Peter Milligan's Hellblazer: Scab
Before spotting the new trade at the bookstore where I'm employed, I had never read a single Hellblazer story. I still don't even really know what John Constantine's deal is, aside from the fact that he's this sorta hard-boiled Londoner with an early-aughties bro-chic hairdo and some sort of connection to the supernatural. All the same, the three-issue title story bops nicely along and it turns out that it's useful to look at it through the lens of the Milligan theory Brandon expounded in the context of the writer's recent run on Batman Confidential, if only to see how "Scab" succeeds, while "The Bat and the Beast" occasionally misses the mark.
Insofar as "Scab" is about something, it is the apparent collapse of capitalism brought about by the implosion of the financial markets of the last 18 months. But Milligan doesn't approach the topic in any of the obvious ways and instead looks back to the origins of the atmosphere of financial prodigality in the mid-nineties and the implications it had for Britain's working classes and especially leftist politics. So think unions and old, Marx-y Labour versus Tony Blair, spiraling housing costs and prodigious credit. But while Milligan clearly tends toward the lefty side of things, the narrative is generally served by the circumstances, rather than the other way round, and thus never feels tendentious.
Milligan's tale of a supernaturally malignant scab begins with a scab of another sort, to wit, "Red" Mal Brady, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist dockers' union negotiator who betrays his proletarian brothers for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver. This betrayal, which resulted in the dissolution of the union and signaled the end of old Labour, was caused not by Red Mal's greed, but rather by a spell cast upon him by a younger, more corrupt John Constantine. The problem is, as our stories continually remind us, our pasts are wont to come back to haunt us, generally in the form of unresolved guilt. Milligan simply personifies this guilt by turning it into the catalyst for the festering skin lesions that attack Mal, Constantine and his doctor/girlfriend Phoebe.
If the preceding doesn't really strike you as particularly dynamic, that's because it isn't. The story works more for the sort of playfulness of Milligan's approach than as a result of its plot or any of the 'larger' questions it grapples with. For example, when a bit of Constantine's scab self animates and attaches itself to Phoebe's coat, eventually finding its way into her ear, it manages to latch onto some lingering guilt over the fetus she aborted a decade earlier. Thus, when Phoebe is jolted awake, she finds an anthropomorphized scab-mass calling her 'mum' and asking for chocky biscuits. But rather than ruminate on the morbidity of these circumstances, Milligan has Constantine take the little guilt-beast back to his apartment and attempts to reason with it.
The exchange that plays out between the two is brilliantly glib, and emblematic of Milligan's ability to have fun with such nominally serious issues. When Constantine tries to convince the scab-fetus that it's nothing but a "bunch of agitated scabs," the thing replies that it may not be normal, but that it is still a person . . . "with rights." That last bit, tossed on almost as an afterthought, pokes ruthless fun at the Rawls-ian Theory of Justice sort of thinking that underlies so many social movements, no matter how absurd or counter-productive.
There are other moments like this--Phoebe's medically jocular approach to the beasts in her closet, Constantine's flashbacks to his extraordinarily abusive treatment of his uncle, or the look of particularly vicious schadenfreude he wears as he accepts the job of conjuring up Red Mal's betrayal--in what is ultimately an extremely well executed three-issue mini-series. "Scab" works where "The Bat and the Beast" doesn't because of the lightness with which it wears its topicality and the relative concision of its narrative. I wouldn't say that the book has turned me into a Hellblazer reader, per se, but it does confirm for me Milligan's continued reign as the king of smart-dumb comics.