Recently, lebeau looked over Reign in Hell #4, and while I agree with his comments in general, I felt like I had a decent not-quite-rant here on the subject, so while he contained himself quite sensibly to a single paragraph, I shall blather on indefinitely. Still, he said it first, and better, so go pat him on the back.
Some time ago, I reviewed the first issue of Keith Giffen’s Reign in Hell, a project that was pitched as “Annihilation for the magicians of DC.” And, for what it’s worth, DC seemed willing to play along, even printing a Reign in Hell Special that was just a reprint of three issues that tentatively led up to the series (which Reign in Hell didn’t really need and Batman R.I.P. absolutely did). And with that, the game was afoot…but I, like many others who read the book, failed to be wowed by the first real issue of the mini.
Now, some brief background. I count myself to have, if not a PhD, then at least a Master’s in comic book magic. This is one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated by Bendis every time I see him even approach Scarlet Witch or Doctor Strange, two characters he seems incapable of writing on a fundamental level. It also might be one of the reasons why I didn’t kiss a girl ‘til I was 19, but…uhhh…right, Reign in Hell.
I give you this humiliating background so that you will know the sense of bafflement I felt upon reading the first issue of the series, all aglow with excitement that my beloved comic book magicians were going to be more than bad deus ex machina or underpowered fodder, and had absolutely no idea who anyone was.
Part of this, is, of course, the art – the clear, crisp style that dominated much of Annihilation was here replaced by the stylish-but-scratchy pencils of Tom Derenick. Derenick is definitely a competent artist, but I got the feeling that he was being asked to do just way too much. A huge cast of characters that much of the world is unfamiliar with lends itself better towards a more mainstream talent…but still, as I read the series and grew accustomed to his art, it grew on me. I still wouldn’t have picked him as my first choice on the book, but he appears to be growing accustomed to the enormous amount of characters he has to introduce.
No, the main problem lies, of course, with others. In Annihilation, we were given the opportunity to get to know each of these characters before the main mini began. If you weren’t familiar with Drax by the beginning of Drax the Destroyer #1, you definitely were by the end, and the same went for all the other characters. By the time you got to the main mini, the extremely talented writing team there had already instilled in you an interest in the well-being of these characters.
With Reign in Hell, while we are helpfully provided with information about what province of Hell is currently being looked at, we are often not given the much more important knowledge of who, exactly, is speaking, nor are we given a terrific amount of backstory on any of these characters. Where Annihilation had a series of prologues that had us aching for the conclusion, Reign in Hell throws us right into the middle of the fight and leaves us to puzzle out why, instead of demons, there are robots everywhere, or why the few demons there are all seem to be chowing down on a cigar at all times.
Of course, the obvious solution would’ve been to make it the event that Annihilation was, but I don’t honestly even know if that would’ve worked. The youth of today are decidedly jaded when it comes to magic, an embarrassingly stupid fact when you realize that they’re totally cool with a guy with a half-ton of metal welded to his spine and super-healing…as long as it’s sciencey metal, and this book features a rather enormous cast of magicians in a Hell, a very sciencey Hell, that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else, ever…including in DC.
There’s a problem I had with Reign in Hell, though, beyond the quibbles about the art and the lack of character labels, and that’s the fact that we’ve seen it all before, but better. Mike Carey’s Lucifer has been over for precisely how long at this point? I know it didn’t take place in DC, but let’s face it, it pretty much took place in DC, the same way Sandman pretty much took place in DC. It ignored all the cruddy bits, told its own story, but it was published by DC and it featured, I’m sorry to say, a set of vastly more-interesting pro- and antagonists since it was cut blessedly free of restraints on continuity and offered a morally twisty tale that mainstream comics tend to abhor…or, as is the case in Reign in Hell, tend to ignore.
Now, for all my rants, I can’t deny that there has been a single glimmer of sheer awesome in the series, and that’s the shockingly strong back-ups. I know, I know – how often is the back-up of a comic anything other than a gimmick to raise the price of the issue so they can give you a three-page origin story and then laugh at you as you realize that you don’t actually have a choice, you have to pay for those extra three pages.
But, no, here Giffen does what I suspect Giffen does best – makes me care about a character I know virtually nothing about. The adventures of Doctor Occult and Peri through Hell are charming and exciting, a great introduction to the characters and exploration of the setting, EXACTLY what I was looking for. In fact, I think on some alternate world, they’re getting a vastly superior Reign in Hell as a series of story’s like Occult’s – not gigantic war epics, but the personal stories of characters we could love…or love to hate.
And, of course, in rant mode, I’m being unfair. Giffen and co. have done a decent job with Reign in Hell and, looking over the single issues of #1-4, they read notably better together than they did alone, making them a worthy purchase for anyone interested in the mystics of the DCU. Knowing the harsh Vertigo curtain, I’m certain that Giffen was hampered by not being allowed to use the excellent introduction of Hell we saw in Sandman or any elements whatsoever of the gorgeous fleshing out of Hell in Lucifer.
But, when it comes right down to it, whatever the reasons, Reign in Hell has thus far seemed to be largely a wasted opportunity. Maybe he just set expectations up a little too high with comparisons to the much more fleshed-out Annhiliation, or maybe the cards just weren’t right this time, but in the end, Reign in Hell is a competent book that lacks the sense of wonder, exploration, and depth that it needed to give the book a fighting chance. It’s still a decent read, but, ultimately, there’s just so much that isn’t there that I mourn for.