“Well, Where I come from, when somebody wants someone done over, they talk about sendin’ the boys round. ‘Harry’s turned into a right mouthy twat, I’m gonna send the boys round.’ Yeah?”
“Whoever wants Harry’s legs broken.”
“Who are the boys?”
“Whoever they send to break ’em”
If you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, then this comic is one that you shouldn’t judge by its content. Cocraeted by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, it’s Ennis at his absolute best to include jokes involving menstrual blood or condoms to ultra-violent gore that would rival splatterhouse films. But that also means it includes surprisingly good characters that are developed and unique with moments that hit deeply and make you empathize with them all the better; And while they tell you Billy Butcher’s origins early enough, but it isn’t until you see the story unfold that you realize the full impact of what really happened. The story ends up as an interesting combination of a look at the world around us and a look at the world of comics seamlessly bundled together. It starts off gory and slapstick and then about a third of the way through it takes a sudden turn and reveals itself as the ridiculously tight and violent political thriller that it is. It’s a strong use of misdirection that pays off handsomely.
The story begins with Hughie and his girlfriend enjoying a day at the fair until she is inadvertently killed by a speedster superhero called A-Train. After being approached by some people in suits asking him to sign a waiver, he is approached by Billy Butcher who is intrigued by the fact that Hughie didn’t even mention money or recompense for his loss; he is quite simply that devastated.Billy recruits him to join The Boys: a black-ops team funded the CIA and charged with keeping superhero activity under check. Billy has reformed the group with the original members of the team sans the founder Captain Mallory. Each member has their own reasons for joining the team and many of them involve taking down the corporation Vought American who is responsible for the creation of many of the heroes with harrowing repercussions.
While the majority of the action takes place in the main comic, smaller side events filled with relevant information and clues are contained in the handful of mini-series that emerged at the same time as the main comic. Herogasm shows a superhero orgy/convention and the beginning of the Homelander’s plans, Highland Laddie is about Hughie’s pilgrimage home and the adventures he gets into there, and Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker details Billy’s past and his relationship with his father. Other characters are given their own centric comics where they flesh-out their backgrounds, though Frenchie’s is the least clear given his fantastical style of speech (which only makes his origin comic amongst the absolute funniest of the series).
At any rate, while this is may certainly not seem like a mature comic for mature readers such as yourselves, there is a strong story with fantastic characters that’s well-developed since the beginning. While it was originally published by Wildstorm, an imprint of DC comics, it was canceled after only 6 issues. Thankfully, they allowed Ennis and Robertson to retain the rights and have a different company, Dynamite Press, publish it. They even went so far as to allow Robertson to continue to illustrate it to completion despite having an exclusive contract with DC. And considering this article was written on Thanksgiving Day, this is something we can all be thankful for.
I first read Watchmen before I had read Miracleman. Both were written by Alan Moore, both are deconstructions of the superhero genre, and both were written in the 80’s at latter ends of the decade. And while this may make them very similar in nature, they are vastly different creatures. While I would have to agree that Watchmen is the better comic book in that it set out to show to the world the exact things that a comic can accomplish that both a movie or a book could not. It can depict action and explosions wordlessly like movies, and it can give narrative and dialogue and more information the way books can, but it can also use both traits to greater effect. You can take your time to read a comic and notice all of those tiny recurring themes and motifs. You’re allowed to go back and flip between pages to see vital clues and other things you may have missed. It can use the illustrations as art such as issue 5 of Watchmen, purposefully titled Fearful Symmetry, where Moore and Gibbons designed the comic to reflect itself panel by panel using color and composition in order to draw out each moment as an exact mirror of their respective page all culminating up to a splash page that mirrors a large letter V.
This single letter can be expounded upon in a multitude of ways: the character’s name is Adrian Veidt, it’s the fifth issue, it’s symmetrical and it comes in the exact center of the comic. This is not something easily achieved in a film or a book for that matter.
As I said earlier, Watchmen may have been the better comic but it is Miracleman that is the better deconstruction. Papers have been written and you could spend hours just poring over the detail of each and every panel in the way it is utilized in Watchmen. The story itself, however, is more focused on the time it was living through what with the escalating tension of the Cold War. Moore had sat down to pen a tale of what would happen if there really were costumed vigilantes running around our rooftops and punching bad guys in the jaw. Where Moore faltered is in adding a character that really did have superpowers, i.e. Dr. Manhattan. These are regular humans in costumes and they are powerless to save the world they live in. The only man capable of such wide-scale actions is the only one who doesn’t care enough to do so. Miracleman is what would happen if humans really were granted the power of supermen.
