Giant Hellblazer Re-Read Part I: Issues 1-3

Author’s Note: This is the first of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

The first part of this entry covers the first two issues of Hellblazer, “Hunger” and “A Feast of Friends,” upon which the Constantine episode named after the latter was directly based. For arcs adapted into the TV show so directly, I will be providing comparison notes as well as stand-alone analysis of the arc in the comics.

The last part of this entry covers issue 3, which is a standalone issue, the first of many in the series.

The first issues of such an iconic series deserve their own close look, as this pair of issues has a special place in comic book history. For most readers today, these issues, as the first two included in the volume Original Sins, are the standard comic book introduction to John Constantine as a character. When reading, though, it is important to realize that this was originally just an introduction to him as a protagonist rather than a side character. DC Comics was betting on the character’s popularity from Alan Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing to really get the series launched, and then for word of mouth and positive reviews to get new readers from there. The early issues, before the series became part of the Vertigo lineup (indeed, before the Vertigo lineup even existed), were part of the shared DC Universe, and it shows at various points, but these two issues are just to establish John as the main character of his own story.

The DC execs were aware, though, that if they didn’t refer to recent events of Swamp Thing, they’d have angry fans writing in to the letter columns (hey, remember when those existed?) and the whole project could be put in jeopardy. So issue 1, “Hunger,” starts us off a bit in medias res, with Constantine recovering from a victory against some of the major Swamp Thing villains that did not come without massive personal cost to him and those he loved – a pattern which becomes familiar, the more one reads of Constantine’s story. John is haunted, literally, by those he has sacrificed to achieve his ends.

For all those who had read about John Constantine in Swamp Thing, and been interested by his story and his perspective, it must have been an awesome moment to realize that not only is he the protagonist, he’s also the narrator of Hellblazer. From issue 1, we’re treated to a semi-lyrical, bitter, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and still shockingly candid narration of John Constantine’s thoughts and emotions, creating a breathtaking contrast between what we as readers are allowed to see, and the walls he builds between himself and the rest of the world. We are allowed to see the ghosts that only John can normally see; we are treated to the inside of his head, when others are kept out with his sarcasm, grins, and cigarette smoke. The point when, very early on, John sobs himself to sleep after being wished a good night by the ghost of a former lover is our sole warning of the experience we’re letting ourselves in for, by reading this series.

There’s a reason John Constantine has often been referred to by fans as “DC Comics’ whipping boy.”

The basic premise of this story is as follows: John Constantine comes home to discover an old friend, Gary Lester, curled up in his bathtub, absolutely covered in insects and strung out on heroin. After defumigating his apartment, he discovers that Gary has released a hunger demon from Sudan, which he had initially trapped inside a bottle. The demon is causing a deadly pandemic of consumption: a man starving to death in a restaurant while eating his way through the menu several times over; a body-builder who devours himself alive; a jeweler who dies from eating gemstones; a collector who perishes after literally chewing through his collection of comic books. Constantine is has two concerns: a) getting Gary out of his apartment, and b) keeping the hunger demon from destroying everything and everyone. He seeks out the aid of Papa Midnite, a wealthy and powerful magician with a penchant for strong ritual magic. Together they come up with the way to eliminate the demon: trap it inside the body of the man who let it loose in the first place. At first, John has little sympathy for Gary, who seems to be more concerned with his next fix than with the potential destruction of the human race; but as Gary appears increasingly pathetic and afraid, we see that this isn’t going to be easy. But Constantine follows through, tricking Gary into believing that he’s being led to his next fix, and instead imprisoning him inside MIdnite’s clubhouse and inviting the demon inside. In true Constantine fashion, he won’t let himself look away, and drinks and smokes his way through Gary’s grisly end. In the final panels of the comic, we see that Gary’s ghost joins the others haunting John.

There is one major fact that is brought home to readers meeting our protagonist for the first time through this story: he is a stone-cold bastard when it counts. Because we have the perspective of going into his psychology, we can see that John isn’t entirely unscathed by sacrificing Gary to his demons – literally – but at no point does he even hesitate to follow through in doing so. Constantine isn’t an easy man to read, and he’s definitely not an easy person to like.

All of which makes Chas all the more interesting as a character: Constantine’s oldest friend, his getaway driver, and the one person upon whom John can seemingly depend for absolutely anything. Magic isn’t his mindset or his place; he’s an ordinary guy, a cabbie, and he works with the material he can see and touch in front of him. And yet, he survives and sticks by John through thick and thin, even when John acts in a manner that would drive anyone else away. We get our first look at this relationship as well, though Chas has only a very minor role to play in this arc, and Chas is already someone whose fate and history we wonder about.

Chas is one of the most important differences between the comic and TV versions of the John Constantine story, but oddly enough not in this particular episode. He’s pretty much written out with the flimsiest of excuses on the show (in reality, apparently actor Charles Halford was juggling multiple projects and the script was simply written with the knowledge of his unavailability). He’s anything but normal on the show, in ways that haven’t been revealed as of this writing (shortly after the airing of episode six of Constantine).

John and Gary have their differences as well, and they make for a very different version of this story. In terms of plot, there is one huge change in the adaptation: the sacrifice to the demons is Gary’s own choice, in the end, although he is conscious of the fact that he has been to some extent manipulated into making that choice by John’s own plans. John is still cold and manipulative in many ways, but since the showrunners made the (wise, I think) decision not to have a voiceover for the entirety of the show, the only way we can see his inner conflict over the situation is for it to be displayed externally, and we see tears in his eyes at several crucial moments – something Gary Lester in the comics would never have had a chance to see. At the same time, it makes more sense, because this version of Gary is much more sympathetic, both to us and to John. He’s seriously screwed up after “the Newcastle incident,” about which we know much more in the TV version in episode four than we do by the conclusion of the first two issues of the comic, and has gotten himself into the situation with the hunger demon in a desperate attempt to atone for what he sees as his own part in that debacle. He makes mistake after mistake, but it is clear that his intentions are in the right place, unlike the Gary from the comics whose focus is always on his next fix.

