Fictionside 104: Heroes & Villains

Fictionside Heroes and villains

This half-birthday we pick out 10 of our favourite heroes and villains …

IT’S JOKERSIDE’S FOURTH AND A HALF BIRTHDAY, AND SO HERE’S ANOTHER OF OUR BI-ANNUAL FICTIONSIDES AS WE CAREER TO THE CLOSE OF JOKERSIDE’S FIVE YEAR MISSION! This time round, we’re picking out some of our favourite fictional heroes and villains. And wouldn’t you know, some of them are a bit misunderstood…

Actually, wouldn’t you know that with a Fictionside, things are a little more complicated than that. We’re going to pick out four and a half heroes and four and a half villains. There’s lots of Brits, and lots of hoods, a surprising amount who first appeared in comics, but bear with us…  Because it’s a Hell of a dinner party!

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Captain Britain

First appearance: Captain Britain Weekly #1, 1976

001 Captain BritainA champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, measured against the quality of his foes…

Brian Braddock. Bloody brilliant. Originated created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976, it’s when Alan Davis and Alan Moore stepped aboard to ‘learn their craft’ that the Marvel universe’s premier British hero earned his finest hour. And by Merlin, did he earn it.

The story that kicked off with a trip to A Crooked World didn’t simply define the British equivalent of Captain America, who’d been sauntering around for the best part of half a decade. It played a huge role in unfurling the Marvel multiverse, naming the main super-powered universe as Earth-616 under Moore’s predecessor David Thorpe, and introducing two barely stoppable Marvel supervillains. In the dapper form of Terry Thomas came Mad Jim Jaspers. And at the hand of Sir James’ megalomania, The Fury. Unsettling and unnerving.

In his first stab at a mainstream Marvel book, Moore took on Thorpe’s storyline mid-way through and proceeded to hone a champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, one measured against the quality of his foes left at the writers disposal. Jaspers’ is one of the Marvel universe’s great mutants, and by achieving the position of British Prime Minister yet another warning to George Osborne about taking on too much work. Jasper’s reality altering mutant skills were vast, and once used on a large scale triggered inevitable madness. His creation, the Fury, was a cyborg killing machine so perfect it could survive the collapse of reality and traverse the multiverse in pursuit of its single-minded aim. Within issues Moore had killed off the hero on the failing, warning Earth-238 before resurrecting him on 616, ready for the same, unstoppable events to threaten that reality.

Braddock’s powers were the parallel of Captain America’s, reflecting Albion. Instead of the truth, justice and American Way, Braddock was invested by the ancient, mystical powers of the British Isles by Merlin, destined to uphold the laws of Britain and by implication, become a chief guardian of the multiverse. Who knew that the role thrust upon this Brit would prove so influential. Starting with the wonderful Silver Age conceit of rubbing his sacred amulet, Britain’s comfort in his role changed as his abilities and weapons were refined and his distinctive, patriotic suit pared down just before he first encountered mad Jim.

Excalibur and Arthurian legend continues to wind around Captain Britain’s story, in storyline and pun. He’s inextricably linked to the wider Marvel-verse as the twin of mutant Psylocke. While she was last seen on the big screen in X-Men: Apocalypse, resolutely not with an Essex accent, Brian fans are still questioning whether Marvel’s simply forgotten to announce their Captain Britain film… Like any great British hero, he’s hardly a one trick wonder, mystic or otherwise. Informed by Holmes, Bond and the best of Blighty, the Braddock story has not only dragged in childhood trauma, the secret service, and huge wad of British society, but also granted him a Ph.D. in physics. Bloody brilliant. Read more…

Batman at 75: The Joker – Anonymous Clown

The Joker from his first appearance

The man who laughs, the man without an origin, the man with hundreds of origins. The final part of the Batman at 75 articles can’t look at anyone else but the Clown Prince of Crime and try to touch on his roots…

THIS FINAL BIRTHDAY POST FOR BATS MAY BE A LITTLE LATE…. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T PERFECT. WHILE LAST YEAR WAS BATMAN’S ANNIVERSARY, THIS YEAR IS THE JOKER’S 75TH BIRTHDAY.

Yes, the Joker. The Harlequin of Hate. The Clown Prince of Crime. The villain with a hundred nicknames. And quite possibly the greatest fictional nemesis ever devised. He’s a villain, though not one restricted by his matching hero. He’s famous in his own right, a symbol and a sign, a definite statement of something… So, it’s a welcome luxury that the Joker has surpassed mere origins for his 75 years of existence. When it comes to his nocturnal and ultimate foe, retcons may alter facets of his origin story – the role his butler took or perhaps the ‘rediscovery’ childhood friends – but up to the bat and the window he’s very much defined by the strict facts of his origin. The Joker isn’t. The Harlequin of Hate is Batman’s opposite after all, despite classic stories that have drawn out the similarities as much as those polar difference.

