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Sunday, 1 May 2011

Reign in Hell

Writer: Keith Giffen
Penciller: Tom Derenick, Stephen Jorge Segovia, Justiniano, Chad Hardin
Inker: Bill Sienkiewicz, Stephen Jorge Segovia, Walden Wong
Colourist: Mike Atiyeh, Dan Brown, Tom Chu
Letterers: Steve Wands and Sal Cipriano
Publisher: DC

What's it about?
There's a war in hell and all the world will feel the aftermath.  Lord Satanus and Lady Blaze concoct a plan to overthrow the current ruler of hell, Neron.  Starting their campaign in purgatory, they offer the damned hope, and break their way through to hell proper.  Once there, they enlist more and more of the souls paying penance and full on war starts.

Meanwhile in the human world, the mystical forces of the DC universe (DCU) have noticed these changes and are more than a little worried about what effect this will have on earth.  In separate splinter groups, and for their own reasons (some altruistic, some selfish) they descend to hell to seek what they need.  For some, this is a chance to cast out the demon bound to their human self, for others, it is penance for inflicting hurt on their power source, for more it is an opportunity to get back what hell has stolen from them.
Unfortunately for them, hell doesn't play by human rules.  These guys are stuck in hell and have to get out with their lives, health and souls intact.  War rages around them and they quickly realise what is at stake.

What's good about it?
My absolute favourite thing about this book is the way it plunges straight into the war.  There's no pages of preamble, no long winded explanation as to how and why we've got to this point.  After all it's taking place in hell.  Betrayal and a yearning for power is accepted and expected in hell.  The opening pages are these:

See? You dive straight into the chaos and you get a feeling for the full immensity of war.  Perversely enough, this is done by placing the action around a few well defined characters.  We see how the battles affect them and through their experiences we understand the full horror and pain of the events, even thought what they witness is just the tip of the iceberg.  Even when we visit Lord Satanus, Lady Blaze and Neron we aren't really privy to the detailed battle plans.   This makes it a very emotive, personal way to tell the story.

I hadn't expected to like the book - I bought it to complete a particular character's story and was very surprised to find a gripping, enthralling read.

It's got a (pardon the pun) wicked sense of humour, and I mean that in it's original sense, not in the youth-of-today-slang sense.  There's demons kept on telephonic hold and sarcastic dead amputees impatiently berating their boss.

It's a delicious mix of magic, Western ideas of hell and other belief systems get a look in too.  There's some references to the Egyptian pantheon and the Captain Marvel family of characters, but unfortunately not really enough to give this post of character of colour (CoC) label.

What's bad about it?
I'm struggling a bit to pull out negative aspects to this book.  Granted, there are a lot of characters but you don't really need to know their back story to enjoy the book, and it's quite a good introduction to them all.  Some of the female heroes have somewhat skimpy or tight costumes, which is an annoyance, but enough of them have regular clothing to cancel this out.

The female demons look overtly sexual, which is more of an annoyance, especially when one of them is Lilith 'mother of all horrors.  For those of us rejecting the orthodox Christian concept of Lilith, this is irksome.  On the other hand, it could have been difficult to change Lilith's character given that she's quite well established in the DCU. 

What's the art like?
It's revolting, dark, heavy on the inks, hellfire and dramatic poses.  It looks a bit like the cover from a bad 1980s heavy metal concept album (see right).  But as you read on, you realise that actually this is not a bad thing, and it fits. This is a story about hell.  Demon versus demon.  It shouldn't be happy and sprightly, it should be creepy and overblown.

In this it succeeds.  The colours are rusty, full of reds and other smouldering colours.  The different demons are a delight to study (if you like that sort of thing). The panels are busy and filled with detail and vice.  The back cover gives us a view of the demon market place with placards listing goods offered:
Ask about our soul trading options!
Puppy Skins
Scarabs ala sputum
Cuban cigars made in the US of A!
Baby back ribs (only 6 days old!)

See this scan, where they are walking out of a giant demon tongue.  I mean, that's really rather foul, (yet not gory or violent):

It's really quite disgusting.  But rather apt.  Alongside this, there are also really quite character studies, for example this, where the art tells a story in itself and conveys the subject's emotions well:
You will notice from the credits list that quite a lot of people were involved in the art of this book, but this doesn't break up the flow and all in all it fits together nicely.  For example, see these panels of Zatanna, where the style is noticeably different to those panels featured above, but comparable:

Other Information
ISBN: 9781848563551
Price: £14.99

This book has not as yet had a direct sequel, but anything published after it acknowledged the outcome of the war.  On the plus side, as this story is about hell and magic users within the DCU, we can direct you to character specific titles for further reading:

Shadowpact are a group of mystical superheroes who have a prominent role in this book.  There are a number of trades about them.  You could start with Volume 1: Pentacle Plot, Volume 2: Cursed, Volume 3: Darkness and Light.

Zatanna is the DCU's premier magician.  We wrote about her here for our series on the comics that inspired Smallville.  Alongside Reign in Hell you could try JLA: Zatanna's Search.  It's an old story from the 70s that introduced Zatanna to the DCU.  There is also the new Mistress of Magic trade which collects the first six issues of Zatanna's own series into one book.

One of the incarnations of Supergirl (the Linda Danvers) version appears, we reviewed her Many Happy Returns book here but her role in Reign of Hell would make more sense if you have read earlier issues from that series.  Alternatively, these issues are summarised and retold nicely in the Elseworlds' tale - Supergirl: Wings.

Keith Giffen has written a number of superhero books, in particular I recommend Justice League International volume 1.  This is an in-canon story of one of the incarnations of the Justice League, told with a lot of humour.  It is widely regarded as one of the best ever runs.

Bill Sienkiewicz had a hand in the art for the excellent horror story 30 Days of Night.  This has nothing to do with superheroes and everything to with vampires.

1 comment:

  1. I really wanted to check this one out, since I'm a big fan of the more magical aspect of the DCU and the Shadowpact!

    Looks great! And it's be Keith Giffen you say?
    Now I really need to find a copy of it^^