John himself goes through a very different series of psychological contortions over the course of the story, between the two versions. In the comic, he has to deal with the fact that he is forcibly sacrificing a former friend to a hideously evil force, and with the fact that he does so in the hope that Gary will die without ever realizing it. In the TV episode, he puts on a spectacular display of a redemptive story arc, a realization that people are capable of change, which turns out to be entirely fake – but then has to deal with the fact that his manipulative con job has inspired an actual turnaround in Gary, even if not in himself. Both are typical of the character, in different ways, but the TV version is definitely focusing on the gentler, kinder aspects of his character while the comic takes pains to introduce readers first and foremost to the fact that John Constantine is dangerous. Of course, there’s also a key difference here in that “A Feast of Friends” is not the introductory episode in the TV series – and the fact that it’s highly unlikely that any network TV series would start by deliberately introducing its audience to one of the least likeable aspects of its protagonist.

That’s Hellblazer for you, though, right there – this arc is the only heads-up readers are going to get, that this is not a series that’s going to flinch from anything, and if you’re looking for moral black-and-whiteness, for a superhero who will go out and be noble and shining and glorious, well, this isn’t the series for you. Given which, it’s easy to see why the series was so groundbreaking from its earliest issues, and why it eventually became one of the six starting series for the Vertigo lineup and later would be identified as the singular flagship title for the label.

Issue 3 is a serious contrast from the first two, being overtly political and full of ridiculously over-the-top imagery that nonetheless makes its point: politics are hell, says Jamie Delano. Literally, in this case. Ha. Ha.

One would expect an issue about demon yuppies rigging an election in favor of Margaret Thatcher to age less well than this issue has. But while this is definitely one of the least subtly political issues of Hellblazer, it actually holds up reasonably well, simply because John’s experiences are so well unfolded for the reader. This is a brilliant example of character-based storytelling, and establishes that this series is first and foremost about its protagonist doing awesome things, and everything else is, to some extent, incidental.

A bit of summary: John is tipped to investigate the deaths of a number of yuppies in poor areas of London, by his friend Ray Monde, who trawls newspapers for unusual patterns. He discovers a pair of demons collecting souls for their master, Blathoxi. Constantine returns home, summons Blathoxi directly rather than going through his underlings, and offers up his soul to the demon. John’s eagerness to sell his soul indicates to Blathoxi (as intended) that John might have inside information that the Conservative party, which Blathoxi has backed in an attempt to shore up the UK soul market, might actually lose the election, and the demon pulls out of the market immediately. John is thrown back into his apartment, which is now full of angry demon yuppies who want his blood; his life is saved by Blathoxi, who turns up to drag his employees back to hell for punishment, because he doesn’t dare let on that John has successfully conned him. John is left hanging upside down from the ceiling where he can do nothing but watch the election results come in as Thatcher wins again.

It’s amazing how the same metaphors are still used to talk about politics almost thirty years later: people selling their souls, people being morally bankrupt, buying and selling elections, that helplessness that makes watching the numbers on an election come in a special kind of torture… and as a result, this issue holds up because the reader can play a form of mental Mad Libs with it. It doesn’t have to be about Thatcher anymore – fill in the candidate of your choice. It doesn’t have to be about her brand of economics – fill in the policy of your choice. The fact that this story is only a single issue long means that Delano didn’t take very long to actually discuss any of the policies under criticism, with the result that even if one disagrees with him, one can still pretty much ignore that and enjoy the humorous last panel, when John realizes he can’t reach the TV to turn it off, and has to just watch the election results until dawn. Ugh. Torture indeed. (As an American reader, I’m imagining not being able to turn off Fox News on election night… I can imagine plenty of people would feel the same way about MSNBC. I don’t know what the channels are in other countries, but I am sure they exist.) And yet, I think anyone sufficiently politically minded has been there, in some sense.

It’s also an interesting moment for John Constantine, because we have to ask ourselves why it matters to him. He spends so much time insisting that he doesn’t care about anyone, he’s concerned only for himself, and the world can go to hell for all he cares. Why, then, does it bother him to watch the elections turn out in a way he doesn’t like? We get our first example of John’s own narration lying to us, and of course to himself, about his own motivations. This is a signpost for future issues, if we’re watching carefully: don’t trust the narrator.

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Why Is Bad Quality More Acceptable In Old Sci-Fi?

Author’s Note: Contains spoilers for a really bad episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who; if you actually care about the show, I recommend ignoring this warning, because dear sweet gods that episode was bad and maybe now you won’t have to actually watch it. Also spoilers for some episodes of older and newer Star Trek, not that the basics of the plot really mattered in the stories under discussion.

I recently sat through one of the worst episodes of Doctor Who I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The episode in question was “Kill The Moon,” near the midpoint of series eight, starring Peter Capaldi. Even Capaldi’s superb acting couldn’t come close to saving this episode. I sat and stared in disgust for the entirety of it, and would honestly not have cared much if the human race had been extinguished in the episode, because the whole premise was so ridiculous that I found myself unable to suspend any disbelief. To give you an idea, I am arachnophobic to a point that can actually be considered a mental illness, but the giant spiders crawling all over the moon for some reason (still not entirely clear on why, honestly) didn’t bother me in the slightest.

After I finished watching, though, a thought struck me. The premise of the episode is absolutely awful: the moon is a giant egg waiting to hatch a giant alien that’s the last of its species, apparently, though how the Doctor knows that is unclear since it is otherwise a complete mystery to him, an alien that will do something to earth, maybe possibly, so, uh, maybe the human race will have to kill it, or not, except that shouldn’t be an issue because the Doctor is either a jerk or an idiot, and I as a classics major should not have enough knowledge of biology and physics to figure out this problem faster than the Doctor and all the scientists of earth, and meanwhile there are single-celled spiders infecting the moon for no good reason. But it’s awful in a way that would have been perfectly at home in classic Doctor Who with a less annoyance-filled version of the summary. And I would have watched it and laughed hysterically and enjoyed myself greatly.

