All Trenchcoat and Cigarettes and Arrogance – The End of Hellblazer

DC Comics just announced that they were cancelling Hellblazer after 25 years of publishing (300 issues, some mini-series, a few original graphic novels, and one really awful film) to add the character of John Constantine back into the DCU via a New 52 series (is it really that New after more than a year?  Maybe? OK… why not?).

I’m trying to be upset about this, but… I haven’t been completely keeping up with the series, but the issues\arcs I’ve read over the last few years have been hit-or-miss.  I also don’t have the same love for the series that I do for, say, Sandman.  If they announced they were rebooting Sandman… I’d be pissed.  Here, I’m more curious to see how it all goes down.

That said, there’s a lot to celebrate in the twenty-five year run that Hellblazer’s had.  And the most important aspect thing to talk about is where it all got started…

Way back in the late 1980s, Karen Berger, an editor at DC Comics, culled together some of the most brilliant writers from across the pond to write for DC and try to repeat the success that DC Comics found with Alan Moore’s stellar run on Swamp Thing.

These writers, then unknown, are now a Who’s Who of comic writers: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan.  A second group brought us both Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis (among others).  Another name, not quite so well-known, is Jamie Delano.

Delano hasn’t gone on to the same acclaim that others like Gaiman and Morrison have… but his run on Hellblazer was instrumental in the creation of Vertigo Comics, a DC Comics imprint that also housed Sandman, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol.

In 1988, Jamie Delano was handpicked to be the guy who wrote a newer iteration of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing character, John Constantine.  The character of Constantine was a big mystery… a modern-day wizard in a trenchcoat who was unafraid to manipulate the Swamp Thing into doing what needed to be done… and was also unafraid to sacrifice others to save the world from evil.

When the series began in January 1988, fans were in for one hell of a ride.

Though you could tell that the deaths of those close to him was affecting in the Swamp Thing stories, in Hellblazer Delano finally pulls back the curtain on an incident that occurred in Newcastle, that was only hinted at in the pages of Swamp Thing.

At Newcastle, we discover that Constantine was responsible for a demon possessing and killing a young girl… and Delano shows how much that failure affects the character.  His incarceration in a mental institution and subsequent, continual feelings of guilt give Constantine a much more tragic backstory and instantly make him both more likable and more despicable.

In the follow story, “The Fear Machine,” also by Delano, is one of the best of the first fifty or so issues.  There’s magic, mystery, romance, and horror (like much of Delano’s run!) and the length, a bulky 9 issues, lets Delano play a longer game… and the pay-off is great.

But the best of Delano’s work on Hellblazer is, for me, in “The Family Man” story.  Some of this comes from the connection to Gaiman’s “The Doll’s House” arc in Sandman, but the story itself is creepy, suspenseful, and just great from start to finish.

The best news?  All of Delano’s stuff is collected in trades, so they’re easy to track down and read.  Other highlights are issue #27 by Gaiman and McKean, Garth Ennis’ run, the bits of Warren Ellis that I’ve read, and pretty much every issue I’ve read by Mike Carey (but I haven’t read all of Carey’s or Ellis’ runs, so… y’know, don’t bit my head off).

OK, I know… I”ve been doing a lot of comics lately.  I will try to remedy that.  In fact, right now I’m off to read more of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and after that… well I’m midway through Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run, I’m about to begin on the new book from Danielewski (even with how disappointingly gimmicky Only Revolutions was), and… God Help Me… David Barker’s Death At The Flea Circus.

God Help Me because I can’t believe I’m starting another book… Death At The Flea Circus is actually quite good (and I’ll have a post about it at some point in the “near” future).

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Lamenting the Death of a Hero – The Sad Decline of Jeph Loeb

I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m going to be walking on eggshells a bit in this post.  I want to go full-on NERDRAGE here… But I know it isn’t fair, to either Jeph Loeb the creator, or Jeph Loeb the person.

In fact, I almost made an accidentally inappropriate cancer joke in my post about Ultimate Spider-man which I deleted… mainly because the layers of it were incredibly offensive, both as a comic reader, and the spouse of a cancer survivor.

Anyhow…

To me, Jeph Loeb’s career is one of the saddest stories in modern comics.  Let me be clear: I’m sure there are people that still read and enjoy Loeb’s work.  Great!  I’d love to talk to you about it.  Seriously!  I want to know because I’d love to be able to enjoy anything he’s done recently.  But I don’t.  And it saddens me greatly.

My exposure with Jeph Loeb began with one of his many collaborations with artist Tim Sale in the Batman story The Long Halloween (1996). I loved The Long Halloween.  So much.  When Loeb gets with Sale, they can give birth to an excellent story (more on that in a bit).  The follow up to Long Halloween, entitled Dark Victory (1999) is also excellent. Both stories have a mixture of superheroes and film noir that give them a distinctly different feel from a typical Batman story.

