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Dark Entries

Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2009
By: Dave Wallace

Ian Rankin
Werther Dell'Edera
Titan (UK) and Vertigo-DC Comics (US)
Dark Entries is separately labelled on its cover as both "A John Constantine Novel" and "A Graphic Mystery", but the truth lies in a combination of those two statements: this a graphic novel, with a mystery plot, featuring John Constantine of Hellblazer.

Written by bestselling Scottish author Ian Rankin (creator of the "Inspector Rebus" series of crime novels), the story was apparently originally intended to be a five or six-issue storyline to run in Hellblazer. However, it has instead been repurposed as one of the flagship first releases from the brand-new "Vertigo Crime" imprint, a line of books that seems intent on attracting fans of crime fiction from outside the normal comics audience, as well as appealing to regular comics readers.

This perhaps explains the ambiguous choice of language for the cover description. Indeed, the entire book design seems to go out of its way to disguise the fact that it's a comic, coming in at roughly the same size as a paperback novel, and giving Rankin's name prominence over all of the other type on the cover (including the title of the book itself). Even the back cover doesn't go out of its way to advertise the fact that this is a comic book, with only the categorisation information stating that the book is a "Graphic Novel" -- and even then, it's the third category after "Crime" and "Mystery".

All of this is quite interesting from a marketing perspective, because the book itself really isn't a piece of crime fiction at all. As anyone with any knowledge of John Constantine might expect, the story is underpinned by supernatural elements, rather than the kind of straightforward realistic characters and motivations that readers of crime fiction might be more comfortable with. However, the one major aspect of the story that isn't specifically mentioned on the front and back cover blurb is the heavy fantasy elements that inform the book's plot.

Perhaps the publisher thought that the connotations of the fantasy genre would be off-putting to a mainstream audience -- in the same way that film advertisers seem to be avoiding openly labelling their science-fiction movies as "sci-fi", due to the perception that it's a term that alienates mainstream audiences. Vertigo may well have assumed (perhaps correctly) that any comics readers who were familiar with John Constantine and Hellblazer would probably expect these fantastical elements anyway, so it wasn't worth the risk of potentially alienating readers who wouldn't buy a book that was labelled as a fantasy-based mystery rather than as a crime-based mystery. However, I can't help but wonder whether the book's major twist might have been easier for a mainstream audience to accept if they had been informed that the book contained fantastical elements, given that they underpin its central mystery plot.

Anyway, I'm not here to review Vertigo's marketing strategies -- I'm here to review Dark Entries as a story in its own right. And I'm happy to report that it's a fairly good one.

The book's plot is a haunted house horror story that is given a fresh coat of paint for modern-day audiences thanks to Rankin's decision to set his tale in the studios of a "reality TV" show -- which John Constantine is encouraged to visit by the show's producer in order to investigate the supernatural goings-on. This gives the author the opportunity to take a few satirical swipes at current programming trends at the same time as he lays out the groundwork of his mystery.

The examination of the cold, bloodthirsty nature of "reality TV" via a horror/mystery plot is hardly new territory. For example, Ben Elton's novel Dead Famous -- which really was a crime-based mystery -- springs to mind as an example of a similar premise, as does a first-season episode of the recently-revived Doctor Who that saw contestants participate in an endless series of Big Brother (which ended in death for most of the contestants).

However, Rankin imbues his story with a more overt horror flavour than those examples, giving the contestants of his reality TV show unsettling haunting hallucinations of past events from their life in a manner that's faintly reminiscent of the movie Flatliners.

In fact, the whole story feels quite cinematic, as though it would lend itself well to a film adaptation. Some of the scenarios that Rankin has his characters imagine are as disturbing as anything that I've seen in the Saw movies; there are a couple of reasonably exciting action sequence; and, like some of the best murder mysteries, undisclosed secrets that are shared by the main players have to come to light in order for the mystery to be solved.

