By Jay Stringer
I was thrown for a loop by some sad news today. Sad News. That's a bit of a relative term isn't it. In a year that's seen countless disasters, suffering, illnesses,wars and a storm that has just caused untold harm to America, I find the cancellation of a comic book to be sad news.
But sad is where you find it, I guess. And I'm a crime writer, so I find it in a lot of places.
I've been trying to find something to say about the comics industry for awhile now. The truth is that I was becoming increasingly disenfranchised and reached a breaking point earlier in the year. Ever since that moment I've been feeling the need to write form form of eulogy, a memoir of a reading habit. I could never find the right words or tone.
Comics as an art form are amazing. They're one of the best. I would argue that they are more high-tech than anything the silver screen spits out. One single still image on a flat page (or more increasingly a screen) can be used to create movement in our heads. It can give us a guide on pacing, atmosphere, character and tone. To achieve the same thing in the cinema involves the use of actors, filming equipment and someone with a sense of how to edit a story. Every year we seen millions of dollars thrown at films by studios who want to translate the magic of the comic-book page into moving images, and every year they fall short in varying ways.
It's simply an art form not to be messed with.
And there are amazingly talented people working within the art form. I still love buying an issue of a comic book and knowing that it represents the artistic vision of the creator(s) and that my buying it is an act of support, of rewarding that vision. But to extend the cinematic parallel, it's an industry dominated by two large studios, who increasingly are focused more and more on packaging a shiny product. Every clever idea that's been in one of their products is one that they have to own, whether they were involved in it's creation or not. Creators don't matter. Readers don't matter. Not really. Their wallets matter.
I'd felt this feeling growing in me over a few years as my tastes and priorities changed. What I learned this year was that I wasn't becoming estranged from the mainstream comics industry -which I'd always known was messed up- but that I was becoming removed from comic book fans. A group I had always proudly identified with.
Here's the truth of things. Companies do what companies can do. Football (Soccer) is not a commercial mess these days because of the people selling the products, but because of the fans who continue to buy the products. Summer blockbusters are not empty-headed fare because studios want to make empty-headed fare, but because they know that's what we will pay for every damned summer. And the mainstream comic book industry does not have a century of destroying creators lives simply because it wants to, but because fans will support them doing it.
We want our fix of tights, explosions and men dressed as animals, and it's our right to want it, and so what if we're supporting industry practices that seal IP away from creators and allow families to die in poverty with no pensions or health care. You can have the conversation with fans and they'll talk about how they make ethical choices, that they can support their favourite character each month without it meaning they endorse the behaviour of the company. How they can cut off things and "enjoy the work on it's own terms."
I understand why so many want to avoid that issue. Because once you accept it to be the case, you can't "un-accept" it. I can't "enjoy the work on it's own terms," because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. All the pieces matter. Once I flipped the switch, I saw there was no way to flip it back again.
There were a few personal doubts along the way though. I learned to read with comics. I learned to tell stories with comics. I wouldn't be the person I am today If I hadn't been warped at an early age by the writings of Alan Moore. If I hadn't been enthralled by Batman and Daredevil, by Green Lantern and Captain Marvel.
Comics often get written off as children's fare. A medium that has produced amazing adult-oriented and complex art often gets to be the the butt of jokes because those stories can include men in bright costumes dressing as animals and jumping off buildings. But those stories are no less art than things you'll find discussed in pretentious literary magazines. Often times they're much more art.
But whilst they should not be treated this way, I also rail against the nostalgia factor that can be so dominant. Because a reader liked something when they were 12, they feel they should always like it. And also that it should always be the thing they found when they were 12. I thought that walking away from mainstream comics was going to be a massive wrench for me, because in some cases I'd been reading these monthly books for over two decades. I found that It wasn't. It was all too easy to walk away.
I felt guilty about it for a time. But Matt Murdock has always been such a big part of my life, I should feel much more guilty about leaving him behind. He'd want me to be guilty. Then I realised It didn't matter. Just because Born Again had been a massive part of my development as a reader, didn't mean it had to remain an active part of my reading habits. It's fine to change and to be different people at different ages. As a film viewer I'm not ashamed of the fact that CLERKS was a major influence in the development of my writing and viewing tastes, but that doesn't mean I enjoy the film now. And defending comics against the stupid attacks of "it's kids stuff" didn't mean I also had to be reading them every month as an adult.
So I'd been looking for a way for the last few months to write something that summed all of this up. I wanted to find the neat and perfect way to say that mainstream comics had been a massive part of my life up to this point, but that I was okay with it not being a massive part of my life from this point on. I could simply never find the way to sum it all up.
Then DC Comics went and cancelled HELLBLAZER.
I haven't read the title since February, for reasons that don't really need any further going into, but it was one of the trifecta of books that I had always returned to over the last two decades. I'd miss an issue here or a story arc there. I'd move house, or have a busy writing schedule, or an upcoming wedding. All of these things will add up, but over the years you find that you've read certain books far more than any others. For my part I always returned to DETECTIVE COMICS, DAREDEVIL and HELLBLAZER.
DETECTIVE COMICS is a Batman book. It's one of DC's oldest and proudest titles and, while it never hits the sales peaks of one of the books that has Batman in the title, it's one they would circle the wagons around to defend rather than cancel. So I always knew I could return to that book. DAREDEVIL has had several run-ins with cancellation over the years, a number of relaunches and stunts, but I always knew Marvel would put the character somewhere even it they cancelled the book.
HELLBLAZER was the little book that could. It actually had no right to have survived 300 issues in such a shallow, sales driven environment. A character created by Alan Moore as part of the supporting cast in SWAMP THING and then spun off into his own book. A monthly title from a super hero company that chronicled a drab and dirty con man. An asshole. A liar. A cheat.
The sales never soared. The character was adult-only. The book was never destined to become a billion dollar Hollywood film (though it did limp into life as an awful Keanu Reeves one.) It simply had no place on the shelves with all those other explosive and shiny comics. Yet it remained. From 1988 until now, it sat amidst the super-hero books on the shelves with a sneer and a knowing wink.
I won't credit HELLBLAZER with leading me to crime fiction, but it's certainly been part of the journey. He was the only character that I really fancied writing at DC (not because of any animosity against the others, but because I felt I had a John Constantine story to tell in the way that I didn't have a Batman one.) Even after I stopped reading books from the company, I wondered if that would be the title that might tempt me back.
But if I'd already stopped reading and announced several times that I was done with the mainstream industry, why would this news throw me for a loop? It should have had no impact at all. And I think maybe that's it. It's the moment when you realise not that you're over an ex, but that you've been over them for some time and only just noticed. It can come as a shock when that happens, because you get so used to being one particular thing, but life never labels the moment you stop being that thing. You simply notice one day that you changed a long time ago.
DC can do what they want. They own the characters and they'll put out whatever books sell. I'm not grinding an axe against them. This post is not angry or bitter. It's merely a full stop. How best to sum up the notion that the mainstream (read- big two) comic book industry is no longer a place for me? This. HELLBLAZER is being cancelled. It's being replaced with a new, younger and cleaner version of the character. I was hooked in by John Constantine- jaded old punk rocker magician. I have zero interest in John Constantine- Jonas Brother.