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To Be in England,
in the Summertime
If you weren't buying comics in the late eighties/early nineties, or if you were but for some reason never saw a book from DC's VERTIGO line, take a look at the cover to the left.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the most on-the-nose take of a period cover to date for Planetary, and brother, it has had some good ones.
The story opens with the announcement that Jack Carter has died. Carter, a major player in the dark, mystic scene in England in the late eighties and a former lover of Jakita's (hmmm... how old would she have been then...?) has been murdered, and the Planetary team goes to London to pay its respects. The funeral is attended my a collection of bizarre looking characters who, Jakita explains, were the natural product of the dark, sinister times to be found in London in the eighties. While not naming names, Jakita speaks of a doddering old president in America who was obsessed with nuclear conflagration and a British prime minister who may have been insane and bent on implementing policies that could only be described as evil.
Perhaps to illustrate this point, Jakita tells a story of Jack Carter in 1987. Jack was walking through Soho one evening and saw a man of ghostlike appearance on the street. After confronting the man, he tells Jack that he's "this year's Herod," and that he's been given this form by the British government and has been charged with the task of killing a pregnant prostitute and her unborn child to prevent the Second Coming. You know, just in case. Jack silently causes a flash of light, and the man suddenly finds himself trapped in an invisible box (horrifyingly real; a word of warning to mimes everywhere). The tale ends, and back here in the present we see the skeleton of the man right where Jack left him trapped.
As the team looks over the location where Jack was murdered, Drummer recognizes that there has been magic there. He explains that magic is a signal, albeit a messy one, and works like cheat codes to the operating system of a computer game; this means it's something he can see and interpret. Asking Snow to cool the area down to settle the signal (the first synergistic use of powers by the team), Drummer recognizes that the magic had been used to fake Jack Carter's death.
This announcement brings a huge, steroidal, enraged figure from the darkness, screaming responsibility for Jack's murder, and blaming him for the darkness that apparently invaded his life (in the form of split personalities, drugs, sexual perversions, and the discovery that he was the product of the DNA of aryan super-athletes and Hitler's personal sex midgets). The monologue is cut short, however, as the figure is blown apart by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun, wielded by... Jack Carter. Sporting a shaved head and strange bodily tattoos, Jack explains that he faked his death to draw the killer out and eliminate him. Stating that the eighties are long over and it's "time to be someone else," Jack strides off into the night and disappears.
Ellis has given us his take on DC's VERTIGO line and, agree or disagree with it, it does provide some important insight. Jack Carter is Ellis' take on John Constantine, of Hellblazer fame, and arguably the single most important character of the VERTIGO line from the late eighties to the early nineties. The dialogue, trench coat, and ever-present cigarette are all there, and the tale Jakita spins is a fair approximation of the unsettling tone of Carter/Constantine's tales. Ellis chooses to explain Carter/Constantine as the logical outcome of the social and political environment of the eighties, giving the book a political edge that it hasn't seen before: dark, insane times lead to dark, insane people. Or at least dark, insane fictional characters. (Depending on your politics, this may or may not be an acceptable answer. It works for me.) Many of the mainstays of the VERTIGO line make cameos of sorts, including Swamp Thing, Sandman, Spectre, Death, the Metal Men, the Demon, Animal Man, and Brother Power, The Geek (possibly more--except for the occasional Swamp Thing issue, I wasn't yet ready for the unique attraction of the VERTIGO titles, so I may be inadvertently omitting some painfully obvious homages).
After discussion with JEF, your other humble site host, we are still a bit up in the air over the identity of the masked hero-type who attempted to kill Carter/Constantine. Eric Conrad, in the Planetary letter column of issue nine, shares with us that it's supposed to be Miracleman. But I think there's a deeper metaphor at work, too.
The mighty figure sports a red and blue uniform, in a combination kind of opposite of Superman's. The outfit is loose, sort of, and has a very fabric-y appearance, not like the spandex-clad super-types to which we've all become accustomed. Add this to the old-style mask, one that doesn't magically stick to your face without visible support and cause your eyes to become white slits, and you begin to feel that the character is a general homage to what the comic book superhero used to be as far back as the forties and fifties. Drummer's remark, early in the issue, that you "can never quite get rid of all the 'traditionalists'" would seem to support this as well.
Now look at our traditional superguy's diatribe. He screams that he should have been "clean, noble, single;" that he should not have become involved in sex, whether it be hetero-, homo-, or deviant in nature; that he didn't want to discover that, instead of being created by a trancendant scientist-mentor, he was the product of a perverse and unholy union of something, anything having to do with Hitler; that he didn't need split-personalities, nervous breakdowns, or to find out that his whole life was a lie. He says that he was happy as he was, as un-hip and un-trendy as that may have been, and that if no one liked him that way they should have just left him alone.
Ellis is commenting, I believe, on the way that all superheroes found their world turning into a much darker place before the eighties had run their course. Seminal works such as Miller's Dark Knight and Moore's Watchmen took traditional heroes and put them through a perhaps more realistic but overly dark emotional meat grinder, gave them humanities worst flaws, then stood back and let fiction take its course. The great works were critical and commercial successes, and most everyone else followed as hard and as fast as they could, without nearly the same results. This lead to bigger, more rediculously-overmuscled "heroes" who were more violent and morally dubious than at any other time in history (sorry, Dr. Wertham). VERTIGO was where this trend flourished on its own terms, away from the capes, but the capes were helplessly drawn along as well. Histories were rewritten, lives took countless turns for the worse, and whatever innocence comics had left was banished. The simple, pure, primary-colored days of honest and decent adventuring, like a good day on the playground where nobody got hurt, were over.
Our unnamed mystery man seems to be unwilling to take this fate lightly, and strikes back, both for himself and for any and all fans out there who feel the same way. This may also be a metaphor for the resurgence of hero popularity in the early nineties, a reclamation of the spotlight and leading edge of the medium. But with a single shotgun blast, Ellis gives us his reply. Superheroes will not be able to turn back the clock.
As Carter/Constantine prepares to leave at the end of the story, he reveals some tattoos on his body and announces that it's time to be someone else. The someone is obviously Spider Jerusalem, of Ellis' own Transmetropolitan fame. He may not be John Constantine, but he bears that mantle and reaffirms that darkness is here to stay.
That's my two cents, anyway.
Will magic have more of a presence in the story in the future, pulling some of the focus off of the scientific bent of the story thus far? Does Ellis' involvement with Carter/Spider Jerusalem mean a return visit in the future, or does it insure that this will be a one-time-only cameo?