Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A chance to 'Cut' is a chance to cure

March Book Club response:

John Constantine's characterization is a slippery thing. Alan Moore clearly crafted him as a stand-in for the mythical Trickster, all promise and no reward. Jamie Delano saw Constantine more as a man than anything else, given to arrogance, mistakes and petty feuds. Garth Ennis made Constantine an iconoclast, playing one side against the other, often with purpose but occasionally just for fun. Warren Ellis, naturally, saw Constantine as a smoking, contemplative Speaker Of The Truth, a magician, surely, but more importantly someone with whom to shake society to its core. Brian Azzarello realized at some point that Constantine's one defining characteristic is that he is the outsider in any gathering. Because of who he is and what he has done, he can never be at peace or fit into a crowd; instead, he must discover how to use people around him to survive, which is still best demonstrated in "Hard Time."

As a casual reader of Hellblazer with not a little affection for a taut Constantine story of bastardy, remorse and magic, the collection "Rare Cuts" was oddly affecting and pleasing to me. More a singles collection than a coherent stories, I feel, having read it, that I know John better than I ever have.

The first tale in the book is the headliner, obviously. John's disaster at "Newcastle," written by Delano with art by Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham, is perhaps the moment most writers of the series have used to explain when and how Constantine came to be. As such, I found it a rather odd turning point, jumbled with side characters who contributed little and actually diminished John's crime in believing he was smart enough to casually summon a demon. Contrary to Steve's assessment, I think Constantine is written in such a way as to play down what he did at Newcastle, asylum or no. In the passage quoted below, John is fairly bragging about his failure while also diminishing it as a youthful indiscretion.

Futher, I find the explanation of Newcastle and the associated mental breakdown to be all too neat in the creation of the psyche of Constantine. At his best, his motivations are entirely inscrutable and delightfully manipulative, a street-level Hamlet whose hand is always shown at the last moment; he always hits the flush, too. This is the kind of origin given in most superhero comics. Given the character's beginnings, that isn't surprising. Newcastle does not contribute to my understanding of John; the moment that changed him is more exciting as a McGuffin than a known quantity.

It's for this reason that I found far more satisfying and revealing the two-part story that followed, "Early Warning" and "How I Learned to Love the Bomb" by Grant Morrison and David Lloyd. Here's the thing with this story: John Constantine is not really trying to save the town. He's there to watch its death-throes, learn from it and hopefully save the woman he's seeing.

The revel in the village, the return of carnival (which, lest we forget, can mean an instance of riotous success) is the ultimate collision of England's dual nature. Like much of Europe, the country lived in uneasy alliance between the Pagan and Christian traditions for centuries before forgetting the past, like the true meaning of May Day, the origin of the name Easter or the reason for the date of the observance of Christmas.

The symbolism of the story is not complex. When restraints on behavior are removed, the repressed are most likely to have the darkest Id. The village devolves into rape, violence and zealotry. The purest example, and the driving force of the story, is the Anglican priest who ultimately attempts a nuclear strike to save humanity. His character strikes me as hollow. It suits the story's premise, naturally, but it leans too heavily on the supernatural component to the tale. With most tales of Constantine, the magic is subdued and easily explained and savage. The village was looking for an excuse to act out their frustration over the unemployment and squalor that has come to characterize their lives. Whatever spell is actually present merely offered an excuse for the horrifying behavior just beneath the surface. That's the element that makes this a horror story -- not that magic can cause people to do unleash the worst of mankind, but that manking is capable of it in the first place if given an excuse.

I actually find in Morrison's writing here an evocation of the attempts to explain how Germany allowed itself to become a monument to evil, violence and hatred prior to World War II. People driven to extreme circumstances will latch onto anything offering an answer, no matter the cost to one's soul. Constantine does fight to save the town here, but only to save its people, not the institution. Whether there can be an answer to their woes is uncertain, but recognizing the problem is as important. This sort of case is what Constantine is really here for. He destabilizes a situation to the point that it might tip away from greatest injustice. He fails here, as he often does. But his presence gave the village a chance for survival, and many of the people made it, despite the hole that takes the place of their former home.

John Constantine is not a hero, and should never be confused for one. He's a man with a heart and a brain, which can be just as good in a tight spot.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

GraphiContent Book Club Selection for March--Hellblazer Rare Cuts

As promised we begin today the first installment of the GraphiContent book club. The book for March was Hellblazer Rare Cuts and the assignment was to read the first half. Please feel free to join us in discussion of the book in the "talkback" section, but please limit your discussion to assigned portion of the book. We will wrap up the book by discussing the second half on March 31st.

