Title: Hellbreak Volume 1: Don’t Look Back
Publisher: Oni Press
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Brian Churilla
Colorist: Dave Stewart (Flats by Alex Petretich)
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
With an all-star creative team of horror veterans, Hellbreak delivers unique concepts and plenty of twists. Don’t Look Back collects the first six issues of the series, which introduces readers to a world of demonic possession, shadow operatives, and a fascinating cosmology. The Kerberos Initiative operates from Holy Light Priory in California. When a demonically-possessed human is taken to Kerberos, they send Orpheus Team into Hell to rescue the lost soul.
Hellbreak proposes not just multiple versions of Hell, but seemingly infinite ones. While not the first story to suggest this concept, Hellbreak does put forward a distinct spin on it. After Satan fell, he began construction of a literal stairway to Heaven in a futile attempt to return, but after eons of not getting any closer, he gave up. Abandoned, the Stairway collapsed, and each stair became an “Infernal Fragment,” a different Hell. Jenner, commander of Orpheus Team, tells this story before each drop into a Fragment, and this works into the story very well for a few reasons. For example, the first issue takes place in medias res, when Orpheus Team has already entered a Fragment for a mission, so Jenner doesn’t tell the story until issue #2. Issue #1 hooks readers with action, and fills in the blanks later. The second reason it works is to introduce threads that could be important later, like establishing the Devil’s presence and Jenner saying “That’s the story I heard anyway,” suggesting the reality could be different. Finally, artist Brian Churilla and colorist Dave Stewart render the story magnificently. The Stairway is a cragged, crooked spire ringed by uneven wooden steps, and the Devil is a white, aural presence in a human shape, rather than a true figure. Not only is this a move of atmosphere, it also gives Hellbreak’s Satan some mystery, making him a character without defining him just yet, and it characterizes him as someone who wanted badly to go home.
I was impressed by other characterizations in the book, too. Marik Proctor, the project coordinator of Kerberos, so far seems a fairly standard shady head of an organization, but one of his lines really stuck out to me. When speaking to a couple who brought their possessed son to Kerberos, Proctor says, “I admit, my approach to our mission can be somewhat pragmatic.” He doesn’t specifically say something like “I might seem cold,” but that’s how it’s meant to be read. But he sees it only as pragmatism. He knows Orpheus Team doesn’t have a complete success rate, and he knows it’s an ordeal for everyone involved, but he decides to accept these as facts. It strikes me as a very deliberate choice of words on the part of Cullen Bunn.
Even though every mission is a new version of Hell and a new set of problems, Orpheus Team’s approach says they know and understand their mission. They adapt. This is their job. They’re used to it. This isn’t a “getting the band together” story; it’s a story of veterans. None of them are drawn as young, beautiful people, either. All of Orpheus Team is firmly in adulthood and carries experience in their face. Thus far, though, none of them seem especially nuanced or deep, and Jenner in particular feels a bit stock, a regimented leader haunted by the deaths of his wife and child. That said, a preview for the next arc promises each issue to be focused on each member of the team, and given that Don’t Look Back is the introductory arc, I’m okay with giving the creative team some more time.
Churilla, Stewart, and Crank! work together with incredible alchemy. Hellbreak has atmosphere from jump, beginning in the Greek Underworld with the story of Orpheus. Its caves are pockmarked, its abysses gaping. Heavy blacks and dark shadows threaten to swallow Orpheus and Eurydice as easily as the demons that appear in the first two-page spread. Crank!’s letters aren’t of uniform height, so dialogue and caption box text is ever-so-slightly uneven, which adds to the mood. Stewart gives an excellent range of palette. His demons can be many colors or none, appearing as blank space, or a Fragment can have a quality of grayscale washed over it and sunk into the world, with only the barest, most faded signs of hue. Churilla draws a wide diversity of demons that all look distinct. One is made out of skulls with worm colonies for hands, while another kind is gigantic, stony, and spider-like, with tusks at the mouth and tentacles below the neck. While possessed, a human body is like dead flesh, pale and sunken, opening festering wounds and vomiting verminous insects. When Churilla does grotesque, he goes all-out.
While none of the characters especially grabbed me, I found a lot to like about Hellbreak. The universe and set-up are promising, and now the first arc has done much of the heavy lifting of establishment. I look forward to what the creative team can do with the toybox they’ve filled during Don’t Look Back.