To make things more complicated still, there are exceptions to the old-good-new-bad rule. There are some really awful episodes of new Who, which are still fun to watch, particularly in series one. Anything involving the Slitheen, who wander around with zippers in their foreheads (and oh, did the special effects department love that shining blue light effect, they’d never had a budget before – they had a special effect, and by god they were going to use it, over and over and over….) was frankly kind of ridiculous, even coming on the heels of mannequins trying to take over the earth, but it all still worked somehow. My initial theory was that it was due to expectation of that kind of campy quality from fans of the classic show, but new viewers seem to feel the same way.

Which leaves us with the same question: what makes bad science fiction palatable, and why is it so much more common to find it in older work?

Doctor Who makes a great test case for old science fiction versus new science fiction, simply because it’s the same franchise. For the same reason, Star Trek and Star Wars do admirably for the same purpose, and are worth spending some time discussing here.

I love Star Wars, and always have. But you will not find me claiming that even the original trilogy is made entirely up of brilliant films. Groundbreaking, perhaps, but this is not the same as brilliant. Of the original trilogy, I have always maintained that the only one which is objectively high quality is The Empire Strikes Back. I love A New Hope in particular, and always will, but I can’t claim with a straight face that it’s actually a good movie, in pretty much any respect. Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is a better film – but its flaws are much harder for me to accept. I thought at first that it might be due to the fact that I hadn’t watched A New Hope in a long time, but upon re-watching it, I find I love it as much as I ever have, and am willing to ignore flaws in it that I am incapable of not raking over the coals in more recent films in the franchise when the exact same mistakes appear.

I find I have the same expanded tolerance for artistic mistakes in early Star Trek. I am more able to accept that women on the original Star Trek cling to Captain Kirk and say, “I’m frightened, Captain,” all the time, where women looking ethereal with their hair blowing in the wind of new planets as they model their pretty skirts in Star Trek: The Next Generation bothers me intensely. In part, I am able to excuse the politics of the earlier show because of its earlier context, but the fact that it’s also just plain poor writing bothers me less in the earlier show – and this is just one example of many.

Star Trek gives us a lovely additional gold mine of opportunity in terms of discussion: episodes of old Trek and new Trek which are not only from the same franchise but based on the exact same concept, sometimes openly so. There are episodes of the original series which are the subject of episodes in later series – only changed from drama to comedy, because really, who could possibly take seriously the concept of water with a molecular difference that makes people drop their inhibitions and go crazy. And yet, “The Naked Time” is one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, precisely because of its variety in the way the characters are affected, and what is revealed about each of them. Okay, yes, the crazy-making-water is absurd, but it’s just a mechanism, it doesn’t actually matter. But when unlocking its mysteries becomes a central concept in “The Naked Now,” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it can only be handled as comedy.

And now, I think, these three franchises between them have provided us an answer key.

Modern science fiction takes itself seriously in its details. A film that claims to have science of any variety will have any inconsistencies pulled apart by fans. A film that does actually have real science will be combed carefully by popularizers of science and roasted if the opportunity arises. The explanation of “it just works that way, okay?!” is no longer acceptable. Many viewers I know, myself included, have a certain tolerance for that kind of explanation, but once it goes beyond that line – and I’m not even exactly sure where the line is, except that I’d be willing to bet it’s different for every viewer – any science fiction that uses that explanation, must either be bad, or be deliberately comedic.

The reason “Kill The Moon” failed utterly as an episode was the fact that it attempted to take itself seriously. The Robin-Hood-themed episode earlier in the season fared much better, because it was unabashedly silly for most of its run time. “The Naked Now” is ridiculous and delightful. A lack of imagination plus a consistently deadly serious attitude, combined to produce a thoroughly unappealing atmosphere for much of later Star Trek – and the times when this is not true, those episodes are amazing to watch.

It’s kind of sad, the idea that we can’t take the explanation of “it just works that way, we don’t understand why” seriously anymore. Part of it, I think, is that actual science has progressed so far in the last forty years or so, and knowledge of science has become so popularized through the work of people such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we’re able to accept older science fiction as being the product of a culture that didn’t have as strong a foothold in science fact. Even so, today’s viewers seem to have a seriously deflated view of how much people actually knew in the 1960’s, or what people were willing to accept. When we look at awful special effects, and someone points out, “oh, but it was much more impressive back then,” there are still plenty of examples where, at the time of a movie’s release, people didn’t think it was any more realistic than they do now – they were just more able to focus on the creativity than on the need for realism.

And that, I think, is the answer I’ve been reaching for.

And yet, I wonder what might have been, had the Star Wars prequel trilogy tried to simply offer a rollicking good time instead of trying to make Serious Social Commentary.

Reasons (Other Than Constantine) To Watch Constantine

Author’s Note: This entry was a challenge from a friend, to write a review of NBC’s Constantine now that it’s truly hit its stride, explaining why the show is worth watching without resorting to a description of why its protagonist is awesome – that’s for another entry, possibly as I start my epic Hellblazer re-read. (No fear, it won’t take up the whole blog, I promise.)

It took some time for NBC’s latest comic-based show to get itself up to full speed, but by episode five, it has certainly done so – sadly, it seems, just in time for the network to decide against ordering an additional nine episodes, halting production at thirteen. In addition to being kind of a stupid move considering the show’s ratings (becoming one of the top shows on all the streaming networks, retaining over 80% of viewers from Grimm, which airs in the previous time slot, and showing ratings improvements of over 30% week-by-week, are all very impressive accomplishments for a show relegated to the 10pm Friday night graveyard slot, premiering opposite the World Series with its second episode airing on Halloween), the show has become truly impressive in its own right, even without considering the adaptation from Hellblazer, in numerous ways.

First, the acting is stupendous for the most part, much higher than usual for network TV. It’s not perfect, that’s certain, but in particular the dynamics between the characters are delightful to observe. There are small moments thrown in by the actors, moments of expression, exchanges of physicality that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in TV or film. The actors have been very clearly growing into their characters, and just as the characters themselves develop closer dynamics and become a team, so too have the actors. A modicum of research into the culture of the cast and crew on-set confirms that this is a show with a great set of people working on it, who have become friends as well as colleagues, and who have come to really love their work. Even rarer, they actually make effort to reach out to the fans to share that, something particularly to be treasured when dealing with any beloved and iconic property. The cast and crew have made deliberate forays into the fandom on Twitter; they sometimes turn up in the comments sections on other social networks. They are clearly listening to what fans have to say, but in the best of ways: the executive producers have confirmed that their goal is not to simply conform to everything the fans want, as that never works out well; they simply take it into account before doing their best to give the fans something we’ve yet to think of.

