The Life After V1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo

The Life After Volume 1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Drawn by Gabo
Published by Oni Press

Joshua Hale Fialkov has always been good at coming up with catchy hooks for his comics.  From Elk’s Run to The Bunker, the central ideas of his stories seem so made for Hollywood that it’s kind of sickening just how packaged they are and just how good of a writer Fialkov is to pull them off.  What happens when life in a small town becomes life trapped from the outside world or what happens when an old private investigator starts hallucinating because of the tumor in his brain are just a couple of examples of Fialkov’s ideas.  He creates these fantastic high concepts and then he’s able to make the stories about the characters.  He makes incredibly human stories about men and women who are trying to define themselves against their environments and circumstances.

The Life After Volume 1 continues that idea of a person trying to define themselves against their environment only that person is a son of God and the environment is the part of Purgatory set aside for suicides.  Just with that concept, there are so many questions that can pop into your head that the possibilities for this series seem endless.  This isn't the Father and Son from the Old and New Testaments.  This afterlife isn't all clouds, Heavenly hosts and an idyllic forever and ever.  This Purgatory, itself more a Catholic concept of a mid-step to Heaven for those who didn't quite make the grade the first time around, functions neither as Heaven or Hell but as an eternal waypoint.  In it, Jude wakes up from an unfulfilling sleep at the same time every day, takes the same bus to the same job, sees the same people, takes the same bus home and watches the same woman drop her handkerchief at the same moment as she's getting off of that same bus.  It's a life of meaningless repetition that may not seem all that odd or different to a lot of people.
The Ordinary Average Life of Jude
When Jude tries to actually return the handkerchief to the woman, that's when everything changes.  Grabbing her arm, he's stunned that her life flashes before his life.  It's a life from older days, when a single pregnant woman was scandalous and unwanted.  Dejected by society, no one noticed when she lost her child after being beaten and kicked.  And Jude continues to find that he sees other people's lives after contact.  Of course, he doesn't know he's in Purgatory for suicides until he meets Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway has to explain it all to Jude.  From there, the story becomes a spiritual "Matrix" as Jude and Ernest try to figure out how to shut Purgatory down.  While this is happening, Fialkov and Gabo give us views of Heaven(?,) God and the Holy Hosts running the place.  What we like to think of as holy and angelic are really just bureaucrats and God is a monstrous, deformed, fat and lazy lump of flesh and organs.  

This is a book that will eventually require a strong point of view but Fialkov and Gabo are still inching along to it right now. They spend their time in this book forming Jude, the sad sack son of a god. Fialkov drops all of these great little hints and details about Jude, from the idea that he committed suicide to the nagging thought in the back of my mind that this is a disappointing version of the second coming. Maybe you don't get the Messiah you need; maybe you get the messiah you deserve. If so, it's hard to argue with the idea that we don't deserve Heaven or grace or forgiveness but we deserve a Messiah who is as lost and helpless as we are. Of course, he still has a Biblical name, "Jude," the man who was seemingly abandoned by God. The Biblical Jude's faith was tested but we don't see any sort of faith or divinity in this main character. He's more like us than like any Biblical character.

The middle managers of reality
Gabo (real name Gabriel Bautista which I wish I had known when this book first came out) has a great handle on the fantastic and the mundane in this book. We need to believe in Jude's mundane existence and Gabo's art opens the book feeling like some kind of auto-bio slacker comic. Gabo and Fialkov start dropping hints early that this is more than that. An early narrative sleight of hand makes you think of movies The Truman Show and Cabin In The Woods. (Actually in some ways, The Life After is a mirror reflection of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin In The Woods with its middle management view of the forces controlling our world.) Gabo has to take us through all of these different time periods, geographies, legends and mythologies. It's a visual smorgasbord but he keeps everything grounded with Jude and Hemingway, our unlikely everyman characters in this book.

Don't remember the Bible stories being like this.
It's hard in this volume to tell what this comic is going to be. Fialkov and Gabo set up a lot of questions in this book, questions about character, about intent, about tone and about the nature of this comic. That's the thing that may be holding this back from being a really good comic in that the set up of the world that they're working in does not give them room in this book to really stake out what they want this book to be. A character like Hemingway could be our point of view character; he should be our experiential avatar into this Purgatory but he comes off as a clever conceit or a hierophant more than as a character, either historic or tragic. Jude could still be our entry point into the story but there's too many ideas and questions whirling around him to make him a character that's more than a series of questions without answers.

Trying to tear down Heaven or Hell may be one thing.  It may even be a grand thing.  But tearing down Purgatory?  Fialkov and Gabo are working in this unclear middle ground in this issue.  As Jude and Hemingway journey across the different parts of Purgatory, they encounter angels and demons.  It’s when the book tries to encounter some sense of the sacred or the profane where it comes to life.  It’s then when Fialkov’s story seems to be reaching for some spectacle worthy of his ideas and when Gabo’s designs take you out of the known and start moving you into the unknown. The Life After Volume 1 is the beginning of a journey where a man tries to stand for something.  Jude may be the son of God but he’s also just a man who is trapped in a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense.