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Afterlife Inc Volume 1

Dying to Tell-Tales from the Afterlife

Written by Jonathan Lock
Art by Ash Jackson, Jack Tempest, Del Borovic, Will Tempest, Roy Huteson Stewart, Jerry Gaylord
Available from www.jonlock.com£10

So the bad news is you’re dead. The good news is everyone’s dead, and that’s not the Schadenfreudegasm you might expect it to be. You see there’s been something of a regime change on the other side, and by something we mean total.

Something awful happened in Heaven and the people left behind to pick it up include Lux, Heaven’s head of Security, App, a bodyguard angel with 10,000 downloadable protection programs, Nuriel, Heaven’s gargantuan guard angel, Mr Ochroid, the worm-headed power behind the throne and… Jack Fortune, the butt occupying the throne. Jack is a former con artist with a ready wit, easy charm and a huge, animated tie. Somehow, when he died, Heaven imprinted on his fading psyche and remolded itself as the Empyrean, a multi-layer artificial habitat larger than anything on Earth. Now, Jack’s in charge and ready to do some good with his new-found seniority. Which is good, because the Empyrean is in chaos…

I’ve read a lot of great comics over the past year, and if this isn’t the best one, then it’s in the top three. Jon Lock has taken a very basic, if interesting, concept and turned it completely on its head. We all die, but now, all of it, Heaven, Hell, everything in between isn’t just part of the same place it’s all on the same footing. Jack isn’t a vengeful God, he isn’t even a particularly bothered one; he’s a man with a huge idea, the common touch and a deep profound love for his work and the people he’s working with. Think John Constantine in a better suit, an eternal chancer smiling as the dice come up his way over and over again.

One of the cleverest things Jon does in this book is make Jack himself a background figure in most of the stories. In the immediate aftermath of Afterlife Inc being formed, there is, of course, a lot to do and so whilst we see Jack, the focus is far more on the people arriving. This not only gives Jon the chance to flex his writing muscles, it also allows for a wide variety of stories and tones.

“Final Destination”, the opening story illustrated by Ash Jackson, follows a First Officer aboard an airliner in what he thinks is his last desperate attempt to save the flight but is actually his first day on the other side. It’s smart, pragmatic, funny and moving, as he realises that this isn’t even an ending, it’s a chance to do everything he ever dreamed of. “Origin Of Species”, with art by Jerry Gaylord, is an entirely different kind of piece, following Jack, Lux and the splendid App as they search the Empyrean for the source of a binary transmission only Jack can sense. The ending is a complete tonal shift that not only feels natural but also establishes just how huge the Empyrean is. Everything and everyone comes here eventually, a concept picked up on in later stories. “Silver Screen”, illustrated by Roy Huteson Stewart, takes a different tone again. Stewart’s beautiful, stretched noir artwork revealing the life story of a fictional private detective, an actor and the man who makes up both of them. The Empyrean is whatever you want it to be and there’s no such thing as the wrong sort of afterlife anymore making this CHandleresque piece oddly joyful and life affirming.

“Death Of A Salesman”, illustrated by Jack Tempest, expands the concept still further. Jack is called to a bar where a near riot has broken out because a US President has arrived there. Carefully never showing us his face, the story follows Jack talking to the man who could be Kennedy, Clinton, Nixon or Bush Jr, hints to all of them being dropped. In reality though, his true identity doesn’t matter. What matters is you never stop being President, never stop having to own your decisions. There’s no such thing as the wrong sort of afterlife, but no law that says you get a pleasant one either.

“Wonderland”, with art by Ash Jackson, the principle artist on the series, is the first moment the book soars. Everything up to this point has been great but “Wonderland”’s combination of storybook pages, recasting the leads as the cast of Alice In Wonderland and combination of comedy and desperate tragedy really raises it to a new level. In the post-calamity aftermath, Mr Ochroid realises a small girl has gone missing and could be anywhere on the Empyrean. As the search for her intensifies, we see the world through her eyes, combining the storybook innocence of the girl with the mutable reality of the Empyrean to hugely charming effect.

“On High”, with art by Will Tempest, changes the focus again, following one of the “central casting” angels, the beings who live on the Empyrean and who find themselves shaped by the newly dead. The angels have no real desires, no heart, but one, calling himself Non, wants… more. We follow him on an unusually polite pilgrim’s progress until he finally meets Jack, is granted his wish and… well, let’s just say the final couple of pages are more arch than anything that’s gone before. A subtle, knowing look at what desire truly is and how we define ourselves, “On High” is another impressive character piece with another heartwarming, if somewhat oddly so, finish.

“Elementary” with art by Del Borovic could best be summed up as, “She’s the head of Heaven’s security! He’s Sherlock Holmes! They’re cops!” except there’s a lot more going on here. A serial killer is on the loose in the Empyrean and Lux finds herself partnered with the impossible; a fictional character. What follows is a welcome look into the mind of the Security Chief, a short if chilling detective story and a moment of quiet, shattering heartbreak that Holmes fans will see coming but still be devastated by.

Then Jon, or Jack, or both, show you the cards they’ve been holding back. Each story has quietly built on the last, running into each other until finally “From Now On”, with art by Ash Jackson once again, shows you what they’ve been building. Every character, every moment we’ve seen prior to this combines to create a story about the first real party the afterlife has known in millennia, Jack Fortune taking over and, as always, the people who make up the population. Short, funny, charming and quietly joyous it’s a beautiful capstone to the book and a definitive start to Jack’s new career. Everyone gets to come home, everyone gets to live happily after and always will from here on out. Meet the new boss, much better dressed than the old boss.

The book is rounded out by some character pin-ups and the “Holiday Special 2011”, with Jack Tempest returning on art duties. The most carefully non-denominational Christmas story/reader’s letters section I’ve ever seen it’s a smart, funny sign-off to a book that’s both those things and so much more. Intensely smart, utterly charming and profoundly compassionate (And not remotely Bible thumping if that’s putting you off. This is, as Jack makes clear, everyone’s afterlife now), this is one of the books of 2012. Don’t miss it.

Alasdair Stuart

Read the review of Afterlife Inc Volume 2