Which brings me to my second point: the scripting. The dialogue has been showing a significant quality curve upward, especially starting in episode three, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Of course, acting and writing are inextricably intertwined, but we’ve all seen shows and movies where actors manage to screw up great lines, or manage to somehow deliver poor lines well. This show has neither problem – the excellent cast has been given increasingly phenomenal writing to work with, and the wit positively sparkles. One important result of this is that every episode of Constantine has some serious re-watch value. This is true starting even with the (relatively) weak pilot episode. The pacing is consistently rapid, there are constantly at least two things to follow in the story at any given time, and this show never condescends to its audience – a refreshing change from standard comic book fare.

The creators of this show are giant nerds, and they are fascinated with every aspect of their subject matter. They have made the assumption (quite correctly, as it appears from fan response) that at least a portion of their audience is the same way. This fascination goes far beyond the DC Comics universe, though that of course is its beginning – hence the appearance of dozens of “Easter eggs” hidden in the episodes to date – and extends to carefully researched folklore from around the world, linguistics, religion, culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. I have personally spotted over a half-dozen languages and writing systems used correctly in the show, and friends have confirmed more.

More impressive even than the research, though, is the respect accorded these cultures and belief systems. When possible, the producers have consulted actual practitioners of the faiths referenced in the show, and in several cases (most notably the dance ritual in episode five, “Danse Vaudou”) have actually incorporated those practitioners and their work into the relevant scenes as filmed. This is more important for Constantine than for some other shows: there are certain aspects to the story of John Constantine which are seriously problematic – after all, this show features a white male who takes direct advantage of the privilege that affords him, to walk safely into and out of places, and to casually appropriate bits and pieces of others’ cultures, to take on roles for information-gathering that accord him respect and authority, while others must make do with less due to their gender or race. This show acknowledges that at every turn, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, such as Papa Midnite’s furious – and entirely correct – accusation, “You are a magpie of magic, a thief of tradition; you steal from other people’s cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” It is both glorious and rare for a show to call out its own protagonist on his white male privilege.

Even more subtle is the show’s handling of the protagonist’s lack of privilege in certain regards. Serious mental health issues, physiological addiction, and oh, let’s not forget the bisexuality issue. Initially, I was upset when I heard the official line regarding this: it’s not going to be central to the show, and isn’t going to really be clarified one way or the other beyond subtle information. I, like many other viewers, took this to mean that it was going to be removed entirely. I now have to admit I was wrong in this. While I would prefer that the show deal more openly with this issue, they have actually done exactly as they claimed: sexuality is not central to the show or to the characters’ dynamics, and Constantine’s sexuality has remained ambiguous from the pilot episode onward, with a line-drop in episode five confirming his bisexuality in a very subtle way that can be ignored by anyone who wants to ignore it, but definitely points in that direction for anyone watching closely for signs. This is now being handled the same way as Constantine’s smoking: a gradual introduction, testing the waters to see how the viewer base reacts.

That attitude – experimentation, testing the waters of the viewer market – is typical of the way this show is being run. There is an amazing opportunity here for audience members to cast a vote with our wallets in favor of shows that display social consciousness, smart writing, progressive thinking, and complex moral analysis. If you like all of these things, you should be watching this show; if you have friends who like these things, you should be recommending this show.

One of the best protagonists in decades is just a bonus.

#SaveConstantine

School Shootings: The View from a Comic Book Written in 1999 and Re-Read in 2014

Author’s Note: This is disturbing. School shootings and violent deaths of children under discussion. I hope the fact that this subject even exists makes you angry and upset whether you agree with my points or not. Also contains discussion of teenage depression and mental health crises.

I wish desperately that this entry were irrelevant to any issue that could possibly exist today. I wish to dedicate this discussion to all of those who are survivors, and non-survivors, of the kind of hopelessness and senselessness discussed here.

Let’s go back in time to 1999, to late April. The worst school shooting in American history (at the time) had just occurred, and the nation was reeling, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Only, that’s the nature of tragedy, isn’t it – its randomness, the fact that we feel so helpless in the face of it. Writer Warren Ellis judged, quite correctly, that this combination of emotions, mixed with a dose of “horror is other people,” would make for a spectacular Hellblazer issue. At the same time, Marvel Comics had already announced their bold initiative, dealing with teenage deaths in as many series as possible in the upcoming month, and printing the covers of all their series in plain black for one issue (I will never forget walking into Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr, PA and seeing the wall of black-covered comics to my left, a couple of weeks later).

DC Comics refused to publish the issue, perpetuating (in part – it was already brewing, to some extent) Ellis’ departure from the title. I wondered, at the time, what he’d had to say, and imagined it would hit home. A year later, I found out I was right when I managed to get my hands on black and white scans, read them in my dorm room, and wept for about an hour.

That was a scary time to be both a geek and a teacher in training. Students were being suspended from school for carrying comics in their backpacks. The “video games cause violent behavior” street-corner soapbox became a pulpit-and-microphone, with news coverage. There was talk of including intrusive investigation into personal hobbies and interests in the certification and background check process for new teachers, to ensure that “potential threats” among schoolchildren wouldn’t be overlooked in our country’s halls of learning.

At the same time, part of me wished they were right, even if I knew they weren’t. I wished it were just the comics, or the video games, because it would mean it was just one thing, that there was a magic wand that could be waved, some, dare I say, X-factor, that could be added or subtracted to fix the violence and safety issues and make our schools better places. I knew then that it wasn’t so simple, and I had high hopes that would be understood.

I didn’t realize how deep the nation’s misunderstanding of our teenagers really ran.

