Heaven No Hell is a graphic novel collecting short stories by Michael DeForge. Each chapter uses multiple narrative devices—both visual and textual—to tell tales that are filled with social commentary and philosophical exploration. As is to be expected with DeForge, this book leans heavily towards the abstract. DeForge’s use of abstraction penetrates conventional theory and praxis, as it bursts apart on the page to create a colorful and meandering narrative that refuses to stay in one place.
I originally attempted to read Heaven No Hell in one sitting. This was a mistake on my part, as it thoroughly warped the way I consumed and understood the text. Certainly, this book is not a candid read—it requires a considerable amount of interpretation and reflection. By essentially ‘binge reading’ it, I became overwhelmed by everything and was unable to truly understand the work in front of me. Upon my second attempt, I spread the reading out, and it subsequently became far more enjoyable. As a complete text, Heaven No Hell comes across as a series of Aesop-like fables. Indeed, the chapters are better read separately through time. DeForge, here, offers something that one can visit and revisit repeatedly.
Everyone is going to have their own favorite chapters in Heaven No Hell. My own is ‘Album’, which follows a narrator as they look at snapshots of their mother in time. The story begins with a photo-like capture of the mother protesting in the 70s. Here, the mother is framed as a heroic and revolutionary figure—one that the narrator looks up to. However, what is notable in the picture is how the mother is turned away. As the snapshots continue, the reader realizes she is turned in every one of them. In pictures of her past as a child, in those of her future in a hospital, and in the moments near the present, her face is never fully facing the reader’s perspective.
The reader is specifically taking on the point of view of the narrator, who cannot seem to fully relate to, or be addressed by, their mother. In fact, the only instance where the two make a direct face-to-face connection is in the second snapshot. Here, the mother looks into her new-born child’s—the narrator’s—eyes. This contrasts with a later panel, in which the mother is seen kicking the narrator out the house.
‘Album’ will be relatable for anyone who has any kind of complicated relationship with a parent. It looks into the space between love and anger, and how that urge to be wanted and validated by a parental figure never quite goes away. These are feelings I frequently experience myself, and yet fail to put them adequately into words. ‘Album’ succeeds in this expression, however. There is a certain silence to the art—we as readers cannot access these photos beyond those suspended moments. We can only ‘hear’ the narrator. This makes the pictures of the future seem all the more faraway. They are not fully actualized, as they have not yet happened. When the narrator observes their mother forgiving them for “all the trouble [they’d] caused”, it feels more like a longing expectation.
Other highlights to Heaven No Hell include ‘My Darling Astronaut’ and ‘One of My Students is a Murderer…But Which?’. Both these chapters successfully use dark humor to unveil the follies of the human experience under modern capitalism. ‘New Museum’ also stipulates how the powerful would react in the age of revolution. Certainly, this tale feels incredibly appropriate, as many states continue to fail their people in a pandemic. The radical, unforgiving acts of the revolutionaries are not morally condemned nor necessarily approved of by the narrative voice in this chapter. Rather, they are simply recognized, in what comes across as a transformative act of listening.
There are a few chapters in this book that may seem less accessible to the reader. For me, ‘Snow Gods’ stood out as having little to say. When reading it, I was vaguely reminded of Maureen’s ‘Over the Moon’ performance from RENT. ‘No Hell’–the chapter from which the book is named after—also felt far less impactful than other contributions to the text.
That said, Heaven No Hell is, at its heart, interpretative. Readers will take to different pieces according to their own preferences and experiences. Moreover, with outstanding art throughout, there can be little to complain about. DeForge’s art is breathtaking. Every page of the graphic novel could be hung up in a gallery.
Michael DeForge’s Heaven No Hell is a fascinating exploration of self-subjectivity and sociality. Everything about the book is deeply personal. Whilst some chapters may seem esoteric and obscure at times, readers will surely find a part of themselves in DeForge’s use of expressionism.
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