Friday, April 24, 2009

Hellblazer - Rake At The Gates of Hell (Ennis Vol. 6)

Hellblazer - Rake At The Gates of Hell
By Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Throughout Garth Ennis' stellar run on Hellblazer, he spent a lot of time building up a solid, ever-evolving story. Threw together many elements and made them work. Built towards what looked to be a remarkable confrontation with the devil himself. How would Constantine get out of the jam he was in? What amazing plan would he hatch? Could he once again pull the figurative rabbit out of the hat? It was thrilling to imagine the ways in which this could have played out.

Reading the finished product was less thrilling than the imagining.

Rake At The Gates Of Hell
is a solid, if unremarkable, final story arc, bringing to a close Ennis' (usually) fantastic Hellblazer run. I only wish it could have finished as strongly as it started, because when this run was good, it was OUTSTANDING. This, though, was just pretty good ... and that's it.

Sure, the writing remained crisp and lively. Yes, Steve Dillon's art continued to be beautiful in its simplicity and top-shelf in its storytelling.

Just didn't have the rousing finish a reader would hope to see, is all.

Oh yeah, and whose idea was it to cap things off with a lengthy, tedious double issue of talk, talk, talk, none of which had anything to do with Constantine or the core story? Stupid, stupid, stupid to place this special issue at the end of this volume. Bad call by DC's graphic novel editorial type people.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hellblazer - Damnation's Flame (Ennis Vol. 5)

Hellblazer - Damnation's Flame
By Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon

So, Damnation's Flame. Or Damn Nation's Flame. Clever, huh? Little bit of subtle commentary, right? Goes right along with the whipsmart political and social commentary of the story, yeah?


No, not clever, or subtle, or smart, or any such thing. It's not that Ennis' political commentary is offensive or wrong or anything like that. That's not the issue. The issue is that it's clunky and heavy-handed and so blindly obvious as to be insulting to the reader.

Look, JFK has a hole in his head! Look, Uncle Sam is an evil Devil guy! Look, people are eating one another in the streets! Yada yada yada and blah blah blah.


Again, it's got nothing to do with what Ennis is saying or the message he's delivering, it's got everything to do with how he's saying it. And how is "not very well." Clumsy and ham-fisted does not make for good political commentary.

I love Ennis' run on this title, I really do, but Damnation's Flame was a misstep from the word go. It was an adequate, and nothing better than adequate, step away from the overarching narrative Ennis had until this point been telling. Not necessary, and in retrospect not overly enjoyable, either.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hellblazer - Tainted Love (Ennis Vol. 4)

Hellblazer - Tainted Love
By Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon

This collection is a fine example of why Garth Ennis' run on Hellblazer is held in such high esteem. This does not collect an epic arc or grand story or any such thing. Rather, Ennis takes little bits of what came before and spins a handful of standalone-yet-connected stories that center on John Constantine and the people he knows.

And it's fantastic.

In a two-parter, we revisit the King of the Vampires from the Bloodlines collection in a surprisingly gruesome story. But gruesome isn't the point. The point is the broken state of Constantine's heart and mind. That the story springs from seeds planted much earlier only serves to make it better. Solid stuff.

In another story the focus is almost entirely on Constantine's lover, Kit. This is a great example of what Ennis does best -- build character. Sure, sure, he curses a lot and has scenes of graphic sex and violence, but at their core the best Ennis stories are about people, not shocking content. THAT'S why people loved Preacher so much. Not because of the sex and violence, but because we liked those characters so much. When he's on his game, few people do better "talking heads" comics.

"Finest Hour" is a decent little one-shot that has very little to do with Constantine, yet somehow manages to symbolize his struggle to overcome the despair he wallows in throughout most of this volume. It's a diversion, but one that resonates. A side story, yet one that works for the ongoing saga.

There is also a dark, disturbing one-shot from the Hellblazer Special featuring a madman priest, the devil, child abuse, and other friendly fellows. This one will make you shudder. A lot. Dire and wonderful stuff, this is.

This is, alas, Ennis' peak on Hellblazer.

Oh yeah, and did I mention it's fantastic?

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hellblazer - Fear and Loathing (Ennis Vol. 3)

Hellblazer - Fear and Loathing
By Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon

Garth Ennis' run on Hellblazer is respected for a reason. Because it's good. But it's no knock on Ennis to offer much of the credit to artist Steve Dillon, who jumps on board with this volume, and in doing so launches the book into the stratosphere. Ennis and Dillon would go on to have some great collaborations -- the beloved Preacher and Ennis' under-read Punisher run the two best -- but I'll always have a warm place in my heart for this one.

