The recent storyarc of Hellblazer, "Another Season in Hell", returns Vertigo alumni Peter Milligan to one of his most enduring formative works in founding Vertigo title, Shade: the Changing Man. Some 20 years after, this is why Milligan's comics is still art.
When you read a storyarc like "Another Season in Hell", a storyarc written by a writer the caliber of Peter Milligan, you're not just reading a collection of plotlines. You hold in your hands a promise; the promise of a writer, later in his career returning to a work that helped him build that career. The promise of writing and have written his way free from himself these long years gone. And the promise of a writer, his skill perfected returning to a beginning, trying to fathom the magic he intuited back then, but perhaps articulate as elegantly as now.
The interview with Peter Milligan was exceptional in every way. I spoke with him for as long as anything, across continents… while my day was fading, his was already done. Listening to it now, the conversation captures me still, even across the weeks since we originally conducted the interview. There's something older about Peter, wizened, weathered. And yet something essential, something resolute, unshakeable. Something of an artist, a writer who has never needed to compromise, something of the keen intellect still free to shape its unique art in the world.
"Another Season in Hell" is Peter's second meditation on the Arthur Rimbaud poem, A Season in Hell. It comes to us now, some 18 years after Peter's first diving in this fray, found in issues 45 through 50 of the landmark Vertigo series, Shade: the Changing Man. "A Season in Hell", the storyarc, concludes my favorite period of that pioneer-generation Vertigo book; the period of "Hotel Shade" where the heady Kerouac of an endless roadtrip, the Shade we encountered up until issue #32, had been traded for a Sam Beckett-esque, locked-in-placed-ness.
That storyarc, it's every bit a comicbook response to James Joyce's Ulysses. Read every panel carefully enough and you'll find Rimbaud in the mythographic, underpinning the entire structure and sequence of the six individual issues. But it was the tight two-parter directly preceding "A Season in Hell", a thin storyarc guest-starring a John Constantine from 1979, that would see Peter write himself in Vertigo history.
That would be their first meeting, those Vertigo titans, Hellblazer John Constantine and Shade the Changing Man, the Steve Ditko-created character rebooted for a mature, late-80s audience by Peter himself. Some decade and a half later, with Peter taking up scripting duties on the phenomenally successful John Constantine: Hellblazer, Peter would throw the two lead characters into the same mix again, in a storyarc called "Sectioned".
It's with DC's reboot of its entire continuity this last September, with DC's New 52, that Peter is positioned to do what no other founding Vertigo alumni has had the chance to do--to write the über-popular John Constantine both in DC's mainstream superhero continuity, in Justice League Dark, and as a grimmer, grittier, more flawed Vertigo character in Hellblazer. In true Milligan-style, Peter confounds my expectations, by suggesting a method of writing these two Constantines that shows true artistic integrity.
Peter's response to this quandary comes much later in the interview, after even his exuberant detailing of Hellblazer: Suicide Bridge. We begin our interview by recapping some biographical detail. Peter, who he is, how he came to comics, to Vertigo. And for my sins, I confess the strange imbrications I've enjoyed as a fan of his work. Chasing down his early-90s Animal Man storyarc across four continents, weaving together his Changing Man storyarc that guest-starred Hemingway and Joyce with Sly & the Family Stone to demolish Descartes' cogito.
When I return to the conversation, return to the recording, I catch Peter responding to a question that can only be described as commenting on his own prescience as a writer. And yet, I can clearly remember already at this point in the conversation identifying this characteristic trait, Peter himself simply shrugs off his own role in things. We're talking about the phone hacking scandal, about the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World having admitted to corrupt practices of tapping the phones of celebrities and politicians.
Peter's debut as series regular writer came in the pages of Hellblazer #250, in the short story "The Curse of Christmas". We pick up with Constantine, in media res, with Constantine already sipping at a beer, and a shot of whiskey just coming up. Constantine's been enlisted by a person of deceased persuasion (bribed, bullied blackmailed?, all of these seem possible for Constantine's cooperation being forced by the ghost of a politician) to uncover the truth behind the elaborate suicides of a number of politicians each Christmas.
