There’s a scene in the ill-regarded 2009 movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman, acknowledged to be generally perfect in this role, gets to deliver the character’s most representative quote: “I’m the best there is at what I do - and what I do ain’t very nice” - and you just don’t believe him. Despite all Jackman’s aptness in the role, the line just doesn’t land.
There’s a similar moment in the pilot for the TV show Constantine, where Matt Ryan delivers a key quote for the title character - “I’m a nasty piece of work - ask anyone”.
I believed him. But...
John Constantine has existed as a character (and, according to creator Alan Moore, possibly something more) since 1985. From his first appearance in Moore & Steve Bissette’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing, then his own comic Hellblazer (written at various points by the cream of British comic scribes) and finally the current New 52 reboot series Constantine, he’s been in print constantly (heh) for nearly thirty years. (For more deep background, this recent piece by Abraham Reisman at Vulture is excellent.)
Until now, he’s been adapted for the screen just once, with varied results. The 2005 film Constantine got mixed reviews, with fans of the character scathing in their response to the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead. Worse - instead of the character as shown in the comics, a blond working class magician born in Liverpool and matured in London, we got Keanu as a middle-class suburban Angeleno psychic with spooky tatts in a script that stripped away everything about the character that mattered, other than him being a smoker and a bastard. The film is basically an OK supernatural action thriller - but John Constantine isn’t really in it.
The 2014 TV series pilot ‘Non Est Asylum’ - leaked online some months back, now re-edited with new scenes - has certainly got John Constantine in it... shame is, at the moment he’s in a fairly run-of-the-mill TV supernatural action thriller.
First, the good stuff...
As far as being a proper bastard John Constantine, true to the spirit of the comic... Matt Ryan had me at ‘bollocks’. He’s swaggering, sarcastic, dangerous - a nasty piece of work to be sure, but one whose anger, fear and damage is very near the surface. Not quite the cool customer of later comics, he’s still raw from recent traumatic events - I hope we see the truly on-it Constantine evolve as the show goes on.
The decision to give Constantine’s accent more than a hint of his Liverpool home was a smart one - it even gives the American pronunciation of his name (it should be Kon-Stan-Tyne, not Kon-Stan-Teen - it says so in the comic) a degree of plausibility. Almost.
Serious effort has gone into adapting Constantine’s comic history into a show set in the US and updated for our times. Major aspects of his back story are shown: the Newcastle Event (where his failure led to the death and damnation of a young girl named Astra at the hands of the demon Nergal and the condemnation of Johns' soul to the same when he dies), his subsequent incarceration in Ravenscar asylum (in the show, voluntarily), even his torment at his father’s hands due to the death of his mother in childbirth. His magical style is shown as eclectic, combining many traditions with Judaeo-Christian elements in what he calls a ‘proprietary blend’, just as it should be.
Other aspects of the character are toned down; network rules mean he can’t be seen smoking (but he will apparently be putting out a lot of ciggys in ashtrays), it’s been made clear by the showrunners that (at least for the moment) the show will not address his canonical bisexuality. And I’m a little peeved at how short his trenchcoat is... but for the most part, I’m damn happy with this Constantine.
The show itself, however, has an ironic hill to climb. We’re a long way from Conjob's starting days - an entire genre of urban fantasy has arisen, giving us a wide range of street-mages and demon-hunters, and this year alone the show is airing alongside such genre examples as Grimm, Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural (now in its tenth year). The pilot follows along all-too-similar lines to much of these shows’ output, though it’s crisply directed by Neil Marshal of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Game Of Thrones fame - it’s going to have to do something special to win over an audience.
Several scenes from the pilot were changed from the ‘leaked’ version which appeared over the summer: most notably, what was to have been the female show lead and audience POV character has been unceremoniously written out be the end of the episode (a shame for actress Lucy Griffith as Liv... but the character was the weak link, through no fault of her own). Also, the final boss battle with the demon was reshot to have it appear in the form of Constantine-as-demon, a supposed look at his damned future, which lands much better than the generic menace in the original version.
Despite the hiccups and dilution, I have a lot of hope for the show. I like the aloof viciousness of Harold Perrineau’s angel ‘Manny’, Jeremy Davies is perfect casting as John’s unwilling associate and fellow Newcastle veteran Ritchie Simpson and the prospect of major Hellblazer characters such as Papa Midnite and Zed (as the new female lead), as well as other DC occult figures, holds much promise. Hell, I even like this version of Chas (now an American cabbie, nicely played by Charles Halford, formerly Reggie Ledoux in True Detective).
So, give it a punt. Know what I mean?
Ebury Press 2014, ISBN 9780091958480
Britain in the 1970s was a very strange time and place. Caught in the brutal come-down after the Sixties yet still retaining more than a hint of pagan mysticism in the air, Britain had a distinctive otherworldliness underlying the economic woes, ever-present threat of nuclear war and public service films warning children that horrific death lurked in every field, every street. Both grubby and garish, represented equally by Abigail’s Party and Children of the Stones, Albion seemed caught in an awful liminality. There was nothing quite like living through that strange time, in that weird place.
Nothing, that is, except for Scarfolk.
The invention of Richard Littler, Scarfolk is a fictional town in the North-West of England which is perpetually trapped in the 70s. Littler’s pastiches of the advertising and cultural symbols of the time, filtered through the paranoid occult and technological fears then present, became an immensely popular blog series over the past couple of years, drawing praise from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin, Caitlin Moran and Warren Ellis. The clever perfection of the parody images, combined with the Pythonesque word play and riffs on the stranger aspects of British culture, are a masterpiece in absurdist horror.
