From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
We’re all familiar with the “hero goes to the underworld” trope. Orpheus does it to retrieve his love. Dante does it for knowledge. Hell, even Scooby Doo has been to the gates of the damned. By now, you’d think that there would pockets of the underworld giving tourist discounts to anyone mildly heroic. But what if it wasn’t just heroes making the trip? What if jaunts to the other side were commonplace, regulated, even… a career option? In Brian Churilla and Cullen Bunn’s Hellbreak, published by the good folks at Oni Press, that is exactly the case.
Here’s how it goes: Say your loved one has come down with a bad case of demon possession. Bummer, right? But what’s worse is that now, your loved one’s soul is rotting in an abyss of the damned. Fortunately, you can call the team at Project Kerberos; an elite extraction squad that uses a combination of faith and advanced technology to hop through the veil of death. Project Kerberos will locate your loved one’s soul on the other side, use an exorcist back on Earth to get rid of the demon, and put both spirits back where they belong. For an admittedly hefty fee, you’ll have your sweetheart back, without all that head-spinning and pea-soup-vomiting. Sounds easy, right?
Well, there is a catch (c’mon, you knew there would be a catch). As it turns out, Hell isn’t just one place. In reality, there are thousands upon thousands of Hells for unlucky souls to wind up in, each with its own horrifying and deadly inhabitants. That’s why the fees are so high; hellbreaking is a scary, dangerous job. It’s also why Hellbreak is such a cool concept for a comic. Every comic publisher that’s ever existed has told stories set in Hell… but one that’s set across multiple Hells? Very few have been willing to go there.
Of course, a concept for a comic is nothing without art that can bring it to the page. In the case of Hellbreak, that horrifically fun art comes from Brian Churilla. Churilla’s Hells are each unique from one another; like Doctor Who takes viewers across the weird worlds our universe, so Project Kerberos takes us across the Hells of theirs. Though they are so different, each Hells’ design shares a fascinating grossness. Using the most repulsive of images (blood, bugs, boils), Churilla creates images from which it is impossible to look away. From its settings alone, Hellbreak is a standout among horror comics.
But for all the otherworldliness of these many Hells, Hellbreak is still a very grounded comic, due in no small part to the characters written by Cullen Bunn. Readers of this column will likely recognize Cullen Bunn for his many contributions to the genre, and his talent of finding humanity in horror comics. His writing in this book is no exception. From the first moments we meet the Project Kerberos extraction team, we get a sense of battlefield unity; these people have quite literally been to Hell and back together. Their relationships serve the dual purpose of cementing the characters to the reader and making the horror they face all the more threatening. In Hellbreak, we scare because we care.
Sadly, caring about Hellbreak comes with a downside. After six gorgeous and gory issues, the series was prematurely cancelled, ending on a heartbreaking cliffhanger. Don’t get me wrong, Hellbreak is still absolutely worth checking out. What it does with the themes of faith and loyalty are great. It’s just that its story didn’t get to reach its full potential. But who knows? We live in the age of the reboot, after all. Hellbreak might not be as damned as we think.
You can pick up Hellbreak for free as a part of ComiXology Unlimited. Once you do that, let us know what you think of the book by following us on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Discord. If you liked this column, go ahead and drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like to see spotlighted here. For more March Breaks all month-long, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.