As someone who stumbled across the likes of John Constantine first, Cal McDonald is nothing unique despite having been around nearly as long. His dominant character trait is his abuse of drugs and alcohol, so he can forget all of the weird s--t he's seen. Given that detectives have been abusing substances since the days of Sherlock Holmes, it can almost be counted upon. That said, Cal does manage to make his vices a charming, if tired, feature. His tough guy attitude makes him a fun character to tag behind, if not one that I ever truly grew to care about as a reader. The novella does go into a bit more of his backstory that made me pity him, if still not worry about his survival.
Despite the number of modern-day supernatural stories out there, the mythology of the Cal McDonald world still manages to be different. Sure, there is the usual fair: werewolves, vampires, and ghouls, but two things distinguish the beasties here. 1.) There are far more unusual creations in play, like people who absorb the minds of others to become giant, floating heads, and 2.) anything can be killed with enough firepower. Anything. This means that Cal doesn't enter a vampire hideout with stakes and garlic; he's packing as many guns and bullets as he can on his person and pumping them full of good, old fashioned lead. While this removes that classic question of, “How do we kill it?” from supernatural mysteries, it provides a lot more opportunities for Cal to go cowboy and kill things. And, just because you know how to kill something, doesn't mean it's going to stand there and let you. These action scenes read work incredibly well, with both Cal and the beasties giving and taking a lot of punishment during these encounters.
Besides his unofficial ghoul sidekick, Mo'lock, the cast of Criminal Macabre changes from story to story. While some turnover is to be expected, I'd have liked to have seen more returning faces and to have built up a larger stable of allies and enemies for Cal to have to deal with. Like Cal himself, I found it difficult to get attached to any of these characters, because I knew doing so wouldn't have any impact on the later stories.
The art in this collection is as varied as it could be, ranging from a heavily filtered and hazy art style that enhances the horror to an ultra cartoony style where the beasties Cal encounters blend right in. Of the artists featured in this collection, my favorite style was Casey Jones' pencils and Bruce Patterson's inks for the story “Hairball.” Jones and Patterson hit a grittier, more realistic style that, to me, grounded Cal in reality while at the same time introduced the supernatural creatures, who felt disjointed from the art, like they simply didn't belong. This is easily the least stylized art but the one I felt benefited the story the most.
Cal McDonald's not exactly John Constantine, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn they shared a common ancestry. At $35, this hardcover contains a lot of story for fans of supernatural mysteries, and if you've worn out your copies of Hellblazer and want something new in the same vein that's not watered down, than this caseboook should get some due consideration.