Friday, November 19, 2010

Hellblazer: Joyride, The Laughing Magician, and The Roots of Coincidence

[Back in July, I did a blogathon on Hellblazer for charity. I focused on the complete stories/runs I had at the time. As part of that, I plan, whenever I finish a run or storyarc of the title, I will write about it and add it to that archive. This week, I got the final trade of Andy Diggle's tenure on the title and want to discuss it. So, enjoy, and, if you feel inclined, give some money to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.]

I don't know if Andy Diggle's run was planned to be this short. Denise Mina was clearly on board for a couple of arcs, but, besides her, Diggle's run is the shortest of any regular ongoing writer on the series except for Warren Ellis and we all know what what happened there. Diggle only wrote 18 issues with an odd two-issue fill-in by Jason Aaron and Sean Murphy before his final three issues. I haven't heard any rumours of behind-the-scenes tensions and Diggle's run does contain a complete story, so maybe this is all he intended and the two-issue departure was there to give Leonardo Manco time to finish the final issues of what turned out to be his time on the book as well. Like Marcelo Frusin before him, Manco lasted quite a long time on the title, working with three different writers on their runs. He drew 15 of Diggle's issues.

My not getting The Roots of Coincidence until now isn't a qualitative judgment of Diggle's run, it's a fact of being unemployed until recently. That said, I wasn't too impressed with the first two trades of Diggle's run when I first read them. I enjoyed them more this time, but I think they're helped by showing a complete story. And, you'll note that I say 'more,' not 'completely.' This is a very problematic run.

The first trade, Joyride starts off well with a pair of two-issue stories. In the first, John is tied to a dock leg and will die when the tide comes in. In the second, he returns to Ravenscar to deal with his lingering insanity and issues. The high concept of the first story is good. John in a position where he needs to get himself out or else die. It's all a set-up to get back at the mobster who killed the daughter of the imprisoned boss... and he kills himself at the beginning of the second issue, John still tied up. However, even with that strong premise, the follow through doesn't rise above novel. It's a pretty typical 'more than meets the eye' John Constantine story without much to it. The only part that was genuinely surprising was the crook killing himself when confronted with the ghosts of those he'd killed there before.

The second story, "Wheels of Chance, Systems of Control," (which I had to look up on Wikipedia because this is one of those trades that doesn't tell you the titles of the stories... thank you, Bob Harras) suffers from a similar problem. John returns to Ravenscar to help clear his head and deal with old issues so he can be his 'old self' again after his little rant at the end of Mike Carey's run and the spot of trouble in Denise Mina's. Mina put John on a 'case' (as it were), but didn't return him to his old role. Here, he sees that that's what he should do. He's at the old asylum to find that bit of insanity and psychic scarring and remove it. Again, good idea... but also a misleading one, because no matter what, John Constantine is John Constantine is John Constantine. You can pretend you're doing something new or changing the character, but it's not happening. He's like every other franchise character in comics: he always returns to that level place that everyone knows. Not anything wrong with that, but it is amusing to watch writers try to change him. Sometimes, it works. Carey's run ended strongly with Constantine in a different place; but, I also read that as Carey knowing that the character would return to form sooner rather than later and he wanted to end his run as if it were the end of the book/character.

Diggle doesn't do that really -- but he tries at the end and it doesn't work. In the second story of Joyride, he wins ownership of Ravenscar, now a casino/hotel that no one visits because it used to be a mental hospital, and casts his insanity out of himself before throwing it off a cliff. The execution is somewhat muted. Part of the problem is that I'm not sure Diggle ever finds the right tone/voice for the book. Everything about this story feels easy. Too easy. And, while John is skilled, it shouldn't be so easy. Winning Ravenscar by cheating at roulette? Sure, that's no problem; but, the confronting his insanity and killing it should be more difficult. Any hint of difficulty comes off as there for show, not an actual difficulty or hurdle to jump over. It's a big deal presented as a minor problem.