I also didn’t realize, until I reread the issue very recently after ten years of teaching experience, just how much Warren Ellis understood. Because damn, that is one of the finest issues of Hellblazer ever written, now that DC Comics has finally had the guts to go back and publish it as part of the “Shoot” trade paperback under the series title Vertigo Resurrected. It stands the test of time better than I think anyone hoped it would. I wish everything written in it had turned out to be wrong.

For those who haven’t read it, a brief summary: a woman named Penny Carnes (who only appears in this issue) is tasked with analysis of video and audio material of incidents of mass violence, to search for common factors. The one item she finds in multiple videos is the presence of our protagonist, John Constantine. She is startled when he turns up at her office but he reassures her that he intends her no harm. He explains that he has been at the scenes of several of these crime scenes in the aftermath as a favor to a recently bereaved friend looking to make personal sense of his own loss. When it becomes apparent that Carnes’ work has not given her any real insight, he becomes angry and points out that the common denominator in all of the incidents is a sense of desperation and meaninglessness in the lives of both the perpetrators and the victims.

The first point “Shoot” brings home lies in its very summary: note the complete lack of anything remotely supernatural. This is a comic about supernatural horror, but in this case, nothing supernatural could be remotely as terrifying as the facts, so Ellis made the smart decision and left them alone.

The second point I see in “Shoot,” which I have never seen made anywhere else, is the conflation of school shootings with other forms of mass violence, not just gun rampages but others as well. There is a clear reference in the comic to some of the mass religious suicides that occurred in the 1990’s. I don’t think I’d ever thought of them as symptoms of the same societal illness, and I appreciate that Warren Ellis doesn’t try to say they’re entirely the same thing, because they’re obviously not, in a number of ways. But he does point out, correctly, that they do have certain commonalities, lying in a cultural illness.

Constantine’s rant at Carnes is one of the greatest sequences in Hellblazer, if not in all of American comics. I’m just going to quote it here, though without the visuals I can’t do it full justice:

“I see kids in a schoolyard in some dead-end hole of a town in some asshole county in some crumbling state with no education and no hope and no future and they’re waiting. They’re just standing there. Born into a life that’s already slid out of view. Looking forward to turning out just like their mommies and daddies. Life already lived for them. Life in a world mommy and daddy couldn’t be arsed to build properly, a world that makes no fucking sense. A world where kids actually go to special classes to learn to recognize real emotions and body language because they were raised by the television. They’re only kids, for Christ’s sake. This is the best response they can manage to the insane fucking world they’re in.”

I know I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that about America’s teenagers in 1999.

I was a student teacher in 2002 the first time I noticed a student with long, bleeding cut marks on her arm. My first year of teaching was the first time I actually had a student come to me to say, “I need help. I think I might hurt myself if I go home by myself today.” It was only one year later after that, that I had a student in my classroom publicly threaten to hurt others, in a manner that brought in the FBI, among others, and it turned out to be a good thing it was reported. My fifth year of teaching was the first time I had a student whisper to me at graduation, “I wouldn’t have survived high school without your support,” and mean it – the proudest moment of my career to date. My seventh year of teaching was the first time I lost a student to a drug overdose, possibly deliberate.

This is all far, far too common. Our nation’s teenagers lead incredibly difficult lives, with traumas they should never have to experience. This occurs against a backdrop of a mechanical system that, except in very good cases, seeks to churn out productive members of society in a specific set of molds. Let me be clear that this is not a condemnation of public schools; private, charter, homeschooling, etc., all other models are just as bad about this, except in the best of situations. And obviously those situations exist, or we’d be much worse off than we are. There are wonderful schools of all kinds, and wonderful homeschooling parents, out there. But the vast majority are falling through the cracks of a system that isn’t honoring them as individuals, in spite of the best of intentions of the people working in that system, whichever type of system it may be.

That sense of being a cog in a much larger machine, is something of which numerous students have spoken to me over the years. I think it’s the single most dangerous thing about our current system, and the most insidious effect of our current plague of over-testing. It’s the one thing that brings together the cases of the isolated and estranged young people who perpetrate some cases of school violence with the cases of popular and successful young people who perpetrate others. And the scariest thing is that there’s no way to fix it. I mentioned over-testing, but eliminating standardized tests today wouldn’t fix this, even if it might help. Lowering class sizes this instant wouldn’t fix this, though it might help. Giving teachers professional respect and professional salaries and giving schools sufficient resources overnight wouldn’t fix this, although it might help. Rearranging our priorities concerning education in this country with the wave of a magic wand wouldn’t even fix it, but it might help. It would take a combination of all these things, plus a concerted effort on the part of every single person involved in raising our young people, plus more things that in all likelihood nobody’s even thought of because the environment for them to show up properly has never really existed, for this problem to be fixed in its entirety – and it’s getting worse, as we spend time focusing just as much on the guns as on the people, arguing with biased and bought research whether it’s better to arm everybody or to arm nobody, when the guns are frankly not the only issue at hand.

And, with some delightful exceptions, we waste our time talking about single issues in sound bites and 140-character microblog entries, trying to find that one thing that will make the problem go away, preferably without raising our expenses.

To quote “Shoot” again, from just a little earlier in the issue: “You’re all looking for something to blame when you should be looking out the window. I mean, it’s typical, innit? You’re looking for that one thing to subtract out of children’s lives to make it all better. Take out the videogames, the funny music, the food coloring, kids won’t shoot each other anymore. You’re not looking at what’s on these tapes.”

You know, it’s generally a bad thing when you read any hyper-political issue of any comic nominally in the horror genre, fifteen years after its publication, and think, wow, that issue was downright prophetic.

So, is the situation hopeless? Should we all just give up, because we haven’t solved the problem in the last fifteen years? Of course not.

Talk to your local community about the kind of schools and community centers you want to see. Offer your help and support where you can, when you can – every little bit helps.

Be one of those concerned individuals who works with young people in some way, even if indirectly – if you don’t have time to volunteer or money to donate, see about getting your workplace or organization to offer internships, or service opportunities, or even summer work on some very basic level. Get our kids involved in something better, let them see that there’s more out there than just more of the same.

Get out there and fix it. Get involved. Vote, for crying out loud.

