Giant Hellblazer Re-read Part II: Issues 4-12: Newcastle: A Taste of Things To Come

Author’s Note: This is the third 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.

This entry covers issues 4-12, the rest of the first year of Hellblazer. This is the first long arc, though the arc never received its own title, and includes one of the most important pieces of information about John Constantine’s history: the Newcastle Incident. The hardest thing about analyzing this arc is remembering to focus on issues other than issue 11, “Newcastle,” which deserves, and will receive here, its own focus. That issue is aptly subtitled “A Taste of Things To Come,” a title which would have worked just as well for the arc as a whole.

I am posting this entry before the episodes of NBC’s Constantine which introduce some of the major elements of this plot, primarily because I expect that there will be very little in common between the two. I have several reasons for this prediction: 1) there is no way that NBC will be able to represent the events of Newcastle without significantly watering them down, as this is still network television; 2) the upcoming episodes are based as much on the issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing featuring these characters as they are on the issues of Hellblazer, and I expect that the Invunche/evil goddess plotline will take precedence over the Resurrection Crusade and Zed (see below); 3) viewers of the TV series already know information John learns for the first time in this arc of the comic, so by necessity the series is going to have to take a different line. This is therefore one of the arcs I am really getting a chance to post for the initial reason I am doing these entries in the first place: to make the summaries and comparisons available to people who may not have the time, resources, or inclination to go pick up 300+ issues (there are side stories, after all) of Hellblazer based on a television that might still be canceled (please, NBC, show some sense and let it live).

That summary here is going to be a bit long, because it’s an unusually long arc, nine full issues. There aren’t many stories in the history of the series that go this long. Issue four begins with Gemma, Constantine’s niece, bemoaning the fact that her family has been caught up in the Resurrection Crusade, an evangelical pyramid prayer scheme, and their directives have uprooted the life she knows and restricted the freedoms to which she has previously been accustomed. Desire to rebel against her family causes her to wander into danger, in the company of some young women who claim that they are allowed to do whatever they like now that they are married to a mysterious man. Meanwhile, John falls in with a young artist named Zed, who accompanies him to Liverpool when he rushes there upon hearing that Gemma has disappeared. John and Zed barely save Gemma from strangulation by the mysterious Man, whose house is burned by the militant wing of the Resurrection Crusade. John, more than a little suspicious of the Crusade, begins investigating them, and promptly discovers horrors including soldiers from Vietnam brought back from the dead by the power of pyramid prayer, whereupon they return to their hometown and commit atrocities identical to what they did in Vietnam, as the dead are unable to tell the difference between past and present. Constantine decides to put a stop to the Resurrection Crusade’s activities. Zed is harassed and eventually kidnapped by them as well, as her mysterious past appears bound up with their activities; they begin to work at brainwashing her to become “the Mary,” giving her a central role in their upcoming plans. John, meanwhile, is consumed by guilt as his attempts to uncover the Crusade’s headquarters result in multiple deaths, causing him to nearly commit suicide by throwing himself from a moving train. The demon Nergal makes himself known to Constantine, and John accepts the demon reluctantly as a temporary ally when Nergal offers to heal Constantine’s wounds with a demonic transfusion in exchange for some assistance. Constantine sleeps with Zed, preventing the Resurrection Crusade from using her as a vessel for conception with an angelic partner, and then offers his body for use by the Swamp Thing, who possesses him in order to conceive a child with his wife. He thus prevents both Heaven and Hell from achieving their aims. Nergal is displeased that John has double-crossed him, and swears revenge, but inadvertently reveals that he was the demon involved with the Newcastle incident which has so haunted John. The actual nature of that incident is finally revealed, as well as the trauma of John’s time in Ravenscar afterward, and John is finally able to pursue revenge on Nergal. With the help of the last surviving member of the Newcastle crew, Ritchie Simpson, John does so, destroying the demon completely, but causing Ritchie’s destruction and damnation as well.

