Review – Afterlife Inc. Volume 1: Dying to Tell

Review – Afterlife Inc. Volume 1: Dying to Tell

With the Kickstarter for Afterlife Inc. Volume 4 over halfway to it’s funding goal (hurry, the campaign ends on September 26th), I thought now would be a good time to have another read through the book that started it all and give my thoughts.

A disclaimer before we begin, I’ve met Jon Lock, the man behind the series, several times on the indie comic circuit and following several convention after parties I’m relatively confident I can call him a friend.  At the very least, we’re pals according to Facebook so I am likely to have some personal bias.

On to the review!

Afterlife Inc. follows the exploits of Jack Fortune, a now dead con-artist who saw a business opportunity.  His company, the titular Afterlife Inc., promises to make death a new beginning.  The first book introduces us to Lock’s carefully crafted world, characters and some of it’s lore through a series of short stories.

Afterlife Inc

The first of these does a fantastic job of conveying the basic premise.  By following a pilot’s death and first meeting with main character Jack, Lock gives himself a proxy, a character that the audience can project themselves into.  This allows for Jack’s explanation of death, the world of the Empyrean and the mysterious “Calamity” to feel natural instead of coming across as force fed exposition.

The remainder of the book hops across different styles, settings and formats.  For example, there’s a black and white, film noir-esque, detective story, an Alice in Wonderland tale that flicks between comic panels and full prose pages, as well as a mostly black and white, seemingly manga inspired, entry centred around Sherlock Holmes.  Through these tales, we learn more about Jack and his most trusted employees.  Initially, these stories may seem like a series of separate episodes but they are interconnected and do come together to form a larger narrative.

The graphic novel certainly proves Lock’s versatility and absolute mastery of the written word.  He does a fantastic job at adapting his writing to a number of genres whilst letting his characters’ personalities shine through with dialogue that truly gives each cast member a unique voice.  The one downside is that Afterlife Inc. Volume 1 sometimes lacks consistency, direction and identity as a result.

I’d liken it to an anthology, there’s no doubt there’s a tremendous amount of skill on display but it offers a lot of different things and there’s always going to be one or two stories that just aren’t your cup of tea.  How many tales that applies to and which ones they are will undoubtedly vary from person to person because it’s a matter of an individual’s tastes.  I’m genuinely curious as to whether Lock was trying to include something for everyone, casting a wider net to attract a larger audience, or whether it was initially written as a sample piece to submit to publishers.  Perhaps the truth is somewhere in-between?

Afterlife Inc

To bring his vision to life, Lock collaborated with a number of artists.  There’s one reoccurring artist, Ash Jackson, and a collection of guest artists, including Jerry Gaylord from Fanboys VS Zombies.  Jackson’s art is simply gorgeous and he’s not afraid to squash and stretch his figures to exaggerate motion and bring out a bouncy sense of animation.  Fuelling this further is his decision to leave in a number of his pencil lines.  There’s the potential to lose a certain sense of raw energy and motion when transitioning from pencils to inks, which is why I personally enjoy a number of artists who colour directly over their pencil work such as Joe Maduriera (Battle Chasers) and Kenneth Rocafort (Red Hood & the Outlaws).

The colouring in Jackson’s pages is also awe-inspiring.  It’s vivid and saturated, there’s a high level of contrast, yet it’s not overpowering.  There’s a delicate sense of balance that makes the page juicy and exciting without venturing into the territory of children’s cartoons.  The painted look combined with the leftover pencil lines make every page feel like it just came off the artist’s desk five minutes ago and it’s certainly the aesthetic I associate with Afterlife Inc.

Likewise, Del Borovic’s striking and confident linework and subtle use of screen tone feels like something from a professional European manga.  It reminds me of Sweatdrop Studios’ titles and TokyoPop’s annual Rising Stars of Manga anthologies.

Meanwhile, Roy Huteson Stewart provides a stunning opening page in his chapter, Silver Screen, and continues to deliver a beautiful combination of etchings and ink washes that’s so captivating you can practically smell the dank streets and back allies the story is set in.

In fact, the sole disappointment in the collection comes from Gaylord.  Whilst I enjoyed his work on Fanboys VS Zombies, I feel he wasn’t as strong here.  It’s entirely possible that I had higher expectations of him as I was already familiar with his work going in, but I have two issues with his pages.  The first concerns the lack of backgrounds.  While it’s true his story concerns Jack standing on a cliff’s edge, watching an artificial intelligence trapped in a void, shots facing Jack and his crew could still have shown more of what’s behind them.  The second problem is that Jack is noticeably off-model.  While every other artist portrays Jack as a relatively slender, mischievous, jester-like character, emphasised by his flowing and swirling red tie, Gaylord’s drawn a much stockier version that would look more at home in something like Broforce.  It’s strange as I know Gaylord to be a great artist, maybe he was just a bad fit for this particular script?

What I will praise is Lock’s ability to get extremely good results from a wide variety of artists.  It shows that Lock can work with a range of personalities and adapt to suit different workflows and preferences.  Lock’s not just a brilliant writer, he’s a damned good editor too!

Afterlife Inc

In summary, Afterlife Inc. is one of the absolute gems of the UK indie comics scene.  Lock puts out a large volume of high quality work on a regular basis, is always an absolute gentleman and it was one of his and Nich Angell’s panels that gave me the push I needed to start creating comics myself.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Go back his Kickstarter already and in the meantime, maybe I’ll start writing up reviews for a few other indie titles?