Reign in Hell 1 review

Having given a lot of attention to its space heroes over the last few years, DC gives its supernatural sector a shot at greatness. The guiding light in hell is writer Keith Giffen, who helped make Marvel’s cosmic crew popular again with the Annihilation series. He’s joined by penciller Tom Derenick and, in what I consider a coup, the great Bill Sienkiewicz.

And this team make for a good-looking comic, albeit one populated by the ugliest critters in hell. Much of the first issue is spent reintroducing us to the factions fighting for hell’s soul – Lord Neron, Satanus, Blaze, Lilith and their lackeys. There’s lots of talk about the governance of the nether regions, which I found deadly dull – too, too Vertigo. So did I like the action? Nope, as it was difficult to enjoy, being laced with oodles of battlefield jabber, such as puts me off Checkmate (and look, it’s cancelled, that’ll show it). I know a lot of people feel this sort of thing makes comics more realistic, but I just don’t have the attention span to chew over new maps of hell and consider satanic strategies.

So I was planning not to bother with future issues, but then the story brings in actual characters I enjoy – Shadowpact, Zatara, Linda Danvers, Azrael . . . oh all right, not Azrael, that’s one Grant Morrison Hawkman substitute whose heavenly wings I’d love to see clipped. He’s just, I dunno, funny looking with an annoying personality (dig my critical vocabulary). But there’s the promise of enough going on with the characters I do like to keep me coming back, at least for a few issues.

What will likely have me on board for all eight issues of this book is the linked back-up strip, starring Doctor Occult, the mystic detective dating back to the Golden Age. He’s not quite the fella he was, having fallen on hard times – Giffen comes up with a great concept to up his outsider status, ‘asomatous pollution’. Over time, the people of Occult’s neighbourhood are made antsy by the subtle aura of magic around him, and they move on. Poor soul.

But Occult does have someone to talk to, at least this issue, and their surprise appearance made my day. Hot on the heels of their Outsiders appearance – which I, er, missed – Ralph and Sue Dibney, the ghostly gumshoes, are back. And while the former Elongated Man is more serious than he used to be, it’s just great to see him and the missus here. I do hope they show up again, but even if they don’t, the Occult strip is so far much more appealing.

Drawing ‘Debts Owed’ is Stephen Jorge Segovia, a new name to me. The look is scratchy realism, and generally appealing, though there’s a tendency to paint a grimace on faces at every opportunity. He does, though, convey the necessary world-weariness that characterises Occult here. Matching the art of ‘Jojie’ (see splash graffito)nicely are the colours of Dan Brown (I’m avoiding obvious comment, just this once), which are subdued, but not dull.

Mike Atiyeh, the colourist on the main story, ‘Sundered Dominion’, has more freedom to go mad with his palette, and this he does, giving us devilish reds, lizardly greens and succubus orange. Letterer Steve Wands, who also handles the short, shows off a tad here; for a scene in which Zauriel and Zatara must go undetected in hell, Wands finds a clever way to show us they’re speaking a coded language – he comes up with a font named Bloody Unreadable, Stop It Now. I mean, God bless Mr Wands for going the extra yard, but said lettering style truly is a taste of hell.

Ah well, as I said earlier, the art looks good. Tom Derenick has become one of DC’s go-to pencillers when it comes to solid superhero work. Bill Sienkiewicz is a comics legend, having moved from Neil Adams acolyte to his master stylist in his own right. They’re an inspired pairing, with Derenick providing the foundations and Sienkiewicz the intensity. If they’re together for the duration, that’s another reason to buy.

And given that Keith Giffen is one of the few writers able to surprise me (though I could have done without Shadowpact’s apparently out-of-characters actions this issue), I’ll certainly try next issue at least. Politics and battles are obviously fundamental to the series, but having established his parameters in this premier issue, I expect he’ll tone that stuff down next issue, and I’ll have one helluva time.

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