Your soundtrack for today is The Au Pairs – Playing With a Different Sex and Jimmy Eat World – Clarity.
Writer: Ian Rankin
Artist: Werther Dell’edera
Publisher: Vertigo Crime
Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries, a John Constantine graphic novel that serves as one of the first titles in Vertigo’s new Vertigo Crime sub-imprint (one assumes they’re just going to create imprints of imprints until the corporate structure looks like an Escher painting), conveys the extreme ends the company is going to in order to get their experiment stable as quickly as possible. Starring Vertigo’s most venerable and consistent character/property, John Constantine, the book barely edges alongside the mystery genre, an odd choice for an imprint seemingly based around the pulps. Were it not for the presence of Rankin, an enormously successful Scottish crime fiction author, this book would just as easily fit into Vertigo’s mainline. Quite frankly, the existence of this title feels more like a compromise in order to draw readers to the nascent imprint rather than a necessary chapter in the John Constantine mythos.
Constantine, a modern rendition of the noir antihero, could easily function in a pulp title, but Rankin provides the reader with a haunted house mystery instead. It’s a rather straightforward setup – Constantine is approached by the producer of a reality television show, Dark Entries, a Big Brother-style closed house show with a supernatural gimmick, to investigate the seemingly real hauntings that have been occurring to its cast. The inevitable conclusion is that Constantine must pose as a contestant on the show and experience the house for himself in order to determine the truth of the situation. Aside from the reality TV angle, the basic plot is every haunted house tale you’ve ever read. The six contestants on the show have mysterious pasts to which their individual hauntings are relevant, and they’re all connected to each other in abstruse ways. They’re also all genre types, but the story skirts this by deferring to the usual casting methods on reality TV; their easy definitions are meant to criticize the typecasting of that medium, rather than the typicality of many horror tales. It’s effectiveness for the story is double-edged, as Rankin avoids connecting the expectations of genre tales with those of reality TV, preferring to continue his polemic against the latter rather than use it to develop a thesis about how we view reality and fiction.
Half the problem with the book is its choice of subject and its method of attack. Assailing reality television with complaints that it’s thought-deprived and pointless – well, what’s your point? You’re writing a book, no less! It’s safe to say that anyone reading is likely to back you up, so all you’re ultimately doing is looking for the self-satisfaction that comes attendant to that. Maybe I’m jaded, but I haven’t seen a single invective against television of any stripe make its point as succinctly and entertainingly as Alex Cox did in one scene of Repo Man. The book’s got its mind made up from the start, so there’s no real exploration of the role reality television or the medium of television itself plays in American or British culture. It’s just cultural end-times bitching and intellectual preening of the type you can get free of charge from any college professor.
The other fundamental issue with the book is that, as a Constantine story, it’s quite rote. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: terrible supernatural things are happening to normal people. John Constantine walks in, all trenchcoat and cigarettes and arrogance, and figures things out in a twitch, then sets about destroying or screwing over a force of evil by outthinking it. Along the way, a tragedy from his past returns to inconvenience him for dramatic heft. He escapes unscathed, unlike most of the people he helps. It’s a compelling formula, but it’s been used so often that such a pure iteration of it as Dark Entries is going to appear generic. Objectively, the book has a strong sense of pacing and builds well, but it so strictly adheres to not only the tropes of a John Constantine narrative, but to those of a haunted house tale, that anyone with a passing investment in horror fiction is going to know this whole story from the opening cigarette.
Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork is inconsistent, but leaning towards successful. Generally speaking, the closer the camera gets to a character, the stronger his work becomes – his facial expressions are strong, and he does great smugness and terror in particular, both of which are in ample supply in any Constantine book. His closeups are also appropriately voyeuristic for the book’s premise. He has fun playing around with off-kilter camera angles and with heavy shadows, and this gives flashbacks and moments of exploration in the prerequisite secret passages of the house a nice delirium. Unlike most haunted house tales, it’s less about creating a melancholic eeriness, and more about jarring moments of weirdness in the midst of tightly bound paranoia. Much of the book feels sketchy, however, and there’s a rushed look to mid-distance shots. In particular, many group scenes of the house’s guests feel tossed off.
His greatest moment in the book comes at the story’s major plot twist, which I am about to spoil, so fair warning for those of you who still bow before corporate criticism that sets immediate reaction above thoughtful response. Here’s another one you may have heard before: everyone in the house except Constantine is a ghost. I’ll give you a moment to come down from this. And another shocker in a Constantine story – the house is in Hell, and the audience is all demons. The role of the demonic audience of the story and the nature of the program is nebulous, but I doubt the point was to be meticulously considered – it’s just an easy analogy of the “Zombies in a shopping mall” variety that bad horror stories have been hiding behind for years. The value of this twist is in Dell’Edera’s corresponding art choice, as the pages in the second half of the book are black between panels, rather than white. It’s a nicely dramatic moment when the switch occurs, and it gives more life to a tired plot complication than is deserved.
For all the harshness in this review, Dark Entries is not a bad book. It’s a thoroughly solid and enjoyable read with decent artwork and a compulsive pace. But the whole of it just feels so calculated, from the hiring of Rankin to its placement under the Vertigo Crime name, that the book feels like product. It exists to launch Vertigo Crime, and to siphon readers into the Vertigo mainline with a Johnny Constantine Adventures title. Even the wannabe hipness of the Bauhaus-referencing title and the faux-intellectual elitism of the anti-Reality TV screed are Vertigo for Beginners elements. It’s a perfectly respectable release for horror comic enthusiasts or John Constantine completists, but it’s not a necessary or vital book.
Tags: Hellblazer, John Constantine, Vertigo