It's 2010, and austerity measures in the wake of economic collapse make it feel as if this might at last be a final, endless winter. In a throwaway line, Peter vectors off into what will be a breaking story nearly a year from now. "The News of the World", Peter writes, "suggested it was a 'kinky sex game' gone wrong". Peter captures perfect that tone of derision, that dry arrogance of writers who know that they will not so much be reporting the news, as making it happen, illegally so.
When Peter responds to my question, the response is a measured one. There are pauses, there are starts. It's the sign of a mind reaching into a thousand places at once, attempting to fix things in place, to make them accessible. It's a sign of humility. "Ah…", he says congenially, like I've wandered into a classic Swiss Christmas of thick snows, warm hot chocolate, frosted windowpanes, elderly men in white beards and beautiful women singing by the low light from fireplaces. "Ah… you're talking about the critical assessment of the newspaper and the media in general over here. Because of the phone hacking not only of celebrities but also of, in inverted commas, normal people. But even though it's now breaking as hot news, anyone that kind of kept their eyes open and their ears to the grapevine, knew that that stuff was going on before then. So when I was writing it then, I didn't know it was going to break like this. But I was completely aware that this stuff was going on".
Then there's a chuckle. It's a strange moment, that seems to perfect fit the tone of a book like Hellblazer--the idea that nearly a year prior, something from news headlines can find its way into the fictive life of Constantine. That chuckle, "It's almost as if Constantine is working his magic", Peter says.
I scan through the conversation file again. This time we move to earlier in the interview, where we begin discussing Peter's first few issues, and his transition into what seems, to me (at least, at the time of asking the question) a steadier grip on the character. Again, Peter's response simply outmaneuvers the limits of my question. It isn't about Peter being steady at the helm. It's about the fans.
"Hellblazer's been in bed with a lot of writers", Peter begins, "I think it does take a little while, for this character to feel really your own. I think it wasn't only that I became more familiar with with Constantine, but that Constantine, my Constantine became more familiar with the reader once Phoebe…she was a woman who would not normally be associated with Constantine…was out of the way. So I think it was more the readers becoming used to this. This was more like the Constantine they knew.
"When I took over the book, I felt it was about pushing him into areas that were unusual, areas that would upset one or two people. Phoebe was the kind of girl…well let me put it like this…I always think, what makes characters real? What makes John Constantine real, in fiction? Whether it's film or novels…it's when he's given that smack of verisimilitude. It's when we, when Constantine, would do things that are not obviously in character. I think real people do things that are out of character. And that goes into making them real, breathing people.
"So I wanted him to go out with a girl or a young woman, who's not the kind of girl he'd normally go out with. In my experience that is how things tend to work out."
It's another jump. This time we're much later in the conversation and we're talking about Shade and Constantine. In the mid-90s, just before Peter's first joust at Rimbaud with the Shade: the Changing Man arc, "A Season in Hell". Shade's Madness Powers, the source of his ability to change himself and change the world around him and change the laws of that world, had somehow intersected with John Constantine's magic. A Constantine, circa 1979, circa the time Maggie Thatcher had just been elected to the position of prime minister, was summoned to 90s Middle America to resolve some strange Madness Powers-inspired craziness involving puritanism and witch trails.
It was the first joust between these two great characters. And in it, Shade came off a little worse for the wear. Shade's paramour, Kathy, had fallen for Constantine and fallen hard. Back then, in the pages of the Changing Man, that roadtrip trio of Shade (the hero), Kathy (the girlfriend) and Lenny (the girlfriend's girlfriend) had been a stable, safe, well-lighted place that readers could retreat into away from the craziness Shade himself seemed to simply pull out from the world. Constantine showing up simply threw that very stable, very nurturing (albeit in a 90s way) triangle out of balance.
Peter, begins. "Oh right, Constantine made an appearance…I like that storyline. There's a kind of a frisson, almost a semi-romantic frisson between Constantine and Kathy, which upset Shade. Constantine is the kind of person who's attractive to women. And I think he's attractive to men as well. Even though he's probably slightly unwashed, and he smokes and he's uncouth. There's something about him, I imagine, would be slightly magnetic. And the fact that Kathy, who was our main character's romantic…she was the romantic lead…she kind of was drawn to Constantine's power, his magnetism".
