set about sharing my wealth. I first decided to pick up a little something for my girlfriend. Christmas and her birthday are coming up swiftly, after all.

Oddly enough, my girlfriend does read my column so I can’t go into any great detail about exactly what I got her. But I will say this much. If you have a need for a graphic designer and illustrator capable of working miracles under unusual conditions, I can think of no one artist I could recommend more than Mr. David K. Wong.

Wong At Work

And while I was wandering about the Artist’s Alley, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was someone I was a fan of, whose name I did not hear advertised in connection to the Con. Jennie Breeden – author and artist of The Devil’s Panties.

I’ll say briefly that the comic (which, her flyers point out, is not Satanic Porn) is one of the most witty, honest and damn funny things out on the Internet. I’ll go into more detail in an upcoming column once I clear my plate. Who knows? I might even be able to get Ms. Breeden to honor us with an interview.

Deceptively innocent-looking, isn’t she?

And with all this talk of porn, I should perhaps mention that the Suicide Girls did NOT grant me permission to take pictures of them for this article. Those who wish to see such pictures are advised to go to Google as I would like to maintain the illusion of being a wholesome family entertainer for a while longer and not directly link to a most adult website.

This is the best you’re going to get from me.

The lovely lady above is Katherine – an employee with Anime Pavilion - a most excellent Anime shop, though I think their place at the convention would be more accurately termed a pergola than a pavilion. I think pavilions have awnings. Perhaps they have one back home in Virginia? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that apart from myself, Katherine was one of the few people I saw who bothered dressing up in a festive manner for Wizard World.

Sadly, that is all of the pictures I got of Wizard World. I had the misfortune to have all my batteries die twice. And even the batteries the kindly gentleman with the deadlocks and his friend with the camera gave me wore out all too soon. So let me conclude with a list of people to whom I owe my thanks and offer a thumbs up for a most unconventional convention.

Horrorwood - Not to be confused with Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood but just as cool. This is a suspenseful tale of Cold War era terror in the Hollywood studio system. Not a book for the kiddies, in other words.

Ape Comics - publishers of Horrorwood and many other fine quality comics.

The Hero Foundry - a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the youth of today through tales of heroism and the donation of comic-books to schools and libraries. A worthy cause I would support, even if I weren’t a librarian and a comic-book reader myself.

Jester Press - Publishers of the excellent horror title Night.

Coastline Comics - They provided me with the perfect book with which to explain to a young artist "Who is Black Canary?"

Cenikor - a local DFW charity devoted towards helping drug addicts fight their addictions, their booth was perhaps the most unusual one I found at Wizard World. Still, anything to help a worthy cause.

Big World Comics - a wonderful local comics and figures store, even if they didn’t have the Jack Knight figure and statue I was looking for.

Krazy Comix - another large dealer in comics collectibles, who told me of how it was near impossible to find the Jack Knight figure and statue that I am looking for.

Comics and Hobby Connection - this home-business offered friendly service, a fine selection and to track down the Jack Knight figure and statue I’m looking for.

Caricatures Etc - run by local artist, fixture of the DFW Con-scene and triple-threat “Myk” Friedman, this is yet another wonderful place to get custom artwork that is inexpensive but never cheap.

koops comics - a dealer in classic old comics who made me a great deal on an old Conan book as well as one of the few people who recognized my Jack Knight costume, Koop is a scholar and a gentleman. He even let me have a large Target bag to carry off some of my goods when my backpack proved too small for the task!


Everyone mentioned above, obviously.

Ed Brubaker, with whom I talked about Hellblazer and a story that never was.

Steve Epting, who was quite nice about signing my program and not doing a skech.

All the staff and volunteers of Wizard World Texas 2006.

All the staff of the Arlington Texas Convention Center

All the people at the Wizard Trivia Contest, who gave my library two new Manga.

All the kids who wanted to look at my Heroclix. There is hope for us all, yet.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Dallas Comic Con 2006

We’re gonna take a brief break from the Hellblazer for a week, kids. It’s convention season in Texas and your dear Unca Starman just got back from a good one. In fact, I dare say – with Wizard World two weeks away – that this Con will be the best one I attended all year that was geared toward American comics.

The Dallas ComicCon harkens back to a simpler time – a time when a Comic Convention were mostly about comics. Now don’t get me wrong – I love the big conventions like Wizard World and AKON where you get a good cross-section of fandom as a whole – the gamers, the Japanese Comic fans, the American Comic fans and the various fanbases for this TV show or the other. But there is something to be said for a more focused convention. Something a little more low-key. Something more cozy. Something that is more about the professionals meeting the fans and less about the big companies hyping The Next Big Thing.

Amazing how The Dallas ComicCon still has this reputation despite being a fairly big deal. The urban legends of Dallas say that a few years ago it was the sole factor responsible for creating a ten-mile traffic jam that spread from Richardson (a suburb on the north end of Dallas) to Plano (the next suburb up Highway 75). The reason for this traffic jam? Thomas Jane (aka Frank Castle in the most recent – and at that time just released - Punisher movie), Sean Astin (ex-Goonnie and Sam from the Lord of the Rings movies) and Patricia Arquette (star of the supernatural thriller show Medium) were the guests of honor.

The Dallas ComicCon is usually, if nothing else, good for a wide variety of guests. Old pros sit alongside the young turks. Locals sit in the same artist alley as the guests who traveled from far away. Both annoying, cringe-inducing brats from the new Star Wars are present, trying to make a few quick bucks selling autographs as they wait for puberty to pass so they can begin making a comeback.

(That’s just a joke, incidentally. I have nothing but the deepest respect for Jake Lloyd and Daniel Logan)

Of course with all the guests who were there, there was one who stood out above all others for me. Mike Grell - the legendary artist on Legion of Superheroes during one of its’ most beloved periods. Creator of Travis Morgan: Warlord and John Sable: Freelance. And, for my money, the best damn writer that Green Arrow ever had.

One thing that somewhat surprised me: Mike Grell is a funny guy. I mean, his books have a great dark sense of humor and I love them for that. But given that he also writes some very intense and dark stories... well, I must admit I was expecting something different. More intense. Not a charming fatherly man who got the crowd laughing while using my now-autographed copy of Green Arrow #1 as a prop in a story.

It was a very funny story about how he scared a young speculator. Seems this young man – 12 or 13 came up with this book that he sloooooowly slid a sliver of the book out of the plastic bag to be autographed. Mike just took one look at this kid and said “You know, the minute I sign the book, it stops being Mint Condition because something has touched it directly. The urchin reportedly shuffled the comic back into the bag very slooowly once again and then ran off, never to be seen again.

It’s easy to admire a man like Mike Grell. Not just for his body of work as an artist. Not just because he remembered a letter I sent him asking about the subtext of one Green Arrow story he did. But because it takes a special kind of balls to make Kennedy Assassination jokes in Dallas. I had asked why he never got down to Texas in recent years and he just smiled and said he had to wait for the Statute of Limitations to expire. I must have looked slightly confused because he then added, “You know, I was only a sophomore in high school when it happened but people still ask how I pulled that shot off.”

There’s that dark humor I was expecting!

Ah well. Just like Kurt Cobain, go out with a bang!

And on that note, we’ll see you next week for Part Three of The Hellblazer Episode Guide.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.