That's not to say that the book doesn't contain some fairly original ideas, too. Most notably, there's a twist that comes around the book's halfway mark that casts the story in a completely new light, making sense of some of the supernatural elements that we saw earlier in the book whilst at the same time presenting Constantine with plenty of new obstacles to overcome. It also has the effect of transforming the show's producer into a slightly more extreme and outlandish version of the same character (which reminded me a little of the X-Men's Mojo). The twist allows Rankin to have a little more fun with his story, permitting him to play with more exaggerated characterisation for his antagonists of the type that you could only really get away with in a fantasy story like this one.

As far as I know, this is Rankin's first work in the medium, and he demonstrates a surprisingly solid grasp of what works and what doesn't on the comics page. Most panels feature some kind of dynamic activity, but the author doesn't try to cram too many actions into a single image. Scene transitions are handled smoothly, sometimes with overlapping dialogue that helps to bridge the gap between apparently unrelated images. The book's large cast of characters is established well, with Rankin managing to make the personalities of his housemates distinctive enough that they're all recognisable after a few pages, and sketching the personality of Constantine himself in enough detail that newcomers won't at a disadvantage in comparison to long-time Hellblazer fans. And there's a certain economy of storytelling that enables the writer to execute a reasonably complex full-length story without resorting to excesses of dialogue or lengthy explicatory captions to get his point across, apparently remaining confident in the abilities of his artist to clearly convey all of the visual elements of his script.

Talking of the artwork, Werther Dell'Edera illustrates the entire book in a black-and-white/greyscale style that carries a slight "indie" sensibility. Along with the book's rough paper stock and small page size, it's the kind of thing that I would expect to see from a smaller publisher like Oni Press. That's not to say the artwork is primitive or unpolished, however -- just that it's a little different from the style of art that you'd usually expect from a Vertigo title.

In fact, the black-and-white artwork is particularly effective in conveying the tone that Rankin seems to be aiming for, particularly in the opening pages that accurately reflecting the grey, dingy nature of life in a rainy city in present-day Britain. Dell'Edera's style is fairly angular and occasionally a little sketchy, but never feels rushed or unfinished, with elements that reminded me a little of the work of Darwyn Cooke and Sean Phillips. He makes good use of large black areas (particularly during the book's more tense and unsettling sequences) and comes up with some suitably disturbing ways to visualise of the hallucinations in the first half of the book, along with some strong designs for the fantastical creatures that we see in the second half of the book.

Dell'Edera also reflects the book's major twist in quite a simple yet subtle way: he shifts from white panel borders to black ones (you'll probably spot the change in the colour of the pages before you even open the book). It's a fitting transition, given the nature of the reveal. It gives the black-bordered pages a more claustrophobic and dark feel, and helps to divide the story into two distinct Acts -- with the big twist making for a good place to put the book down if you decide not to read all 214 pages through in one sitting.

As much as I enjoyed the book, though, I did have some problems with the story. Most notably, I can't help but feel that John Constantine is made to look quite foolish for going along with the deal that's offered by the TV producer quite so readily, and with so little investigation into his background (especially given that the rest of the book draws so much attention to his detective skills). It's also a little surprising that he takes so long to solve the book's central mystery, as you might expect that his experiences with the supernatural would give him a higher level of insight when it came to situations like this one.

Also, by the end of the book, there's a sense that the plot has disintegrated into a standard chase thriller, as the remaining members of the group are pursued by a shambling, horrific-looking monster as they attempt to reach a convenient escape point (which doesn't seem to have any reason to exist, other than that the book needed a way for its characters to be able to get away at the end of the story).

There are also quite a few distinctly British references that I (as a UK-based reader) rather enjoyed, but might be a little distracting for US audiences. Still, I doubt that many readers are going to be put off by missing the odd Monty Python reference, or not knowing what Hollyoaks is.

Still, these weaknesses don't detract too much from a fairly enjoyable supernatural thriller with heavy fantasy elements. For a first-time writer in the medium of comics, this is an impressive debut, and one that should please Vertigo lovers in general and Hellblazer fans in particular.

Just don't expect it to be a "crime" book.


This reviewer was working from the Titan Books edition of Dark Entries, published for the UK market; Vertigo is publishing the book for the US market.



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