HELLBLAZER #141: "Shoot"[The final part of my Wizard World Con report scheduled to be seen here today will be posted in this space next week so that we may bring you a special look at one of a seemingly endless series of unpublished DC comics.]
This is a story of Penny Carnes, a woman working for a special Senate committee on an investigation into school shootings. She becomes obsessed, intermixing home video of various shootings with audiotape of Jim Jones at the Jonestown Massacre. After working on the matter for a solid week and getting very little sleep, she has no idea what to blame it on. Even her background in mass/spree killings hasn't helped solve the problem.
Then she notices the same man in four of the videos.
The man is John Constantine. And he has a theory as to what's going on.
Unfortunately, we the readers never got the chance to hear that theory. DC never published the story. It was set to be HELLBLAZER #141, with a cover date of September 1999 and a title of "Shoot."
Here's the original solicitation copy:
"When a female psychologist researches a wave of premeditated mass killings in the American heartland, an enigmatic, chain-smoking Brit shows her that the roots of evil run deeper than she'd imagined."
This week, however, a photocopy of the story fell into my lap. It's written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning. The story was, indeed, complete at the time it was decided not to publish it. It was lettered and inked. (I can assume it was also colored, but my copy is in black and white, so I can't be 100% sure of that.)
It is a purely psychological horror story. It doesn't involve large bug-eyed monsters. It doesn't involve fierce bloodshed, personal danger, or ghost, gremlins, and ghouls. The investigation of a school shooting is gruesome enough, but Ellis goes even further by running it alongside excerpts from Jim Jones at the Jonestown Massacre. It's Jones speaking to the masses as they die, telling his flock how little there is to live for: "Death is a million times more preferable to spending more days in this life…" You won't realize how truly thematic his speeches are to the story until you get to its end.
Ellis paces the story beautifully, saving Constantine's theory on the reason for the shootings as a monologue on the last few pages, leading up to the dramatic title page at the end. (It's probably the best usage of a title page I've ever seen.) Half the trick of horror is pacing. It's part of what made THE SIXTH SENSE so great - the slow, methodical pace.
In the midst of all the gruesomeness, Ellis' own morbid and sometimes-scatological humor doesn't get lost. There are throwaway lines towards coffee that Ellis fans are sure to enjoy, as well as one or two particularly wry comments from Constantine himself. (I tried to select one or two to quote here, but all the best ones contain swears, and I try to keep this column as family friendly as possible.)
Constantine's powers don't ever take center stage. Ellis doesn't cop out in the story by explaining the shootings as something magical or demon-related. That's the biggest relief of the whole story.
Artistically, this is the best stuff I've ever seen from Phil Jimenez. While his super-hero stuff often looks too much like a second-generation George Perez, his command of everyday people is very strong and more easily separated from Perez. Here, his art more closely recalls Butch Guice's. I don't know if Jimenez used photo reference at all, but all the people in this issue looked real. The passersby on the street, as well as the crowds pictured in the videos Carnes is watching, all have distinct and non-cartoony looks. I suppose the only weakness is that every female character has the same length skirt on page 15.
It's also the more subtle things. When the final panel on the final page, for example, calls for a specific facial expression, he can pull it off. Carnes' look as the issue progresses also morphs from overworked and persistent to frenzied and harried. That's all in the art. The lack of sleep is beginning to catch up to her, which is a crucial plot point when she realizes she left her keys back up in the office and returns - to find Constantine waiting for her.
The mood and architecture go hand in hand. Most of the issue is set inside Penny's office. It is detailed enough to show the mess that it is after a rush of constant work, and 'lit' well enough to be both shadowy as well as dreary. After all, this is a government investigation. You shouldn't expect the boardroom of a Wall Street company. You get two windows lighting the room, with light streaming through. It's very noir-ish.
So what led to this story's spiking? Well, it's fairly obvious that someone higher up at DC didn't like the idea of publishing a story that took on school shootings. In none of his comments about the issue at the time did Ellis explain what DC had asked him to change, or who exactly insisted on changing it.