For the first time, in this arc we see Constantine caught between the forces of Heaven, as represented by the Resurrection Crusade, and the forces of Hell, as represented by the Damnation Army, while he struggles a) to keep his loved ones from becoming collateral damage, b) to keep himself alive while being targeted by forces far more powerful than himself, and c) to keep the forces of Heaven and Hell reasonably balanced so neither can proceed to treat humanity as a doormat. These motivations will remain a part of Hellblazer from this point onward, and many of Constantine’s methods, views, and choices as established here become the basis for his story later in the series, as do the consequences of his actions.

This arc also introduces some of John’s family: his older sister, Cheryl, who loves him but doesn’t understand him, who sees him as a source of strength and feels guilt about it, and for whom John cares deeply; her husband, Thomas, a weak man who is easily led by promises and flashy religious stunts; their daughter and John’s niece, Gemma, a justifiably resentful girl whose curiosity is clearly going to get her into trouble on numerous occasions, and whom John loves dearly. Constantine’s family is clearly going to be an Achilles heel: he is willing to drop everything and run to their aid as the story begins.

Also found here for the first time is Zed, the first ongoing romantic figure found in Hellblazer. She’s a great character, with powers of her own, who isn’t willing to be a damsel in distress and is more than willing to call John on his bullshit. She was a clear choice for female lead for NBC’s Constantine, and it looks like the show is going to be tackling this storyline soon, at least in part.

By far the most important part of this arc, more important than any other character introduction or plot point, and arguably the single most important part of Jamie Delano’s entire run on Hellblazer other than the establishment of John Constantine as protagonist, is issue 11. This is one of the few issues to be collected in more than one trade paperback; in addition to being in The Devil You Know, this issue is also found in Rare Cuts.

A more specific look at the events and characters of Newcastle is in order here.

It is established clearly before the issue even begins that something happened at Newcastle which scarred John very deeply. John goes searching for the memories, to remind himself, and we get our first hint at just how bad it’s going to be when the flashback opens with a look at all six of the crew: John Constantine, Judith, Frank, Benjamin, Ritchie Simpson, Anne-Marie (whose ghost we’ve seen as a nun haunting Constantine, but she’s not a nun here – first bad sign, whatever happens here is going to change her in a very fundamental way), and… uh-oh, that’s Gary Lester, already doing drugs but seeming mostly functional. The shock of seeing how different Gary and Anne-Marie are from their first appearances in issue 1 is a brilliant, concise signpost.

This is immediately followed by another: the sight of a young, confident, already angry but still hopeful John Constantine who believes that he can make everything okay.

This is quite possibly one of the most terrifying concepts in the entire series. We are given a moment of quiet interaction among the characters, to realize that in the next 30 or so pages, we are going to see the single event that will cause Anne-Marie to become a nun, Gary Lester to become a non-functional junkie, and John Constantine to become the bitter, self-destructive, nightmare-ridden wreck we know and love.

The crew break into the Casanova Club (“Casanova,” translating roughly to “Newcastle,” very clever, Mr. Delano) where Mucous Membrane made its debut, and things start to go wrong immediately. Anne-Marie, a psychic, senses that horrors are occurring. They discover, in the cellar, an awful conglomeration of slaughtered people, and upon returning upstairs, they find the club owner’s daughter Astra, dancing, possessed. She tells a harrowing tale of sexual abuse brought to an end by the terror elemental she has summoned, but which she can no longer control. John confidently plans a summoning of a demon to drag the terror elemental away, and takes control of the situation. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned, because he does not know the correct name of the demon he is summoning. It toys with all of them, drags Astra to hell, taunting John with the possibility of her rescue. John makes a spectacular attempt, returning only with her severed arm when he fails. As the perspective returns to the present, we find out how all the members of the Newcastle crew fell into destruction, and John plots his revenge on Nergal, whose name he finally knows.

This event is the foundation for the entirety of John Constantine’s later career and story. It represents the first time John sets out not to simply con but to actually destroy a being much more powerful than himself, and for a motivation as personal as revenge. It represents John’s greatest failure, the guilt from which he will never recover. This event is the source of his insanity, the reason he spends two years in Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged. Again and again, stories about Constantine will return to this event and this location. The death of Astra is not the most horrible thing that John Constantine ever witnesses or is party to, but it is the first of the major catastrophes of this type in his life, and as such it holds tremendous significance.

