This collection picks up with the group still in Australia, in the middle of a fight with a bunch of monsters. Detective Didge touches a magical object and gets thrown into Hades (the version from stories, not the actual kingdom of the dead). Before she gets yanked back into the real world she meets the missing Lizzie Hexam. Tommy has been trying to help her, so now he resolves to go to her. To do that he needs a real world with story connections to act as a portal, so the group heads for Hanging Rock. When the setting doesn’t seem to be working by itself, Danny Armitage wonders if a whale story might help with connecting to Leviathan. So the story finally gets to connect with indigenous Australian folklore, in the form of the tale of Kondili.
Once again a story has power, and Tommy immediately finds himself thrown back into Storyland. His landing spot is a desolate area populated by survivors of the Wave that had torn through earlier in the series, seemingly destroying everything in its path. Baron Münchhausen saves Tommy from some vicious cartoon animals, and agrees to escort him to the Land of the Dead. As the pair runs from a murderous army of animals (real ones this time), Tommy is struck down and falls into Lake Avernus, the gateway to the Land of the Dead.
Hades looks like all of the stories. Tommy has drunk the waters of forgetfulness on the way down, so he doesn’t even remember who he is at first. And there are harpies, a ferryman, and a three-headed dog. When Tommy and his companions cross a river of fire to a castle, King Hades is the pissed-off guy who was transformed into a rabbit earlier in the series (I forgot his name at first, but later he’s helpfully identified as Pauly).
Meanwhile back in the real world, Richie Savoy and Detective Didge investigate murders that seem to have been created by a child’s horror stories. Bookstores are closing everywhere you look, because everyone has lost faith in the power of stories. But stories appear to still be very powerful indeed.
The title arc “Orpheus in the Underworld” closes the collection. It takes place entirely in Hades, and there is more than enough action to justify that singular focus. One surprise follows another: Lizzie Hexam unmasks, revealing herself as an undercover member of the court of the king of Hades; Wilson Taylor (remember him?) shows up in a cell; and the group travels to an alternate Hell, where our old friend Pullman is king. Tom hatches an escape plan. With the cooperation of King Pauly (there’s a useful recap of his story, which I appreciated, because it’s been awhile) they re-enact the Orpheus myth. This allows Lizzie, Wilson, Pauly, and the two children Tom had befriended to escape back into the real world. At least that’s the hope; all Pauly wanted was to be a man again. Tom plays the Orpheus role, meaning he must be cast back into Hades.
The plan was for him to go “as deep as it’s possible to go,” which should take him to the truth behind everything the Cabal has been trying to do: maybe even further. He drops into a forest, surrounded by a group of characters from Bill Willingham’s Fables.
I had completely forgotten about the crossover. Fortunately it all takes place in the next Unwritten collection. I read Fables, but it will be nice to have everything in one place. Now that I’ve seen the setup, I’m a little dubious about how the Fables universe can be the Truth about everything. But I’ve got a lot of faith in all of the creators involved, so I’ll be approaching it with an open mind.
Paul Pope fans have waited a long time for this book: it was first announced in 2006. Pope’s unique artistic style is an amalgam of many influences, including manga and European comics. He says of the book “as for comics inspirations…it’s all about channeling Moebius and Kirby.” It’s the story of a young demigod named Battling Boy, sent to Earth in a place called Acropolis to fight monsters as his rite of passage.
But the story begins with human champion Haggard West battling a monster gang. Just when he seems to have gained the upper hand he falls victim to a trap. His daughter Aurora arrives too late to help. The scene shifts to a floating world in space and a returning hero. Even knowing about the Kirby influence the place is also reminiscent of the Marvel version of Asgard. Battling Boy’s father has just returned from a quest, but there’s no time for an elaborate reunion. BB’s Turning Day is tomorrow, so he must go on a Ramble.
Our hero is deposited on Earth on a mountaintop with a view of Acropolis. It’s a sobering sight: a city that stretches as far as the eye can see, under siege by a plague of monsters. When BB reaches the city, he quickly finds himself battling a huge car-eating monster called a Humbaba, which a human force has already faced unsuccessfully.
So the story has all of the elements that Pope likes to work with: a science-fiction setting with wild inventions plus some steampunk elements; big action sequences with a lot of energy; and room for character development in a cast of characters.
Aurora’s story is also important to the narrative; in fact Pope has said that the entire story is more about her than the Battling Boy: ” the second series…”The Rise Of Aurora West,” which is a two-book story detailing her relationship and early training with her dad, Haggard West, who is killed in the first scenes in “Battling Boy” #1. Her first book will be out next year, before the second BB book, then the second Aurora book drops. Together, the two series tell one long, interconnected story. In some ways, Aurora is the real star of the book, since she has a story which develops throughout all four books.” She comes to BB’s aid in this book, and we also see her looking through her father’s hideout.
So what we have here is the opening salvo in a much larger story. It’s a joy to read, especially the action sequences with the monsters. Lots of crazy energy! I’m used to seeing Pope’s art reproduced larger than this, and I think it loses something at what amounts to digest size. It won’t surprise me to see a larger sized deluxe edition at some point, perhaps after all of the parts have been published.