Then there’s Hush.  Oh boy, is there Hush.  Unlike Long Halloween and Dark Victorythe Hush story arc took place within the confines of current Batman continuity (running through issues 608 and 619 of the Batman monthly comic in 2002).  These stronger ties to the ongoing continuity of the Batman tales meant that Loeb’s creations and storylines, such as the villain Hush, would be available to all other writers and artists in the future… well… until the New 52 wiped all that away, I suppose.

But Hush was great too!  It had Batman against a large collection of rogues, involved in a mystery with murder, intrigue… and Superman’s there too!  The writing was solid and the art, provided by the incomparable Jim Lee, was an excellent companion to Loeb’s dialogue and pacing.  One of my favorite modern Batman stories!

2002 also brought us another Tim Sale collaboration: Spider-Man: Blue and the following year brought Hulk: Grey, another team up for Loeb and Sale.  Both great stories about classic Marvel characters.  The color theme for Marvel characters began with Daredevil: Yellow (2001), which I haven’t read because… well, I have no interest in the character.  Hate me now!

But here our troubles begin.

2003 brought the fairly inconsistent, if entertaining, Superman/Batman comic.  I’ve read the first 12 issues or so and there’s nothing particularly wrong with the story… there’s just nothing terribly outstanding from Loeb in the first couple arcs.  Maybe it comes from my not-so-subtle distaste for ongoing caped-hero stories, maybe I try to hard to compare it to Loeb\Sale’s excellent 1998 miniseries A Superman For All Seasons.  I don’t know.  I just don’t I didn’t particularly care for Superman/Batman.

Superman/Batman #25 was the last issue written by Jeph Loeb, but not the last written by Loeb.  His son, Sam Loeb, wrote issue #26, but passed away from cancer before it was completed.  The issue includes a back-up story entitled “Sam’s Story” written by Loeb and illustrated by Sale.

The cynic that lives right below the surface of my mind wants to be cynical about the issue, particularly the back-up, but… I just don’t have it in me.  It’s a wonderful tribute to a young author who was never able to fully realize his dreams.

Late 2007 into early 2008 gave us Ultimates 3 which suffers from many issues, but the most glaring and painful is how forgettable it is… which is particularly bad because the first two volumes, written by known mad-man and possible future-Grant-Morrison-hit-target Mark Millar, are spectacular (well, mostly).  But I could forgive Loeb for that if it weren’t for Ultimatum.

I’m not going to go on and on about the faults and issues present in Ultimatum (November 2008). Honestly, someone much funnier and much more well-versed in comics has already done so.  But suffice it to say that even for someone who has only thus far attached to the Ultimate versions of Spider-man and Hulk… Ultimatum is almost enough to turn me off the rest of the Ultimate universe forever.

Almost.

That said… if Loeb gets back on Batman or another title I rather enjoy… I’ll still give him another chance.  His 2007 tie-in to the death of Captain American titled Fallen Son was roundly well-written… and obviously comes from the depth of sadness Loeb had after his son’s untimely passing.

Plus, as head of Marvel Television, Loeb is at least partially responsible for bringing us the animated Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes which is fun, quick-witted, and well plotted… there are individual episodes, but most of them contribute to a larger, over-arching plot that covers the whole first season.

So Jeph… well, OK, Mr. Loeb… please team up with Tim Sale again.  Give us the story we’ve been waiting for.  Something introspective, thoughtful… maybe a little bit of a noirish sort of feeling.  Toss in a bunch of villains, shake well and remember… We want to enjoy your work as much as you want us to enjoy it.

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Life In Progress – A Brilliant Novel In The Works by Yuvi Zalkow

How do I keep finding these weird novels?  Furthermore, how do I keep ending up reading these novels about writing novels?

Regardless of how I ended up here… here I am.  Another meta-fictional book about an author writing a book.  Did I know that’s what this book was about?  Of course not! I just liked the cover.  And I judged it thusly: That looks like the kind of book I’d read.

And is it?  Well, I think so… I mean, I read it, didn’t I?

Bah, whatever… in we go!

A Brilliant Novel In The Works
Yuvi Zalkow
286 Pages
M P Publishing Limited
August 14, 2012

First chapter, eighth line: the main character’s first name is Yuvi.

Oh.  So super-meta-fictional.  The author and the main character share a name.  OK, I can deal! I can persevere!  And I’m glad I did.  This book is funny.

And not just funny, but laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Much in the way that TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm straddle that line between uncomfortable and hysterically funny, A Brilliant Novel In The Works puts Yuvi in these absurd situations that would suck to be a part of… but are awfully fun to peek in on.

