[12 January 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Is Peter Milligan the most dangerous man on the planet?
It’s a gem of a book if you can still find it, What is Your Dangerous Idea?. Publishing in 2006 by Pocket Books and edited by John Brockman, its caption reads, “Today’s leading thinkers, on the unthinkable”. Dangerous Idea is exactly that, a collection of radical ideas by foremost thinkers from a variety of disciplines. The open-ended nature of the question leads contributors to hodgepodge of styles in answering. Some yield to the pull of history, delineating how radical ideas (now “safe” in the 21st century), have destabilized limiting world-views. How ideas like gravity, or the earth orbiting the sun have presented major challenges to previous power-elites. Others heed the call of the future, describing ideas that might pose similar challenges to our current social fabric. And yet others still, offer a meta-discourse on the idea of collecting dangerous ideas in a single volume.
Perhaps without ever having encountered this volume, Peter Milligan mimics perfectly the dramas and the cogitations of those third-phase essays in Dangerous Idea in his recent Hellblazer Annual: Suicide Bridge. At its heart, what is truly dangerous about ideas, and what is the danger in these ideas spreading? And, more disturbingly, how do these ideas propagate, not only themselves, but the very heart of danger itself?
Suicide Bridge is the kind of Hellblazer we’ve come to know and love over the past twenty-plus years of the character’s publication. If you’ve been reading Milligan’s phenomenal run on Hellblazer, you’ll know that John Constantine, the titular Hellblazer (perhaps even the only Hellblazer) is safe and happy now. He’s married to a ridiculously smart and assertive alchemist, a magician in her own right. He’s survived the coming of the Age of Darkness in India, while searching for purity. He’s simply outsmarted his younger self.
And yet, all the while (and even in Hellblazer), challenges erupt. Suicide Bridge is exactly one such challenge. More than that even, it is the definitive Constantine challenge—the past showing up in a hockey mask, right at Constantine’s front door.
Just one page in, and Constantine’s captioned monologue flies off the page. It draws you in, like a thought you shouldn’t be thinking. “They couldn’t just ask me on the phone. No, they drag me back up here. They had to hit me with the old emotional blackmail”, Milligan’s writing is fluid, flawless. It’s power is the promise of a long, cold dark with the possibility of a redemption. “The thing is, I know I’m going to agree to do what she asks me. But not for any reason they’ll understand”.
From there the tale is spun out. Suicide Bridge is Constantine’s darker-than-black magic investigation into the disappearance and presumed suicide of his best mate, Tim, some 40 years ago. Every page Milligan pens is so deeply engrossing, so heartbreakingly vivid, that it’s impossible to recall that Suicide Bridge is an example of a very structured Hellblazer genre tale.
This should read like a Hellblazer: SVU, and in the hands of a lesser writer it might. But Milligan’s craft lies in the deep attention, the rich characterization he visits on each scene. Constantine visits Tim’s room not just to advance the plot, but to witness first hand the 40 years of dread that the teen’s disappearance has caused. The photograph that lures children away is not simply a plot-point. Once it appears on social media, it is the primal fear that the very walls we’ve built to protect ourselves, may mean nothing whatsoever.
Folded deep within the pages of Dangerous Idea are three truly frightening ones. Daniel Dennett’s idea that memes (culturally-mobile patterns of thinking) may soon reach a level of complexity that renders them inaccessible by human minds. Marco Iacoboni’s research into mirror- and super-mirror neurons that provides a biological basis for the spread of not only ideas but actions also. And Clay Shirky’s idea that advertising has grown so sophisticated it now actively contravenes and erodes free will. Six years on, these still frighten. The idea that ideas can spread themselves, without human intervention. That society is now constructed around the principle of eroding the internal, psychic mechanisms by which we choose for ourselves. That there is an in-built mechanism which makes us even more susceptible not only to “alien” ideas, but to acting on them.
But the real question here is, in crafting so fine a tale as Hellblazer: Suicide Bridge, has Peter Milligan ever read What is Your Dangerous Idea?? I hope he has, I really do. Because the alternative is unthinkable. The idea that, every morning, Peter gets up with the sun, sits down at his desk, and summons up dangers so deeply entwined in human capacity through insight that would put Shakespeare to shame. And that, far beyond the swashbuckling charm of Robert Downey Jr.‘s Sherlock Holmes, or the ice-cool of Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, would make Peter Milligan the most dangerous man on the planet.