And hey, taking a little action might help you feel better about things in the long run. And if all of us took just a little action, on a local level, just imagine what the world might look like, not too long from now.

Maybe we can help more of these kids decide it’s worth finding out.

Some Notes on Disability and Body-Positivity

Disclaimer: The following is based upon my own experiences as woman with recent experience of physical disability. Please do not assume that my experience is exactly representative of all disabled women. If there is a disabled woman in your life, the best care you can give her is to be discovered by listening to what she has to say about her own experiences.

One of the most important strategies for coping with disability and illness is maintaining a positive attitude. This is not only fairly obvious to most observers, but also conforms to standard medical wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also a hell of a lot easier said than done, in part because people with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, are constantly bombarded with messages of varying levels of subtlety that tell us our bodies are less valuable than those of people with perfect health, and that our accomplishments will always matter less, and that our relationships will always rest on a fragile foundation because of conditions that may be out of our control.

Unless you live under a virtual rock and just emerge occasionally to read blogs on WordPress (which might be a really healthy lifestyle, given the net these days), you probably use some service on the internet which tracks information about you: an online retailer, an email service, social media, online news sources, or any one of a variety of other websites that keep track of who reads what and what interests might overlap. The ads you see and the links with which you are presented are often selected to match specific data about you (sometimes with hilariously wrong assumptions – Facebook in particular is known for this). If you have a disability, chances are this information has made it into some kind of data aggregator and affects the messages you see.

These messages are crafted primarily for the groups in the world who possess privilege: white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, prevalent-religion-following (Christian, in the USA), vernacular-speaking (English, in the USA), wealthy, employed, non-single men. Some messages are specifically crafted for a group that changes one of these categories; the easiest example to find is advertisements targeted to a female audience – though even those usually contain messages that point women in the direction of pleasing men in some form or other, and conforming to male-dictated standards. Racial diversity is becoming more common in advertising and promotion, but still has a tremendously long way to go. It’s still a huge deal when a homosexual couple or family, particularly one raising children, is shown in advertising.

And here’s where intersectionality becomes important. When advertisers only have 30 seconds to get their message across, they don’t prioritize positivity toward not just women, but transgender women of color with disabilities, just to give one very complex possible example. Even simpler examples, combining only two of these categories, are hard to find in commercials in ways that really matter beyond basic representation (which is a vital step, but not the be-all and end-all).

As a disabled woman, I am constantly presented with “feminist” and “body-positive” ads that show women’s bodies being “amazing,” doing things that I can’t do. I see an ad of a woman running a race or climbing a mountain, and I’m told, “see, your body is incredible.” And the message underlying that, to a disabled woman, is “your body would be incredible, if it could do this; as is, sorry, that kinda sucks.” I am presented with “reasons you know your marriage will last forever,” that consist of “because you do X thing,” that… I haven’t been able to really do in years.

People around me see these messages as well, and it affects their attitude toward me and my body. This contributes to the fact that, when I use a wheelchair, employees at a grocery store tend to talk very! Slowly! And! Loudly! In! Small! Words! As if, because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t understand their speech.

It is very hard to maintain a body-positive attitude about my own body when I am constantly told by society that my body is lesser than other bodies.

Disabled bodies are not lesser than other bodies, any more than darker-skinned bodies are lesser than lighter-skinned bodies, or than female bodies are lesser than male bodies, or transgender bodies are lesser than cisgender bodies, etc.

I’ve seen this discussed in many an article, and most of them stop there. I’m going to continue by giving some positive examples of attitudes and expressions toward a disabled person’s body.

The degree to which I am currently disabled is a relatively recent development, and so it’s something that I’m still getting used to, both as a concept in my head and as a practical living situation. It hasn’t been easy, and I know I haven’t always made it easy for those around me. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by supportive family, both family of blood and family of choice. These people have helped me maintain something of a positive attitude, though it is still a daily struggle for me.

I have friends who tell me I look great when I show up wearing the new outfit I’m excited about, or when I’m dressed up for Renaissance Faire. They don’t focus on what today’s mobility situation might be. They tell me I’m fun to be around, to do things with, and reassure me when I wonder aloud whether my lack of mobility sometimes holds them back from doing things.

I have parents who tell me they’re proud of me, and who are proud to point out ways I look like them.

On the front lines of this fight with me, every day, is my husband. He tells me I’m beautiful, and when I sometimes stare at him incredulously, he insists, “Even though you may not feel it right now, you are beautiful.” He doesn’t let me get away with hating my body. Hating my body is a bad habit that I can fall into easily, and he knows it. His response: “Your body is amazing. I don’t like that it hurts you the way it does, but you have to remember, that’s not all that your body is.” And the best part about hearing this from my husband? It’s not rehearsed or planned. It’s part of his attitude, and I work every day to make it part of mine.

This is such an important insight, that there’s more to our bodies than our health problems, and I believe we don’t hear it enough. Sometimes our bodies screw us over, whether we’re disabled or not. Most of us will, at some point, go through a serious illness or injury of some kind. It feels like a betrayal by our own flesh, and it’s easy to lose the trust that we once had in our bodies, and to lose a sense of ownership, and that positive attitude that can keep us healthy. But those failures of our bodies are just a fraction of what our bodies do. The human body is incredible, and science continues to explore it because we don’t really even know how incredible.

This is true whether or not we’re disabled. I’d like to see this message explored with real inclusivity, in advertisements and articles focused on something other than yoga equipment and New Age enlightenment practices.

Review of Interstellar

My general rating of the quality of this film is that it manages to be an excellent movie despite several very serious flaws. I am absolutely glad I saw it, and I am particularly glad I saw it in a theater with a large screen, to take full advantage of the stunning visuals.

Author’s Note: Hereafter be minor spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid anything too specific, but general things about the plot are discussed here, so if you’d rather go into the theater knowing nothing of what you’re about to see, don’t read!

I envy anyone who was able to have the IMAX experience. For purposes of this review, readers should be aware that I did not see the film in 3D, so I cannot speak to the difference that might make to the experience. My eyesight prevents me being able to watch 3D films at all, so I don’t know what they’re even like, and can’t theorize. Even in 2D, though, this movie is amazing to just soak in the vistas.