For instance, Yuvi suspects his wife, Julie, of having an affair.  Instead of confronting her about it in a mature, adult way… he instead stoops to snooping through her purse when he thinks she’s not looking.  Of course, she catches him and… well, I won’t spoil the fun.  Regardless, a funny scene made funnier by Yuvi’s complete inability to deal with a situation head-on.

The crux of the novel, however, aren’t these painfully awkward situations.  Instead, most of the novel’s plot comes from Yuvi attempting to finish his novel.  And the novel’s progress (within the novel) keeps up with the novel’s actual progression in a trippy-but-fun way.

The book also has a deviation chapter following almost every numbered chapter.  For instance, Chapter 11 is titled “Alcohol and Steroids” which comes from the line within the chapter, “‘He can’t beat this thing with just alcohol and steroids!'”

But the follow-up chapter is entitled “How I Killed Her Mother” which gives some backstory on Julia’s mother, as well as details about her mother’s death (from, what else, alcohol).  In most instances, there are correlations between the main chapter and the follow-ups that add very interesting layers to the novel.

Yuvi is a lot of fun as a narrator.  He’s neurotic, emotionally-stunted, and exceptionally sexually depraved.  All in all… my kind of character!

There’s also some elements of magical realism near the end of the novel, which reminded me somewhat of Adam Levin’s much longer book The Instructions.  Just a small bit of the fantastical, but it really made for a more emotionally impactive ending.

I don’t have much more to say about the novel.  I put it down for about a week while I was burying myself in comic books… so, sorry about that Yuvi.  But I did finish it and really enjoyed it.

If I’ve piqued your interest, you can also check out Yuvi Zalkow’s website which has a lovely mix of writing, video, and awkwardness.  What more do you want from a website?

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Bites of Bits – Rare John Fante Pieces

Some time ago, a random person in an AOL Chat Room (yes, it was quite some time ago… about 2000, 2001) suggested I read a small book titled Ask The Dust by the author John Fante.

It was, simply put, a revelation.

Suddenly, reading wasn’t just a way I spent time, getting lost inside macabre worlds of serial killers, or the fast-paced land of government spies… instead, reading became a doorway into the soul.

This seems a bit silly to me now.  I’m trying to imagine myself at 17.  I had always enjoyed poetry… reading it, writing it…  All that.

Poetry held the mysteries to love (Sonnet 130, John Donne, ), pain (Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Ione”), and the bleak emptiness I felt as a teenager (TS Eliot, AE Housman, and Sylvia Plath).

Oh and most mysterious of all: how some people were able to get published (Jewel).

But if I were to pick up a novel, I’d be more likely to read a Dean Koontz book than anything else.  I recall taking solace in the overwrought plotting and white knight heroes… not to mention the cathartic release of reading about truly evil villains torturing their victims…

Yeah, I was a messed up kid.

But John Fante broke me out of that.  I still distinctly remember trying to read a new Dean Koontz book and finding it lacking.  After all, wasn’t it almost the exact plot as a book he wrote in the 80s?  Yes, it was very similar… too similar.

If you haven’t read John Fante and you’ve got a taste for straight-forward, first person narratives… look no further.  If you’ve ever read and been a fan of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Sherwood Anderson, or Knut Hamsun… read him.  Now.  Start with Ask the Dust.  Then, Dreams From Bunker Hill.  Finally, read Brotherhood of the Grape and Fante’s letters.

From there, you’re on your own.  His other books are decent, but mostly hit-or-miss.  Full of Life is great if you read it while waiting for your wife to give birth.  Otherwise, it smacks of schmaltz.  Still probably worth a read at least once, especially if you’re really wanting more.

Incidentally, despite the quote that ran on the original hardcover of Brotherhood of the Grape, the main character is not, “as zesty as Zorba, as ruthless in his ways as Don Corleone” because… well, there’s nothing of either Zorba, or Don Corleone in the novel… Damn marketers.

Anyhow, I’m making this post to share some less common John Fante pieces.  Stuff that’s not collected in any of the available books.  For instance, Fante wrote a small series of columns titles “Swords and Roses” for a local newspaper when he was living with his family in Roseville… and here they are!  Big props to the library in Roseville for sending me copies (and they also have true first editions of both of Fante’s early novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust).

Also included below are three pieces Fante wrote later in life for the Los Angeles Times.

A Space Ship Off Malibu

Smog Defended

Goodbye Bunker Hill

These are easy enough to obtain through the normal channels (like the Roseville Public Library, or the LA Times website), I just wanted to put these here so can find them when I need them, and to give you fine people a nice introduction to John Fante.

And seriously catch me sometime and I’ll talk your ear off about how fantastic John Fante really is.

And extra-seriously… read John Fante!

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