February 2013 should be remembered by comics fans as the true end of an era, because the legendary title, Hellblazer, which, to those not in the know, chronicles the adventures and misdeeds of one Mr John Constantine, comes to a close with its 300th issue.
The surly, British grifter/mage has practically become an institution over the years, providing a gritty and foul-mouthed alternative to the squared jawed superheroics and flowery latter-day fairytales that DC Comics is otherwise known for, bumping heads with everything supernatural and the blackest side of humanity as he did so.
He’s also provided a segue for numerous British writers into the American comics industry as well as providing an oasis of ‘different’ for fan-favourite writers to find a new take and push a few boundaries. Starting life as a creation of über-writer Alan Moore, in the pages of Swamp Thing, Constantine soon found a dedicated following and became one of DC’s impressive mature readers comics in the title Hellblazer (1987), along with Neil Gaiman’s respected Sandman, both of which eventually becoming key launch titles of the trailblazing Vertigo imprint of mature reader comics; which itself became the one-stop-shop for smart, original stories of varying genres from the hottest creators in the business.
Indeed, such luminaries as Jamie Delano, Dave McKean, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Glenn Fabry, Paul Jenkins, Sean Phillips, Warren Ellis, Tim Bradstreet, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle, Leonardo Manco, Pete Milligan and Simon Bisley have all enjoyed extended runs on the book, with such legends as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, David Lloyd, Jason Aaron and Jock supplying guest stints from time to time.
Is creative stagnation accumulating, making the closing of the title a dignified bow? Well, no, because with every new creative team the book takes on a different aspect; it has a different feel and a different direction, the very selection of the creative team being of the uttermost importance to ensuring the freshness of a character who, unlike most comic properties, grows and ages in accordance with real time, which itself provides fresh story opportunities on a regular basis.
If that isn’t the case, surely the only other good reason to cancel a book is poor sales, but since Hellblazer wasn’t anywhere near the worst selling Vertigo book of late, or of anytime in its 25+ year run, that wouldn’t seem to be the answer either, and let’s face it, if it WAS DC would have had no qualms in stating the fact in response to the backlash they’ve suffered since the cancellation announcement.
What must be factored in though are DC Comics’ current bizarre streams of logic in accordance with their, frankly, nonsensical business plan of retaining 52 ongoing titles to which almost everything else is at the mercy of.
It is within this ‘New 52’ DC universe that a new, younger John Constantine has arisen, in the pages of Justice League Dark. Nothing wrong with that, after all, Swamp Thing was part of the mainstream DC Universe in its day, and it seems he’s proving relatively popular, as DC have commissioned the ongoing title, Constantine, following the cheeky chappy’s solo adventures.
So does that mean the cancellation of the long running title is a sales ploy to shift attention and readership onto the new Constantine book? It would appear so, as DC honcho, Dan Didio, recently defended the cancellation only by stating that fans could still enjoy the character in the pages of the new title; a retort which happily side-stepped the issue that while having the same name and ‘powers’, the DCU version of John Constantine is not in actual fact the same character; the accumulated back-story, street level approach and near lack of boundaries for language use and story content being essential parts of the Hellblazer mix.
This is the weird thing though, comic fandom are used multiple variations of the same character co-existing, these things haven’t confused us for decades, if ever. There’s no reason that a Constantine book AND Hellblazer book can’t both be in production, one needn’t be at odds to the other, in fact I dare say many John Constantine fans would purchase both books where as not all Hellblazer readers will automatically shift over on cancellation. Which means DC are shooting themselves in the foot financially, making this decision a cynical AND misjudged money-making scheme at best and a spit in the face of long-time fans at worst.
Looking to past successes is a legitimate way of finding new ways of conducting business and creating new successes, but when those lessons are entirely misunderstood or copied without context, what follows can be described as little more than raping or watering down those self same successes.
Baring that in mind, what do many of DC’s all time classic stories such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Superman: For All Seasons, JLA Earth 2, Cosmic Odyssey, Kingdom Come, Crisis On Infinite Earths and Batman: The Long Halloween have in common? Other than the fact that they’re all still in print and selling pretty well? They’re all limited series’ or one shots… So why would DC almost entirely turn their back on the format for their staple characters in favour of 52 ongoing titles?
Which long running titles are still entirely in print as trades and sell as well as ever? Sandman, Preacher, Fables, Scalped, DMZ and Y the Last Man, all Vertigo books… So, why has there been a steady decline in Vertigo output over the last few years? And lets face it, the cancellation of Hellblazer adds quite a hefty nail in the Vertigo coffin. If the imprint survives another few years I think we’ll all be very surprised.
Instead DC pick over the bones of the past, flogging Watchmen to within an inch of its life and dragging Vertigo and Wildstorm characters kicking and screaming into their PG-13, summer blockbuster 52 continuity, erasing their ‘histories’ as they go.
It doesn’t make any sense does it? But smarter and more influential people than me have had more to say about the subject to no avail, so what are you gonna do?
All that is left to be said is R.I.P, Hellblazer. You’ve been a constant source of enjoyment and inspiration to this writer for as long as he’s been reading comics. You’ll be missed, squire.