It’s an awfully long soak, though. This movie is nearly three hours long, and one gets the impression that Christopher Nolan had a laundry list of plot points and science points and philosophical discussions he wanted to fit into the movie, and he decided to just make Interstellar as long as it had to be, to get it all in there. For the most part, it doesn’t drag, but the movie would have been better served by cutting out one or two plot arcs, some of the expository dialogue, and making the whole thing 40 minutes shorter.

Except for the very end, the pacing is excellent. There’s a lot of variance in the types of storytelling involved in Interstellar: the dystopia, the dustbowl/Depression-era farming survival story, the family drama, the father-child relationship, the explorer hungering for new horizons, a romance subplot, some action and a neat fight scene later on, lots of great science, space travel, time travel¸ betrayal, nifty robots and their dynamic with people, etc. The movie does contain what has become the obligatory weird revelatory scene involving the space explorer discovering things beyond current human consciousness, where current science knowledge stops and the writers and director get to play with their pet theories. As often happens with such scenes, the writer and director got way too caught up in their pet theories, and the scene is way, way too long. Attentive viewers can figure out what’s going on long before the characters do, and we have to wait for the characters to piece it all together and reveal it again with more expository dialogue.

I got the impression from this movie that the screenwriter thinks most of his audience has never watched a science fiction film before. The theory of relativity is explained far too many times, and cutting some of those repeated explanations could have made the storytelling much more efficient. The movie generally has a problem with telling rather than showing, or rather with showing and then assuming half the audience missed it and telling us anyway.

The script is the weakest part of the film. The acting is absolutely superb, without exception. Matthew McConaughey throws himself into this role to a degree I’m not sure I’ve seen from him before, and it’s incredible to watch. Matt Damon blew me away. Anne Hathaway is equally skilled, though she’s given much less to work with.

Okay, time to talk about women in this film. Christopher Nolan has taken a lot of criticism in the past for his portrayal of women in his movies, and rightly so, and I don’t see that changing here. He’s showing improvement, but it’s in baby steps. There are three women in the movie, grand total. One is almost entirely insignificant; she’s a background fixture on a farmhouse, there to have a grinding cough and impress upon the viewer just how bad health conditions on Earth really are, and to suffer with quiet dignity (and, oddly, to provide the movie with its Bechdel Test Pass, when she invites the protagonist’s daughter to stay the night and they have an extremely brief discussion of houses and associated memories). The second, played by Hathaway, is very significant, an expert in her field, a scientist, the daughter of the man whose research is leading mankind to the stars… and whose emotional outbursts cause almost every misjudgment in the movie. She is treated with less respect as an expert by the men on her crew than those men are treated by each other and by her, and unfortunately, there’s a reason for it. More than once she laments that maybe she really wasn’t cut out for this exploration, and the viewer has to think that perhaps she’s right. The decision to make this character the only woman on the crew is problematic at best. This is allayed significantly by the third female character, though, the protagonist’s daughter Murphy, who is easily one of the most compelling characters in the film, if not the most compelling. Whip-smart, determined, and able to think outside whatever box people try to put her in, Murphy is handed some of the worst obstacles of any character in the movie, and she handles them with dignity, resolve, and, eventually, success. She is delightful in every way. The film could have been improved with a larger role for her and a smaller role for Hathaway’s character.

One effect this would have had is a shift in focus. As it is, the film focuses on the conflicts among a very incompatible and inexperienced crew who have barely had a chance to work and train together. There is very little focus on the actual exploration of the stars, and why frontiers are exciting and inspiring. A focus on the urge to survive by pushing outward, and on the mission at hand, rather than on interpersonal issues among some fairly cookie-cutter characters and one really interesting protagonist, would have made a much better – and shorter – movie. I’m not sure it would have sold as well, though, because it would have been much more of a genre flick.

Despite these flaws, the expansive world-building, the fascinating hints and open ends, the sheer depth of everything included in the movie because of its nature as something of a behemoth, make Interstellar a pleasure to see and then go chew on afterwards for quite some time. It’s not an easy watch for a relaxing evening, but if you, like me, are the type of viewer who likes a movie that you have to watch and then let percolate for a few days and analyze to bits, you’ll love this.