Miracleman is not Moore’s creation however. He began as a creation of Mick Anglo during the 1950s named Marvelman, very similar powers and abilities to Captain Marvel. There were kid sidekicks and they fought off alien invasions and the like all before going home to eat big bowls of strawberry ice cream and laughing before the comic closes out. His name was changed to avoid copyright issues and turned over to young upstart Alan Moore, who immediately began to experiment with the character. First, while all previous adventures of Miracleman were kept canon, they now occurred as nothing more than dreams that he experienced at the hands of the nefarious Dr. Gargunza while he experimented upon Moran and the other members of the Miracle family. Whereas Moran had spent a great deal of time unaware of his heroic past and abilities owing to a concussive injury from a bomb explosion, Kid Miracleman (Johnny Bates) survived the explosion, unbeknowest to Moran , and proceeded to continue to live out his life as his superpowered alter ego. Bates becomes corrupted by his power and becomes completely sociopathic. After the first brutal confrontation, he is tricked into saying the magic word that triggers his transformation and he is once more a scared and weak 13-year-old, innocent of the crimes he has committed but all too aware of them all the same. He’s left in a state home, where he is beaten and ridiculed constantly as he battles the mocking voice of his now wholly independent alter-ego.
After the death of Dr. Gargunza at the hands of Miracleman and the extremely graphic depiction of the birth of his daughter Winter, Moran is left with a choice and bitterly leaves behind his life as a mortal and has dedicated himself to living out the rest of his life as Miracleman and helping the entire earth. It is at this point that young Johnny Bates can no longer withhold the mental onslaught of Kid Miracleman after the latest attack from a gang of bullies leaves him moments away from being raped, and Kid Miracleman resurfaces on the world. He decides to get Miracleman’s attention in the only way he knows how: wide-scale slaughter:
MM is forced to defeat KM and when he has reverted back to Johnny, he has to make the final decision as to what to do with KM and prevent him from ever returning. That initial shock at seeing what Kid Miracleman does when he’s bored is mind-boggling and the attention to detail is both fascinating and grotesque.
Aliens and other sentient beings are introduced and the world is plunged into a technological and cultural boom. MM and his female counterpart Avril run the earth and offer all the humans of the planet the ability to switch between bodies and superbeings are being born, Winter being the first of them. It is at this point beginning with issue 17 that that other superb scribe, Neil Gaiman takes to the helm. Here he has divided the second half of the book into three arcs called the Golden Age, Silver Age, and Dark Age. In true Gaiman fashion, the Golden Age consists mainly of a view of this new world as told through the various people that inhabit it. Government spies that can’t leave their professions behind are kept in sanctuaries with other professionals, one of the robotic duplicates of Andy Warhol, and so on. A glimpse into this radically changed world and how it would relate to us. Only two issues of the Silver Age made it to print, with the reintroduction of Young Miracleman and ending at issue 24 with the beginnings of trouble arising in this idyllic paradise and issue 25 would have been the reintroduction of Kid Miracleman. However, the company that was then publishing the comic, Eclipse, collapsed and we shall never know how the story would have ended. A few pages of issue 25 have surfaced in various online resources and the companion book but otherwise the rest remains a mystery locked up in Gaiman’s head.
Although a lengthy and overly complicated legal battle ensued over the rights of the character, Marvel co. has purchased the rights to the original interpretation of the character from Mick Anglo, but it’s still anyone’s guess as to who owns the rights to the 1980’s version by Moore and Gaiman. Suffice to say, it’s sad that we will most likely never be able to see a finish to this great tale. Owing to the tangle of red tape surrounding it, unless you have hundreds of dollars to spend on tracking down used TPBs online the only way to experience this story is by hunting down scans online. While some of the writing and art show it’s age somewhat, I still find this to be a better deconstruction than Watchmen. Real humans with powers would not run around punching bad guys. They would either take over to set things as best as they can (MM) or else they’d become corrupted by their own power and hubris (KM). Then again, not all humans are alike and I leave with the last page of Moore’s run after Liz (Moran’s wife) turns down his offer of a ‘perfect super powered life’, and MM reflects on her parting words
“He was a hero to some, a villain to others… and wherever he rode people spoke his name in whispers. He had no friends, this Jonah Hex, but he did have two companions: one was death itself… the other, the acrid smell of gunsmoke.”
