After a month’s break, we return you to Jon Lock‘s Afterlife Inc., one of the most exciting pieces of comic book fiction we’ve read in a long while. In my review of Volume 1 (“Dying to Tell: Tales from the Afterlife”), I compared the world of the story favorably to Neil Gaiman‘s groundbreaking Sandman, awarding it a well-deserved five stars, but does the second installment, “Near Life and Other Stories” live up to the series promise? Well, yes, and yet not quite.
In what Lock himself describes as the “difficult second album”, we pick up once more in the Empyrean, an afterlife run by earthly-conman-turned-heavenly CEO Jack Fortune. While Vol 1 consisted entirely of standalone stories, an anthology of tales set in a corporate arcadia, the first four installments of “Near Life” form a single narrative more epic and ambitious than anything the series has attempted so far. Much of the story’s delight comes from the sheer inventiveness of the plot – Lock has built himself a brilliant sandbox and damned if he isn’t going to make the most of it! – so there’s little I can say without diminishing the pleasure for potential readers, but suffice to say it’s a doozy. With shades of both Buffy Season 4 and Sandman‘s Doctor Dee, “Near Life” nevertheless also reveals the greatest if only weakness of “Afterlife Inc.” as a series so far, which I’ll delve into more in the conclusion. The artwork – by Ash Jackson – is arresting with an consistently atmospheric use of its pastel color palette, and, if I’m not mistaken, more than a touch of manga: a particular insert at the bottom of page 10 could have been taken out of Hellsing or Ghost in the Shell. Despite a third chapter that’s mostly padding (don’t worry – it’s only nine pages of 112) and a slightly anticlimactic ending, “Near Life”‘s wonderfully smirk-worthy denouement confirms Jon Locke’s sense of scale and irony as being the cutting edge that sets Afterlife Inc. apart from other world-building adventures.
As if to reiterate the phenomenal amount of talent involved with the project the rest of Vol 2’s run-time is taken up by a number of character one-shots, which provide an individual look at, for instance, the bad-tempered, (literally) ebony-skinned Lux, and the Sphinx-like Nuriel. Lux’s story (with art by Jade Sarson) provides a glimpse at the angel’s softer, more existential side… while carrying out a torture session. The Nuriel instalment, meanwhile, has the giant, flame-maned guardian answering an employee questionnaire – Mark Pearce‘s brighter, more airy illustrations do a lot to bring Nuriel to quizzical, almost Hobbesian (as in Calvin and…) life. “Temperance” (with Grant Perkins on pencils, ink and colors by Nadine Ashworth) is a cute but throwaway piece about monsters playing cards while Jack Davies‘ “Elizabeth” explores the lack of spiritual satisfaction in running a Heaven-based nightclub, concluding with a neat bon mot. Ashworth and Jackson pick up ink and pencilling duties on “Ochroid”, which follows the endearingly sycophantic, worm-headed PA in his struggles to save a group of… well, I won’t spoil it.
To continue, “The Wait” (artwork by Sean McSorley) is about a dead man’s determined vigil in Heaven’s entrance way for his lover’s eventual arrival – a simple, transitional piece; Will Tempest‘s “Jack”, meanwhile, revolves around two female Homicide detectives on a trip to the morgue (shout-outs to Law & Order and its ilk) and a tantalizing reveal of some sapient information. It’s “Anahel”, however, that’s the most memorable of the bunch: Warwick Fraser-Coombe‘s truly beautiful Japanese watercolors detail a day in the life of paradise’s gardener – touching and understated, it’s this type of story amidst all the rest that, if anything, outdoes Sandman. Following that impossible praise, the gleefully daft “Laika” (artwork once more by Ash Jackson) features a mock trial of Fortune by Henry VIII and the eponymous rocket dog while “Genesis”, by Jack Tempest, sets up, appropriately an origins story for Elysium – multi-colour robed elders, snakes, chaos, theology – as well as setting up a potential future nemesis.
Featuring a selection of fan art pinups in its final pages, as well as the 100-odd pages of content listed above, Afterlife Inc. Vol 2 has, like its predecessor, quantitatively and qualitatively, everything a comic book fan could want, and – at only £10 all in – it rivals anything else in the market. That being said, “Near Life and Other Stories” is not perfect.
In a world where, as Jack Fortune comments in the opening pages, surprise is more or less an impossibility, cleverness, inventiveness cease to be enough. Having commented on the lack of character development in Vol 1, I hoped that this time around Lock and Co. would begin to deeper the character and the mythology, establishing the concrete rules by which this world works – instead, getting bigger and bolder still, “Near Life” (the title story) occasionally loses its sense of jeopardy. Is it, for instance, possible to die in the afterlife, beyond simply being cast into The Void? What is Jack Fortune’s ultimate goal or even, it must be said, his immediate ones? It’s an unfortunate fact that, after almost 250 pages, we should be more attached to the characters than we are now – the one-shots do what they can to acquaint us with the key members of the cast, their hopes, their dreams and disappointments, but its not enough to make us love them. If Afterlife Inc. is going to live up to the Buffy Gold Standard – Lock’s writing often recalls Whedon‘s, albeit less individualistically – then future instalments will have to do a lot in setting up Ochroid, Elizabeth, et al in giving them their own arcs. Jack Fortune remains a cipher – an interesting one, one with a conscience, it must be said – but unless Lock gets under the skin of him, unlocks (sorry) his past and truly shows us who he is, there’s the danger of us losing interest in him as a protagonist (well, in maybe 3-4 more issues).
Regardless, simply for its wit, imagination and huge entertainment value, Afterlife Inc. Vol. 2 (“After Life and Other Stories”) is more than deserving of **** (four stars). Maybe we’ll finally get round to some of those unanswered questions in The Heavenly Chord, a crossover between Lock’s After-verse and Nich Angell‘s 7STRING, our review of which is due out on August 26th!