by Andy Wolverton
From a casual glance at the cover of Zander Cannon’s Heck, you might conclude that you’re in for an Indiana Jones-style tale with two guys — one of them looking a lot like a mummy — traipsing around the underworld on madcap adventures. You’d be partly right, but you’d also be in for a few surprises.
Cannon’s setup is simple enough. Upon hearing of his father’s death, Hector “Heck” Hammarskjöld returns home to settle his father’s estate. All of Heck’s buddies from high school are there, including an old flame named Amy, and Elliot, the nerdy waterboy from the football team. While all these people keep reminding Heck of his glory days as a football star, he knows those times are long gone. Even when circumstances cause you to return to your hometown, it’s not always a good idea. Heck is disappointed to learn that his dad has left him the house, a place Heck never really wanted to see again. But Heck discovers the house has a rather unique quality: it’s connected to the entrance to Hell.
It’s not long before Heck establishes a rather odd, but lucrative business: delivering messages to people in Hell. After his business is firmly established, Amy comes to Heck, hoping he can deliver a message to her deceased husband, and finds out something the husband forgot to tell Amy while he was alive. Heck and Elliot take the case, and at this point, Cannon gives us something that’s quite rare: an adventure, yes, but also a reflection on life, death, the afterlife, and more.
Cannon’s version of the underworld owes much to Dante’s Inferno, complete with the nine circles of Hell, each of which must be carefully navigated. It also helps to know what type of tortured soul you’re looking for. Murderers are placed with other murderers, liars with other liars, and so on. At least Heck has two things going for him: a map and Elliot. But the rules are much more different in the fiery abyss than they are in the real world, and it’s very easy to get in over your head.
Cannon’s art style consists of bold, fairly simple (but not simplistic) cartoonish drawings that are deceptive, leading us to believe — especially in the real-world scenes — that we’re on a light, fun adventure. Yet the simplicity of the art style in the underworld, combined with its darkness, allows the reader to imagine the unseen, filling in the gaps with his or her own imaginings of the horrors of Hell. The character Heck, however, is more defined, easily recognizable from everyone else, not only because he’s the protagonist, but also because of what Cannon puts him through. He’s a tough guy who’s suffered in both worlds, and we see the pain and anguish on his face, in his character. And while Heck is not drawn as an Everyman, we see ourselves in him and ask ourselves if we would make the same choices for the same reasons.
Heck has a lot to say about the choices we make in life and what they mean in the afterlife. Things matter. Actions have consequences. Stuff costs. Regardless of what you believe about what happens after we die, Heck will challenge you in ways that you might not expect.
Heck was born from the 144-Hour Graphic Novel Project, a Minneapolis-St. Paul endeavor that allowed writers and artists to produce a 12-page chapter in a 12-hour session once a month for a year. The project fizzled out, but Cannon didn’t let the idea for Heck die. The story eventually found its way to Double Barrel, a digital magazine where it was serialized. This black-and-white hardcover edition from Top Shelf is small (8.7 x 5.8 inches) and may get lost among the larger books at your local comic shop, but it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Be sure to get your copy of Heck as well as other books from Zander Cannon: