Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #49: Heck by Zander Cannon

I'm probably the only one in the world still waiting for Zander Cannon to get back to The Replacement God -- hell, I'm still waiting for Ty Templeton to get back to Stig's Inferno, which I think proves I have more patience than sense -- but I'm still happy to see him doing any comic from the ground up. (Not that his art isn't nice on other people's projects, but I just like to see cartoonists doing their own work -- we don't live in a world where that pays the bills for a whole lot of people, sure, but we can always hope.)

Anyway, Cannon finally had a book all of his own, a single-volume graphic novel with a beginning, middle, and end, and it came out last year from the wizards at Top Shelf under the name of Heck. (It previously appeared serialized online as part of the "Double Barrel" serial with Kevin Cannon's Crater XV.) It's the story of one man's trip to hell -- but don't worry, Hector "Heck" Hammarskjold is a professional, and it's not his first trip. You see, Heck's business -- inherited from his father -- is to travel into Hell (there's a gateway in his house's basement) and talk to the recently dead, on behalf of their survivors, to ask questions or pass on last messages.

Heck's afterword explained that the book originated in a project among Cannon's local cartoonist friends to create a graphic novel in a year -- one Saturday a month, they'd each spend twelve hours making one twelve-page chapter. Like most grand plans, it didn't work out as expected, but it did launch Cannon into this story, which he completed alone after the Saturday group fell apart. But perhaps that initial impetus can be seen in the final Heck: it's got a simple organizing structure, in which one guy and his mummy sidekick travel through Hell (which is pretty much precisely as described by Dante, for ease of reference) and a limited cast of characters (Heck, his mummy pal Elliott, their client Amy, and the Dantean residents of Hell).

Along the way, though, Heck gets darker and more interesting. Heck never remembers his trips to Hell all that well -- he knows that he goes there, to deliver messages to the recently deceased or get information from them, and that it's a difficult, painful journey each time, but not the details. (Elliott, for example, was a normal human until one of those trips -- his bandages are to keep him together and alive now.) And Cannon's afterlife has angels -- they appear briefly in Limbo -- but the working assumption of Heck's business is that every single dead person that might be of interest is in Hell. And that seems to be basically true: this is a world made up of sinners, because to not sin is to be perfect, and nothing human can be perfect.

So Heck is not shielded from Hell by his innate goodness, or battling against the chance he may end up there -- no, it's pretty much assumed in Heck that death leads to Hell, and the only question is whether you'll be in the Wood of Suicides or the frozen ice of the treacherous, or some lesser punishment for lust or gluttony or greed. And this trip is perhaps even more difficult than most: Heck is in love with Amy, a woman he knew from his high-school years and re-met when he returned to his home town at his father's death, but he's going to find her dead husband, who was stealing from his stock-brokerage employer. And it's not even that simple, as we find in the end.

Heck is not the simple adventure story Cannon started out to make -- it is the story of one man's trip to and through Hell, and how he copes with what he learns about himself along the way. There's a strong sense that every trip to Hell is like this for Heck, in its own way: terrible and shattering and horribly personal. This book is magnificent and overwhelming and searing, and it stares right at the monsters that you can shoot with a shotgun and the ones that you can't. As the back cover says, it's about Heck's own personal Hell.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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