Review: Hellbreak Vol. 1

Brian Churilla and Cullen Bunn’s Hellbreak is basically the Orpheus Myth if the Orpheus Myth was set up like a heist movie. As a guy who loves the Orpheus Myth and also heists (all kinds), this book was right up my alley. When one of your loved ones is possessed by a demon or otherworldly, hellish entity, you call the Kerberos Initiative. While a priest keeps the demons at bay in the world at large, the Kerberos extraction teams jump into fragments of Hell itself to rescue peoples’ souls—they bring the human soul back just as the priest casts the demon out, and everything works out like gangbusters. When the team is hired to break a man named Javier Romero out of Hell, everything goes sideways, and the team will never be the same.

For a book that is about diving below the surface of people’s exteriors and finding the things that aren’t meant to be found, the story is pretty surface level. The Orpheus Myth is told at the very beginning, and the running theme of the book is that the team will go to the very depths of Hell to rescue innocent people, but they don’t come out clean, or without their regrets. They get what they want, usually, and it always leaves a bitter taste in their mouths. The pacing of the story seems such that it was initially planned out as a miniseries: one caper, and the whole thing was over. However, the final two issues set up a lot of strife within Kerberos as well as a fundamental change in Jenner, the leader of the team, that can only be resolved when the book keeps going; they just lack a seed earlier in the narrative.

Hellbreak Vol 1Cullen Bunn is one of those writers whose work I’ve never disliked, but he’s also never written anything that’s singed my eyebrows, nothing that’s been a cathartic piece of comics. He’s a good writer, and it seems like he’s one of the busiest guys in comics, so I don’t begrudge the book its little stumble at the end. The final confrontation feels a little undercooked, and we’re not offered a whole lot of evidence for it (even as it’s happening), but it’s what had to happen to the narrative to keep it going. The imagination of the book, and the visualization of what Hell is are all great—it reminds me of that scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch where they sing about Aristotle’s story of how soulmates were two people who used to be the same person. It’s a new myth in place of one that we’re largely familiar with. His pacing of the issues before the final one are all spot on, with a hellbeast attacking every time the narrative started to slack. If I had to pick a beef with the writing, it would be that the team sometimes descends into that machismo posturing of the marines in Aliens or Dutch’s team in Predator. They talk big games, but they have tender hearts; there’s one token badass lady who puts the chauvinist in his place. But if that’s my biggest gripe, that’s not really a gripe. Like I said, this book is basically an action movie, so falling onto some action movie tropes isn’t much of a sin.

Now Churilla: Churilla is the star of this book, by leaps and bounds. His art can switch gears incredibly smoothly from a strong, line-heavy style on peoples’ figures to horrifying swirls and whorls of hellscapes. The balance between the kind of wholesome cartoon style of the main characters and the weirdness of the hellbeasts and the landscape of Hell really makes the book hit that spiritual funny bone where you can’t help but laugh in horror. It also never hurts to have Dave Stewart on colors, and he really shines in this book. I’m mostly familiar with his work on Mike Mignola’s books at Dark Horse, where he’s mostly restricted to a basic, muted palette. On Hellbreak, he really throws the chains off and throws around a lot of shadows, a lot of neon greens in unsettling spots. It’s a real treat to see.  The lettering by Crank! is good, but there was never a spot where it truly grabbed me. They do a pretty decent switch for the folks who are possessed, but the lettering as a whole never feels inspired. Meanwhile, Jared K. Fletcher slays on book design, incorporating the gothic aspect of the logo into every part of the pages he touches. The Kerberos Initiative lives in an old monastery, and cracking open this book feels like opening an illuminated manuscript. I dig it.

This book is a fun romp, it’s a good way to kill an afternoon. I didn’t feel a burning desire to rush out and pick up issues 7 & 8 (out today as well), but I wouldn’t mind checking back in on the Kerberos Initiative in another four or five months. The real downside here is that it’s a first volume trade, and it’s $20. It is 6 issues, but let’s not pretend that we haven’t all been spoiled by Image’s trade release schedule and price point. This trade was a couple months behind, and it’s twice what I’ve grown accustomed to paying, and to make me get up to twenty bucks nowadays, it has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

If you’re a fan of 1980’s horror flicks, this book is gonna be right up your alley. Touches of The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, Aliens, and Predator are all there, and they all hit just the right spots. Definitely give this book a read.

Score: 4/5

Hellbreak Vol. 1 Written by: Cullen Bunn Illustrated by: Brian Churilla Colors by: Dave Stewart Color Flats by: Alex Petretich Lettered by: Crank! Designed by: Jared K. Fletcher Publisher: Oni Press Price: $19.99 Release Date: 11/11/15 Format: Trade Paperback; Print/Digital