John Constantine has been around. A former punk rocker turned street magician, Constantine has faced down every ruler of hell, defeated the thing that lives behind the world, survived time in an insane asylum and a Maximum Security prison and become involved time and again with the London underworld.
John Constantine has been around. Created by Alan Moore during his acclaimed run on Saga of the Swamp Thing, Constantine was originally modelled on Sting; a cocky, slightly alien occult wide boy with an eye for the main chance and a ruthless streak a mile long. As the lead character in Hellblazer, he’s become one of the great anti-heroes of the last twenty years and very nearly every major comic writer working today has worked on the title at one time or another. Constantine is, literally, a constant, a Chandler-esque figure with none of the romance and a lot more cynicism, a man who endures in both senses of the word.
John Constantine has been around. Over the years he’s travelled the length and breadth of England, has spent time in the US, done time in the US and lived in Australia. One of the very places he’s never been is out in the spotlight, in the glare of publicity that only reality TV can provide.
Until now. Ian Rankin, one of the greatest crime writers of his generation has produced the first in a new series of Vertigo Crime graphic novels. Dark Entries is the story of what happens when John Constantine and reality TV collide. It’s also a fascinating examination of the difference between compressed and decompressed storytelling.
Rankin is the master of the quiet character touch and his Rebus novels are full of the sort of unconscious character tics that make people unique. With that in mind, it’s interesting to see not only how he moves across to comic work but what he leaves behind to get there. Rankin’s eye for description is still there but he’s been able to move that aspect of the work across to the art, giving both elements equal weight. Produced with quiet authority by Weather Delle’dera the black and white art manages to be tense without being scratchy and Delle’dera manages to give each character unique mannerisms. Jude the football hooligan slouches his way around the house just as Ishmael, the cautious, quiet, oldest housemate is always looking around the room, always making sure everyone else is there. Alice, her arms covered with scars almost never makes eye contact whilst Tom the amiable American geek makes far too much despite his eyes being concealed behind the blank white discs of his glasses. Akiko, the Japanese girl is quiet, reserved and desperate whilst Steph is aware, upright, awake. Each one is unique, each one is well rounded and each one is doomed.
Rankin shares a certain wilful contrariness with his most famous creation and for the first one hundred and seventeen pages, Dark Entries is a slow burn, a murder mystery without a murder. We follow Constantine as he’s approached by Mr Keene, the producer of a reality TV show called Haunted Mansion whose mansion is a little too haunted, we see Keene feed him information, see Constantine enter the house and see what’s begun to terrify the contestants. We also see a lot of the traditional elements of reality TV, from circular conversations to complaints about the lack of alcohol, diary room confessions and the constant struggle for dominance in the pecking order that has been the cornerstone of Big Brother in particular for years. Its typically impressive work from Rankin, putting six people together in an odd environment, and putting the perennial outsider, the detective, in the middle of them. It’s a murder mystery without a murder, And Then There Were None where everyone’s still upright and the result is a low key but constant rise in tension.
Then, on page one hundred and eighteen, Rankin shows us the truth and everything changes. The true nature of the house and the contestants is revealed as it’s placed in a much larger, much more unsettling concept. The story is no longer John Constantine in the world of reality TV but reality TV in the world of John Constantine, a change so dramatic the page colour even shifts from black to white.
This is where Rankin may lose some readers. What began as a relatively straight haunted house story becomes outright supernatural horror with the turn of a page and Delle’edera’s rendition of hell and its denizens must surely rank with John Ridgway and Steve Dillon’s versions as definitive. Like his predecessors, Delle’dera’s hell is spacious, open and one step to the left of normal and, just like his predecessors, Delle’dera uses that to lull us into a false sense of security. Hell really is other people here, as Haunted Mansion is revealed to be a long term ratings hit amongst the damned. Every aspect of reality TV culture is transposed across, from the endless discussion of the housemate’s actions to Eviction Night and the constant scrabble to keep the viewers happy. At first it’s a jarring change, but as the novel goes on it becomes clear that this really is the only way the story could go, running the supernatural world of John Constantine together with the barely natural world of reality television.
Even here, Rankin cheerfully refuses to increase the pace. The tension continues to build, the crowds continue to get raucous but they also keep watching.
Because that’s what you do. Reality TV is, like any entertainment, an investment of time for the viewer, albeit with an added social element. You keep watching through the bad bits so you’ll see the good bits when they happen but you also keep watching because that’s what everyone else does. The contestants are alienated so you don’t have to be.
This is the true genius of the book as Rankin, the novelist who excels at long form storytelling, uses reality TV as a bridge into comics, a medium traditionally associated with short form stories. Rankin keeps every element of his style and marries them to the standard tropes of a Hellblazer story: a very English inferno, suburban horror and personal sacrifice. He even willingly sacrifices his favoured location, with the only reference to Edinburgh seeing Constantine confront Brian McArthur, a former friend who became obsessed with Sawney Bean. Brian’s descent into insanity, cannibalism, murder and death plays like what it is, the big finish of a smaller story. In that story, Brian and the question of whether he was possessed by or obsessed with Bean would be the centre of attention but here, it and Brian, are pushed to the sidelines. He becomes a rejected housemate, a demented fan, someone who knows they’re important and takes desperate measures to get near the star of the show. Which is, as ever, Constantine.
The end result is a novel that feels expansive but not padded, something that wears the clothes of a reality TV show but takes it to some unimaginably dark places. It marries the human touch and deliberate pace of Rankin’s novels with the immediacy of comics, creating a graphic novel in the most literal sense of the phrase. The final quarter, where everything comes to head, has that sickening tension that comes after the fall but before the impact, a sense that no one, not the housemates, not Constantine, not even Mr Keene is safe. It’s the moment after the crowd turns but before the crowd riots, and it’s a credit to Rankin that this is the most unsettling aspect of the story. It’s also a pitch-perfect examination of why John Constantine remains such a successful character; he’s a dark, metaphysical lens that we can view the world through and be horrified and fascinated before we turn away. He has no such luxury but at least, with Rankin, he’s in very safe hands.