And of those stories, some of the greatest stored in the Bat Computer have given, or at least hinted at origins for the laughing rogue. But one was never afraid to contradict another, or pick and embellish them as they wanted. It’s absolute freedom (within editorial reason); it’s continuity chaos.

Off page it’s a similar story. Various influences have been cited as an influence by a number of comic legends, including the father of the Dark Knight Bob Kane.  Add to that the vast number who have filled in to expand and explore it since. Of course, as this is the Joker we’re talking about nothing’s straightforward. And just like his villain’s own autobiography, neither any writer’s attempt nor Jokerside’s dip into the acid can be exhaustive.

So dotting through the life, times and media of the Clown, here are some select glances at Joker’s many zero years. Of course, the joke’s on everyone. For a character all about obscurity he sure has a lot of people trying to redefine him. And for every fact you think you learn, by the end you find that he hasn’t given a quarter. No matter how many times he seems to come last.

1940 – Cold-blooded murderer

“The Joker has spoken!”

Last September, Jokerside’s hot off the press review of Batman #1 caught the arrival of the villain who was to quickly rise above the greatest rogues’ gallery in comicdom:

“First and foremost is the debut of that deadly clown, a grim jester known only as the Joker whose statement of intent is immediately made clear when he makes a sinister ‘return’ before the book is even done.” Read more…

Constantine: The Endless War of the Roses

Constant

Of Constantines new, old and immortal.

THIS WEEK MY OLD ALMA MATER, THE HALLOWED UNIVERSITY OF YORK, ANNOUNCED THE NAME OF ITS NEWEST COLLEGE: CONSTANTINE.   While it doesn’t have a ring to it like, picking a name out of the air, um, Derwent, it’s a fine name for a college steeped in the spirit of Ebor.  York’s a fine collegiate university, one of the few in the country, and one that manages to retain them on a campus or two at the same time.  Colleges lie close to each other on banks and slips of one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe.  That rather loose blurring of campus and college got me into some trouble writing about Sheffield University a decade ago, but I think that’s all been brushed off as a Yorkshire thing.  In the Northern County of Yorkshire, Constantine will become the third college on the Heslington East campus.

When news broke, in the hallowed pages of well regarded Student paper York Vision (wink, wink), the University was drew the direct inspiration from Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, describing him as no less than the “most significant historical figure associated with the city in its entire history”.

Oh, so it’s really that Constantine? Ita vero.

Crossed Swords

Constantine the Great, alternately presented as a virtuous and ideal ruler by the early Church or a rather greedy and indulgent emperor by his nephew, had the distinction of being proclaimed Augustus in what was then Eboracum in 306.  He was also, rather notably, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  A rather striking bronze statue has sat in the grounds of York Minster for the last 12 years or so.  Sculptor Philip Jackson paid great care and attention to the widely regarded work.  Modelling on the Emperor a conciliatory look, Jackson mixed the imagery of cross and sword to good effect.  It’s proved popular and I think a large part of that is because he looks quite louche.

In size at least, it’s a far cry from the white marble Colossus of Constantine that was constructed in Rome during his reign.  That was one of the benefits of defeating Maxentius and finishing the Basilica his rival had already started. Ego. With a 2.5 metre tall head it’s not immediately evident that Constantine had a big head.   But then again, the Romans did ‘rechristen’ Byzantium Constantinople in his honour, so he may not have needed to.

Constantine the Great, or rather Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, took his fourth name and a few others from his father, the so called Constantine Chlorus – although all Emperors of the Constantine dynasty shared the name Flavius, it obviously wasn’t their favourite. Constantine derives from the Latin for Constant so it wasn’t a bad brand to stamp on a dynasty and remains good for a University college.  The name was in popular use at the time of Constantine’s rule, with direct comparators in Greece and Macedonia and it remains in healthy use in Eastern Europe today.  As a surname, Constantine has spread around the world, with notable bearers in many walks of life from racing drivers to computer science pioneers.  The legacy of Constantine is alive and well.

Hexed Spells

However, across the Pennines from Ebor, an explanation for the rather ominous sketch.  One of the greatest proponents of the name, John Constantine, died early this year.  He died in the most cynical and horrible of ways: the comic book reboot.

