Heaven No Hell by Michael DeForge from Drawn & Quarterly is an anthology of stories that defy genre. DeForge has been at work for years creating graphic novels such as Big Kids giving a wild trip of a perspective on navigating adolescence. This new collection brings together seventeen stories, each incredibly different in topic, style, and message while all sharing a tone that is distinctively DeForge.
Heaven No Hell opens with “Roleplay,” a strange world straight from the Twilight Zone in which a lecturing surgeon gives increasingly bad medical advice. The reader becomes aware something is terribly wrong and then sees character after character admitting that they are only pretending at the jobs they do. Next is “No Hell,” lending itself to the collection’s title as a spirit guide describes the tiers of Heaven in a Dantean journey. Some are expectedly literary, like the Bronze Tier of infinite empty space, while others are jaw-dropping innovations like the Platinum Tier of being a piece of delicious food being eaten and enjoyed over and over again. Then comes the story “Snow Gods” describing alternate deities like the God of Insomnia and the God of Old Scents and how they affect our modern world.
Throughout Heaven No Hell, no two stories are even remotely similar. Reading the anthology in a single sitting is very much life’s box of chocolates with each bite finding an unpredictable cream filling. Stories range from teen problems of dealing with insectoid half-siblings to a substitute teacher pursuing a serial killer in her elementary class to a couple tinkering with an app to see what their kids would be like along with all the horrendous outcomes of seemingly small decisions like whether to give them plant-based diets to save the East Coast from destruction.
The artwork in Heaven No Hell is just as wide-ranging as the stories. At times, DeForge seems to be channeling Salvador Dali with surrealism that would make anyone’s mustache stand on end. At other times, DeForge uses vibrant inks and crisp line-work reminiscent of the zine era several decades ago or exaggerated caricatures in dynamic positions one might expect from Zap Comix. Other times still, DeForge presents regular square panels with rounded cartoon figures fitting of daily newspaper comics. The variety is a showcase of talent that might well trick readers into thinking it’s the work of a host of artists rather than just one.
Yet all of the stories fit together on a thematic level exploring the unknown and our strange roles in it. DeForge explores issues of morality and choice as well as adapting our identities within worlds that we can never comprehend in true depth. Rather than being hit over the head with such philosophy, however, the stories present themselves fully as entertainment. They are a joy to read and reread as the ideas hidden inside stick deep in the audience’s brains.