By Cullen Bunn, Brian Churilla, and Dave Stewart
Conceptual complexity is a bit overrated in modern comics. It certainly has its place, but a lot of the time a comic doesn’t need byzantine plot structure, burdened with details to be interesting. Hellbreak is one such comic, a great series revolving around an incredibly simple core concept: a commando team that rescues the souls of possessed individuals from hell. From this shockingly original vantage point, Hellbreak is free to fill in the extensions of its universe, crafting an ever-expanding reality that stems from the idea the book’s core cosmological concepts about hell. It’s a slow burn approach to comics, but one that affords the world of Hellbreak a lot more development before things go inevitably wrong during one of the titular hellbreaks. It’s similar to the kind of storytelling found in Kamandi or Inception.
As much as Hellbreak’s core concepts are rivetingly original and expertly realized, the downside to this is that its characters often come off more than a little flat. They all have well established identities, but sadly those identities don’t stretch much beyond the standard array of military team personalities we’ve seen recycled in fiction since Aliens. Thankfully no one ever ends up in an unlikable category, but it’s still a big handicap to the series that you often end up more invested in seeing more aspects of their conception of Hell than the ultimate fate of the various protagonists.
As something of a byproduct of this emphasis on concept over character, the artwork by Brian Churilla and Dave Stewart ends up taking center stage for most of the issues. Even when aspects of the hellscape are explained through exposition or dialogue it’s Churilla and Stewart who vibrantly animate them in a really engrossing manner. Churilla employs a very stylized approach to artwork that utilizes a simplistic and stripped down approach to character design, especially in facial features. This has the effect of making the characters look a little cartoony, but that actually ends up working in Hellbreak’s favor. The character’s are already so stock that giving them the facial structure and body of action figures adds an air of intentional archness to the proceedings. It’s almost like the comic is making a deal with the audience, admitting that even though these characters exist as arc depictions of military team dynamics sometimes you just have to let cartoons BE cartoons. It’s very reminiscent of the approach to character design from Pacific Rim.
Where Churilla really flexes his artistic muscles is in the monster and hellscape designs. His simplicity of design lends itself perfectly to creating inhuman beasts of the nether realm that play on the corruption of the human form in a deeply unnerving manner. Dave Stewart’s colors work well on the designs, but more often than not he ends up the weak link of the book. There are far too many panels where Stewart falls back on simple gradients or block colors for the backgrounds. Sometimes he rises above this, especially when it comes time to color code the different iterations of Hell found within the comic, but overall his work tends to wind up just proficient rather than impressive.
Hellbreak isn’t going to change anyone’s life, but it also isn’t trying to. It’s ultimately very similar to a lot of overlooked Marvel comics like Moon Knight or Deathlok, books that simply want to be fun, well written, action comics that explore a concept that would’ve been too risky for other mediums. Bottom line, Hellbreak is a fun and well-paced comic that’s doing something truly original; strongly recommended.