Dark Entries

Posted by Dale Townshend on October 06, 2009 in Blog tagged with

Although I’m not a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels (dark crime thrillers set in Edinburgh) I was aware that he was a self-confessed comic book and pop culture fan. Dark Entries is his first trip into this new territory having waited ‘forty years’ to be given the opportunity. Originally invited to script either a new Batman or Superman for the publishing house Vertigo, ampoule Rankin pitched several ideas which were rejected before opting for a story featuring John Constantine the anti-hero of the Hellblazer series. Rankin admits he had no idea how to write, or even structure, a comic script and so he simply wrote in a stream of consciousness style, eventually submitting some 200 typescript pages to Vertigo. Vertigo liked the story but found it too long for a comic book series and after some consideration decided to produce it in the form of a graphic novel rather than cut it or reshape it into a monthly serial. The artwork was subsequently produced by the Italian artist Werther Dell’edera (The Punisher and others) and amounts to 1010 individual frames of deceptively simplistic and somewhat stylised inked drawings. The complete graphic novel runs to 214 pages.

 

I have to admit to knowing the Constantine character only as well, or badly, as he was portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the eponymous movie released in 2005. Although it isn’t a completely awful film it isn’t very good, and is saved only by Tilda Swinton’s mesmerising turn as the angel Gabriel and Peter Stormare’s portrayal of a quirky, linen suit-wearing Satan. Perhaps the film lost something in its inevitable translation and rewriting for Hollywood, but, as envisaged by the original British writer Jamie Delano, John Constantine’s world is the murky Britain of the 1980s. Delano’s work has been read allegorically and straddles the boundaries between horror and sci-fi drawing comparisons with the likes of J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg. Delano has said ‘I was interested in commenting on 1980s Britain. That was where I was living, it was shit, and I wanted to tell everybody’. As far as I can tell in the original stories Constantine was a kind of confidence trickster / street magician who supplemented his meagre living in numerous other seedy ways such as paranormal investigations which frequently landed him, and those close to him, in genuine peril. Constantine is a flawed, anti-establishment, anti-zeitgheist kind of hero with attitude.

 

Rankin’s incarnation of John Constantine seems more in line with this original albeit that the setting is very much the Britain of 2009 rather than the 1980s (having said that the title Dark Entries is a nod to the original ‘flavour’ of the comic strip being the title of a single released by British goth-rock outfit Bauhaus in 1980). The novel itself is full of witty textual and graphical allusions to pop and contemporary culture and film history. A few that I can think of just off the top of my head would include Hideo Nakata’s film Ringu, Agatha Christie’s crime thriller Ten Little Indians, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade pulps and film noire generally, and, most importantly, the TV shows Big Brother and Britain’s Most Haunted and the reality TV phenomenon. It’s this playfulness with genre and allusion that graphic novels seem to be good at and was the main source of fun in reading it, although the story is gripping and a pretty transparent allegory of contemporary culture that serves well enough.

 

I have no intention of writing a spoiler, so let me just say that the text features a televised game show where contestants live in a ‘haunted’ house controlled by the show’s producers. The contestants have to explore the labyrinthine house to find hidden treasure and the sole exit. After just a few episodes all of the housemates are seeing ghosts despite the fact that the producers haven’t started playing any of the special effects or tricks up their sleeves yet! With his reputation for paranormal investigations preceding him, Constantine is recruited to enter the house and find out what is happening. He quickly recognises one of the housemates as bearing a resemblance to a friend of his who died when one of his previous investigations went wrong.* Nothing is at it seems…

 

Dark Entries, by Ian Rankin / Werther Dell’edera, is a ‘graphic mystery’ published by Vertigo/DC Comics, New York in 2009. It is available in hardback at $24.99.

 

 * The ‘backstory’ to this is really interesting and I would love to know if anyone knows if it featured in another Constantine story from the Hellblazer series. A Historian researching the Highland clearances becomes possessed by the spirit of the legendary Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane with predictably anthropophagic consequences.

 

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