Tuesday, 16 June 2009



Now this is more like it.

If the only encounter you’ve had with John Constantine is via the [actually not that bad, really] Constantine movie, and that film at least piqued your interest, then ALL HIS ENGINES would probably be a good place to properly acquaint yourself with the cunning magus and his general bastardyness. I just made that word up!

A quick character sketch: John Constantine is a powerful magician, chain-smokes, has a colourful turn of phrase, is from Liverpool, looks like Sting, and is also a total bastard.

Legendary comic weirdo Alan Moore created Constantine in the pages of his version of Swamp Thing, way back in 1985. Since then, different writers over the years (including Neil Gaiman and Brian Micheal Bendis) have offered slight variations on Constantine’s main personality quirks (enhancing the aforementioned bastardyness, toning down the bastardyness, or sticking him in London or even an American prison), but Mike Carey is perhaps the one writer who’s struck a near-perfect chord in his reinvention/enhancement of the tricky Scouse.

The magus we get in ALL HIS ENGINES is A Very Crafty Man. The plot revolves around a strange ‘coma plague’ that’s knocking out large numbers of apparently healthy people. The young niece of Constantine’s (only true) friend Chas gets struck down, making it a sort-of personal matter. The story takes Constantine and Chas from England to Los Angeles, where they meet a grotesque demon who’s made his body from cancer growths, and other Hellish creatures. Constantine then tries to wrangle a deal between the various demons and play them off against each other, possibly endangering the life of Chas, his niece, and a young woman who’s tagged along for the ride. Like I said, he is A Very Crafty Man, and a bastard.

To say any more would spoil it. All the characters get meaty parts, with some cracking dialogue, including a scene where Constantine calls a demon a ‘berk’. Fantastic. Chas is shown to be as fearsomely loyal as he is violent; as quick to come to Constantine’s defence in a fight as to start the fight in the first place.

Ironically enough, ALL HIS ENGINES (which takes its title from the John Milton's Paradise Lost) starts to run out of steam towards the end. We get a satisfying conclusion, but certain elements, such as the ‘coma bug’, start to feel a bit like a MacGuffin. Nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s just that it feels more like a misstep than a smart story twist.

Final mention has to go to Leonardo Manco, as everything in the comic looks amazing, from the vision of Hell Constantine gets, to the rendering of city skylines and crumbling churches.

And that’s it. If you’re tired of lycra-clad superheroes, and other goody-two-shoes types, and want to see how a real shit handles things, the HELLBLAZER series is where to go, with ALL HIS ENGINES an excellent introduction to everybody’s favourite bastard, John Constantine.

Monday, 8 June 2009



Loren D Estleman is perhaps as well-known for his hardboiled crime fiction as his westerns, since he’s won numerous awards for both genres. Which he writes best, I cannot say, although if the gushing praise plastered all over his books is anything to go by, the man could turn The Bible into an eminently readable tale about charming con-men and tough gunslingers. Or explode*.

In Johnny Vermillion, we’re introduced to the titular character as he brings his theatrical troupe, The Prairie Rose Repertory Company, to the town of Tannery. Unbeknownst to the locals, however, Vermillion is a debonair thief, who’s hit upon the novel idea of using the troupe as a front for committing robberies. Aided by an English major and his stern wife, a playwright, and the stunningly beautiful Miss Clay, Johnny pulls off quick-change cons during a play’s performance, thereby offering the perfect alibi and cover, as no-one in the audience ever suspects or notices that an actor has vanished.

Into this mix comes an agent of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, and the Ace-in-the-Hole Gang – a dastardly bunch of outlaws, all with their own unique personality quirks. The detective and the outlaws seem to be the only people who’ve figured out the truth behind Vermillion’s troupe, and as the story progresses, the three factions slowly converge upon each other…

If you’re looking for a rip-roaring, gunfights-and-saloon-brawls western, this isn’t it. THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION, despite being about a gang of theatrical crooks, doesn’t have a lot of action in it. It fits, perhaps more accurately, into the niche of ‘comedy-drama’, as Estleman utilises a mixture of historical facts and the sort of humour that tends to give a little wink to the reader.

Thankfully, Estleman isn’t as arch as, say, Kim Newman, but his style does border on the smug. I can’t really pinpoint how or why, but it might have something to do with his preponderance of describing everything as if you’re watching a movie. It’s amusing, and quite clever to start off with, as we’re introduced to famous names and places from history in a version of the Old West “that should have been, but never quite was.” Unfortunately, after several chapters of ‘wink wink’ writing, the clever-clever use of familiar names and real individuals begins to grate. Yeah alright, we get the idea now; stop selling us a screenplay and get on with the actual story.

Vermillion himself feels underutilised, in that he’s clearly a cunning and intelligent individual, but you can’t help but wonder if his talents are actually being wasted. In this respect, THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION feels more like an origin story than anything else. Are we seeing the genesis of a legendary Wild West criminal or just a moderately interesting con-man who had his shot at infamy than disappeared into the annals of history? The ending, maddeningly, suggests both these things.

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILLION doesn’t quite live up to its own cleverness, but still proves an occasionally amusing read, and, providing you’re not after an action-packed western, is a decent way to pass the time.

*What we have here is a true pofessional, a writer of a sort increasingly rare...a craftsman so given to his work as to spontaeously combust to genius - The Boston Globe [I know it doesn't mean literally, although that would be quite something to see]