John Constantine, the Liverpudlian wizard, working class chain smoker and all round sarcastic bastard hailed from the DC Comic universe, alongside Superman and Batman.   Constantine spawned from the mind of Alan Moore when artist Steve Bissette requested a character who looked like Sting during their legendary 80s run on Swamp Thing.  On one occasion he even appeared in the swamp making use of a small craft named The Honourable Gordon Sumner.  Or that’s what we’re led to think.  Moore has since recounted the two times he has met his creation in real life, once earning a conspiratorial wink in a sandwich pub and then years later when the mage whispered the secret of magic in his ear…

Such tales not only add weight to a character who you may suspect sits smirking on top of the fourth wall, but also indicates how much he was an archetype lying in wait.  Increasingly I’ve thought Constantine lay for years in a stone block just waiting for Moore the sculptor to chisel him out – the new Colossus of Constantine.  John’s been lying in the pit of English literature for at least the duration of the 20th century.  More complicated than piecing together the strands left from Caliban to Crowley, but also channelling the baby boomers and working class Thatcher rage through punk and every facet of British culture.  Beyond the English tourism, Constantine has fitted brilliantly into the world of one of America’s largest comic conveyors, unlikely if he was a cypher.

The mage soon broke free from the Swamp and started his own run that lasted from 1988 to 2013 under DC comics ‘mature’ Vertigo line and various comic creators.  Moore isn’t the only father of Constantine to meet him.  Jamie Delano, who kick-started Constantine’s solo adventures, has also recounted meeting the character in real life outside the British Museum.

Constantine’s series was dark and twisting, majoritively taking place in the UK and helmed by writers from the British Isles but also taken to other parts of the world and scripted by some of the best American comic scribes.  As would be expected, the mages’ appeal fell far from his original medium.  Ian Rankin even scripted one graphic novel.

The late-1980s timing was a little off for Constantine’s solo outing. Released close to the cinematic (and later comic book) release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser that perfect name for the demon baiting magician was scrapped for the familiar Hellblazer.   For 25 years Constantine practised under that moniker, but all things good, bad and sarcastic must come to an end.

Constantine had various unique aspects, innately woven into and from his core.   Alongside the trench coat and constant cigarettes, one is that the mage aged in real time – a rarity in comics.  Early on in the run he celebrated his 40th birthday.  By the end of his run he was in his late 60s, albeit not quite looking the part after some nefarious demon blood shenanigans.

When it came to the fall of the Hellblazer, the writing had been etched into the wall when DC introduced their New 52 reboot.  In doing so they reclaimed any character from Vertigo who had originated in the DC Universe.  As their play reigns were yanked, Constantine’s peers thinned and the man who literally burns through friends was left looking ever more isolated.  While Hellblazer strolled to its 25th anniversary, a younger version of the character debuted in the New 52’s Justice League Dark – oddly both titles under the same pen of Peter Milligan.  Justice League Dark suffered some changes, but soon established itself, thanks in no part to Constantine’s key role.  It looks like he will continue to diversify more.  In 2005 the attempt to bring Constantine to cinema wasn’t quite the indignity it could have been.  It retained a large amount of the comic’s even with an alarmingly altered character (Keanu Reeves-altered).  Though a tonal heir, it didn’t do the business to warrant a sequel and his stock’s risen in the intervening period that if and when  Guillermo del Toro‘s Justice League Dark film reaches big screens, he will no doubt have a blond Englishness reminiscent of Sting.

But.  Then. When it reached 25, Hellblazer died.

Constantine, already with his timeshare in the mainstream was sucked back through time and reborn in an eponymous DC title of his own in March.   The new comic burst on the scene with a cover you may expect, trench-coated younger Constantine sitting resiliently against his own tomb stone.

If anything one noticeable effect of DC’s New 52 has been the removal of artist Simon Bisley.  Bisley contributed many memorable covers to the Hellblazer series, including the finale where the famous camel trench coat strides away from a stubbed cigarette.   While Bisley got to lay the covers to rest, the recently unveiled new look of Lobo – a character Bisley did much to define – has unsurprisingly rubbed salt into the wound.  That was an edge to keep.

But while Lobo remodelled, somewhere there, something of Constantine, something of Britain and something of comics had died.  In the tangle of the comicverse and the mysticism of Constantine, even the events of Hellblazer may not come to pass.

Perhaps this was the only move for a man who uses up every trick he can, who burned through every chance – and again, through every friend.  Perhaps there was nothing left for it.

And maybe that’s the power of the character, a skilful self-reinvention in the first person – a character large enough to meet his creator twice and more complicated than all the pages that he’s been recorded on.

But still, there’s a Constantine out there.  Constantines change, Constantines come and go, across the millennia, the Pennines and the DC Multiverse.   A couple of thousand years on from the Constantine dynasty, it’s a name that remains constant but fresh for reappropriation.

And rather brilliantly, it’s still open to pronunciation.

%d bloggers like this: