A review a day: <i>Dark Entries</i>

Hey! It's the new Vertigo line of crime/mystery graphic novels! How neat!

I'm kind of jazzed by this new line of graphic novels, and I hope they sell well. Dark Entries is the first (well, the part of the first pair, both of which came out on the same day a few weeks ago - guess what tomorrow's entry will review?), and it's a good place to start, as it features John Constantine, the patron saint of Vertigo. "#1 Internationally Best-Selling Author of Exit Music" Ian Rankin writes this sucker, while the art is provided by Werther Dell'edera, who's apparently not an internationally best-selling author and therefore gets a smaller font on the cover (you know that article at the Comics Reporter that both Bill Reed and Chad Nevett linked to recently? Ng Suat Tong mentions this book as part of the "cult of the writer" that has developed in comics recently). Cost to you to own this? $19.99.

I have to say, this might be one of the best portrayals of John Constantine ever written.

Oh, did that get your attention? Do I care to explain myself? Why, of course I would! I have liked other writers' takes on John more than Rankin's, but the one thing that sets this apart and makes it a great story is ... (SPOILER!!!!) ... John doesn't screw anyone over to get where he has to go. I appreciate that Rankin thought up a clever and perfectly plausible (in Constantine's universe, of course) scenario and John works his way through it without dicking over a friend.

He often uses his brains, as he does in this book, but he almost always dicks someone over, and it's just nice to see him not do that here.

It's a decent story, too, although it's pretty conventional. John is approached by a reality television producer who wants him to figure out what's wrong with his reality television show. He has built a set that looks like a haunted house and placed six people inside. The producer, Matthew Keene, plans to scare the crap out of the contestants as they search for the BIG PRIZE!!!!! However, he has a problem - he hasn't started scaring the people inside yet, but they're already seeing stuff, stuff that is freaking them out. He offers John a chunk of money to investigate, and eventually John has to go inside because he can't figure anything out from the outside. We already know something sinister is going on, because Keene lets us know early on that getting John inside was precisely what he wanted. Oooh, scary reality television producer!!!!

Rankin's satire of reality television falls somewhat flat, because it's such an easy target. As John figures things out, it becomes a bit more interesting, but the satirical aspects of the book never rise above predictable. The characters are all seeing strange things, but as John investigates, he finds out they don't really remember much about how they got on the show.

John suspects drugs. What's going on? I won't say any more about the plot, because Rankin does make an effort to put some nice twists in the narrative, and while it's not really a mystery and not really a horror comic, it's still pretty interesting. John becomes the hero, which is an odd situation for him to be in, because he's so good at being the anti-hero.

So if it's not really a mystery and not really a horror comic, what is it? Well, when I claim it's not a mystery and it's not a horror comic, I don't mean mysterious and/or horrific things don't happen. John has to find out what's going on, but he doesn't do it through very much detective work. He just talks it out with the contestants. And the characters experience horror, but Rankin makes it too much like a horror movie, where things jump out and shock us, which tends not to work in a static medium like comics. The horrors ought to be creepier, and they're not. However, when the contestants start to remember what happened to them, there's a good sense of creeping horror as they puzzle out all the events that led to that point. Rankin takes the story in a fairly predictable direction, combining that with the flat satire of reality television, but what makes the book worthwhile is John and the way he interacts with the characters. It ought to be more of a psychological drama, because that's where the book is best. John, naturally, feels guilty about something in his past, and he connects well with the other characters and tries to help them instead of jerking them around.

When Rankin concentrates on the interactions between John and the other contestants, the book works. The rest of the book is okay, but lacks the verve Rankin wants it to have.

He's not helped by Dell'edera's art, which lacks the necessary atmosphere to bring the horror to life. He does a decent job with some of the more claustrophobic moments of the personal horrors the contestants experience, but his haunted house is bland and doesn't give us any sense of creepiness, and later in the book (and I don't want to spoil what he draws), some of his designs are a bit goofy and they're certainly not meant to be. His work with the characters, like Rankin's, is the best part of the art, and perhaps it's why Rankin seems stronger on those parts as well. Dell'edera gives each character a good, unique look, and he makes them sufficiently befuddled about their situation and terrified that things are going to go badly soon. Dell'edera's "scary" things aren't all that scary, however, which goes along with the idea that we can study them because they're static images. Rankin wants them to be scary because they come out of the dark, but it's not like they suddenly appear and then disappear, disconcerting us like a movie would. In the same way, Dell'edera's images aren't that disturbing because we can look at them more closely. The art, like the story, would have been better served by focusing on the characters more.

Dark Entries is an odd comic. On the one hand, it's not as much a "graphic mystery" as it proclaims on the cover, nor is it really a crime novel. Rankin's plot zips along, but it's not as deep or even as exciting as, presumably, the publishers thought it was. On the other hand, Rankin does a very nice job with John Constantine and the other contestants in the haunted house, and I find myself wishing he had focused more on the psychological drama and less on the grand plot. It's uneven, certainly, but it does have some neat things going for it. I don't know if it really does a good job of showcasing this new line of graphic novels, because it seems like they won't be featuring established characters. But what do I know about marketing?

Tomorrow: Manga? Am I even allowed to read manga?

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