Shade was broken by this, and it's not until much much later, in a recent Hellblazer arc by Peter, 'Sectioned', that he gets his own back on Constantine. "'Sectioned'", Peter intones, musing on the uniquely British mood of the word. "I don't know if that word completely translates well into other forms of English. Or into American English, even. To be sectioned is when you're legally bound to go into some form of mental institution. It's something that can be invoked by members of the medical profession in the UK…say you're a paranoid schizophrenic and you're a danger to yourself and others, but even just a danger to yourself, doctors would section you which means you're forced to have medical treatment".
It's at the end of this arc that Shade would get his own back. Shade escapes with Epiphany, the girl Constantine will eventually marry. Peter continues, "When I brought back Shade I wanted to have the idea that this kind of lunatic had been obsessing…obviously not only because of the death of Kathy…obsessing about the fact that this guy, Constantine had had this frisson with the woman he loved more than any. And he still harbors a grudge".
We go ahead to talk about the back-and-forth between using two artists to depict the two different timelines in Constantine. It recalls an earlier part of the conversation when we discuss the bridging of Constantine into the mainstream DC Universe. Following on from the New 52 reboot, Constantine becomes to be one of the core characters in the new Justice League Dark title. It is a book that sees the banding together of occult-powered heroes, loners really who stand against mystical abuses of power, heroes who really don't want anything to do with each other. My question began with an observation that John Constantine himself seems slightly more British, slightly wittier (with slightly more snark even) than the John Constantine appearing in the pages of Hellblazer.
"You say he's wittier…well that's interesting because different people say they've seen different things. I've had some people say that he seems more British…and maybe his Britishness does come to the fore…in the form of his British witticisms… do come slightly to the fore in the way that if you're around people not of country or not of your culture, you somehow increase, or up, aspects of your personality".
I offer a sports metaphor--is it a question of home- and away-games? Is Justice League Dark the away game, is the Vertigo book Hellblazer the home?
"No 100 percent not", comes the affirmative tone, "I see it as the same character. Y'know, people have asked me do I get some kind of schizophrenic attitude towards writing Constantine for DCU and writing Constantine for Vertigo. I mean… The guys at DCU want it to be Constantine, and I'm happy about that. As far as I'm concerned, he's the same person. He's got the same kind of moral apparatus. Or immoral…no, better to say amoral apparatus, or reaction to the world. So I think he's the same guy. And I think that…well ok, he swears more in Vertigo. And perhaps more extreme things will happen to him. But in terms of his reaction, in terms of who he is, I think he's the same person. And I've said before, the modern comicbook reader is sophisticated enough to understand that this is the same person, just appearing in a slightly different comicbook".
It's a wonderful quote. Directly in that idea, Peter speaks to the power of popular culture, and the unique way comics harnessing the resurgent nature of popculture (unique only in these days, in Elizabethan times, popculture remastery was everywhere from Marlowe's Faust to every line of Shakespeare). Peter's comment, given in a throwaway style, connects deeply with a recursiveness at the heart of popular culture, and a past that was already able to conceive of the disownership of ideas.
At its heart, this was what Rimbaud was struggling with in A Season in Hell--the idea of ownership of the self, by culture, and an ongoing struggle to breakthrough that formulation into an age of disownership. And that struggle was resurrected, nearly a generation ago, to this very day, by Peter in Shade: the Changing Man in that pages of "A Season in Hell". That storyarc is Peter's James-Joycing of Rimbaud, the filtering of Rimbaud through 90s sentiment. Every line of the original poem in six parts is there; every line reworked to great effect to express the sentiment of 90s fatherhood and 90s womanhood, and 90s ownership of ideas. There were immortal scenes, written to just be discarded by virtue of them being popculture, only to return later, speaking to their power and your inability to simply cast them aside. Kathy's unwitting act of prostitution. Shade's deal with the metaphorical Devil. Lenny's abandoned lovechild, come back to find her mother. Shade, Kathy and Lenny, shopping in a supermarket while the climax of six months of fine comics, five years of fine comics, plays out to an unexpected and irrevocable conclusion.
And now we're returned to those themes, to those familiar alleyways, those main streets of the infernal. John Constantine's back in Hell, and after Rimbaud, after 90s Peter Milligan, it's our third outing there. This feels very much like the worst kind of homecoming ever. And the highest kind of art, strewn in the places where no other high art would dare to be found.