REVIEW: Afterlife Inc., Vol. 3 (“Lifeblood”)

What do you do when the first installment of your new comic book series is a breakout success?

I’m sure it’s a nice problem to have, especially with the amount of passion and effort that clearly went into Afterlife Inc., Volume 1. Even so, it does set something of a precedent, one to which you’d suppose the only solution is onwards and upwards. Vol. 1 received 4½ stars in our review, its successor a more-than respectable 4. Even grading on a curve, as you’re forced to do with independent comics – they can occasionally feel a bit like homework – that’s quite a lot to live up to.

Writer/creator Jon Lock has taken the brave move of focusing all the energy and diversity of of the Empyrean into a single story, instead of a series of vignettes and standalones as made up the previous two issues. If a narrower focus seems to suggest reduced ambition, it’s certainly not in evidence here: Lock and Co. use the opportunity here to delve deeper into character and mythology.

One of my few criticisms of Afterlife Inc., Vol. 2 – subtitled “Near Life and Other Stories” – was that it seemed, in part, like a missed opportunity to delve into Jack Fortune and his motley as individuals. Jack, CEO of the newly corporatized hereafter, may have been endearingly cocksure, but, though the Vol. 2 gave us a glimpse into his mysterious death, there was no real sense of what made him tick. Volume 3 (Lifeblood”) goes a long way towards remedying that situation.

This issue opens with an unknown, rough-countenanced individual taking a beating, blue blood spraying, beneath the curve of a clockwork moon. If the noirish touches feel familiar, the ensemble as a whole simultaneously feels fresh and inventive. With Ash Jackson returning to pencils and Nathan Ashworth on inks and colors, after the more experimental approach of the previous issues, Afterlife Inc. has begun to develop an in-house style: striking and ever-so-slightly caricatured.

Vol. 3 introduces us to Rich Fire, a self-proclaimed corporate spy. With his almost hallucinatory vivid Hawaiian shirt and outsized white suit, he comes across as a more garish cousin to Fortune himself. While he’s a tad underutilized here – there’s too much going on with the primary cast to make much allowance for new faces – he’s a promising figure for future installments. With playful yet take-no-nonsense demeanor and plenty of tricks up his sleeve, he could prove a definite fly in the Empyrean ointment.

For now, however, Fortune has far bigger problems than rogue operatives. From petty con artist to ruler of multiple realms of existence, he’s still coming up in the world. Seeking to automate the production of manna, the spiritual equivalent of electricity and metaphorical (and literal) lifeblood of his new kingdom, Fortune wants to “improve the quality of death for all his citizens”.

All the old favorites return, from Heaven’s gardener Anahel, rightfully annoyed as previously the only being capable of harvesting manna, to night-sky cutout Lux to has to deal with a new cult of undead lunatics who see all of Death as their rightful domain. Snatching people and generally up to no good, there the closest thing we’ve seen so far in Afterlife to religious extremists. After all, what do the radicals do when they get to their supposed final destination?

More than simply providing the Empyrean’s equivalent of vampires – I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say this ties back into “manna is power” scheme – their presence helps to shape Jack Fortune into more of a tragic figure, as well as bringing in a few nice SF touches to an otherwise fantasy-driven world. Overconfident and obsessed with progress, Fortune ignores the sage council of his right-hand man, the wormy Ochroid. This head-long plunge, as it transpires, could well see the overthrow of Empyrean itself.

With shots of brutal, blue-blooded slaughter overlain tragicomically with the lyrics to disco classic “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”, Vol. 3 builds a sense of irony and of scale most other comics, independent or otherwise, can only dream of. If there are too many plot threads to truly pull together – all of Jack’s comrades face crisis in one form or another – there’s, once again, a definite Whedonesque vibe to it, which seems less deliberate than just a product of good writing.

These are real, if not-quite human characters with relatable agenda and if the arcane rites that lead to the story’s climax are, at times, a touch too, well… arcane, the sheer sense of purpose and aspiration more than make up for it. There are amazing splash pages of huge death bots that look somewhere between Easter Island statues and something out of Warhammer 40K, though there are also beautifully detailed cityscapes contained within comparatively tiny frames.

The only problem with all of this is that it holds the characters apart, to a degree: like in, say, Buffy, much of the pleasure is to be found in their interaction. While they’re not exactly on the level of the Scooby Gang, I believe you could stick them all together in a locked room and get a perfectly good, if somewhat limited drama out of it.

As it stands, though, Vol. 3 does exactly what you might hope it would, which is to continue to develop the world of the Empyrean and the characters contained within. If, for instance, the idea of angels as agency-less emissaries of paradise isn’t an entirely original one – it’s been a topic of discussion the last few series of Supernatural – then Afterlife at least sets out to cover the same ground in a unique and interesting way. Even if the themes are sometimes overwhelmed by the action, this is impressive stuff.

Afterlife Inc., Vol. 3 also manages to address some issues in its own mythology. If all the characters are either dead or constructs, it becomes important to remind the reader of exactly what it means when you say that all eternity is at stake. As Heavenly Chord collaborator Nich Angell says in the Forward, it feels like you’re in safe hands with Afterlife, Inc., and if Vol. 3 is never quite as charming without the blend of artistic and narrative styles, it still feels like an achievement.

After all, it’s a difficult transition from standalones to a sustained narrative. On the basis of this alone – and the notion of just where Rich Fire may have secreted that raygun – Afterlife Inc., Volume 3 (“Lifeblood”) deserves its 4 stars.

Be sure to look for Afterlife Inc., Vol. 3 “Lifeblood” at ThoughtBubble this weekend!

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Robert Wallis

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