Review: Reign in Hell trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

"Ambitious" is at least one word I'd use to describe writer Keith Giffen's Reign in Hell. Over eight issues, Giffen builds a complex and fully realized architecture for the DC Comics concept of Hell, and in doing so helps to describe the often vague rules for magic in the DC Universe. On top of that, Giffen populates Reign in Hell with a who's who of DCU characters: some mystical, some forgotten, and at least one -- this writer posits -- there just because Giffen wrote the story. Reign in Hell is not an instant classic, but without question it demonstrates Giffen's versatility.

[Contains spoilers for Reign in Hell]

I associate Keith Giffen, perhaps unfairly, with Justice League International and Lobo; as such, when he writes something more serious like Reign in Hell, it takes me by surprise (even thought Giffen's Legion was plenty serious at times). But even as Reign still contains some of Giffen's trademark banter between the heroes, the book's main combatants -- Neron on one side, and Satanus and Blaze on the other -- speak to each other in terms of "open petition," the "unspoken principum," and detailed strategy of war. It gives the book a tone of fantasy that not only have I never seen before from Giffen, but that's rare in the DC Universe as a whole, and I wonder if Reign in Hell will find some fans in this way.

Notable also here is the art team of Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz. Derenick's work isn't always my favorite, but he became synonymous with Shadowpact over the course of that series, so I'm glad to see he tackles those characters again here. Sienkiewicz is an artist that, because of his unusal, sketchy style we don't see as often on DC Comics, but when he appears, his inks transform the pencillers' style into a great amalgam of the penciller and Sienkiewicz's own. In this case, Sienkiewicz's dark, moody inks work perfectly with Derenick to create something that looks familiar and at the same time omnious enough for this story.

DC's done a lot of work on their mystical characters since just before Infinite Crisis; the same is true of their cosmic characters. Since that time, we've had a couple of Day of Vengence specials, the Shadowpact series, and mystical tie-ins to Final Crisis. It seems this era is just about over; whereas Jim Starlin's cosmic miniseries continue in spirit in REBELS and Green Lantern, Shadowpact's been cancelled and Reign feels like a last hurrah for these characters. As such, we see Blue Devil, Enchantress, Nightshade, and Detective Chimp here; also Zatanna, the angel Zauriel, Captain Marvel, Etrigan, the new Sargon and Ibis from the Helet of Fate miniseries, Black Alice, and more. Essentially, and impressively, everyone who's appear in DC's mystic revival over the past few years appears here, and Giffen does well in giving them all roles to play.

I also enjoyed that Giffen includes a number of varied aspects of DC Comics continuity in this story. Giffen has Etrigan reference War of the Gods, of all things, a nearly forgotten Wonder Woman crossover from over ten years ago; similarly Giffen makes good use of a drug introduced in one of the least notable Satanus storylines from Superman some years back as well. He brings in Linda Danvers, the all but forgotten Supergirl from the Peter David series, and even gives a nod to that series connection to David's Fallen Angel. At the same time, I felt a pivotal scene between Blue Devil and Etrigan could have been greater if it had acknowledged the two had met in Shadowpact not more than a year or so ago; there's also a terribly confusing sequence where Zatanna learns her father Zatara is alive in Hell, but no one except the reader seems very surprised by this.

For all my awe over Reign in Hell, I'll acknowledge it's not exactly my cup of tea. I like Shadowpact and DC's mystic revival, but Shadowpact's tone was one of supernatural, not fantasy. The Shadowpact were superheroes who fought bad guys with magic, whereas Reign is more swords and sorcery; I like complicated comics, and Reign has eight issues worth of lots of detailed dialogue, but it's not exactly the kind of thing that holds my interest. The somewhat incongruous appearance of Lobo here (perhaps in DC's belief that Giffen plus Lobo equals sales) doesn't temper the tone, nor does the noir Dr. Occult back up series that never quite seems necessary. I appreciated Reign in Hell's scope as a miniseries and as a finale, but I don't think I'd necessarily follow it as an ongoing series.

Reign in Hell ended for me on a promising note, with my favorite of the three contenders for ruler of Hell victorious. Aside from one appearance in Teen Titans, though, I don't know how soon we'll see this story continued, and maybe it ought lay fallow for now; this is a good conclusion for a run of DC's mystical heroes that lasted maybe longer than I would have expected, and maybe it'll do the property good to let it rest for a while now.

[Contains full and variant covers]
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2 comments:

  1. I kept waiting for the New Dr. Fate to do something Amazing but it never really happened. The end sets up all these characters to go on in different ways, and maybe the new Zatanna series will pick up on some of the threads.

    Also, I was utterly confused about Supergirl until I got that it was Linda Danvers. And then I'm still confused, just with something to google.

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  2. Most of the times DC really misses the target doing this kind of series. There was no way Shadowpact could be a hit. Somehow at DC they don´t see the obvious.
    Of all the series that came out of Zero Hour only Starman prevailed and it was because it was excellent in every way. Secret Six is the only series that is enduring after Infinity Crisis.

    Too bad about Reign in Hell. DC must really start using their thiking cups. Geoff Johns can´t do everything.

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