HEAVENLY BLUES #1 by Ben Kahn and Bruno Hidalgo
HEAVENLY BLUES #1 is a wholly unique take on a Hell-scape narrative. With surreal art, a fascinating setting, and some of the best flawed protagonists in comics, HEAVENLY BLUES #1 from Scout Comics is a must-read!
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A Vacation Through Hell
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Popular media has ruined Hell. I know, it’s hard to ruin a burning landscape of pain and torture, but storytellers have found a way. It isn’t necessarily from a misuse of the subject either. With SUPERNATURAL, SPAWN, WOLVERINE, and CONSTANTINE all dipping their toes into these deepest lava pits, it begs the question: is Hell overused in comic book stories? Before I read HEAVENLY BLUES #1, my answer would have been a resounding “yes.”

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HEAVENLY BLUES #1 comes from indie publisher Scout Comics. Written by Ben Kahn with art by Bruno Hidalgo, HEAVENLY BLUES is a millennial-era shout out to Dante’s Divine Comedy, with characters so flawed one can’t help but fall in love with them. In Kahn and Hidalgo’s vision, Hell is a place of only temporary torture. Sinners and outcasts have free rein of Hell’s landscape, bumming around bars and reliving the traumas of their former lives. But when Heaven intrudes on the freedom of Hell, can these sinners put together a divine heist?

Not Your Typical Hell-Scape

Courtesy of Scout Comics

HEAVENLY BLUES #1 opens with a bang — a businessman is gunned down in his office, but he doesn’t find his way to the pearly gates. After getting a taste of Heaven’s light, he receives his judgment: an eternity of suffering in Hell. There, this businessman meets Isaiah Jefferson, a Prohibition-era gangster. Isaiah informs this unnamed man that Hell is not the torture-scape of demons and monsters that the Good Book reports. Hell is simply goddamn boring. To pass the time, denizens of Hell like Isaiah act as the punishers for new sinners until the newbies can stand on their own two feet.

After Isaiah dumps a bucket of molten gold on the corrupt businessman, he is met by Erin Foley. This young girl has lived in Hell for centuries, since the time of Salem. After questioning Isaiah’s choice of torture, the pair retreat to a bar where they are ambushed by Barbiel Angelus. This angel of Heaven has approached these two dead thieves in Hell for one purpose. He asks them to steal from an Archangel, a task that could trap them in the divine prison of Purgatory.

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What a Wonderful Day to Die

Courtesy of Scout Comics

When I approached HEAVENLY BLUES #1, the art pulled me in immediately. Hidalgo has such a unique and surreal style, one that rarely approaches true realism. This style complements the already strange and loveable aspects of Kahn’s world. In this Hell, people suffer by living on. Their lives never “end.” Near the finish of HEAVENLY BLUES #1, Isaiah tells Erin that when a person gets sent to Purgatory, there is no escape. In his own words, “Hell’s Hell, but at least we’re free.” Hidalgo’s art style matches this sentiment, feeling gritty but consciously accessible. This isn’t Grant Morrison’s ARKHAM ASYLUM level of surreality and psychosis. Instead, this is strangeness based in reality, anchored in newspaper cartoons.

At its heart, HEAVENLY BLUES #1 is style. From the cover, featuring a jazz art rendering of Isaiah in shadow, Kahn and Hidalgo infuse their story with eccentricity. It stands out from other divine fantasy stories because it makes Hell the primary setting. The denizens of Hell create “colonies” based on the eras in which they died. The Egyptians have supposedly created a vast and beautiful Hell-Empire, while the modern sinners have built a city on a river of fire. Hell doesn’t feel like a stock photo rendition of fire and brimstone — it has its own spark of life.

It’s All in the Sin

Heavenly Blues #1
Courtesy of Scout Comics.

HEAVENLY BLUES #1 wasn’t just a success of setting or art. Its greatest success comes in the form of its characters. While Barbiel is essentially unimportant outside of pushing the plot along, Isaiah and Erin have unique personalities and an interesting connection to one another. Erin was Isaiah’s torturer when he arrived in Hell, meaning she knows all of his deepest secrets. As a result, the pair knows each other deeply and love each other like siblings. When Isaiah hesitates to accept Barbiel’s deal, Erin is the only one there to tell him to buck up and get on his feet.

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While Kahn doesn’t explore Erin’s background in this issue, a flashback presents a look at Isaiah’s past as a mobster. Isaiah was the best at the game, robbing banks around his city before one failed job cost him his life. It seems cliche, but the way Kahn explores the depths of Isaiah’s feelings of betrayal and fear of failure helps the reader understand his deeper motives.

Most importantly, these characters speak with their own unique voices. Here I find one of my few failings with the story. Erin Foley is such an interesting character, taking great joy in thinking up ways to torture new arrivals. Still, she died centuries before at the age of nine. I think her language should speak to her time, but she instead uses a modern linguistic style. While I love this nine-year-old girl swearing and taking control of the situation, I do want to know why she doesn’t hold on to her era’s speech patterns like Isaiah.

Final Thoughts on HEAVENLY BLUES #1

Kahn and Hidalgo hit it out of the park with HEAVENLY BLUES #1. The plot is a bit cliche for an opening: two outcasts are sent on a mission to steal from a being of great power. But as the opening salvo, HEAVENLY BLUES #1 has me hooked. The concept of a Hell that is not suffering but boredom is fascinating to me. Typically, stories that feature Hell as a setting are high-intensity supernatural thrillers. HEAVENLY BLUES #1 has me interested because it is a slow burn. Isaiah and Erin wholly drive this narrative, both being incredibly interesting characters.

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HEAVENLY BLUES #1 is not a perfect story, but it is damn good. If supernatural stories or didactic explorations of morality and mortality interest you, HEAVENLY BLUES is definitely a series to keep an eye on.

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