One of the most endearing things about this collection is its main character and the shaky moral code by which he lives. John Constantine has quite the reputation for being a cold bastard, but the reality of the situation is that there is nothing here that supports that characterization. Sure he’s a bit too blasé about the summoning of the demon in “Newcastle,” but this story represents his greatest mistake in life, the one that he regrets most, that eats at his conscience constantly. Most of us would look like bastards if we were only judged by the worst thing we’d ever done.
It is also important to note that this story is all based on Constantine’s own recollection of the event. And does he sugarcoat things, does he put himself in a good light? No, instead he admits that he was an arrogant youth, inexperienced in the ways of the world, playing around with things he shouldn’t have been. In his words at the end of the story, he shows a deep insight into the flaws of his own character that a truly heartless person would not: “Catastrophe, from start to finish. Inexcusable, stupid, bloody shameful catastrophe. No one to blame. I hold the smoking gun—the accusatory fingers point my way” (30).

And he never forgets the cost of the lessons he learned that day. His friends are all dead, and their ghosts clearly haunt him. Again, as he states in his narration, “we all make mistakes, don’t we? … The only difference is, I’ve paid for mine. Two years in Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged” (30). A real bastard wouldn’t feel enough guilt or remorse for his actions to be committed to an asylum for two years, let alone have this incident haunt him into the present day, ten years later at the time of the story.

His actions which are the centerpiece of these stories are not the least bit self-serving. In “Newcastle” Constantine attempts to save the young girl Astra from the “Norfulthing” she has conjured, a thing that was borne out of the “awful things” she has seen and the horrible acts that have been committed upon her. In “Early Warning” and “How I Learned to Love the Bomb,” he attempts to save the inhabitants of the town from destruction. All of these things he does at great personal risk to himself. Some might call that heroic, after a fashion. At any rate, it should be clear that John Constantine is far, far from being a bastard.

I’ve not even had the chance to write about how the motif of dark reflections in these stories: how the Norfulthing reflects what was done to Astra and how the villagers’ personas (as well as Constantine’s) while under the spell reflect aspects of their personalities. Nor have I had the space, as I had originally hoped, to compare Morrison’s two part story about the life and death of a town to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman tale of the dream of a city. But these are things I hope we can get to in discussion.

(As we enter discussion, please share with me your thoughts about what April's book club selection should be. Right now I have several ideas: Sin City: The Big Fat Kill, Lost at Sea by Bryan O'Malley, David B.'s Epileptic, or perhaps the collected edition of Ho Che Anderson's King. If you agree with any of these choices, or you'd like to offer an alternate option, please let us know in the comments section.)

Thursday, March 10, 2005

This cracked me up.

I went to Renaud-Bray (a large, French-language bookstore chain based in Quebec) this evening after work to pick up some manga, and while I was browsing the wall of new releases, I saw a new Craig Thompson book, translated into French.

I went 'Hmmm'.

It wasn't one I'd heard of (and full disclosure, I haven't actually read any of his works, but he is rather well-known), so I figured it was something old, released to take advantage of the popularity of Blankets (which was published in French with the supremely original title of 'Blankets').

I pick the book off the shelf, flip to the title page (laugh at the 'translated from the American' note), and scan down to see what it was originally called.

The English title? Carnet de Voyage.

Which is French. It means 'travel notebook'. And not what the book's French title was.

The translators/editors instead chose to call it something else entirely, Un Américain en balade (An American Goes For A Stroll), for no reason that I could see.

It's just bizarre. I had to laugh.

Friday, March 04, 2005

New Books for March 3rd, 2005

Normally I post my weekly reviews on message boards I contribute to, but this week, there was an odd confluence of themes in the books I picked up, and I thought they might generate some comment, about superheroes, and the place they hold in the world, fictional and otherwise....

Mild Spoilers: you have been warned.

Super Human.

By coincidence, four of the five I picked up the week of March 3rd, all represented interesting and quite varied takes on what it means to be super-human, or live in a world blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with super-humans.

SHANNA THE SHE DEVIL #2 (OF 7) turned out to> be much more interesting than I expected. While a lot of questions (articulated by the SpecOps Units medic in narration) about the new Shannas? origin remain unanswered, Cho manages to convincingly convey the dangerously un-empathic new born? powerhouses essentially amoral, potentially lethal point of view. Were setting up for an interesting learning curve here, as little Miss Frankenstein (imagine JMSs Hyperion from Supreme Power without the moral conditioning, or Gen13's Fairchild with the mind of an angry child) assimilates the lessons to come. Once again, Dave Stewart's coloring deserves mention, lending solid, anatomically correct form to Cho's pencils and inks. Working together, Cho's Shanna comes off not so much as a cheesecake character, and takes on the visual look of the women in Carlos Pacheco's recent work on Superman/Batman & the JLA/JSA OGN, for DC.

