This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 7, 2014.
The opening pages of The Life After #1 reveal what a discovery the comics art of Gabo is. In establishing the tedium and routine of the boy*, Gabo manages to make a series of repeated sequences centered on mundane moments interesting. The two page spread on pages three and four reveal enough variation that readers are interested in discovering a pattern, but not so much as to make the boy’s life appear to be anything less than boring. It’s a difficult balance to strike and Gabo pulls it off perfectly.
*The central protagonist of The Life After #1 is unnamed, so for ease of reference I will refer to him as “boy” as another character does.
Gabo’s colors also do excellent work in establishing a mood for the comic. Muted blues and muddied browns are applied to construct a bland cityscape as the initial setting. Even when the setting suddenly shifts to a small town in the Old West, the colors help maintain a dullness. Not that the story is without breaks in tone. Bright reds and electric yellows are applied at moments when the boy manages to have a breakthrough and discover something interesting. The strangeness of what begins to happen to him would be cue enough that there is more to this place than tedium, but the color work helps to emphasize these shifts perfectly.
These breakthroughs are visually well constructed. When the boy sees into someone’s past life, changes in panel structure and coloring provide more than enough information for readers to understand what is occurring without needing it to be explicitly stated. These mini-stories built into the larger structure show a deft sense of moments, where a drama or dark comedy can be told in less than a page by choosing the best image for each panel. Gabo also displays an ability to construct expressive faces that display great variety and whose intents are always clear. Gabo and Joshua Hale Fialkov’s work speaks to the ability for comics to convey large amounts of information in a very limited space. The number of stories and tonal shifts contained in The Life After #1 are well worth the cover price to explore.
All of these ideas are spun around a high-concept, but one that is conveyed to the reader by the story rather than unnecessary exposition. Without having seen any outside information, I was able to deduce the central premise and location of the comic based only on the first half of the story. It’s a big idea that both Fialkov and Gabo trust their audience to understand based on their skills as storytellers. In this they absolutely succeed.
Although this first issue is well told, it doesn’t provide much sympathy for its main character which is problematic. Not even given a name, the boy’s entire life is a mystery. He is unaware of how he came to be in the afterlife and is hardly capable of defining his current existence either. This lack of definition creates a central mystery for the series, asking where he comes from, but provides little incentive to invest in the story outside of the concepts presented. Characters are generally the best source of driving drama and to have one that is so poorly defined and without motive is troublesome at best.
The ending does provide some direction for the boy to take in the appearance of Ernest Hemingway who eagerly explains the situation and what should be done next. It’s an ending that feels neither natural nor earned. It feels tacked on, as if Fialkov and Gabo realized they needed someone to drive the action forward and their main character was not up to the task. Although I like the choice to include Ernest Hemingway, his sudden appearance and immediate willingness to explain what he and the boy should do next feels jarring.
The Life After #1 presents an interesting premise and displays why it is best suited to being a comic. The story is set in a world where the unlimited budget of pencils and inks is well-suited for the imaginative capacity of Fialkov and Gabo. Gabo is a discovery for both his control of the page and expressive faces. Although there are some hiccups in the story, its presentation is excellent and worth returning to, if you find the premise exciting.