By Adam X. Smith
Remember when Vertigo comics were fucking scary?
Of course you don’t.
The last thing to come out of Vertigo that was genuinely terrifying, Preacher, finished its run back in 2000, and its spiritual predecessor, Hellblazer, was axed after 300 issues so that good old boy John Constantine could be shuffled back into the New 52-ified version of the DC Universe. Many, including myself, were saddened and outraged – this was typical of what the current leadership of DC were doing across the board, and representative of the wholesale dismantling of what made Vertigo great in the first place, in favour of churning out more books about people in capes and skimpy outfits hitting other people in capes and skimpy outfits.
Back to the subject of Hellblazer, though…
Old John has had to deal with a lot of bullshit over the years. He dabbled with the black arts, resulting in him being damned and most everyone he’s ever cared about has died or been cursed in some other way due to his terrible life choices. Then he got diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was faced with eternal damnation when he died, which he barely managed to dodge through pure guile. Then his girlfriend left him. Then he was a homeless alcoholic. A bit later he would be played by a woefully miscast Keanu Reeves, perhaps the most grievous misdeed ever perpetrated against a human being.
Before that, though, in what can be considered one of comics’ most egregious cases of lily-livered censorship, there was the shit-storm that surrounded a story from Warren Ellis’ brief tenure as writer on Hellblazer entitled “Shoot”.
Per Ellis himself…
I wrote an episode called “Shoot” that was about school-yard slayings in the United States, and everyone really liked it […] The PR-person at the time went crazy over it, and she was going to send it out to all the mainstream media outlets. And then Columbine happened, like, 2-3 weeks before we were due to go to press, so we were very, very close to printing… [Former-Publisher/President of DC Paul Levitz] hit the roof. He said “We can’t publish this! Columbine’s just happened, and it’s about kids killing each other, and y’know, there’s no moral or anything – it’s just kids killing each other. Because they like to do that.”
Um, not quite what I wrote, but y’know… And we went round and round for weeks on this, and I like Paul personally, but one of Paul’s traits is the more you have arguments presented to him the more intransigent he will get. So it got to the point where it was either going to be edited down to the level of an episode of Scooby-Doo, or it wasn’t gonna be printed, or they were just gonna rewrite it and stick my name on it anyway.
Rather than allow the story to be neutered, Ellis told them not to publish Shoot and quit the book altogether.
That was fifteen years ago. In the time since Ellis wrote Shoot, and in the wake of Columbine, there have been dozens of school shootings. At time of writing, there have been at least thirty shooting incidents at schools in America since the year 2014 began, two of which occurred in the month of June. We’re just over half-way through the year, and the rate of kids shooting up their schools is at more than one per week. In the immortal words of Josef Stalin and Marilyn Manson before me, the death of one is a tragedy, but the death and injury of children every week is just a boring side-effect of political deadlock caused by the callow incompetence of politicians unwilling to face the wailing and gnashing of the bellicose fuckfaces that are the National Rifle Association.*
So it seems timely to dredge up the spectre of Shoot once again, a decade and a half after it was stifled. Eventually released in December of 2010 as part of Vertigo Resurrected, a series of reprints of material from when Vertigo were worth bothering to write for, its cover bills it as a “100-page spectatcular” that boasts additional stories from the likes of Brian Bolland, Brian Azzarello and Esad Ribic, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Garth Ennis and Jim Lee, Steven T. Seagle and Tim Sale, Peter Milligan and Eduardo Risso, Bill Willingham, and Bruce Jones, Bernie Wrightson and Tim Bradstreet. I purchased this last year after considerable digging, just prior to making one of my famous ultimatums – that I wouldn’t read any DC books with Dan Didio’s byline on them under pain of forfeit. Long story short, my fiancée Jojo eventually relented and allowed me to read Shoot for no better reason than to declutter her spare bedroom.**
In most of other books, credentials like those listed above would be considered superb, and indeed some of the stories do stand up pretty well, but a quick scan of the credits on the inside of the jacket confirmed my suspicion that the majority of these additional stories are harvested from defunct horror/fantasy anthology comics from the late Nineties. While this certainly accounts for the disjointed nature and varying length of some of the stories (Brian Bolland’s in particular feels like it was the first part of a longer story), it means that there’s little in the way of a common thread to any of the stories.
But that’s not why I bought this book, nor is it why I’m reviewing it now.
Shoot follows Penny Carnes, a researcher working on a report for a senate committee, as she tries to find a pattern among mass shooting incidents involving children. As her mental state is noticeably affected by the work she is doing and her decision to listen to tapes of cult leader Jim Jones exhorting his followers to drink the fatal Kool-Aid, she begins to notice the presence of a certain scruffy blond man in a raincoat in photos and video footage taken from the scenes of incidents.
Hard as it may be to believe, there is a fundamental truth to the story of Shoot that makes it all the more galling that DC didn’t stand by it on its original release. Artist Phil Jiminez is never graphic or gratuitous, and the story’s conclusion acts as a great big neon “Fuck You” to any and all who claim to have the answer to the uniquely American problem of gun violence and its supposed causes. As with real life, the truth resists simplification, and it is no easier now than back in 1999 to say for sure that there’s a particular way of preventing massacres of this type. But Ellis’ use of Constantine as an author surrogate perfectly underlines the outsider perspective of someone who is willing and able to forcefully confront the American public with the hard truths they can’t or won’t see: that everyone is equally responsible.
Ultimately, the reason this is most resonant, even now, is that this could be written in any genre of fiction and at any time since the birth of modernism. To put it in Hellblazer, a dark horror comic with supernatural elements at its core, is perhaps Ellis’ true genius, a massive red herring that needs to be looked at from a distance to be truly appreciated. There’s no supernatural threat, no mustachio-twirling, megalomaniacal supervillain controlling people’s minds. It’s just ordinary people, in all their wilful ignorance and apathy, which are the problem. Maybe that’s why they wouldn’t run it before. We’ve by no means turned a corner as a species, I’ll say that much – the very fact that I’m able to read this comic today and still find it relevant is an indictment of anyone who claims that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.
Rating: Shoot – 5/5, Overall – 3.5/5
*I would print a retraction of that statement, but I’m paralyzed by not giving a shit what the NRA think. However, because my editor has politely asked me to refrain from calling members of the NRA or people who own guns “monsters”, I will modify my phrasing slightly: I recognise that people who own guns are not in-and-of-themselves evil monsters, but that doesn’t make them righteous minutemen defending the nation from tyranny either. Protecting the “god-given rights” of a privileged few to shoot exploding lumps of metal at anything that vaguely threatens their person is holding our species back from the utopian ideal, and no amount of bleating about how that false sense of security overrules the rights of every other person in your maximum target radius not to feel menaced by paranoid militia men will convince me otherwise.
Okay, rant over.
**If however, you are curious at all about my embargo, you can find out more here.
Adam X. Smith is a paranoid android from the Planet X. For the last 27 years he has been living amongst the people of Birmingham, England (and more recently the University of Lincoln) ostensibly as a student of the school of hard knocks (also BA Hons Drama), but secretly on a mission to scout out the planet for invasion by alien forces; his weekly communiques on his various blogs are actually highly coded messages to his extra-terrestrial masters. He enjoys the musical stylings of local chiptune-metal band Elmo Sexwhistle, the fiction of Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, and his hobbies and interests include film-making, drama, occasional Youtubing, journalism and plotting the subjugation of humanity. He can be found on Youtube, Tumblr, Twitter or by jamming an ice-pick through the optic chiasm.