Many comic book heroes have an event in their histories that defines their motivations. The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is probably the most famous example. The events at Newcastle fill this role for John Constantine.

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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.

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

Why I Love Mordred in the Arthurian Legend

I have loved the legends of King Arthur since I was a small child watching The Sword in the Stone, and eventually reading the full novel of The Once and Future King, but it wasn’t until high school that I really began to understand the sheer extent of the tapestry of Arthurian canon. The complexity of the legends can be mind-boggling, even as some of the renditions and individual stories are very basic and simple, even sweet. The work that really set me on the journey of becoming an Arthuriana enthusiast and scholar was Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in particular the author’s experiments with viewpoint. I had never realized that viewpoint could be such a pivotal concept in retellings of the legend, and I immediately set out to devour all versions of the legend I could find, the more different the better.

The first “different” version I read was, of course, the direct follow-up to the Merlin Trilogy, Mary Stewart’s own novel The Wicked Day, which retells much of the last book in the trilogy from Mordred’s viewpoint, before adding events to the end which go beyond the scope of The Last Enchantment, the last novel in the trilogy. From that point on, I was fascinated with the character of Mordred, and his history in the Arthurian canon.

At Bryn Mawr College, I took a course on the legends of Arthur. One of the big assignments was a large paper on a character, chosen from the list, and we were to research the canonical history of that character, his or her first appearances, later development through the different Arthurian sources, and the way she or he is interpreted by modern fiction. The professor, after discussing the expectations with the class, asked how many of us had already picked our character; most of us had. She asked how many were planning to write about Morgan. Almost a third of the seventy-five or so students in the class raised their hands. This being Bryn Mawr, this was not tremendously surprising. She then asked, curiously, if anyone was planning to write about Mordred. My hand shot up at the back of the room. I was the only one. The professor laughed. “Ah yes,” she said. “The Mordred people. There’s one in every class. Good to know which one you are. You guys keep us honest.”

That comment struck me, as did the assumption that a bunch of scholars discussing the Arthurian legend would need someone to keep them honest. As it turned out, the prediction was quite correct, and I learned why: the sources, from medieval to modern, generally espouse a certain moral code, and take for granted certain concepts. One of Mordred’s roles in the legend, and therefore one of my roles in the class, was to constantly call those concepts into question, often playing devil’s advocate (I don’t normally do this, but for some reason this class really brought it out in me). It made people angry with me, just as it made people angry with Mordred in the legend. Fortunately, in a modern liberal arts college, there was a much greater expectation of open-mindedness than would be found in a medieval court.

One can tell so much about the purpose of any piece of Arthuriana by watching how Mordred is portrayed. The reason for this is that Mordred is key to how Arthur himself is portrayed: they are nemeses. In the same way that Batman would not be as brilliant without the presence of the Joker to oppose him, or Superman without Lex Luthor, the list goes on, Arthur needs his Mordred for contrast. The difference between this pair and those others, though, is that Mordred can be just about anything the author wants — which means that Mordred becomes a vehicle for making Arthur anything the author wants. It is very revealing of the portrayal of Arthur, to view his opposite, or sometimes just a foil, or even just a tragic circumstance, in Mordred.

When I first read Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, and read up on the character, much of the critique I saw of the novel mentioned her “new” take on the character. This seemed odd to me, as Stewart specifically mentions in her author’s notes that Mordred was not originally a villain. He is barely a footnote in the first source in which he is mentioned (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and we cannot even tell on which side he fought in the battle of Camlann. When I did my research in college, I discovered there are numerous other old sources which have a complex or even sympathetic portrayal of the character. I think my favorite is the Alliterative Morte Arthur, which portrays Mordred as fighting against Arthur for reasons he believes valid, and refusing to back down from his own honor and convictions. The two are set against each other in a conflict that cannot be resolved except through death, and everyone, including both Arthur and Mordred, recognizes the tragic waste. The moment that gave me chills, though, was when I read about Mordred, having just killed Gawain, weeping over the body, realizing that at this point there is no going back even if they should find some way to resolve all of their other issues, and fully understanding the waste of all the brilliant men and ideas that will perish in the battle. This, from a piece written in the late 1300’s. The idea of a sympathetic character in Mordred is definitely not “new.” If anything, the sneering madman of The Once and Future King is the new interpretation. Even Thomas Malory portrays him as bitter and treacherous, but sane and practical.