Dillon's entry into the Hellblazer fray is a Good Thing. Nay, this is a Great Thing, because his art is fantastic. Not fantastic in the big, bombastic way of glitzy comic artists and loud superhero books. His is a more controlled look. More focused. It's a bit busy and sketchy in these early issues (he loses the sketchy look partway through this run), but right out of the gate his main strength is apparent: He's a great, great storyteller.

And THAT, my friends, is a huge part of what makes him so great. Sure, his lines are attractive and he draws some of the most expressive faces in the business. A good thing, that, considering how talking Ennis-penned books can be. But the real key to his work is that he's a damn good storyteller, quite a rare thing these days. One can eliminate all the text from the page and yet still have a great sense for what's happening. His panels are clear. Never cluttered. Always direct.

Modern artists could learn a thing or two from Steve Dillon.

That artwork is attached to Ennis' best Hellblazer story to date. Here we've got Constantine making life very, very difficult for the angel Gabriel - and is there anything better than seeing this sour-pussed Englishman make like difficult for a snooty angel? I think not. Excellent stuff. Very well executed.

This volume also contains one of my favorite stories, John Constantine's 40th birthday party, which is warm and funny and features some fantastic guest appearances. Anyone up for smoking the Swamp Thing?

It's all being done with a purpose, too. One nice thing about Ennis' run is that everything seems to be built upon which came before, yet it rarely feels forced or as if Ennis is pushing around pawns for his plot. Instead, the overall tale builds in a very natural, character-driven way. I like that.

Great stuff.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at and was also featured at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hellblazer - Bloodlines (Ennis Vol. 2)

Hellblazer - Bloodlines
By Garth Ennis

A bit of filler, a bit of brilliance, and a bit of missed opportunity, Bloodlines offers up the very best and the very worst Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer has to offer. We get three story arcs in this hefty 300-page volume, plus a standalone story or two. They’re a mixed bag; when they’re good, they’re very good, and when they’re not, they’re largely disappointing because of what they could have been.

But overall, a solid thumbs up for this collection.

We open with “The Pub Where I Was Born,” a two-parter that starts wonderfully but finishes a bit so/so. Ennis offers the kind of romantic view of drinking that only those fond of downing beers with their buddies can offer, and as one of those people, yeah, it rings true. Ennis knows this territory inside and out and mines it to perfection. Made me want to meet up with some friends at the bar right then and there. But the story then descends into a gory ghost romp and kind of peters out. Too bad, as it began very human and wonderful.

A couple of just fine standalones follow (a Lord of the freakin' Dance story is “meh,” a vampire story was excellent despite my disdain for vampire stories) before we launch into the four-part “Royal Blood,” a story that would have been cool if Ennis wasn’t trying so damn hard to show us the depraved excesses of the rich and powerful. Great idea, great premise, cool demons, yada yada yada. Too bad about the ugly art and heavy-handed commentary, though. Still, the gore – both visually and in text – is delightfully unsettling.

“Guys And Dolls,” on the other, was excellent through and through. Angels and demons screwing, heaven versus hell, and all sorts of fun stuff. Some might call it “slow,” but Ennis is good at slow. He is at his best when he lingers in character moments, so as far as I'm concerned slow is not an issue. I enjoyed this arc. Great lead into artist Steve Dillon joining the book, at which point the title jumps into the stratosphere.

Is Bloodlines essential? No, probably not. It’s an uneven collection of stories the folks at DC couldn’t collect individually; sometimes excellent, sometimes “eh.” But if you’re going to read the Ennis run, it’s got a few tales (the two standalones and “Guys and Dolls”) that pay off later, so you’ll want to dip in. Even on the worst of this bunch, Ennis’ writing is strong and well worth reading.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at and was also featured at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hellblazer - Dangerous Habits (Ennis Vol. 1)

Hellblazer - Dangerous Habits
By Garth Ennis

Let’s make this clear up front: Everything I know about John Constantine I know about from the Garth Ennis run. I hadn’t followed the series at the time I began to pick up these issues. Still don’t follow it. Hadn't yet read his initial appearances in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, either. Hell, Ennis, best known for his beloved Preacher series, might write Constantine way off character. I just don't know. All I know is, for me this is John Constantine. So take that into consideration as you read this.

