With Let’s All Go to the Lobby my new project, I thought it’d be worth looking at previous portrayals of the afterlife…and by a stroke of fortune I have a comic dealing with the issue to hand. Written and illustrated by Zander Cannon and published in 2013, Heck is a brilliant and uncompromising journey through all the circles of Hell.
Several months ago I listened to a rather excellent radio drama: a dramatisation of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, starring John Hurt, David Warner and Blake Ritson. As you’re probably aware, the poem details a man’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but it was the first part of the drama that really captivated me: the presentation of Hell as everything we imagine it to be, and more besides.
I am an atheist, but it’s undeniable that the idea of Hell remains a potent one, and its use as a kind of medieval bogeyman is entirely believable. A place of punishment stretching on for eternity will send a shiver down many a spine, despite our belief nowadays that such a place does not and cannot exist.
And so we come to this graphic novel. Zander Cannon’s aptly titled Heck takes this idea- the appalling and unimaginable nature of Hell- and turns it into a riveting story that is no less harrowing for its offbeat tone.
Hector ‘Heck’ Hammarskjöld is a troubled man: a former high-school athlete, keenly aware his best days are behind him and left to deal with the legacy of his late father, an eccentric magician. Whilst cleaning out the gloomy old mansion of his childhood, Heck stumbles upon a portal to Hell in the basement, and decides to start a business dealing with unresolved problems between the living and the dead.
It’s a ludicrous idea, of course- wrapping perdition in paperwork and bureaucracy- but what makes it work is that the awfulness of Hell is never underplayed or made light of. Heck seems to owe a lot to Dante’s The Divine Comedy with locations like Malebolge referenced during the comic, but even if like me you aren’t familiar with that work, it’s fair to say Heck‘s horror and despair isn’t diminished. Even if we aren’t familiar with specific iterations of it, the idea of Hell in all its terrible glory is one most people will be familiar with.
The bulk of the story deals with Heck’s journey through Hell on behalf of Amy, an old friend whose husband has recently passed away. With a rocky marriage between the two of them, Amy asks Heck to give her late husband a message that should hopefully bring her some kind of closure. Having a not-so-secret crush on Amy, Heck obliges: as he and Elliot travel through Hell, we are given flashbacks on Amy’s life and marriage, which serves to nicely flesh out the character and give us a better idea of who they really are.
In some respects the story of Heck is a little one note, the note being “Hell is awful,” with everywhere Heck going only serving to reinforce that point. What makes it interesting is the interaction Heck has with both Elliot (Heck’s assistant) and Amy as he descends further and further into Hell. Elliot- or what’s left of him- is unfailingly loyal to his employer, a twisted kind of love that could come across as implausible and sinister in the wrong hands. But there’s genuine affection and concern between the two, and Heck and Elliot’s efforts to help each other out are never anything less than touching. Amy’s involvement with the main plot is quite different: it’s more at arm’s length, told through flashback and the occasional letter. But the way Heck and Amy ultimately interact is interesting, and the message Amy wants to relay to her husband is worth sticking around for.
The art direction is loose and rough around the edges: borders are shaky, characters drawn roughly but distinctively and it’s in stark black-and-white throughout. It’s not the most obvious art direction given the subject matter, but its resemblance to the likes of Persepolis and Ode to Kirihito (in terms of realism, or lack thereof) makes sense when we think about it in more detail. Comics, as a medium where we control the visuals, allows the writer and the artist to place some much-needed distance between us and the subject matter. Hell, as a horrible environment we cannot really imagine, warrants that distance. But it also never feels like we are being denied the true horror of what Hell means in a way that would weaken the entire story.
Moreover, it’s also a great example of ‘less is more:’ the stark blocks of light and dark that make up the world of Heck convey the creeping horror and bleakness of the environments very effectively. I’m often not a fan of black and white in comics: it runs the risk of its characters and key elements fading into the background without colour to make things stand out. With Heck, we’re never under any illusions as to what’s happening, and from that perspective its overall art direction is to be applauded for doing a lot with relatively little.
If I had to pick out a major flaw with the story, it’s that establishing what Hell actually is in this context- how it works, the risks you run by entering it- are explained a little bluntly. It makes sense given the context but it also feels a little unsubtle, and I can’t help but wonder if there was a better way of conveying just what Hell does to the living people who enter it.
It also doesn’t help that, at least for me, the very end of it was a little confusing. Given what we learned about all of the characters over the course of the story I’m not surprised by what happened. What I am surprised by is the way the characters- one in particular- arrives at the conclusion they do. It just doesn’t make much sense to me, but reading the book for yourself probably won’t throw up too many roadblocks in terms of comprehension.
There’s a kind of fatalism underpinning Heck‘s narrative, and you won’t come away feeling uplifted having read it. If we believe in the existence of Hell, it’s a place practically everyone is going to arrive at sooner or later, and that’s awful. But Heck remains an important book: not because of what we can’t change, but what we can. It shows how in the darkest moments of our lives we can be brave, and kind: we can do the right thing, even if that right thing is an island in a sea of wrongdoing. The characters of Heck are neither angels or demons: they are human beings, and even if that ultimately works against them it’s something to be proud of in at least one instance.
While some readers might find Heck depressing and amateurish (from a visual perspective, at least) it tells what could have otherwise been an impossibly grim story to tell with respect and panache. It’s one of those books I positively raced through, wanting to reach the end, and for anyone after a bold, accessible take on the afterlife I heartily recommend picking it up.