Such are the whispers told of Jonah Hex, the greatest and most ruthless bounty hunter that ever lived. A very paragon of the wild west. But Hex is no kind-hearted individual, though he is not without the occasional bout of empathy. Hex is merely indifferent to others, having been raised by an Apache tribe after his alcoholic and abusive father sold Jonah as a slave to the tribe where his face was burned with a hot-iron axe after a questionable duel with the chief’s son. He had seen the worst that humanity had to offer and accepted it as life. Hex drinks heavily, smokes often and sleeps with all manner of women though only a scant few would be able to lay claim to a portion of his heart. Talullah Black stands out as a female character done right: Tallulah went from having her family killed in front of her by a group of men hired to steal her family land and then later mutilated across her body by the same leader after she had turned to prostitution. She turns to Hex for help, who reluctantly teaches her gunfighting and other skills which enables her to track down the man who had wronged her so often and terribly and exact her revenge on him. She continued to live as a bounty hunter much like Hex and gained much notoriety of her own.
The thing in particular that I enjoy most about Palmiotti and Gray’s run is that each story is self-contained. While Hex does have an overarching narrative due to his being a regular human and therefore ages, you don’t need to know anything about Hex in order to enjoy his stories. All that you need to know is he is a bounty hunter and a damn good one. Every story is a tale unto itself and could easily stand as a movie by its own right, and while there may be the occasional recurring character here and there, the strength of the stories lie in tales about the human spirit, both the good and the bad. There are cannibals and thieves, roving bands of outlaws and bloody Apaches as well as innocent and simple folk, people who want nothing more than an honest job and food for their family. Sometimes one morphs into the other. The artists do their best to convey the stories contained within and the artwork tends to be clean and expressive. Even the title is worded with craft and it’s not uncommon for the title to not appear until the final page.
A movie was released in 2010 and it is an abomination that has little to no respect for the source material. Unlike his comic origins, this version of Hex lived an idyllic life on a homestead with his wife and kids before his faced was burned and his family slaughtered by Turnbull. Also Hex gains the power to talk to the dead for no reason whatsoever. Tallulah goes from being a mutilated half-blind bounty hunter dressed in a black trench coat to some random chick that wears a corset at the best of times.
While Jonah Hex officially ended his title with issue 70 (and a special issue 71 being released for the Blackest Night DC event), the series was revived as All-Star Western when DC launched its reboot. Thus far, even with Palmiotti and Gray still at the helm, it is not nearly so entertaining as it has traded its stand-alone arcs with a longer over-arching narrative typical of long-running comics. Having the weak and helpless Amadeus Arkham tagging along throughout every issue feels more like a hindrance and an annoyance than anything else. Still, the clever writing shines through at times and well worth reading regardless.
WHO IS THIS MYSTERIOUS FIGURE?! Who is this fantastical warrior that lurks in the dark and takes orders from none other than President Lincoln himself? Why, it’s none other than THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD!
With his trusty butler Mister Groin and his faithful pet Mister Dog, they race to stop the evil Emperor Zombie from translating the Kalakistan Fragment and gaining supernatural powers only to end up fighting a greater evil!
Written as a one-shot by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame, it’s much more light-hearted fare than what is traditionally presented in a Hellboy tale but the art remains as atmospheric as always. The story doesn’t take itself seriously and plays around with the tropes of earlier noir and pulp fiction such as The Shadow or The Spirit. It’s more akin to a whacky homage than anything and Mignola is quoted as having gotten the idea when he noticed that the majority of action figures tended to be the same character with a different paint job. So Mignola imagined a robot character that would screw his head into whatever body best suited the mission. The Amazing Screw-On Head is exactly that, and he fights the forces of evil at the bequest of Lincoln by literally screwing his head into one of various mechanical bodies (13 confirmed) with different gadgets such as a fist that rockets out towards the enemy before detonating.
A pilot was made and aired on the ScyFy website in 2006 with a survey to decide whether or not it would be picked up for syndication. Sadly, while it was not syndicated, it was released on DVD. The pilot follows the one-shot fairly well with added backstory for the characters and one or two minor tweaks to lengthen the story for the full 22 minutes. But all in all it’s a fun little story that the world should really know more about and a damnable shame it didn’t prove popular enough to bring to the little screen.
