Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Three

First off, a correction : when we left off last time I told you we were sometime late in 1991, with promising young British comics scribe John Smith receiving a phone call from DC editor Stuart Moore asking him if he had any ideas he’d like to bring to the table in the form of a proposal to take over as the regular writer on the venerable John Constantine, Hellblazer monthly series. Don’t worry, that’s still where we’re at chronologically — it’s just that my chronology is a bit off. That phone call almost certainly came early that year, or possibly even in the waning days of 1990. My apologies for the error, but the general gist of where we’re heading still remains  the same.

Really. You can trust me. I don’t fuck up my facts — too often. So let’s pick up right where we were — -even if where we were wasn’t quite where I said we were. Or something.

Smith was eager to jump at the chance to write Consantine, of course — who wouldn’t be? In these pre-Vertigo times, the Hellblazer gig probably represented the best chance for any UK author to break into the “big leagues” of the American comics marketplace, and even though Sandman had firmly ensconced itself,  even at this relatively early stage in its run,  as the top “mature readers” book on the market, it’s a pretty safe bet that Constantine was a close second in both sales and stature, and writer Jamie Delano had done a bang-up job of turning Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben’s street-level master of the occult into a heavyweight character — hell, even an icon. This was clearly too good an opportunity for a 23-year-old writer to say “gosh, I dunno —” to.

Moore wasn’t putting all his eggs in one basket, though — in addition to contacting Smith, he also solicited proposals from a couple of other up-and-coming authors on the UK scene named Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis (who was all of 19 years old at the time).

And the rest, as they say,  is history : true enough, all three men would go on to write for Hellblazer in various capacities, but it was Ennis who was ultimately chosen for the plum assignment.

Several years later, after Ennis’ wildly successful run had run its course and his successor, Paul Jenkins, had likewise made his departure, Ellis did, in fact, sign on to write Constantine’s monthly exploits,  and delivered a short but quite memorable run — but for Smith the opportunity to tell a Hellblazer story came much earlier, and his window to make an impression was much smaller.

Sufficiently impressed by Smith’s (by his own recollection) two-or-three-years’ worth of ideas for the book when he made his “bid” (creatively speaking) to become the series’ regular writer — even if he wasn’t impressed enough to give him the job — Moore put his name at the top of his “call in case of a fill-in emergency” list, and when Ennis needed a breather after wrapping up a major storyline in the book’s double-sized 50th issue, he turned to our guy to provide a one-off story for number 51.

The end result was “Counting To Ten,” a spot-on little story done in collaboration with Smith’s frequent artistic partner (and a future regular Hellblazer penciller himself) Sean Phillips of a botched exorcism that Constantine flees in order to, I shit you not, go to the laundromat. There are subtle occult ramifications to his cowardice, of course, in the form of dead old ladies showing up to do their washing, creepy newspaper crossword puzzles that the folks seated next to him are working on, etc., but by and large the horror isn’t spelled out too explicitly, and while that leads to a very moody and atmospheric tale that is (again, I shit you not) one of the single-best yarns in the title’s 300-issue run, three simple words that Smith threw in to his script effectively overshadow everything else. I’m sure you can pick them out in the following panel :

When Smith reveals Constantine’s bisexuality with his casual reference to “the odd boyfriend,” it was a watershed moment for not only Hellblazer‘s LGBT readers, but for LGBT comics readers in general. Sure, if anyone in the DC Universe was probably presumed to be bi at the time it was probably Constantine, but nevertheless, to have such a massive revelation delivered in such a matter-of-fact, non- sensationalistic way (as opposed to, say, Marvel’s handling of the character of Northstar “coming out” in the pages of Alpha Flight) was more than just respectful, it was a sign that comics really were, in fact, growing up.

DC/Vertigo never went much further with the whole thing — former Vertigo editor Art Young mentioned in an interview with Bleeding Cool recently,  focused on Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s superb (and criminally under-appreciated)  Enigma mini-series,  that he had wanted to follow up on the idea by showing Constantine waking up next to a man in a story down the road, but nothing ever became of it — but still : it was a revelatory, maybe even empowering moment, for many readers, —not in spite of its nonchalance, but precisely because of it.

So, yeah — when people think of Hellblazer #51, they generally remember it as being “the one where John admits he fancies blokes on occasion,” as the Brits would (possibly) put it. Which is no bad thing for the story to be remembered for, I suppose, but in a way it’s kind of a shame that folks don’t seem to give much thought to what a perfectly-constructed, near-flawless, stand-alone Constantine tale it is.  By keeping most of the horror “off-screen,” as it were, Smith and Phillips delivered something far too uncommon in the series’ long, generally distinguished, history : a cerebral, tense, highly involving , stand-alone story.

The word was starting to get out, though — John Smith was a talent ready for his “big break.” Shit, it seemed downright inevitable at that point — and again, it was Stuart Moore who would be the one who sought t provide it for him, this time in 1992 (and yeah, I’m reasonably certain about the timeframe for this one) : a new writer was needed for Dr. Fate, and Moore figured Smith should be given first (and only) crack at it this time. Despite being taken in a radical new direction in recent years when the magical golden helmet of fate was passed on from its original bearer, one Kent Nelson, to his wife, Inza, sales on the book were floundering, and Moore thought (naturally enough) that, in the hands of the proper writer, the series could easily make the transition into the DC’s pre-Vertigo “mature readers” line of supernaturally-themed books.

He figured John Smith was the guy for the job. And I figure he was right. But the higher-ups at DC had other ideas —

Next up : How editorial mucking turned Dr. Fate into Scarab, and how further editorial mucking made sure that even then it hardly stood a chance.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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