Until When I Die.
It spread across the social networks first. You knew about it long before it ever happened, could ever happen. DC/Vertigo would finally be publishing ‘Shoot’, the story Warren Ellis had prepared as his exit strategy from his run as writer on Hellblazer a dozen years ago. Ellis’ exit strategy, his swansong.
But DC/Vertigo or DC or someone somewhere up the line at DC’s parent company Time/Warner balked. ‘Shoot’ proved to be just a little too much. Not the art mind you. Lead artist Phil Jimenez is money in the bank. And when Jimenez collaborates with Andy Lanning, the effect is doubled. The art is clean, clear, crisp.
Neither would the problem be John Constantine, the titular Hellblazer, being pushed to the edge of his own book. Although Constantine only appears “live” in the second part of the story (appearing only silently in video footage in a few brief panels during the first half), this wouldn’t present any kind of challenge. Hellblazer had long been a source of innovative storytelling in comics. It was the old vision of Vertigo, a sentiment that by 1999 was already beginning to fade. The idea that Vertigo was a kind of indie-space supported by a corporate platform. In many senses Vertigo was the very best of both worlds. Truthfully, the problem with ‘Shoot’ had nothing to do with the story at all.
Rather it was how the story itself would fit into the world. How the story would be reconciled against the horrific events of Columbine.
Ellis’ story was the story of a Senate Committee researcher investigating would was steadily becoming a rising tide of school shootings. Why were these shootings happening? What was the one factor in society, the one element that needed to be removed before live as we know it could return to being life as we knew it?
Ellis’ genius was to portray the problem as structural. Even now, a dozen years after, his closing is chilling. “He’s drawn a gun and none of these children are running away. I see kids in some dead-end hole of a town”, Constantine confronts the Senate investigator, “In some asshole county, in some crumbling state with no education and no hope and no future and they’re waiting. They’re just standing there. Born into a life that’s already slid out of view. Looking forward to turning into their mommies and daddies. Life already lived for them. Life in a world that mommy and daddy couldn’t be arsed to build properly, a life that makes no fucking sense”. The problem, Ellis so elegantly confirms for readers, is not the child with the gun. It is the children who do not run away.
There’s no way to measure what it would have been like, had ‘Shoot’ actually been published as an end to Ellis’ Hellblazer run. It would have been the coda to the magnificent ‘Haunted’ storyarc wherein Constantine is simply defeated by the act of ensuring his victory. It would have followed on from the murder-house single issue ‘Locked’ and magnificent reversal of ‘The Crib’ which saw Constantine hunting down a mystical totem that didn’t exist.
But imagine how much better it is reading ‘Shoot’ now. Now, after 911, after Iraq, after Afghanistan, after the financial meltdown. Imagine how much more meaningful it is reading about child-abandonment as structural in society now, after the Director of Luiss University in Rome writes an open letter to his son: “This country, your country, is no longer a place where it’s possible to stay with pride ... That’s why, with my heart suffering more than ever, my advice is that you, having finished your studies, take the road abroad. Choose to go where they still value loyalty, respect and the recognition of merit and results.” Now, after the definitive statement of this generation teeters on the edge of being financial slavery for decades to come.
‘Shoot’ is needed now more than ever. It pushes us to consider the human price to be paid for the last few years. The price beyond the material (and perhaps relatively easy) reality of losing a home. The price is having already lost the next generation.
And as for the book ‘Shoot’ appears in? Vertigo Resurrected, which celebrates a season-long anniversary of Vertigo’s 18th year of running? I have no idea. There’s simply no way to escape the monumental impact of the Ellis opening story.