We all think we know what hell is. (Ironically, heaven is much more difficult to define or describe, as George Carlin once pointed out.) But somehow, we all seem to “get” hell. Fire, suffering, screaming — that sort of thing. Some have more metaphorical descriptions of hell that read as ironic, but on the whole, hell probably isn’t something that most people have devoted a great deal of thought to describing. But Necropolitan clearly reflects a long, measured consideration of hell and contains some surprising twists and establishes a place that not only fits nicely within the dystopian sci-fi/fantasy genre, but brings up interesting points about the moral laws of the universe and how they intersect with the laws of people. Some people, for example, thrive in hell. Most don’t — but is that so different from earth? Necropolitan coveys the ironic suggestion that the worst thing about hell are the people you meet there, and the way society is organized, which closely resembles our own.
This comic borrows some tropes from Dante, some from Bruegel and adds a generous and welcome dose of black humour. Jack the Ripper, for example, who features prominently, comes across as something of a New York wiseguy, and Elizabeth Bathory (our other serial killer “host” in this first issue) as a more cynical, serious-minded maniac. This first issue is concerned with establishing the world, and its many rules, because this hell is a place replete with social order, and learning about it must take precedence over jumping right into a narrative arc.
Our “fish out of water” protagonist is Mark Hernandez, in hell for being a multiple murderer under the name “Kraigslist Killer”. Mark considers himself innocent of murder, because his victims were all criminals and rapists themselves (he also killed people as a soldier during the Iraq war). But he’s no Dexter, killing to satisfy a deep primal urge; Mark was taking revenge for the murder of his daughter. For those reasons, he thinks he’s in hell as part of a terrible oversight and mistake. Such moral justification cuts little ice with Jack the Ripper, who immediately claims the same reason for his crimes (“fucking whores”). Right away, we’re challenged to think about what murder is, and the reasons people produce for it. If the universe is indeed ordered, if murder is indeed a mortal sin, then claiming that circumstances make all the difference is a bit weak. Mark is in hell, and he’s a murderer, and this issue is about him accepting that fact.
The bulk of the issue consists of Jack and Elizabeth taking Mark on a “tour” of his new home. Mark’s first impression is that, aside from some grotesque elements (his “birth” scene is ripped right out of the medieval carnival), it’s not that different from earth. Mark is given a “halo” that elevates his status above the lowest of the low in hell, who toil day and night to mine for diamonds or are used for some other sick purpose by the higher-ranking residents. That makes the halo a prized commodity that people will kill for. As Elizabeth puts it, “That gives everyone an incentive to lie to you. To ruin you. It’s a system designed to make monsters out of people.” He’s led through palaces, where Roman Emperors and Empresses indulge in every form of decadence they did on earth, taken to new heights of debauchery. The nominal leader, at least in this part of hell, is Nero himself, in all his glory, torturing people for his own amusement and keeping dozens of slaves. Satan himself is rumoured to be “away” at the moment, having designed the halo system on a whim, but he got bored and left. (God, for his part, is dismissed as a “rumour”.)
As a serial killer, Mark gets more privileges than most, including a private cell in Bathory’s castle, and he’s offered things that should appeal to him, but don’t. Mark has been able, during his life, to justify everything he’s done, and the key point made here in issue #1 of Necropolitan is that all of that justification doesn’t matter. Rules are rules. The laws of the universe make no exceptions. The irony runs very deep indeed: if Mark had just killed one person, or done so in the heat of the moment, rather than committing a considered series of murders on a select few victims, he would be probably be toiling in the mines. But since he took a methodical approach to his killing, he’s elevated to a rank in hell reserved for true psychopaths, in whose company he is now doomed to spend the rest of his existence.
Written by Mike Phillips and Julian Darius, and illustrated by Steven Legge in a cartoonish style that lends itself effectively to the grotesque splendour (if this comic had been drawn more realistically, it would be repulsive rather than intriguing), Necropolitan opens many doors to many stories in this first issue. Fans of thoughtful, intelligent, darkly humorous books such as The Goddamned, Southern Bastards and Lake of Fire will find much to love here.
[Full disclosure: Mike Phillips is the Editor-in-Chief of Sequart and Julian Darius is the President, Founder and Publisher of the organization. Which makes them both my boss, a fact which should be taken into consideration when reading this review.]