It turns out that Reign in Hell is a pretty great comic.
Of course, you’re going to have to already be into super-comics, and probably need an interest in (if not a working knowledge of or great affection for) the DC brand of super-comics to enjoy it at all. It’s not such a great comic book that it transcends its genre, nor it so great that it’s going to convert anyone to that genre.
But it’s good, a fact I found rather remarkable considering that, by all appearances, it was one of those stories thought up by editors (“We need a story to redefine magic in the DC Universe now that we’ve told the news sites that Infinite Crisis would usher in a New Age of Magic, even though that wasn’t actually part of that story”) and handed to a couple of go-to creators who tend to get a stuck with a lot of such assignments.
And also because I read the first issue of the eight-part miniseries as it was originally being serialized in 2008 and thought it was just awful.
Here’s my original review of the issue, if you’re interested; in summary, I thought its portrayal of Hell lacked imagination, that the pencil artist and inker, both of whom I like individually, hadn’t really meshed well, and that it was a good example of DC’s unusual relationship with continuity, wherein the company wants to tell stories that completely rely on a knowledge of said continuity (Continuity is important!), but then fill the story with glitches (No, it’s not!).
I didn’t bother with #2, and wouldn’t have given the story a second chance if it weren’t for the fact that DC collected it into a 260-page trade paperback and a library added to its collection, so I could borrow it for free (And if you’ve been reading EDILW very long, you’ve probably noticed I’ll read just about any superhero comic, so long as I don’t have to pay for the privilege).
On a second reading, I still don’t think that first issue was very good, and now I’m wondering if perhaps this particular story wasn’t particularly well served by the format.
As I mentioned, it was an eight issue series, with each $3.50 issue featuring a regular-length lead story by writer Keith Giffen, pencil artist Tom Derenick and inker Bill Sienkiewicz, and a Dr. Occult back-up story (also by Keith Giffen, and three different pencil artists, depending on the issue). In the first issue, it’s not clear that the two storylines are going to intersect and, if so, to what extent.
See, if you blow the opening—and the first 22-pages are a whole lot of set-up which doesn’t quite get to the heart of the premise—you don’t give readers much incentive to read the rest of it. And if every single issue isn’t super-exciting, then it can be hard to stay engaged for the better part of a year (These are, of course, the perils of all serialized comics).
That first issue featured a war breaking out in hell between two factions of devil characters, two minor superheroes (one of whom is dead) wearing disguises in hell and talking about a resistance movement, characters from the then-just cancelled comic presumably retconned-out-of-existence Linda Danvers version of Supergirl and a six-cameos-in-six-panels last page.
It gets better though, and it gets better fast.
The general premise is this. Blaze and Satanus, the rulers of Purgatory, have invaded Hell, with the intention of overthrowing it and expanding their territory—plenty of those within Hell like the idea of a kinder, gentler, more Purgatory-like Hell, and join with Blaze and Satanus. Neron, the current King of Hell, and his court fight back to defend their territory and, in the process, pressgang many of the monsters and demons they had let loose onto earth to help defend Hell (Etrigan, The Demon and The Creeper among the “name” draftees).
The outcome of the conflict is uncertain, and that means many of DC’s supernatural characters decide to involve themselves for some form of personal gain. Some think it better to stay with the devil they know, and fight to maintain the status quo, others seek to install Blaze and Satanus, so the new rulers of Hell will owe them favors.
There are a lot of characters involved, which is a big part of the fun of the series—the scope and scale of the story is huge, and the cast quite sizable.
—Blue Devil wants to help install Satanus in the hopes that he’ll take away the curse he suffers under, and he has superhero Zatanna and the new Sargon take him to Hell.
—Blue Devil’s Shadowpact teammates Nightshade, The Enchantress and Ragman all travel to hell to fight for Satanus, independently of Blue Devil.
—Egyptian god Horus wants to send his servant, the new Ibis the Invincible, to fight for Satanus, but the kid refuses…at least until Black Alice convinces him to go there…for mysterious motives of her own.
