Chip Zdarsky has become one of the most exciting writers in comics the past few years, especially during his time at Marvel where he has been writing some of the best stories we’ve seen out of Spider-Man, as well as currently doing one of the best Daredevil runs with artists Marco Chechetto and Jorge Fornés. However, having started out as an indie cartoonist and finding his big break in the Image title Sex Criminals, Zdarsky has always supported creator-owned work as is the case with his Comixology Original, AFTERLIFT, which won the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Digital Series.
Now published as a trade paperback containing supplemental material by Dark Horse, will this edition of AFTERLIFT gain a new readership?
Janice Chen may usually put up with annoying passengers as she works as a ride-share driver to escape from the clutches of her overbearing parents, but during one already-terrible day, she picks up two especially mysterious passengers. One of them is Dumu, who guides Janice through otherworldly territory. The other passenger, Suzanna, is actually dead and is escorted straight to Hell. If Janice does as she’s told to drive the two to their destination, she will be free out of the afterlife.
Based on the front cover, Afterlift looks like an extensive car chase through demonic Hell. The first issue slowly builds up to that, and by the second issue, it delivers as Janice drives away from demons who drive their own vehicles. You start to think that Zdarsky watched Mad Max and read some Ghost Rider before writing this comic. As fun as that sounds on a surface level, I wouldn’t want all five issues to be this one long chase.
Fortunately, Zdarsky changes the formula with every subsequent issue by adding new layers to the narrative. It doesn’t always work, particularly in the case of the two-dimensional demonic antagonists, but whenever we focus on the two female leads, the book finds its heart. Janice and Suzanna are flawed people who are dealing with past sins in their own way — Janice doesn’t want to confront her mistakes, while Suzanna feels like she deserves no redemption as she awaits for her hellish fate. Both have their own dilemmas that end up complementing one another, resulting in a conclusion that is surprising and moving.
In terms of thematic substance, there is even an ongoing discussion about religion, on which the book doesn’t take a firm stance for or against. As described by Dumu, every religion is both right and wrong as the afterlife is “a collision of ideas and places”. What could’ve been a throwaway moment where Janice talks about her parents who argue due to their own religious beliefs ends up being a crucial moment for Janice’s arc. It’s not always that deep, as Zdarsky maintains a sense of humor by having a pack of demons beat up the ferryman, Charon, and turns his boat into a demonic steamboat (again, Ghost Rider vibes!).
Best known for The Pitiful Human-Lizard, Toronto-based cartoonist Jason Loo makes AFTERLIFT a visually fun read with his emphasis on inking and line work, especially during thrilling car chases that mix flights of fancy. His art isn’t richly detailed, but there is enough expression in his simplified style that is enhanced by the vibrant coloring from Paris Alleyne.
While not quite the best work of Chip Zdarsky’s career, AFTERLIFT is a fun mixture of car chases and religious themes/imagery.
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