Decades ago, Alan Moore was nobody. He had written a few pieces for 2000 A.D. and a few comics here and there such as his work on Miracle Man (which I’ll be covering in a future piece). DC approached him in the mid-1980s and asked him to take on the writing duties for a relatively unknown character named Swamp Thing. Seeing as they were considering canceling the title due to low sales and small interest, they would win regardless of the outcome: if it failed, they would cancel it as planned; if it succeeded, then they would have revitalized a decayed character and it would simply be more money in the pocket for them. And so Moore took over and with his help and that of the artists assigned to his team Swamp Thing quickly revitalized the horror genre in a time when horror comics were no longer amongst the more popular genre of the comic newsstands.Amidst the many characters and stories that Moore would go on to tell, there was one personage that stood out. He was a simple character devoid of powers. All he had to rely on was his wit, vast knowledge of the arcane, and an increasing network of friends that owed him favors. John Constantine came about as a result of Moore wanting to write a different kind of warlock. He was tired of seeing the same cloak and potions types of spell casters that were to be found in printed page, the Zatannas and Dr. Stranges. When he pressed the artists for ideas on the type of things that they wanted to draw, one of them suggested the musician Sting and thus Constantine was born. Now Constantine is a different sort of character. As I’ve mentioned before, he ages and has no powers to speak of. Sure he might be able to dazzle people in a hypnotic sort of way or cast a few basic spells but only of the variety that anyone else would be capable of. He’s blonde, british, and doesn’t give a shit what others think of him. He outwits the highest levels of demons with nothing more than a shit-eating grin and a flick of his ever present cigarette. He was unlike many of the personalities throughout the DC universe. He cursed and drank, chain-smoked Silk Cuts cigarettes. He was a conman by trade and nature and was not above using his friends or family to further his own means or save his hide from dangerous situations that usually came about as a result of a previous scheme (and if it happens to also help humanity then even better). He was the laughing magician, always dancing one step ahead of danger and spitting in the face of his worst foes. And although this character began in the swamps of Louisiana, his adventures mainly take place in London. Alan Moore wasn’t the only one to take a crack at writing such a distinct personage, though, with Jamie Delano taking over writing duties starting with Hellblazer issue one and followed by a pedigree of writers to include Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Brian Azarello, Paul Jenkins and (currently) Peter Milligan. These writers and more would have Constantine face demon after demon, curses and possessions but he was also their vehicle for social and political commentary of the England at the time. Margaret Thatcher had just been sworn in and John was the mouthpiece for these authors, many of whom were British themselves. Azarello used Constantine as a vehicle as well when he had him travel across the United States beginning with his Hard Times story arc. But of all the stories contained within this simple comic, the succubi, the blood-mage Mako, the sadistic billionaire Stan, even a demonic entity composed of all the evil bits of his own soul, the story that stands out above all others is Ennis’ Dangerous Habits story-line in which Constantine contracts terminal lung cancer. Now that I am aware of I don’t know of any other comic character that has contracted a terminal illness much less cancer. John starts off by talking to his doctor before visiting a cancer ward and befriending a patient there. He struggles to find any possible solution and even going so far as to visit his friend Brendan Finn in Ireland to see if he would possibly have a cure. What he doesn’t know is that his friend’s liver is shot and he was hoping John would have a cure for him. Faced with this terrible reality and his days running short, John and Brendan drink into the night until the Devil himself comes a’calling for Brendan’s soul. John tricks him into drinking holy water and thereby saves his friend’s soul from the pits of hell and torment. There’s repercussions to this of course, but I’ll not spoil the story for you (it’s only 6 issues and available in trade and I highly suggest it) but John does get his in the end and then some. It’s a damn clever bit of writing especially when Ennis is better known nowadays for his gratuity in Preacher and more-so in his current comic The Boys (which is a few issues away from ending).
But there’s always something for everyone in this title, there’s a humanity to these characters who are thrust into horrors both supernatural and of the human variety. There’s gore here and there and horror encroaching upon the pages, there’s drama and sadness and even a few happy moments as well (such as John’s 40th birthday complete with Swamp Thing growing a marijuana plant to 10 feet tall while John and his friends get stoned and smashed). This is a comic I cannot praise enough, even the bad bits. And I will continue to read it until John’s inevitable death.