TWILIGHT EXPERIMENT #2 features an interesting look at two related, reluctant super-humans who share an unwanted heroic legacy. Its revealed that the older of the two, Renee, a survivor of superhuman collateral damage (and became a female emergency medical technician in response) has been more or less hiding the fact she has superhuman abilities for years. I liked that fact that this is revealed as a matter of course, without fanfare, and thus was believable in the context of the story. Renees deep-seated ambivalence about her powers (which seems to border on self-hatred) nicely contrasts with that of a orphaned teenaged super-boy, raised in splendid isolation in a space station above Earth by a holographic artificial intelligence. Although an artificial intelligence attempts to prepare him to follow in his self-sacrificing mothers footsteps (echoing again JMSs take on Hyperions youth as a ward of the government), super-boy wants nothing more than to enjoy the normal rites, rituals and experiences shared by any normal, middle class American teenager once hes released into the larger world below. Neither he nor Renee cares for the heroic legacy they share, but the end of this issue reveals that, ready or not, both will soon be tossed into action. Palmiotti and Gray's story is pretty easy to relate to, esp., if one has experienced conflicts between the expectations of say parents who expected you to follow their footsteps into a family business or profession; or had to deal with absent parents, who though they may have meant well, essentially abandoned you to focus on careers, or pursue idealistic goals. I look forward to the conflicts and adjustments to come.

Both Shanna and Twilight dance around the essential issue of whether superheroes have any real place in this world. The next two titles take on the issue directly. Chaykin and Heath's LEGEND #1 is an adaptation of Philip Wylie's long out of print novel, Gladiator, which was one of the sources for the mythos Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster developed for the original golden age version of the Man of Steel. While the young Hugo Danning is not an alien, but rather the product of biochemical experimentation, we see in the way his parents raise him Siegal and Shuster's source for Clark Kent's Midwestern American upbringing. His strict, devoutly religious mother teaches him ethics, and his more laid-back scientist father warns him that he must use his powers to do good, for people will always fear, even hate him, for his vast physical advantages. The boy tries to follow their advice, but because he is often taunted, or arbitrarily ordered about by the narrow-minded provincial locals, his actions increasingly isolate him from others. Pretty interesting stuff, and definitely worth a look, though I fear Russ Heath's straightforward storytelling style, might not appeal to others, however perfect his approach fits Chaykin's script. If so, it would be a shame, cause Heath's definitely one of the best old school storytellers that emerged in the fifties and sixties. (I particularly remember the war stories he rendered and inked for DC: t'was great work).

I am told by my current roommate, a writer, that Wylie's original novel concludes with the sobering message that there is, ultimately, no place for the super-human in a world of envious, fearful others. Brain Azzazrello comes up with a fascinating take on just that topic in LEX LUTHOR MAN OF STEEL #1, beautifully illustrated by Lee Berjemo. This is the most interesting take on Luthor I've read to date: a man of exceptional intelligence and ability, who, in a very objectivist (Ayn Rand's personal philosophy, expounded in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) way, has an extremely relativistic view of abstract concepts like truth, justice and the American Way, and deeply believes that nothing should stand in the way of the potential advance of human beings as individuals and a race. For him, this aggressive, humanist (in the cold blooded sense ascribed to the powerful families of the Italian Renaissance by scholars and academics like Nicolo Machiavelli) personal ideology is threatened, on all sorts of levels, by the advent of Superman, an inhuman alien, who, by virtue of purely physical abilities (flight, strength, invulnerablity, heat vision) both reinforces the abstract values Luthor disdains, and encourages a kind of laziness among the common man. Luthor hates the Other, not because the aliens actions interfere with Luthor's ruthless, and occasionally lethal business operations, but his simple presence discourages people from being all they can be. This sets up for an interesting showdown between the democratic protector of the common man and the self-made natural aristocratic of greater than average ability. One seeks to protect, serve and reinforce ideals. The other seeks to inspire via personal advancement (which presupposes a herd to advance beyond, and set examples for). As ever, Azzarello sets up well I pray he can bring this story to a resounding, dramatic conclusion. It's a great counterpoint to Chakin's adaptation of Wylie. It's Legend from the Point of View of the (rich) People.

The fifth title, JUSTICE LEAGUE ELITE #9 was a bit confusing, until I realized that inter-cut> with scenes of the disasterous conclusion to the Elite's operation against Aftermath, a power hungry would-be despot who made an alliance with an alien race that wanted to use drugs to subdue humanity, in exchange for access to the Source (from Kirby's Fourth World titles of the Seventies), were scenes of a new God-like power in the DCU, Eve, re-mixing the history of superheroes on Earth, like a hip hop DJ at the bequest of Manchester Black, whose consciousness had been hidden in his sister (and Elite field leader) Vera's form the whole time. Black seems to be out to erase Superman from DCU history. Failing that, they turn their attention to the future.

There were also some touching moments here: a scene where Cassandra Cain (operating undercover, within the Elite, as Kasumi, a dimunitive ninja-like hit-woman) unmasks herself to Coldcast (because she thinks theyre about to die anyway in an onslaught of HR Giger-ish Aliens); and when Green Arrow and Major Disaster break the news of Manitou's death to his wayward wife (yep, Ollie again). It looks like the League will have to step in anyway, to take on Manchester Black and Eve, and clean up whatever cosmic mess he plans to make of the future. It was a decent enough, if tragic, conclusion to the Elite's second (and likely last) big mission as the JLAs dirty tricks unit, but like last issue, a bit too fast paced for easy comprehension. It definitely requires a couple of re-readings to catch everything going on here.

Thoughts folks?

Anyone Else