Great as this run was -- and we'll get into why when I write about later volumes -- it doesn't start very strong. Dangerous Habits is a solid first arc marred by awful artwork. Here, Ennis sets up pieces he’ll play with for the duration of his run, most notably a bit of trickery with the Devil himself. Constantine finds out he has lung cancer. (Big surprise there, considering he's a bloody chain smoker.) He’s dying. He drinks, searches for a way out of it, drinks, comes to grips with dying, drinks, and makes a deal with the Devil. Sort of.

Despite Constantine already having a dense history in place by the time this starts, Ennis’ first arc is easy to dive into. You don’t need to know all sorts of back story. Who and what Constantine is is readily apparent. He's a grumpy Englishman who knows a thing or two about the supernatural. Easy. From the start you’re up to speed and following along without a hitch. This is a big plus for new readers. Good introductory volume.

The art is rotten, though. I’m sure the fine Will Simpson is well suited for a great many books, but this is not one of them. His storytelling chops are good, dare I say excellent compared to some of today's pretty-but-incoherent art, but his figure work is ugly through and through. I mean, honestly, this stuff is uglu.

Good, solid story, though. A classic? Maybe not. Compared to what comes later it a bit uneven. Weak spots and unsteady pacing keep it from being the gripping, tense read it could have been. It doesn't help that a bit near the end with a fellow cancer patient rings rather false.

Still, Ennis hits most of the right notes and gives us a plausible (for a title rooted in magic) out for the problems he sets up. Good start to what develops into an excellent run. Even better, this bookends nicely with the final volume in Ennis’ run. But more on that in a later post. Fine reading, this.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at and was also featured at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

DMZ Vol. 4 – Friendly Fire

DMZ Vol. 4 - Friendly Fire
By Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli

And so we come to the fourth volume of Brian Wood’s critically-acclaimed series set in a New York City torn apart by the second American Civil War.

As I mentioned when I started the series, DMZ is a concept rife with unrealized potential, a fantastic premise marred by little niggles that add up.

But it gets better. Stories like this one are a part of the reason why.

This volume deals with what appears to be an unprovoked massacre of civilians by U.S. soldiers. But was it?

Wood seems to be hitting his stride here. Strong story well told, some good characterization, and delving into politics without being heavy-handed about X belief being Wrong and Y belief being Right. That last part is pretty huge, because this entire SERIES is really just an excuse for him to explore political issues and offer entertainment-based commentary on America's adventures overseas. That's a tough tightrope to walk. Too heavy-handed and you run the risk of alienating readers and letting your message get in the way of the story, too soft a touch and you sap the impact from the hot-button issues you're tackling.

Here, he strikes a great balance.

The cause of the civilian massacre at the root of the story is left ambiguous, and while we don't root for the military figures (no surprise there, given the tone of this book), we're not entirely sure they weren't justified in seeing danger. Wood trusts the reader to fill in the blanks. Presented this way, our own biases can allow different people to see the story in markedly different ways. That is, in my opinion, a positive.

The art is a big step up here, too ... of course, I'm talking about a fill-in artist rather than the series regular, so maybe saying the art took a step up is an insult. But it's true, I like the fill-in artist far more than the main artist. Like, a lot more.

The truth is, I began to grow weary of DMZ by the third volume. I though about bailing out on the series, about cutting my losses and walking away, but you know what? This won me over. I'll stick around. I'll keep reading. Maybe -- hopefully -- things continue on their upward path and we see DMZ become what I think it can be. Something awesome.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at and was also featured at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

DMZ Vol. 3 - Public Works

DMZ Vol. 3 - Public Works
By Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli

Let's cut right to the chase: DMZ continues to improve. Public Works gives us a more focused story than anything that has come before, much more clear and direct than the somewhat scattered, uneven initial arcs of this filled-with-potential series. The story focuses on a (very, very, very) thinly veiled Halliburton + Blackwater corporation that is, of course, mustache-twirling eeeeeeevil.

Somehow, though, Wood manages to not come across as too heavy-handed. Quite the feat.

Our protagonist, Matty, continues to be barely likable, which is usually death for a lead character, and I continue to long for a more meaningful exploration of the people living in the DMZ, but Public Works offers a solid story and the best sense of place I've seen so far in this series. It grapples with questions of corruption and terrorism, and puts the main character in some tough situations that struggle with issues of morality, and right and wrong.

Yes, yes, all obvious questions and themes from a series blatantly trying to offer commentary on America's recent "adventures" in the Middle East, but I'm not going to knock the guy for exploring such thematic material as long as the end result is a quality read. And this one was.

An earlier version of this review was originally posted at and was also featured at

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.