From there, the run launches into the overarching story, a mixing of two by the end. In one, a British Lord has created a community of people who put their souls in the bodies of others to get revenge and, generally, be horrible people. In the other, a very bad guy by the name of Mako is seeking the Laughing Magician because... he wants to kill and eat him, I guess? That's never really explained; it doesn't matter. The Lord ultimately wants to create a lavish soul container as a way to cheat death -- instead of placing his soul inside of an object with empty 'white' space, he wants a fake after life created. Mako is a war mage that draws his power from death and violence, and also eats the souls of magicians to learn their secrets and gain their power. Ultimately, the British Lord will help Mako get more power and find the Laughing Magician if Mako creates the soul container. And John wants to take them both down. He's not the Laughing Magician, his dead twin brother was going to be, but that doesn't stop Mako from thinking it's him.

Neither turns out to be much of a threat, neutralised without too much effort by John. It's actually surprising how easily they're taken out. Mako especially is built up as a monster and he's done in relatively short order. Again, it feels too easy. That's the pattern of this run: threats never deliver. In the end, John wins and it doesn't cost him anything, including effort.

The final issue has him facing off against the soul of his dead twin and it's a problematic issue. For one thing, Diggle puts forth the idea that most of John's problems are the result of his twin trying to weaken John enough for their souls to merge because, the first time they tried, John's ego didn't let it happen. Every time John has fallen into despair or a hole or anything, it was, at least partly, because of his twin's soul dragging him down, hoping to make him weak enough to join with. Even his cancer is laid at the feet of his twin's soul. Wow, what a way to actually fuck with the character in a harmful manner. It is a big revelation that changes everything that came before -- in a bad way. It takes so much away from the character faults of John, his weaknesses. It's literally someone else's fault that he can't pull it together! What a fucking cop out that is. This is the sort of retcon/explanation that you wouldn't blame anyone for ignoring.

There's some amusement in the so-called magic messiah doing such horrible things and John finding someone else in a position of 'authority' and 'I know better than you' to tell to fuck off, seemingly damning the world in the process, but it doesn't hold up against the damage done to what came before. The reason why John was such a fuck-up is because he's a fuck-up! That's the point! John Constantine is a character with the best and worst of humanity in him, and to lay any of that on something or someone else is a bad decision to make as a writer. It's one of those 'clever ideas' that you discard because it leaves things worse off than when you arrived.

But, that's what I think.

Besides that, there are some nice moments in the run. The two-part "The Mortification of the Flesh," drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli, where John plays a big scam on a Vatican priest, is a very good Hellblazer story. It's a con and an effective one with some genuinely clever ideas and a great ending. I think it's the best story in the entire run and stacks up against the work of other writers in a way the rest doesn't.

Leonardo Manco's art is strong. It's weird to think of him as a 'definitive' Hellblazer artist, but he drew (or partly drew) 42 issues of the series plus the All His Engines graphic novel. The next closest artists by issues drawn (or partially drawn) are Sean Phillips with 41 and Marcelo Frusin with 39. As far as I know (and Wikipedia tells me; though they do have a mistake listing Manco as drawing #251...), Manco has drawn more Hellblazer comics than anyone. And, yet, does anyone see him as the John Constantine artist? Probably not.


That's a question that I don't know the answer to. Perhaps, it's because he's drawn three runs that people don't love by working with Mike Carey, Denise Mina, and Andy Diggle. Out of the three, Carey's is the only one I've ever heard good things said about and, even then, that's only by half the people who read it. The other half seem to hate it. Perhaps, it's because he came to the book and the character too late. John Constantine was already defined by other artists. It's rare for an artist to come on a book this late and define it, especially a book with numerous strong, 'definitive' artists before him. It's weird. Because, honestly, I wouldn't rank Manco among my favourite Hellblazer artists. I didn't back in July. No one in the comments section does. Really, why? (I may have to return to this question...)

All in all, Diggle's tenure on the book falls near the bottom for me. Ahead of Mina's run, but still unfulfilling. The threats never pay off and the final issue just pisses me off. Diggle never gets the tone right either. His John never feels authentic, like he's in Diggle's control. If anything, it seems like Diggle is trying too hard to write a cool Hellblazer story that could stand among the best instead of something that comes from the heart, a story he genuinely wants to tell. I'm probably wrong, because ascribing motives to a writer is never a good idea -- but, that's what it comes off as. A big fan trying to fit in with those that came before and never getting comfortable enough to do so.