Although there are some parallels to other fictional towns draped in the Weird, Scarfolk is very much its own thing. Comparisons to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast are commonly made, especially when trying to explain Scarfolk to Americans: but whereas Night Vale has a folksy cute-weird inclusive charm that might tempt the fan to consider living there if it existed, nobody in their right minds would want to visit Scarfolk, let alone live there... it makes Royston Vasey seem positively inviting by comparison.
Now, Scarfolk has made the transition from blog to book, and in the process has both gained and lost something in translation.
The book contains most of the classic images Littler created for the Scarfolk site - favourites such as the controversial fake Penguin Books cover “Children And Hallucinogens”, which went viral last year, convincing many that the book had once existed (including, so rumour has it, several concerned Penguin executives). They are surrounded by a two-layered, almost Lovecraftian-styled framing story: the book purports to be a professor’s reconstruction of a found text, telling the tale of one Daniel Bush. Bush, while moving home after the death of his wife in a bizarre Morris-dancing related accident, is trapped in Scarfolk following the disappearance of his twin sons. Recovering from the brainwashing inflicted on him for ‘his own good’ by the residents, he wanders the town, trying to understand his surroundings and find his children.
Though that storyline itself is interesting (and draws heavily on other great British cultural influences such as The Prisoner and The Wicker Man), it doesn’t flow well: mostly because it’s continually interrupted by both the pictures and a lot of footnotes - the readers attention is being continually split. Each element of the book - the art, the story and the footnotes - don’t quite gel together... but each is thoroughly enjoyable in their own form.
The footnotes contain some of the best, most horrific writing in the book, I think: such as,
The ice-cream van man came between 3 and 4 a.m. His van blared out the haunting Swedish Rhapsody numbers station. The ice-cream van man wore a clown mask to disguise the horrific burns on his face because he didn't want to frighten the children. It didn't work. He used clothes pegs to hold the mask on because he was missing an ear. He lived in a nondescript building in an electrical substation and no one knew his name.
As an artefact, the book feels like it has fallen out of some grubby wormhole: the pages are faintly faded, the whole thing almost seeming to glower at the reader. The cover looks like a pre-battered textbook from a barely-used library, its recollection of the publishing tropes of the time a pastiche so perfect that it verges on the hyperreal. Sadly, this finish actually obscures some of the finer details of the illustrations; in one of my favourite pictures, the relabelled diagrams of the male and female genital anatomy, several of the terms are too blurry to be read easily.
(EDIT: Richard Littler contacted me after this review aired to note that the blurring of the pictures was a printing mistake and not intentional. Though that accident adds to the grimy air of this version, I am glad later editions will allow readers to fully see a woman's malteser and a man's battlestar galactica in all their glory.)
Despite these drawbacks, Discovering Scarfolk is a pleasure, if a disturbing one: you’ll never read or hold anything else quite like it.
For more information, please re-read this review.
Link: Discovering Scarfolk on Amazon UK
A critical care doctor and expert in the field of resuscitation, Sam Parnia has been fascinated with the question of what happens to consciousness at the moment of death since the time he lost a patient as a student doctor at the age of 22. Parnia’s joint fascination with resuscitation and the near-death experience (NDE) led him to establish the AWARE project, which is now a major collaboration between doctors and researchers in the coronary units of medical centers and hospitals across the globe. Dedicated to exploring and advancing our knowledge of these two inter-related areas, it began with an 18 month pilot study restricted to just a few hospitals in the United Kingdom, before the AWARE project proper launched on September 11, 2008 with the investigation extended to more locations, including some in Europe and the United States. To examine the veridical out-of-body experience component of near-death experiences, Parnia and his team installed approximately one thousand shelves high up on walls within rooms in the emergency, coronary and intensive care wards of participating hospitals, though they were unable to cover all beds due to time and financial constraints – with 25 participating hospitals, the total number of shelves they would have needed to install for full coverage would have been closer to 12,500. On these shelves they placed a hidden ‘target’, which they hoped patients who had OBEs might report back on after being successfully resuscitated. By targeting these specific wards they were hoping to cover some 80% of cardiac arrest events with their ‘shelf test’.
In the first four years of the study, AWARE has received a total of more than four thousand cardiac arrest event reports – some three per day. But while four thousand events may seem a good sample size for in-depth research into veridical NDEs, it must be remembered that these are cardiac arrests – not ‘heart attacks’, with which many people confuse the term, but cases in which the heart has completely stopped beating. As such, in only a third of those cases were medical staff able to resuscitate the patient – and then, only half of those critically-ill survivors remained alive to a point where they could be interviewed by the AWARE team. Further, those medical staff doing interviews on behalf of the AWARE study had to do so around their normal daily duties, and so not all patients were able to be interviewed post-resuscitation (especially so if they came in on the weekend). And, unfortunately, the team’s coverage of cardiac arrest events via shelf positioning was lower than hoped – only 50% occurred in a location with a shelf, rather than the hoped-for 80%.
Now, given that near-death experiences were only reported by 5% of survivors in the AWARE study, and that the out-of-body experience only occurs in a low percentage of NDEs, you might begin to see the problem. Out of some 4000 cardiac arrest events, the AWARE team was left with little more than a hundred cases in which a patient with a shelf in their room reported back after their resuscitation, and then only 5 to 10 of those actually had an NDE. In all, after four years, and four thousand recorded cardiac arrest events, the AWARE study has