The Inevitable #Gamergate post

Note: Comments will be very heavily moderated. Keep it civil, people. Harassment of myself and others will not be tolerated – in any direction, for any reason. I will tolerate harassment neither of or by Gamergaters.
A brief introduction, as to why I care. The Gamergate (or #Gamergate) movement has blown wider and stronger than I think anyone expected, and there’s a strong sentiment I hear of “Why does anybody care? It’s just video games.” Here’s why: because if people aren’t safe playing video games and talking about video games when they express differing opinions, then people aren’t safe talking about anything. And when one group’s safety (in this case, women) is compromised, everyone’s safety is compromised. But still, to many, it’s a hypothetical. To me, it’s personal. These are my people. Geek women are my people. I will not stand by in silence as we are driven away from the things we love. I will not stand back and be a silent witness to #Gamergatekeeping any longer.
Now, onward to my thoughts about this specific situation.
Let me state first that there are some serious problems in gaming journalism, and in gaming criticism. There are some major problems of corruption in the gaming industry. This is no surprise, given that it has rapidly changed from a niche market into a multi-billion dollar industry.
That said, these facts are mostly unrelated to Gamergate. I feel for the people who have gathered under the #Gamergate hashtag with the honest intent of addressing these issues, I really do, but it’s time for those people to wake up, realize that the hashtag has been tainted beyond all redemption by things like the threat of a school shooting and the harassment of women to a point that it’s driving creative people out of the industry based on their gender, and find a different hashtag under which to assemble, if they really want to address these issues.
Anyone claiming after serious research that this movement began with a journalistic concern is in a state of massive denial. The proof is there that the so-called “Quinnspiracy” is nothing more than a sad case of revenge porn on the part of an ex-boyfriend with an axe to grind, and not a legitimate axe at that. The origins of Gamergate lie with a trumped-up case brought against a woman whose worst actual action might have been cheating on him with someone she knew who did not in fact write a review of her game, and more likely her worst action was simply moving on after the relationship ended.
After that point, somehow, Gamergaters managed to get their resources in line enough to deliberately bring on board some people with legitimate concerns about the gaming industry and gaming journalism. But the harassment hasn’t stopped. And the rejection of women’s views hasn’t stopped. Any legitimacy the movement might ever stand to gain is blocked by these two facts.
To me, the scariest thing is that this movement has gained momentum, rather than losing it. The saddest thing is that it’s tainting the entire community of gamers. I’m hopeful that, with recent media events such as the lashing from the Colbert Report, that trend will reverse.
I’m also sad that there are some decent people who believe that Gamergate is the best hope they have of making positive change concerning some real issues in the industry, and those people are getting their very real concerns mixed up with some really unsavory practices, in many cases without realizing it. I’d like to address those people now.
Let me be clear about a few other things.
It is absolutely okay to disagree with someone.
It is absolutely okay to believe that someone’s views are irrelevant.
It is absolutely okay to critique someone’s practices.
It is absolutely okay to critique someone’s publications.
It is absolutely not okay to threaten or harass.
It is absolutely not okay to blacklist.
It is absolutely not okay to impose your ideas of what is relevant on the rest of the world.
It is absolutely not okay to career-block someone and defame their character based on a misconceived notion of law and accepted practice.
Even those who have legitimate concerns about the state of the industry are guilty of some of the above actions. For example, those who believe that feminism should not be included in game review because ideology should not be a part of game criticism. First of all, ideology is always a part of criticism. There is no such thing as an objective review, never has been, never will be. Movies are reviewed through the lens of the reviewers’ ideologies, as are books. If games are being reviewed this way, this is a good thing, a sign that the form is being accepted as worthy of genuine academic examination.
If you would rather people not include feminism as one of those ideologies because it’s not one you subscribe to, it’s your right to find and read exclusively reviews that don’t do that. But it is not your right to publicly defame the character and career of the reviewers that do, or to try to silence them and pretend that they have no right to disagree with you. I personally believe that the portrayal of women in video games is one of the signs of corruption in the industry, and that people like Anita Sarkeesian, flawed though her specific criticisms certainly are at times (and that’s a conversation I’d be more than happy to have in another place, maybe the comments section), are doing much more to move the industry forward than any part of Gamergate has managed to do so far, if only because she invites discussion and diversity of viewpoints while Gamergate seeks silence. I would encourage you to go start your own review site for people with other views. I think you’d get a lot of traffic, and I think it’s important that a variety of viewpoints be catered to in the publication of game reviews. If you disagree with my views, I think that’s great, and if you have a place you can find reviews that will reliably tell you whether or not you will like a game because the reviewer thinks along similar lines to you, that’s excellent. I need the same thing, and the same reviewer won’t be able to write for both of us, because we’re just too different in what we’re looking for in a game, if you don’t care about how women are portrayed. I don’t want reviews that focus on breast physics, but I’m okay with simply being able to avoid those that do; why can’t you, if you don’t want feminist-oriented reviews, do me the same courtesy?
I realize that if game reviews were to take a similar route to movie, book, and art reviews, it would change the way publicity in the industry works on a very fundamental level. I also think that would be an excellent thing, because it would further legitimize games as an artistic medium worthy of academic and artistic examination, and would grow the industry in progressive and healthy ways. Objectivity in reviews isn’t possible, because reviews are inherently subjective. Variety and diversity, however, can ensure that we all have our needs met, and will raise the general quality of the work produced in both the game industry itself and in the surrounding journalism.
If you really care about integrity in gaming publicity, I also encourage you to find a different hashtag under which to assemble, because for all of your good intentions, this one started out as a deliberate campaign to end the career and the personal peace of one woman out of a sense of sexual revenge, and has since become irrevocably associated with the harassment, threatening, and silencing of women. If you really don’t believe that behavior is okay, then do something about it. Don’t give me “not all Gamergaters,” I know that already and I don’t need to hear it again. Go back and look at the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter for a while, see what happened when that went viral a while ago, and come back when you’re done, because it’s starting to seem like it would function as a response to #NotAllGamergaters, even to #NotAllGamers.
I value the gaming community, because it’s my community. Gamers are my people. Geeks are my people. But. So are women. So are people with disabilities. I don’t want to be told that because of one part of who I am, I can’t be part of a community that represents another part of who I am. I understand that not everyone who has associated with Gamergate has that experience, and that’s wonderful for you, but there are far too many people who have had that experience, and it needs to stop. I don’t want people to have a bad idea about who we are as gamers, because of the fact that you and I can’t have a conversation.
And if you really are okay with seeing some change happen to make our beloved hobby into a healthier industry for everyone, even if it’s a little scary, even if it means getting used to some new ways of figuring out what you’re going to play next, I look forward to exploring that with you. If not, I very much fear this conversation is in fact over.
I shouldn’t have been afraid to make this post. The fact that I was, because I’ve seen what happens to women who criticize Gamergate, is telling.
You know what would make me happiest, Gamergate? If you proved me wrong. If you took control of the movement, broke your silence, made it clear that harassment is not acceptable, reached out to the women who have been victimized and driven from their homes. If you informed yourselves of journalistic practice, and sponsored a diversity in the types of reviews and criticism that are out there, as well as supporting integrity in factual reporting, and combating the very real corruption that does exist, without trampling on others’ right to free speech. If you made Gamergate – under this or any other name – into the movement you want it to be, rather than the mess it currently is.
Make no mistake, denial won’t get you there. And Gamergate is one of the greatest threats to gaming I have seen in a long time, as it’s bringing back questions in mass media of what “damage” gaming can do to people. These issues were almost, almost put to rest, before people started threatening to kill people for expressing different views, and now Gamergate is on the SLPC Hatewatch. There are still enough people out there who don’t know what’s going on and don’t care to research it, that there is a serious danger of widespread misinformation about gamers as a whole. And because I’m not part of Gamergate and refuse to associate myself with its origins and common practices, my best option is to just say my piece, and wait for the response, whatever form it takes.
And that also should not be as frightening as it is.