Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dark Entries: A John Constantine Novel by Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'edera

Is there anything more frightening than an undead cannibal with a personal grudge come straight from Hell to devour you, body and soul? Ian Rankin thinks so...and his answer to that question is "Reality TV." Before you think I'm going to act all smug and superior about how I don't watch reality TV, a caveat: I am a reformed reality TV junkie. Thankfully, I've kicked the habit, but that doesn't mean I still don't see the appeal.

If Satre's hell was other people, Rankin's is an amended version of this same place - other people watching and participating in reality entertainment. What's worse: to be stuck in a fabricated environment, chained to a dog-eat-dog competition against a group of celebrity-seeking strangers, or to be glued to the device that delivers this makeshift, ramshackle life-by-proxy straight to your home? If neither choice seems particularly appealing, you might just be willing to accept and gleefully celebrate Ian Rankin's television-as-Faustian-bargain metaphor, Dark Entries.

Outside of some oblique name recognition, I was almost completely unfamiliar with Ian Rankin before reading Dark Entries. So I was more than a little surprised that this book caught my attention while perusing my local bookstore. Ok, so the grinning, smoking, trenchcoat-wearing skeleton on the cover might have been the catalyst of my regard for the book, but I was equally suprised to see that this was billed as a "John Constantine" novel and that it was published by a new DC Comics imprint called Vertigo Crime.

Those unfamiliar with John Constantine need only know that he's a paranormal investigator, of a sort, with a shady past and a virtually savant-level skill to irritate anyone and everyone. Oh that - and maybe the fact that he was created by comic book virtuoso Alan Moore as a foil for Swamp Thing and that he most closely resembles Sting (put all thoughts - ALL THOUGHTS - out of your head of Keanu Reeves playing him in the abysmal movie).

This time, Constantine (down on his luck and isolated as noir conventions would have him) is offered the opportunity to investigate a reality television show called Dark Entries that has somehow gone wrong. The premise of the show is a hybrid of Big Brother and Scare Tactics - place a group of beautiful people in an isolated, artificial environment, attempt to scare the living hell out of them, then rake in the money as the television viewers are given their vicarious thrills. The problem that Constantine has to address is why the participants in the show are visibly haunted and terrorized by variables not introduced by the television producers. Is there something truly supernatural happening within the Dark Entries house, or is it just the "normal" psychological terror created by artificial isolation?

What seems cut and dry, from a paranormal perspective at least, turns out to be nothing of the sort, and Constantine must unravel mysteries within mysteries if he is ever able to escape the job he has accepted. To say any more about the plot would give way too much away, so I'll leave the basic story outline right there and instead evaluate the novel manner in which this work is marketed.

The new Vertigo Crime imprint is unlike most other graphic novels on the market today. In fact, at first I wasn't sure it even was a graphic novel. The only tell is a small logo in the bottom right-hand corner of the cover that states, "A Graphic Mystery." Otherwise, it's published in hardback in a much smaller form factor than traditional comics. It's an eye-catching throwback to the pulp roots of mystery fiction, and one that DC is already exploiting with a number of other artists and writers. Based on this one work alone it's hard to tell if it will be a successful venture for the company, but I certainly appreciate the experiment.

It's also odd that Ian Rankin gets HUGE billing as the author on the cover, while the artist, Werther Dell'edera gets only a third of the font size for his name in spite of his monumental contribution to the work as a whole. Certainly I realize Rankin's name is more marketable, but downplaying the artist in a work of graphic fiction speaks of disrespect for the content and the creator.

Considering Rankin's inexperience in the field of conventional comics, he does an admirable job of staying consistent with the Constantine character within this stand-alone story. Likewise, Dell'edera is strongest when depicting Constantine's menagerie of a British-noir life. Where both writer and artist lose focus is when the supernatural elements become the crux of the plot. Dell'edera is quite good at depicting the mean streets of London, but his Hell is amorphous, at best. Likewise, Rankin's plot goes off the rails when he twists the story more towards gore than grime.

Vertigo Crime has a long way to go to firmly establish its imprint. Is it primarily crime comics, mystery comics, horror comics, or some unknown hybrid of the three? Still, it's welcome to see DC trying so many new ways to deliver graphic literature into the hands of those unfamiliar with it, and attracting readers with known writing talent is a good start.

Cross-posted at PastePotPete.

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