Of all of the tropes and commonplaces that I have learned from Western comics, there are two that stand out the most. First is the need for depicting cityscapes filled with boardwalk ads, street lights, and panels filled with mix-matched people crammed into subway cars. (Maybe Will Eisner’s crime stories and just the general crime fiction that Western comics have been known for has left the city such a romantic setting for a good story?) The second is the obsession with gargoyle like demons with sharp teeth and claws befitting the zoology of the Underworld. During my quick development in the Constantine universe, I saw a glimpse into Britain’s almost twenty-five year affection for demonology, not to mention that I bet Fables has seen its share of demons in its 100 plus issue continuity. When I picked up 2006’s Hellcity, I was hoping to see a clean execution of these comic staples and boy was I right on the money.
Hellcity is a three volume series written by Macon Blair and drawn by Joe Flood. Macon Blair (like many comic writers it seems), has very little information posted online. Outside of writing for the Avenger’s Classics story Dimension 6.5, I could not find anything else comic-wise to reference (he may or may not also have an acting career, but that is neither here nor there). Joe Flood on the other hand has some choice works to write about. Outside of his own short comic series Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep, Flood’s distinctive work can be seen as illustrating the 1930’s originated motivational novel Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
“Hell” has many forms in literature, some diverging off one another, and some unique all on their own. In the metropolitan streets seen in Hellcity, you will find your usual humanoid demons semi-coexisting with a small human populace. Yet unlike what you are used to seeing in this relationship, where one group outright tortures the other in degrading ways, (I promise that goes on somewhere else in Hell, just not here) the demons of Hellcity are more inclined towards dickish acts of dead fish to face slapping; timing automatic doors to close on you; or just simply putting rusty nails in your ordered scotch then flat out flailing the skin off your bones. Plus, every citizen is paired up with a purposely shitty demon roommate so the fun does not have to stop once the work whistle blows, think of it like having a generally bad day. It is something one can get used to in this world that reminds me of the universe depicted in the Comedy Central show Ugly Americans.
Hellcity’s protagonist Bill Tankersly was an effective detective during life, but after his suicide brought on by the random murder of his angelic wife Allie, Bill spends his stay in Hell working in a freezer room turned pig kitchen. Still dressed in a trench coat and tie befitting his living career, Bill is a picture perfect example of being totally burned out. But one day after the usual grind and mandated therapy session, a demon by the name of Mary D’metre interrupts his daily wife reminiscing to hire him. Mary works for Hell’s big boss, Satan himself, and requires Bill’s detective know-how to uncover the Beatlejuice looking ruler of Hell recent distraction from his job. Did I mention that the job of ruler of Hell is an actually job, like determined by politics and junk. As is to be expected, if the political field is already power hungry on the surface, just guess how crazy it can get underneath the Mantle layer.
From what fiction I have read in the past set in Hell and Heaven, a writer tends to go down one of two planes of thought. You either depict both realms as sedate mystical lands of familiarity choosing to work off of commonly held iconography, or, you ramp up the two realms into a crazy satirical mold of the expected and dwell on stark elements (Chronicles of Wormwood, I am looking at you). Macon Blair is the first writer I have seen to be able to effectively combine the two schools of thought by creating a spin on a known world, but not allowing the exaggerated elements to distract from the narrative. Macon Blair also took a tried-but-tired archetype of the chain-smoking trench coater detective in Bill Tankersly and turned him into someone fresh and engaging.
Joe Flood’s art can be simply described as active. Considering that crime comics generally involve tons of running after or away from perps and suspects, an arts-ability to convey the character’s motion is essential. Flood’s heavy use of vertical lines and large but seamless sound effects give Hellcity a level of kinetic energy that chases the reader’s active role as a sedentary observer into one big two-day long detective case. Interesting to note, Flood’s distinctive character designs filled with sharp chin lines and slanted eyes, is a testament to being able to effectively cover the page with almost distractingly plain facial features. Those are the breaks though when you need to draw out just so many different people and backgrounds.
Pros: Bill Tankersly’s journey as an out of retirement beat-detective, employing drug store bought detective tools with experienced tutelage while still finding time to crack wish, is a story one can really get behind. Joe Flood and Macon Blair make one of the better complementing tag-teams that I have seen in comics in a good time. It know that it is a crime story set in Hell, but still tries to incorporate other plot elements to make something more than just what is on the surface.
Cons: Hellcity has perhaps some of the clumsiest dialog I have ever read. Befitting an old style detective, Bill’s inner (I swore that I would avoid this word) hard-boiled monolog is filled with over- blown retellings of his current state of running from suit wearing goons. They reminded me more of jokes that sound funnier in your head, but sound confusing and sloppy when they leave your mouth. Those plot elements mentioned earlier seemed to burn away by the end with an ending that wraps everything up, but cannot help itself from feeling one step above a rushed Looney Tunes style “That’s All Folks” closing theme.
The release of Hellcity that I have has by far the best complete collection title maybe ever, Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing. See, this Image Comics release contains all three volumes, including the first volume that was originally put out by publisher Gigantic Graphic Novels, and final two that has until now not seen a print release. In a slue of coolness, one can even find self released signed copies here. To put it simply, Hellcity is the perfect blend of involving crime fiction with an underworld setting that receives my highest level of recommendation. Comics should be able to stay a cool place if we continue to see fantastic titles like Hellcity in our future.