Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column
HEAVENLY BLUES #1 and #2
Written by: Ben Kahn
Art by: Bruno Hidalgo
Published by: Scout Comics
What’s so wrong about stealing paradise? Especially when it feels like life’s been stacked against you, only to then learn that the afterlife is too? Hell, that’s no way to live or die or live after you die. At the heart of Ben Kahn and Bruno Hidalgo’s Heavenly Blues is a piquant rejection of the idea of redemption and an otherworldly rebalancing of moral scales. “Heaven is bullshit. Hell is bullshit. Your face is bullshit.” Quite so. Through two issues, Heavenly Blues is far more a heist romp than it is a philosophical exercise (to its credit and occasional detriment) that’s rife with legitimately fun ideas and a focused tone. It plays a duet of agnosticism and practical morality, stopping to improvise and riff on well-worn genre trappings. Hey, it’s all bullshit anyway, right? Might as well pull that one last big job and land the biggest score there is: eternal bliss. That’ll show ‘em.
That “bullshit” laden quote isn’t just a strong introduction to the series’ most beguiling character, young Salemite Erin, it’s also a mission statement laid out by Kahn and Hidalgo. About halfway through the first issue, you’ll likely find yourself asking how exactly this interpretation of the afterlife works. Long-standing denizens of hell are torturing a new arrival only to turn the page and see them shooting the shit about their workday over a warm mug of beer at a bar? We see in the following issue that Hell’s geography stretches out even farther beyond the city streets and into the wild west and ancient Egypt, while characters note the long histories and mysteries of the land of eternal fire. How is time perceived in the afterlife? Why bother torturing anyone there at all? Is someone ordering it? Does it matter? No, and to a large degree, that’s the fun of what Kahn and Hidalgo are creating here. They intentionally tease a vast backstory of minutiae, only to jovially shrug it off and center back on the heist yarn they’re really trying to tell. That doesn’t mean it’s not trying to say something, however. While the thought of beer served below peak temperature might sound like absolute hell to some, Kahn and Hidalgo clearly depict a hell where the judged are free to move about as they like. And that’s the key.
Isaiah, our African-American John Dillinger archetype, delivers the critical blow in issue #1 as he resigns himself to admit, “Hell’s hell, but at least we’re free.” Combined with the intentionally vague nature of how hell is structured, we are thus given the underlying metaphor that hell is indeed not so dissimilar to the real world. While it may not be Sartre-level eloquence, Heavenly Blues nonetheless questions the idea of free will in a societal hierarchy. Getting screwed in hell is a whole lot like getting screwed up here. You get a chance in a life and a lot of times, you don’t have a whole lot of say in the outcome. Is that the product of the world we ourselves built around us or is there some determinism at play? Superimposing this age-old inquiry onto characters who already know for a fact that the mechanics of the afterlife, of judgment, are indeed real, is pretty brilliant if not good for at least a chuckle. It also highlights the difficult game Kahn and Hidalgo are playing here.
There’s clearly some commentary on the nature of belief, and how logistical examination often brings it tumbling down; hence, this hell that doesn’t entirely make sense when trying to sort out how everything operates or how different it really is from the living world. The glimmers into Erin’s psyche and the corresponding ideas of guilt and shame, beautifully portrayed throughout the second (and better) issue, are just that: glimmers. Every time Heavenly Blues begins to tie the strings on the Big Picture corkboard, it pivots quickly back to what is ostensibly a fun crime story. Fair enough, but those teases of layering more in-depth commentary on the big ideas often outshine the straightforward plot; at least through two issues. As tried and true as the “getting the band together” verse in the heist song is, the strength of Erin’s flashback and support group meeting, or Isaiah and Erin’s bridge back and forth, are paced in sharp contrast to the lighter, hurried gathering of the supporting cast. There’s great bits to be found there, like the afterlife stand-in for opium, Voyeur, that puts its users into a delirium to spy on the living, but they lack the thematic oomph that’s just behind the veil. It’s not so much that Kahn and Hidalgo don’t have anything to say; quite the contrary, they have plenty to say, it’s just not being said loud enough for fear of drowning out the genre tale playing in the foreground.
One of the reasons the second issue feels stronger, beyond the focus on Erin’s backstory and mindset, is Hidalgo’s artistic contributions. At first glance, the debut issue appeared like something akin to still Flash animation in style, but upon reexamination it was the coloring application and not the linework that conveys that. The first issue’s colors more often than not exist at the same saturation level causing shadows to butt up against other colors and coexist on the same plane like Colorforms, as opposed to creating depth. This dissipates almost entirely by the second issue, however, and as a result one can better appreciate the controlled frenzy of Hidalgo’s linework. His loose style is deceptively minimal, but it’s filled with life. These characters are carrying the weight of lifetimes on their faces and move with not so much a fluidity, but a graceful lumber courtesy of tapered legs and sharp shouldered forms. At times, it comes across as some sort of Keith Haring/Jeff Lemire hybrid and it matches the overall tone with aplomb. There’s a lot to like about Hidalgo’s raw style certainly, but most importantly the storytelling is smooth and utilizes an interesting mix of angles to add both depth and flair to the otherworldly proceedings.
Trying to settle the score on a universe that served you a raw deal is a surprisingly relatable experience and Heavenly Blues grounds itself in the grounded reality that is the afterlife. Playfully pulling back the curtain to an impossibly vast infrastructure, it manically lets loose the revenge fantasy of the heist genre while frustratingly only scratching the surface of the biggest of ideas to inform its characters. At its core is the poignant reminder and tragedy that is getting only one shot at life, even though the deck is stacked against you and the dealer makes up the rules as you go along. You think hell is hell? Guess what? Life is hell. And you gotta live through both. That’s the best case of the blues I’ve yet to hear.
— Alex Mansfield (@Focusedtotality)