(And if they don’t kill him eventually I’ll kill everyone in DC myself)
It’s an interesting quirk of american comics and cartoons that the characters rarely age despite the number of years that transpires since their first appearances on printed page. While Superman first appeared in 1932 which is 80 years ago, he still has the youthful look of a 30-year-old man (kryptonian physiology not withstanding). And that’s still not counting the various crises that seem to plague the dimensions of the DC universe. Captain America on the other hand, was born in 1920, was a soldier in WW2 and is currently in his twenties (granted he has the excuse of being frozen in time, but that’s another story). Regardless of the reason, characters in major comics tend to live in a perpetual youth and it’s not without reason: no one wants to read the adventures of 99-year-old Catwoman. It’s not relatable and it’s not exciting, intriguing or any other number of words.
It does bring up a problem when you want to reference real world events, however. If Captain America was in WWII and thawed out in 1994, he’s not going to be 21 forever. Just the fact that he witnessed the events of 9/11 grounds him to a timescale of some sort and that’s just it, that’s the problem right there. There’s only so many times I can read about Spider-Man punching out the Rhino or saving Mary Jane that I become bored with it. Status Quo is god in the world of comics and if nothing ever changes, if no one ever ages, then it’ll be decades upon decades of rehashing the same stories over and over. Yes, it’s true that new villains can appear or sidekicks and so forth, but the main characters themselves cease to change and therefore evolve. For a short while, Marvel published a comic titled The Amazing Spider-Girl which detailed the adventures of May “Mayday” Parker the daughter of Peter and Mary Jane. Not only did she carry the mantle and legacy of her father, other characters and progeny also carried on with the names of their predecessors. They were new takes on old favorites and some were entirely original characters of their own. New dramas unfolded and she faced different problems than what Peter had faced: although she was only somewhat bullied in school, she faced the challenges that having parents with knowledge of her superhero identity would bring.
While admittedly Spider-Girl could have been better written, it showed one possible roads that comics could take to address the increasing problem with the timescale of their characters. DC has solved this issue by resetting the universe every decade or so with a dimension-shattering event (sometimes by having a character literally shatter the dimensions by punching that damn hard. I’m looking at you Superboy-Prime). A move like that is a double-edged sword: on the one hand you can ‘fix’ or change characters around however you see fit to breathe new life into them or give them a second chance at capturing a now different generation. On the other hand, it can and oftentimes does alienate more seasoned readers who will throw loud hissy fits and cry “THAT’S NOT MY (insert character here)”. Characters can be changed for the bad and lose all semblance of their former selves.
Marvel has instead opted for the sliding time-scale which is arbitrary at best. 5 years of real world time equates to only 1 in the life of the character. While this works as a relatively short-term fix, as time progresses it becomes increasingly hard to maintain. Captain America is the most noticeable example because of his status as a WWII veteran. Marvel tends to tweak this by softly resetting small aspects here and there, e.g. Magneto originally being a young adult when he was sent to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and now having been a young boy to help ease with the passage of time.
All of this leads me to Hellblazer, a comic first published in January of 1988 whose roots began in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. It is the defining characteristic of this title that the characters age in real-time. John Constantine was born May 10, 1953 and in 1993 he celebrated his 40th birthday in comic. He has aged, grown older and so has his supporting cast. John’s not as young as he used to be and his attitude and views reflect that as well. That tiny but incredibly important attribute is what I wanted to see more than anything else in a comic. Someone who would grow and change in subtle ways before ultimately dying. His niece Gemma went from being 10 years old in her first appearance in issue #4 to now being approximately 34 years old. There is history and continuity that matters to the story (I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for continuity). All of this adds up to a comic of a different flavor, a different variety. Amidst the demons and other supernatural horrors that Constantine laughs at and spits on, he still deals with everyday challenges such as break ups and deaths. In one of his greatest story arcs he must battle lung cancer as a very real result of his smoking 30-40 Silk Cuts a day with a very unreal solution that is unique to his take on things. It’s different is what I”m trying to emphasize. Not many comics (or other media for that matter) take the time to age their protagonist, much less do so in conjunction to real-time. It’s not the only defining trait of this comic, but it is its most defining. Having said that, I’ll delve into the rest of what makes this single title so riveting to me in my next article.