If you read my earlier post about Game of Thrones and why I love Jaime Lannister, it should come as no surprise that I love Mordred to pieces, and for many of the same reasons. I love characters who call everyone’s assumptions into question. I love complex characters.

Mordred may be one of the most complex characters in all of literature. This comes in part from the sheer number of versions: the evil wizard counterpart to Merlin; the disgruntled brat prince; the smooth-talking madman; the dangerously charismatic and treacherous rebel leader; the misguided and bitter youth; the abused boy manipulated by his vindictive mother; the terrified knight caught up in a destiny he cannot escape; the politician who makes hard decisions; the nobleman who is a victim of circumstance; the leader of a resistance against a regime that has outgrown its usefulness to its kingdom. These are just a few of the thousands of versions of this character that now exist. There’s even gay erotica about Mordred (it was brilliant Arthuriana, actually).

Fun piece of trivia: If you watch Monty Python’s Quest for The Holy Grail, it is possible to determine the identify of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. He is Mordred. The proof is two-fold, beyond the fact that Mordred does not in fact appear in the film: 1) He is a baby in the image, and Mordred is the youngest of Arthur’s knights in most of the Grail legends. 2) He is wrapped in swaddling that is green, with embroidered dragons. Green signifies Lothian, the realm of Arthur’s sister; the dragon signifies Arthur himself. The child of Arthur and his sister? Mordred. QED. The Python crew has confirmed this analysis.

Fetishized Books and Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a post about the practice of covering books in human skin, and some of the disturbing ways that has been viewed by its practitioners.

There were numerous articles in the news recently highlighting a scientific finding at Harvard that one of the books in the university’s collection is covered in human skin. There were three books that might have fit this description, and two were disproved. The third, however, is a genuine example of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy: covering books in leather made from humans.

In particular, I was struck by the article in the Washington Post. The author ends her article with the line, “The real thing that we might all wish had been fake.” This, of course, assumes that everyone reading the article agrees with her in wishing that books were never covered in human skin.

Okay, sure, it’s a little creepy at first instinct, but as a friend of mine pointed out, becoming a book after death is not such a bad fate, and is actually one quite a few people would aspire to. And the woman whose skin went into the book was not killed for it – she died of illness.

What is universally icky, though, is the inscription, which fetishizes her skin down to its very pores, along with fetishizing the book itself. The strangeness of this, combined with the more-than-vaguely necrophiliac feel of this sentiment, seems to get to pretty much everyone.

Thinking about it, I realized there’s a movie director who captures this beautifully, in one of the most stunning films I’ve ever experienced. That director is Peter Greenaway, who seems, based on his work, to have a genuine fetish for the written word. I don’t mean the content; I refer here to the actual physicality of books and writing. This shows up in both Prospero’s Books, one of my favorite films of all time starring John Gielgud, and a far less disturbing example for those who want to experience Greenaway’s style, and in The Pillow Book, which features multiple characters who paint calligraphy on each other’s skin as an exploration of sexuality. It begins with the sweet concept of a father writing blessings in calligraphy on his daughter’s face as a birthday ritual. It becomes slightly twisted as she equates writing with love, and is willing to subject herself to what she perceives as degrading levels of fetishization to receive it. Eventually, this turns gruesome, and there is a slow poisoning scene which is disturbingly visually beautiful, done so that the writing on a person’s skin will be preserved as a manuscript, all with breathtaking French music in the background. The movie is both ethereal and obscene, both to extremes.

While, in both the movie and in the case of the Harvard manuscript, the lack of consent on the part of the fetishized person is disgusting (oddly, there’s more sexual consent in the film, even in the murder scene), the film captures the writing fetish in such intimate fashion that it becomes comprehensible to the viewer. A fetish for books doesn’t seem so alien after all. It may not be your thing, but if you’re looking to make some sense out of this particular news bit, and are prepared for some psychological drama, you may want to try the film.