Monday, May 20, 2024

The Dusty Afterlife: A Look at Heavenly Blues

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Some things simply make my day. A good café where I’m allowed to smoke, Jameson, cats, etc. There’s one more item on that list which is a little more esoteric, if you will. That fresh sensation of witnessing something new and bold, be it music, literature, film, and of course, comic books. You may gleefully leap and lose yourself in Image, Vertigo and Dark Horse, but there’s always something waiting to be discovered. So it’s my pleasure today to review the first two issues of a brand new series from Scout Comics. Created by New York-based writer Ben Kahn and artist Bruno Hidalgo, this is a plunge into Hell where restless souls do dwell. It doesn’t sound like something particularly new, but is it?

The ambience

Don’t judge a book by its cover? Fuck that; do all the judging you want but definitely do the reading afterwards. The cover of anything is most definitely a greeting card, and this is one you should consider keeping because of Bruno Hidalgo’s distinct style. Rather than offering a grandiose presentation brimming with details, he conveys the comic’s unique flavor with simplicity and the whole of the composition. Theme-wise, the infernal layout of the shadowy rifle man over a flaming background makes for an ironic counterpoint to the story’s title: Heavenly Blues. Furthermore, the font selection imbues a ‘B-Movie’ vibe to the whole thing. Having read the first two issues, this is by no means an accident.

Stylistic choices, such as the characters’ and creators’ introductions on the cover, deliberately age the tone, preparing the reader for what is basically a Western with a hellish twist. I must clarify, however, that I’m only using the term Western as an approximation to the genre. The plot does pertain to a Western, but there’s way more than that going on.

The aged feeling we got from the cover is almost instantly defied by the art on the panels proper. This story involves characters of all walks of life and virtually all stages of human history. The only time we see actual homogeneous  ‘period narratives’ is through flashbacks. Beyond that, characters from various centuries mesh quite well with the arid setting and the occasional infernal aesthetics.

Perhaps it’s a subtle way to say: all souls find a place of their own in Hell.

A peculiar kind of Hell for a peculiar set of characters

We’re getting a bit post-modern here, and I must apologise for it beforehand. I simply can’t talk about the setting as an entity apart from its inhabitants. In a way, they inform each other’s identity and delivery, but let’s take it slowly.

Right off the bat, the death and condemnation of a bureaucrat (probably from the 21st century) subvert our expectations of what Hell is like. Even he is surprised at finding out there are no demons to do the torturing. It’s a deathless dog-eats-dog world, which is not that different from living human experience. The lack of dreadful punishment is an extension of the stance of Hell (and Heaven) in relation to morals. Much like the Wild West, this Hell is an amoral place, not exclusive to murderers, rapists and the like, but not foreign to them either. So, we can expect the characters to be an extension of this ethical landscape. Enter our protagonists, partners-in-crime, Isaiah “Tommy Gun” Jefferson and “Wicked” Erin Foley.

As per the trope , these two are both different and alike. Their respective flashbacks reveal them to be a gangster from the 30’s and a roguish girl from the Salem Witch Hunts. The differences go further, even as far as temperament. Cool and hot. Whereas one is “talk, dark and handsome”, the other is “short, mean and punchy.” Flawed characters but not necessarily evil enough to make their dwelling in Hell deserved as we would understand it.

All in all, their rough edges make them entertaining just as much as their past histories makes them sympathetic. And the latter is where they share something in common. Their hubris and pride led to their deaths and their damnation, not strictly villainous deeds proper.

Therefore, Hell itself becomes a greyer area than merely the binary dark counterpart to Heaven, and the same applies to the latter, if Barbiel Angelus is any indication. But more on that later. The three characters joining Isaiah and Erin highlight the point further. Hideki Iwata, an opium addict and a voyeur; Coin Counter Turner, a fellow outlaw: and Amunet, a thief and competent fighter. All constituting a troublesome mix, but not outright malicious. Beyond the alignment status, they already look a colourful bunch, which is just as well, considering they will all play their part in the dynamic to come. The ultimate heist.

The stakes and execution

Well, the characters are pretty, Hell is cool, but what is this comic actually about? After tormenting the latest arrival and having a lukewarm beer (that’s Hell alright) in the saloon, a strange hooded figure catches their attention. This fellow turns out to be an angel with shady intentions. Barbiel Angelus has come down to Hell looking for skilled thieves to pull a heist of a ‘treasure of God’.

Now, whereas the aforementioned Hell-dwellers possess redeeming, humane qualities, this Heavenly prick appears to have none. His intentions appear guided by sheer pride and greed, which deconstructs Heaven as we conceive it. Still, the payment for Isaiah and Erin’s service is a ticket to Heaven. Thus, they’re in. But all heists require some prep work to succeed. Hence we take off.

Now comes the question, why should you give this comic a try? Aside from the goodies analyzed above, the roguish narrative allows for entertainment through adversity, mischievous triumph, and a potential for violent twists. So, the progression of events itself is promising. But so is the way it’s told. Ben Kahn’s writing is quite good. In just matter of few pages, the comic conveys humor, gravitas, and darkness—all of which can expand the storytelling further. That’s as far as potential, but even without it, this comic is entertaining enough to at least give it a try.

So, give it a try. It doesn’t feel like anything I’ve read before. And I dare say, it breathes some new life into a series of conventions that have been getting pretty old these days.

Stay tuned for a quick review of Issue #3, which is to be published on September 27.

Heavenly Blues Issues #1 and #2 Credits

Writer: Ben Kahn

Artist: Bruno Hidalgo

Images Courtesy of Scout Comics
Disclaimer: Review copy was provided for this article

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