August 2009

Shaun Manning


Dark Entries by Ian Rankin

Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin's long-awaited comic book debut is an intriguing mix of pulp mystery, supernatural suspense, and celebrity culture parody. In Dark Entries, John Constantine, the too-clever-by-half occultist and star of Vertigo's long-running Hellblazer comic book series, finds himself trapped in the hellish world of reality television. He is compelled to unravel the mystery that binds the hapless contestants together and uncover the secrets that haunt them. Rankin's story is remarkably straightforward in the context of Constantine's usual adventures, but following a strong setup the plot wobbles a bit once the dots begin to connect.

When the housemates of "Dark Entries," a new reality TV series in the vein of "Big Brother" but aimed at terrifying its contestants, begin to see otherworldly visions even before the producer-sanctioned scares begin, Constantine is hired to investigate the apparent haunting. In the house, John from Liverpool meets Stephanie, who has visions of a burning man; Ishmael, who is haunted by a speeding car; Alice, who sees something that might be a sharp-taloned bird, always at the corners of vision; tough guy Jude, terrified by an old woman's purse; Akiko, for whom the ground is consistently littered with needles; and Tom, an American who seems to be pursued by an ancient crone. Interviewing the cast, Constantine discovers that none of them actually remember auditioning for the show or arriving in the house; other holes in their memories are apparent, as well. The magician feels a peculiar connection to Stephanie, who reminds Constantine of a lost friend. He soon discovers there are other affinities between the housemates, as well. It isn't long before contestants begin disappearing, though whether they have left in search of "Dark Entries's" great prize or have been abducted by forces unknown, no one can tell.

Werther Dell'Endera's greyscale art, unusual for DC Comics or even its edgier Vertigo imprint, lends Dark Entries an indie sensibility entirely appropriate for the crime/suspense genre -- if this book did not star John Constantine, it could easily fit in Oni Press's publishing line. There are some other interesting design decisions, as well. Reflecting a significant plot twist, the page gutter shifts from white to black halfway through the book. The trim size is also significantly smaller than comic book/graphic novel size, though still somewhat larger than most manga volumes. This may appeal to Rankin's prose readers, since the book will outwardly resemble the novelist's previous books. It is strange, though, that the publisher chose not to use its popular Hellblazer brand on the book's cover. This may reflect Dark Entries's stand-alone status or, being one of the launch titles for the new Vertigo Crime sub-imprint, the goal may have been to identify the book as distinct from other Vertigo offerings.

Dark Entries does, however, exist somewhat apart from previous Hellblazer volumes. The Constantine we see here is not quite the quick wit readers have seen over 250-plus issues of his own series. He is also a bit hasty to accept a dubious assignment, motivated by a swift and hefty payout. Nevertheless, Rankin's focus on Constantine's detective skills plays to strengths both of writer and character. The result is a compelling lead who will be mostly recognizable to long-time readers; those uninitiated to Hellblazer who pick up the book for Rankin's name alone should be unreservedly pleased with the enigmatic Mr. Constantine.

There are, though, some not insignificant problems with the story itself. The nature of the "Dark Entries' reality program, revealed at the graphic novel's midpoint, creates its own bit of narrative murkiness, raising questions about the competence of the show's producers and setting up an altogether confused role for the viewing audience. More problematic is the strength of the threads that link each contestant together vary greatly: the link between Stephanie and Ishmael is crystal clear, but the chain breaks down quickly from here.

Rankin, well-established and highly regarded in his own literary circles, is unfortunately overshadowed in the world of Hellblazer by Jamie Delano's and Garth Ennis's earlier stories, which clearly inspire the novelist here. For all its flaws, Dark Entries remains a brisk, enjoyable read. Dell'Edera amps up the horror aspects of this book with his spare yet evocative illustrations. Rankin provides shivers, masterful sleuthing, and some truly touching moments that could only play out in the life of damned savior John Constantine.


Dark Entries by Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'Edera
DC Comics/Vertigo Crime
ISBN: 1401213863
216 pages

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