It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book quite so openly unsure about what it’s supposed to be. We’ve been promised an Ian Rankin Hellblazer story for years, after all – if I recall correctly, he was originally slated for a run on the main title, somewhere around the time that Denise Mina left. Then it was going to be a full-on OGN, instead. And now, finally, it comes out in this strange format – a black-and-white hardcover, about the same page dimensions as a novel rather than a standard TPB. The word Hellblazer is nowhere to be seen, which is strange in itself – sure, trading on Rankin’s name in huge letters is entirely understandable, but unless they’re trying to attract Keanu Reeves fans, it’s hard to see why “A John Constantine novel” is more of a selling point than “A Hellblazer novel”. Indeed, losing the series’ title seems to go hand in hand with the attempt to pitch this as a “crime” novel – which would all be understandable, if that were what it was.
Only… it isn’t. And that’s the thing. It’s one of two launch titles (the other being Brian Azzarello’s Filthy Rich) for this new “Vertigo Crime” imprint – all using the same B&W hardback format – but it appears that the only justification for doing so is the fact that it’s by a noted crime author. Because, make no mistake – this isn’t Rankin taking the character of Constantine and putting him into a Rebus story. This is Rankin writing a very, very traditional Hellblazer story, with the usual tone and characteristics very firmly in place. Admittedly, there’s not much that’s supernatural about the first half of the book – which is where the “crime” banner and sketchy black-and-white art feel much more appropriate – but a twist about halfway through signals a major shift in tone and even setting (handily signposted by a not-so-subtle change in panel border colour that can be seen in advance simply by looking at the book sideways), putting us on far more familiar Constantine territory.
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that in the context of the story – it’s a good little yarn, if perhaps slightly lacking in the substance to flesh out its length. Rankin absolutely nails Constantine’s character and dialogue – and, more importantly, the type of dialogue and atmosphere that usually surrounds him – and even finds the time to use the book for the sort of Modern-Britain-satire that characterised Delano’s work in the ’80s. Indeed, I don’t know if it’s just a case of him being a strong enough writer to adapt to an established setup, or simply that his Inspector Rebus is really similar to Constantine in the first place – but either way, it’s almost enough to tempt me to try out his prose work. The setup of John turning up in the midst of a horror-based reality TV show is a cracking conceit, and the twist – if a touch predictable – works well. Dell’edera’s art is solid, a little lightweight at times but generally in keeping with the way the series and character have looked under the likes of Marcelo Frusin and Giuseppe Camuncoli. It’s only in that second half that it doesn’t quite fit the story’s tone, with scenes that could do with feeling a bit more visceral than they actually come off as. You want for a bit of late ’80s-style colouring to go with the late ’80s-style Hellblazer story.
But this sums up the confusion that seems to exist between DC/Vertigo’s marketing department and the product they actually have in their hands. It’s as if Rankin scripted the thing ages ago and said “Do as you will”, and they’ve scratched their heads over how to package and sell it before finally coming up with this. Little details such as the back cover blurb getting the name of the TV show wrong (I don’t know where they get “Haunted Mansion” from, considering Dark Entries is actually the name of the book and everything) suggest that little thought has been given to the overall package beyond “It’s Ian Rankin, so let’s make it look like it’s one of his novels”. In fact, he’s turned out a perfectly decent Hellblazer story – although I’d hesitate to describe it as one worth paying fifteen quid for; a paperback edition would offer much value for the amount of story actually contained within – and one that would have slotted very nicely into the series as, say, a four-part story arc. It’s certainly not the “event” book that Vertigo would have you believe (check out those hyperbolic pull quotes), but it’s worth a read for the die-hard Constantine fan – at least, if they don’t feel affronted that Hellblazer readers seem to be the last market the book was actually aiming for.