—The new Dr. Fate wants to stop Blaze and Satanus, to restore order.
—Dr. Occult and his spirit guide Yellow Peri want to take advantage of the chaos to free the Doctor’s friend/lover/other half Rose from Hell.
—On Earth, Deadman, Zatara II, Jason Blood, Randu and Kid Devil try to keep the conflict in Hell from driving Rama Kushna from going insane and destroying the Earth.
—And a rather scary, played-straight Lobo is involved.
The longer I read, the more impressive Giffen’s plotting became. He’s got a lot of plates spinning, a lot of balls in the air, a lot of, um, metaphors being, uh, employed, and I greatly appreciated the simple pleasure of seeing things fall into place. On a simply mechanic level, Reign in Hell works very well, and it’s fascinating in the way that watching any sort of complex machinery work can be.
(And, as it turned out, the Dr. Occult back-ups are actually part of the overall story, and the decision to format the single issues like that might have had more to do with how the art chores were doled out than anything else.)
So there are dozens of characters and almost as many sub-plots unfolding within these pages, and Giffen provides an awful lot of surprises, some of which—like the inclusion of Lobo, which I’ve spoiled for you—come completely out of left field. Adding to the drama is the fact that there are relatively few white and black hats in this. While there are certainly a lot of demons and monsters, most of the “heroic” characters have selfish motivations and/or operate under misconceptions and, because this is hell, they mostly screw up, make things worse, and hurt themselves and each other in unexpected ways.
Additionally, they are all extremely minor characters in the grand scheme of the DCU—I’m not even sure who the biggest “name” character in 2008-2010, Zatanna? Lobo? Dr. Fate V?—which means they are all much more expendable than your average DC superheroes, increasing the tensions regarding each of the conflicts.
I mean, you can read something like Final Crisis and know that Superman and Batman are going to make it out alive and, if for some reason they die, they’re only going to be dead for a while and brought back to life in the next big event. One can’t feel as confident about the immortality of Ibis II or Sargon II, you know?
This isn’t a perfect comic by any stretch of the imagination.
There’s so much DCU continuity that a glossary and footnotes might have helped, and while much of it isn’t too terribly important, a few odd plot points allude to past, obscure comics (Satanus’ big endgame plan against Neron, for example, is a pivotal moment, but refers to some comic I had never heard of, let alone read). The Dr. Occult storyline gets more space than it probably needs, simply because of the format of the serial comics. And the artists’ changing so frequently can be pretty distracting (Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz’s chapters offer typical superhero art with a sketchy, nervous layer atop them that suits the material well, but their portions are interrupted by work from Stephen Jorge Segovia, Justiniano and Chad Hardin; they’re all good, but they don’t “match”).
It occurred to me while reading this that it was pretty much a perfect example of a big, sprawling superhero crossover series. It may have lacked the big name, A-List characters that show up in the series with the word “Crisis” in the title, but it did everything the line-wide crossover stories are supposed to do, and it did them better.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Reign in Hell was a self-contained story, and didn’t crossover into any already-in-progress monthly titles or special miniseries or one-shots. I’m sure the fact that there was a single writer responsible for it helped as well.
But compared to Identity Crisis or Infinite Crisis or Final Crisis or Blackest Night or House of M or Civil War or Secret Invasion?
This seems like a masterpiece. Epic scale, huge cast filled out by characters from even the dusty corners of the superhero universe its set in, unlikely interactions between characters whose paths were unlikely to cross (Like the Zatana versus Lobo grudge match I don’t think anyone even considered, let alone demanded), changes to the status quo, a character death but, more importantly, a complete story, with a satisfying beginning, middle and end.
I don’t necessarily think Blackest Night or Secret Invasion would have been better stories if Keith Giffen wrote them—I think a sense of incompleteness about such stories are inherent in them, and that Reign In Hell was so satisfying because there was much less emphasis and pressure put on it by the publisher and the fans. But damn, I wish more eight-issue, Big Two super-comic crossover event series were as all around satisfying as this was.