Review: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Until I got three-quarters of the way through Paul Cornell’s London Falling, this review was going to have quite a different bent. What I was expecting was an urban fantasy like Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Butcher’s Storm Front or, especially, Carey’s The Devil You Know. These stories, rooted as they are in mystery stories, albeit modern, urban, supernatural ones, launch rapidly into the action, eager to lay their world before the readers’ eyes.

London Falling though started slowly, and started straight away as a police procedural or crime drama, barring perhaps the slightest hints of the supernatural for the astute reader. While revelations did come, I found the pace ponderous, sluggish.

This changed three-quarters of the way through, when a deftly foreshadowed revelation is made. It was at that point that I realised I was reading the book wrong. I was expecting it to be a pulpish, fast-paced, supernatural mystery. What I was actually holding in my hands was a horror story, seen through the prism of the police procedural and buried in the guts of London. My perspective shifted, I began to see how well the book had been assembled, how cleverly its moments of psychological horror had been built.

By the end, I was keen to see what case would follow next, how the personalities and perspectives of the protagonists would develop and how London would change. While I started skeptical about London Falling, I’m now looking forward to its follow-up, The Severed Streets, out in December in the UK.


The Death of John Constantine

John Constantine

John Constantine: literary child of Alan Moore, blue-collar wizard, con man, bastard.

Since his first appearance in The Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 in June 1985, Constantine has captured the imaginations of readers, writers and artists. Now though, within DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint/universe that housed him for 28 years, John Constantine is dead. His own comic, Hellblazer, came to an end this month with issue #300 and I, like many others, followed the final storyline, knowing it would be the last within Vertigo; knowing he would die. We all wondered what end would be fitting for so iconic a character and speculated whether he’d be able to cheat death one last time.

In my opinion though, it ended with more of a whimper than a bang. It was satisfying, I suppose. It tied up loose ends, I suppose. It got good reviews, I suppose. But to me the ending just didn’t feel… Constantine enough.

So here instead are my own ideas for how Hellblazer, and Constantine with it, could have been brought to an end:

  • Constantine has always had a tumultuous relationship with The First of the Fallen, and the denizens and regents of Hell. Having Constantine, seeing the end of his life approaching, launch a coup on Hell itself, would be the ultimate con. A man destined for Hell, ending up as its ruler, and upsetting the apple cart of all of reality would be a very Constantine ending.
  • I misunderstood the nature of the character Map, a potential king of the magi who draws and lends power to London. I saw him instead as the embodiment of London, it’s deity or genius loci. This too, would be a satisfying ending for Constantine, in my view; to become the very spirit of London, a city that he has become intrinsically linked to. To wear London like a mantle and guide it through its next era, before he too eventually passes on the responsibility.
  • The first storyline of Hellblazer, told in issues #1 and #2, tells of John battling Mnemoth, a hunger spirit accidentally unleashed on New York by his friend Gary Lester. It possesses people and then makes them hunger for what they desire most in the world. They will try to consume the objects of their desire while their bodies waste away. John managed to trap it inside Gary’s body, and had his friend’s corpse and the spirit bricked into a cell. It would be interesting to take Constantine’s story full circle and, dying, take Lester’s place as the prison of Mnemoth, thereby freeing Lester’s spirit.

Finally, arguably the best ending to John Constantine has perhaps already been written by Warren Ellis, in Planetary #7. John Carter, the stand-in John Constantine, performs one last con and walks off into the night to become someone else, leaving the trappings of his origins behind. Dead to the world, but ready to move on.

DC Comics are, of course, not quite finished with John Constantine. Hellblazer might now have ended, but John returns to the DC Universe inhabited by never-ageing men in tights in his own comic. It will be interesting to see how writers handle the character now that he isn’t burdened by his own ghosts, history, age or being the only last bulwark against the weird.

Grimm, Once Upon a Time and Urban Fantasy

I’ve always been a fan of the Urban Fantasy sub-genre, that intersection between fantasy, horror and the modern-day. The best known example is Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden franchise, though personally I prefer Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels. True Blood has been the best example on TV. In comics, the most successful example has been Fables, which places fairy tale characters in modern-day New York.

Which brings me to the two contenders currently bringing the Fables-style Urban Fantasy to our TV screens. Once Upon a Time‘s protagonist enters a community, ruled with an iron fist by an evil stepmother of a boy who believes that they are all amnesiac fairy tale exiles. The narrative of each episode is spliced with a parallel tale from the land of fairy tales yet cleverly leaves the ‘real world’ narrative ambiguous, leaving doubt as to whether the boy is externalising his delusions or whether the fairy tales are true histories.

Grimm on the other hand follows the story of a cop from Portland, Oregon who learns he is the last of the Grimms, the literal descendant of the eponymous writers. Writers and warriors against the unnatural creatures who prey on humanity. Each episode is part police procedural and part individual fairy tale retelling, whether it’s Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

While the scriptwriting in Once Upon a Time is tight, imaginative and clever, Grimm’s is obvious and clichéd. If you think you know where the story is going to turn in Grimm, chances are you’ll be right. It’s lazy, common denominator stuff. Audiences seem to agree; although Grimm has already been green-lit for a second season, Once Upon a Time  has managed to draw twice the audience with every episode so far.

Review: Hellblazer – The Roots of Coincidence by Andy Diggle

Since I am writing comics, I may as well add reviews of the comics I’m reading and re-reading here. Originally I wasn’t going to, worrying that it might come across somehow as less literary, less serious. Those fears, that the reading and writing of sequential art, that’s comics to you and me, might be seen as childish and frivolous, are a matter deserving of a fuller post.

Today, instead, I want to talk about Andy Diggle‘s Hellblazer: Roots of Coincidence graphic novel. The Hellblazer series has a long and respected history in comics, mature storylines of horror, fantasy, mystery and urban grit, and it’s protagonist, John Constantine the sardonic English street mage. Andy Diggle does a good job, as he so often does, writing the character and the setting and ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ finishes off along-running story arc. Sadly, that it also my issue with the book. Diggle is very good at writing the longer arc and has written some brain-bending short tales within that longer narrative; what I have issue with is the packaging in the graphic novel format, which is outside of the control of the writer.

The story that the graphic novel completes tells of the Laughing Magician, who he is, what he means, whether or not he and Constantine are one and the same, etc. This is all fine, but the story is split into several graphic novels. Each one will contain 4-5 individual monthly comic issues, two of which are often an adjunct to the storyline while the rest is part of the main narrative. This is frustrating and I would have preferred a collection of either the main story only, or the full story. ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ contains Hellblazer issues 243-244 and 247-249, resulting in about 112 pages of story. I know why the publisher does this, making readers buy many individual books increases revenue in a declining market, though sometimes I do wonder if it’s declining due to little things like this.

Again, to reiterate, I liked the story and  think Andy Diggle writes a difficult character well. The overall story arc is good, but reading it piecemeal in thin graphic novels is a shame and doesn’t do justice to the well-plotted story.