Said Ellis in the press release announcing his departure from the series, "At the last moment, DC's executive level felt that the story could not go out in its original form. All media, particularly the narrative arts, are particularly sensitive to the politics of post-Columbine blame-placement at this time, and their concern was entirely justified given their position and special responsibilities. But the changes required created a story that I could not stand behind as a writer."
I'm curious if it may have been spiked because it doesn't necessarily follow the exact details of the true crimes that happened. A major point of Constantine's argument would have to be opposed to what actually happened in the reality of these shootings. I can't really say more without giving away the ending. Since I live in hope that this will be printed someday, I don't want to ruin that.
The book also clearly shows teenagers holding guns up to each others heads, one in particular getting his brains blown out (although at a large enough distance that it's not very gruesome), as well as crime scene "photos" which show bodies in pools of blood.
The case to be made against the spiking is strong. HELLBLAZER is a Vertigo book, complete with cursing, sexual situations, and disgusting or violent behavior that wouldn't normally be shown in next week's issue of SUPERMAN. The Vertigo creators get that extra buffer of protection for writing for Vertigo. The solicitation copy for the issue did including an "intended for mature readers" warning on it.
While, yes, the issue contains strong themes, foul language, and some potentially frightening ideas, I don't think any of these things is enough to justify not printing this story. I mean, PREACHER has done much worse month after month for the past 5 years. This story is grounded much more closely to reality, so I suppose it hits home a bit harder.
Yes, the story is almost bitter. It's definitely cynical. It's dark, it's depressing, it's creepy… I'm not even sure I agree with it, quite honestly. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't see the light of day.
In the press release cited earlier, Ellis also wrote, "Everyone involved -- Axel Alonso, Karen Berker, Paul Levitz and Jenette Kahn -- tried their best in this strange political climate to save this story. It should be noted that Paul Levitz could just as easily have shot the book down. The effort was made. Everyone involved behaved impeccably, I believe, and this situation leaves no hostility in me to the company or to individuals. Special mention should be made of Axel Alonso, who worked like a dog to resolve this situation and stood by me all the time, and Karen Berger, who believed passionately in and fought passionately for the work from the start."
So who is to blame, then? Warner Bros.? Do they even realize they publish comics anymore? Last I heard, they were selling Marvel stuff at their own Studio Store chain.
In the end, assigning blame won't get us anywhere. After all, DC paid for the work and it's their property now to do with it what they wish. Cries of censorship will fall on deaf ears, since they're unfounded. (People like crying that every time something like this happens. DC hasn't prevented Ellis and Jimenez from telling a similar story elsewhere, or from speaking their mind, in general. That would be censorship, and that can only really happen from the government level.)
I think the question we should now be asking is if the political climate has shifted enough where this story can become printable again. There hasn't been a large-scale school shooting in a while now, even before the summer started. While crackpot marches like the "Million [sic] Mother March" may still come and go, I'd have to think the climate has softened just a bit. The story may very easily be printable today. (Actually, given the readership levels of the book, nobody probably would even have noticed it if they had published it in the first place. This isn't a knock against HELLBLAZER in particular, but against all of comics and their pool circulations.)
If DC could be considering printing the Rick Veitch SWAMP THING story that got them in so much trouble more than ten years ago - and if DC is going to finally print Kyle Baker's "Letitia Lerner" story a year after its pulping - maybe it's possible that this story could see print.
It's also not a victim of its time, nor is it inaccessible by people who've never read HELLBLAZER before. The issue doesn't have any strict continuity ties. It stands well on its own. It doesn't require much explanation other than what's already in the story. You don't need to know anything about Constantine to "get" the story.
In the end, the story deserves to see print. It's thought-provoking. It's eerie. But most of all - it shows a certain mastery of craft. This is a comic book well worth reading. It's a damn shame that it's not there for you to read.
[Addendum: It should be noted that, despite his relationship to CBR, the copy of the story that fell into my lap did not come from Warren Ellis, or any of the creators involved. I'm not telling anyone where it came from, but I suspect by this time that a lot of people probably have their own copies. You'll probably see more reviews such as this one popping up in the near future. Let this be one final lesson to you: Information wants to be free. It will be free. You can't stifle it, as much as you may try.
But don't ask me for a copy of the story. I'm not a distribution center. And I'm probably already in enough trouble with DC... =) ]