By Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo
The sound of the needle touching down on the vinyl; there’s a static echo, a sort of frayed edge of sound. Before that guitar strums itself into the void, you’re stuck between two places, revolving in a loop of static. Then things start to make sense as David Gilmour’s voice challenges you to question your surroundings: “So, so you think you can tell, Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain… We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl, year after year.” While Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo may not have had this indelible Pink Floyd classic in mind when creating The Life After, but provided you understand that one of those lost souls is Ernest Hemingway (yes, THE Ernest Hemingway) and the other is the son of God (Yes, THE son of…actually, maybe only kinda?) the overlap feels thematically apt. You have never seen a depiction of the afterlife quite like the one Fialkov and Gabo are presenting and it is a uniquely immersive experience that floats somewhere between a black comedy and a profound philosophical exploration. Also, God may or may not be a potato.
Life is bleak for Jude. Via a fifty panel grid (fifty!) layout Fialkov and Gabo depict his depressingly unchanging daily routine, waking up on the couch, brushing his teeth with strawberry chalk dust toothpaste, getting stuck in traffic aboard the bus, filling out forms that lead to other forms that lead to other forms….it’s a bummer. The narration importantly shows Jude’s inability to grasp the passage of time outside of the daily doldrums that separate day from night., but make their relation to one another outside that cycle impossible. That huge Mondrian spread effectively lays out Jude’s entire existence in all it’s monotone glory, flipping between drowned-out browns and blues, but makes sure to highlight the one welcomed daily splash of red in his life: the Virgo-adorned woman on the bus who forever drops her handkerchief. Every day she drops it and every day Jude fantasizes about picking it up, bringing it to her, falling madly in love and living happily ever after. He never does of course, the combination of self-doubt and the comforts of monotony essentially imprisoning his impulses. Until one day, he’s jolted to act and everything changes. Welcome to purgatory, Jude, hope you survive the experience.
The premise of the story, a man discovers that he’s actually in a purgatory for suicide committees and teams-up with Ernest Hemingway to help make everyone aware of this and get them to heaven, is inherently fun and promising, but Fialkov’s added kicker of the Cabin in the Woods-like overseers is what seals the deal. Having those dual narratives alternate and reflexively react off of each other, especially in the opening chapters, is instantly captivating by simultaneously injecting humor and a mysterious sense of wonder. Having the afterlife show runners structured no differently than any other office experience just oozes fun, but delivers a wide range of tones beyond just the humor.
The Life After just… flows. Fialkov and Gabo never allow the story to stutter. There’s a tidal wave of ideas being thrown at the reader (purgatory, Hemingway, robot-monster-angels, soul-eating ghost blobs, a potato deity) but it never drowns itself in them. It’s paced beautifully, initially allowing for big reveals to hit with appropriate visual force for both Jude and the reader and then slowing down to interweave some needed exposition from Hemingway in between splashes that are allowed to breathe. It all moves with a tightest of dream-logic, coaxing the reader to turn the page lest it slip away.
Tonally, it’s hard to pin down exactly what The Life After is. Don’t misunderstand, Fialkov and Gabo clearly know what this story is, but are intentionally playing it close to the vest while doling out the somber and the hilarious. There’s a macabre humor throughout, tragic suicidal circumstances and stories of loss and despair sit alongside a god that’s essentially a dude-bro meets Animaniacs mash-up. Nettie (our handkerchief-dropping female lead) has led a ghastly life and is finding the afterlife just as torturous, while undoubtedly playing an intricate role in unraveling the larger mystery. The Virgo imagery associated with her certainly hints at her being a Virgin Mary stand-in and Jude’s own role as Neo-Jesus is only partially explored, himself having an obscured zodiac symbol tattoo (Taurus? Leo? Capricorn?). There’s so much here that should be discordant, yet none of it is. The reading experience is largely a constant clamoring of “What IS this?” as you obsessively try to reconcile the plethora of narrative tones.
All of the characters are well realized and developed. Jude was obviously relatable from the get-go with his life being a suffocating routine, but as he gradually learns about the much larger (okay, infinite) world around him, he comfortable adorns a hero’s mantle. The additional implication that he’s the son of God, though the name Jesus has yet to be used, only further strengthens his selfless motivations. Hemingway as a hard-nosed Obi Wan Kinobi is a delight, as is the professional “cleaner” demon sent to ex-communicate them. Nettie is a perennial victim in this opening arc, but she’s far from a powerless damsel. Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly so, the most one-note character introduced thus far is god. While his (its?) brief scenes are obviously intended to be primarily humorous, they are skirting being over-the-top in their sophomoric frat boy representation. Likely, this facet will incorporate itself into a cohesive whole down the line, but for now it stands out uncomfortably amidst the smarter elements.
Gabo’s style is definitely in the Nick Pitarra realm, but differentiates itself with bolder lines and fewer thin strokes of detail. Characters are plump, but not fat per se, with life and expression and avoid feeling flat. Gabo mixes up angles well, tilting the camera to best convey the confusing state of this world and zooms in and out with ease to reveal horrors and miracles alike. It’s an unassuming style and one that creates a false sense of security, that the cartoonish figures are safe from true danger, only to open itself up with a page turn revealing grisly detailed monstrosities. Gabo really brings out all the stops with the splash pages too, each delivering the intended mouth-dropping awe, be it the unimaginable landscape of where Heaven meets Hell or the terrifying horde of Seraphim. His coloring choices add tremendous depth from the cold sterility of the spiritual offices to the fiery rich visions of the wraith’s Hell to the haunting purple glowing jellyfish-like bulbs of the eternal pit. The muted palette of the characters’ false existences or past lives gives way to explosions of electric energy as Jude zaps his way across eternity and as god relays the crackling sparks of The Beginning.
One would be remiss not to acknowledge the contributions of Nick Pitarra on covers for The Life After and Crank! on lettering duties. Pitarra’s covers are his usual stellar quality work, specifically his much more grizzled Hemingway and the disgustingly detailed floating deity. Crank! utilizes an interesting mix of capital and lowercase letters in a rough handwritten style that’s noticeable, but never distracts, and lends itself really well to the rough and often blunt dialogue. The word balloons themselves are all in boxes with the colors changing from white or green depending the spiritual hierarchy of the character. It’s a fun touch and only adds to the world-building.
The greatest compliment you can give to a story is how well it’s able to make the reader, at any point, eagerly ask “And then what happens?!?” The Life After does this in spades and ends at a point that had this reviewer double checking to make sure that it really was the end and that some pages hadn’t disappeared into the ether. Of all the boldly imaginative comics being produced these days, The Life After may be the most rich in potential. There is no sense that there is any limitation on where this series can go and what it is ultimately going to be. For now, it’s a bright beginning (it literally goes back to THE beginning) that’s bitingly smart and balances an eerie serenity with energetic existential angst. If you haven’t checked it out, now’s the time to wish you were here.