The first issue reintroducing John Constantine into the DC Universe in his own series opens with him leaving a bar, musing about the meaning of magic. A page later he’s lighting up a cigarette, so it really feels like the Constantine we know and love. He’s also musing about the role of superheroes, which is the main nod towards the DCU. Then we’re quickly thrown into a magical quest. John and his new friend Chris fly to Sweden to retrieve the first piece of Croydon’s Compass, an instrument that locates occult artifacts. As soon as they retrieve the compass needle a member of the cult called called the Cold Flame appears. It’s a group of corrupt magicians, led by Sargon the Sorcerer, who John hasn’t seen in awhile. Turns out the person calling herself Sargon now is Sargon’s daughter, and she’s powerful enough to kill Chris while Constantine escapes with the artifact. Chris must be the shortest-term of all of Constantine’s doomed friends.
Most of the rest of Constantine’s quest takes place solo, but it’s full of interactions with other DCU occult characters. In the second part he meets up with Mister E, who has acquired a distinct Southern U.S. accent I don’t remember from before, as well as a somewhat different origin story. He was never a well-defined character, so no big deal. John escapes him, but must leave the needle behind. Next he encounters The Spectre, who informs him that he is “marked as the rightful target of divine vengeance.” Our conman talks his way out of it (for now) by convincing The Spectre he is needed to fight the war against the Cold Flame. And he collects Croydon’s Dial.
In the third part John returns to London, only to discover that he’s been cursed: the city is killing him, literally. He calls on an old friend for help: Jules, a woman who he had been romantically involved with in the past, who is a fellow mage, and has a car. All of which makes her a bit of an amalgam of several characters from Hellblazer (Angie Spatchcock would be the closest match). After escaping another new character, a mystical villain called the Riddling Butcher, John sends Jules away (presumably to fight another day). He confronts the Blue Flame, and pulls off a classic Constantine “victory.” No one gets Croydon’s Compass, and he gets revenge upon Sargon for Chris’s death.
This is the halfway point in the collection, and the end of the first big arc. It reads a lot like a Hellblazer story: Constantine is recognizably himself, and behaves in character all the way. There’s a lot of exposition, especially at the beginning, but writers Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes were introducing the character to a broader audience than it had at Vertigo. They make a point of using DC’s occult history, if not almost to overkill. I can’t recall such a large cast of characters in any three issues of Hellblazer, and that’s without including the newly created characters that are introduced. I imagine artist Renato Guedes got a workout looking for character references! But having the action move more quickly is a plus, which I enjoyed.
The remaining issues in the collection are single-issue stories, although only the first one is truly done-in-one. “All My Friends”shows John’s attempt at a day off. He stops by his regular bar “The Joint” to see Lloyd, and winds up being interrogated by Papa Midnite. He gets out of there with a combination of magic and fast talk, and goes to see Zatanna. They are on the outs, but he’s concerned enough to warn her about Sargon’s daughter and her move to the dark side. Finally, he confronts the guy who has been tailing him all day, and uses the money taken from his wallet to help the store clerk he was being cheated at the beginning of the day.
Ray Fawkes takes over as sole writer on “Stealing Thunder,” which is also “A Trinity War Interlude.” That’s enough to set off my anti-crossover alarm. There were references to the Trinity War (which went completely past me), but fortunately the story stands on its own pretty well. Constantine shows up at the bar with Billy Batson in tow, and tricks him into a temporary identity switch so Billy can’t use the “Shazam” spell. John just meant to contain the power, but winds up having to use it to battle a demonically possessed member of the Cold Flame. In the midst of the battle there’s some funny dialog with Billy trying to sound like Constantine. The story ends with John back in his normal form, but severely injured and possibly dying.
“Metamorphosis In Extremis” finds John in shade form, contending with the shade of recently-deceased Chris, along with members of the Cold Flame. Papa Midnite shows up and finishes the fight, finally agreeing to heal John as well. The final scene shows the mage Tannarak exulting in finding John’s stash of magical objects, which was evidently his real goal. Lots of potential for future mischief there. I barely remember Tannarak from his few earlier interactions with Constantine; there’s a substantial DCU history for him that I haven’t read.
In the end there are a couple of things that Constantine does in the series that are uncharacteristic. The first is the regular use of magic, in the form of spells, charms, and wards. While this seems perfectly natural behavior for a magician, in fact it was quite rare in Hellblazer. John got things done mostly on the sly, without much overt use of magic. It often seemed an open question whether he could even do magic.
The other thing is his use of physical violence. John does some street fighting in these issues, something I don’t think he ever did in Hellblazer. It’s not overdone, but it does make the character just a touch less enigmatic.
One more observation: the writers certainly piled on characters from Constantine’s past and from the occult DCU in these opening issues. I have to wonder if they weren’t thinking about the short lifespan so many New 52 titles have had. This way they got a crack at several iconic characters right away, instead of saving them for a “later” that may never come. It also allowed for much more character conflict than usual in Hellblazer, giving it more of a mainstream DCU dynamic.