Obviously, as writers, storytellers or just as people, we think about death a lot, so there’s a million stories about what might come after. Afterlife fantasy has been with us for an eternity, from Paradise Lost to The Good Place. Especially in comics, where you can set your story anywhere without torpedoing the budget, we’ve explored heaven, hell, and every subdimension between the two.
But I’ve always yearned for a particular world of morbid fantasy – one set in my relatable everyday world of rainy modern Britain, but still with Death looming over it, his skeletal fingers plucking at us. We die, we resurrect, and all this grand metaphysical action washes over the grey streets, bins and car parks.
My currently-Kickstarting graphic novel Death of a Necromancer is obviously my personal contribution to the subgenre of day-to-day dying, but what other comics give me the feeling of olde Englishe mortalitye?
1. The Wicked + The Divine
One of the skillful things about Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s epic Image series, The Wicked & The Divine, is the way it sets up its pantheons of gods, working them into fun, nuanced metaphors about creation, fandom and coming of age.
And those myths are so compelling, Jamie McKelvie’s art so stylish and attractive, that you can gloss over how much it’s also about the cold dark embrace of the grave. But that’s a major factor in making this series so emotionally resonant – no amount of colourful divinity stops these characters’ heads from popping like balloons.
Not to say WicDiv is a relentless bummer - although some of the puns may get you down – but it remains one of the most notable recent comics about supernatural death stalking the streets of Britain.
2. Faith Says You
Faith Says You by Kate Brown is a crowdfunded trilogy of graphic novels, telling a story about a teenage girl stuck in a small British seaside town in the nineties, dealing with deep loss and grief, unable to find any comfort in her day-to-day life, until she meets a mysterious figure on the beach.
But it’s not a fantasy-driven story, there’s no explicit resurrections, ghostly figures or dark magic. The storytelling is intense and character-focused, and rather than a complex magic system, the haunting is more ethereal. There’s a lot left for us to feel out for ourselves.
Helped by some gorgeous art and colours, these books ground you heavily in the place and emotions. It’s unlike a lot of comics, and to be honest anything else on this list, but also one of my favourite things I read last year.
3. John Constantine: Hellblazer
The longrunning DC Comics urban-fantasy series, Hellblazer, is such an inevitable entry that I considered leaving it off the list. But no, got to give the man his due. All the boys love old JC; he’s so cool in his trenchcoat, I hope I’m as sad as him when I grow up.
And one of those masochistic teenagers was me, to be clear. But even beyond that stage, Hellblazer stuck around. Because John was also a death-dealer lurking the streets of Britain, someone who made exactly the kind of dark bargains I enjoy.
The best Hellblazer stories are always shot through with reminders that our deaths don’t happen by themselves in this class-ridden nation. The people with the power – whether it’s Constantine himself or a revolving door of politicians, posh folk and capitalists – make the deals but rarely do the dying.
The injustice is the horror.
4. A Hill To Cry Home
Many of Gareth A. Hopkins’ short abstract comics hint at a ghostly presence or deathly nothingness drifting into everyday human thoughts. He’s possibly one of the most haunted comic creators working.
Personally, A Hill To Cry Home is the one that I found most unsettling. The weird undulations of the art, changes in lettering, and dripping anger in the narration. That sparsely described final image. All that combined to sit with me for a while.
But there’s also Thunders, Not This House, Moon Puke and more, as well his excellent autobiographical graphic novel Petrichor, all floating on the strange line between us and them. Hopkins knows how keen we are to see ghosts in abstract shapes and gives us a little nudge.
5. The Little Deaths of Watson Tower
When I started making comics, back in the also-bad glory days of the late 2010s, I went towards stories about personifying or manipulating death immediately. The amount of times in any given year that I jot down ideas for a death/afterlife fantasy comic is staggering.
So it’s not a huge surprise that my first full-length comic was The Little Deaths of Watson Tower, with artist Rosie Alexander. A story about a group of kids hanging around a tower block who suddenly find themselves transformed into tiny grim reapers. Why? Because death is everywhere, especially back home.
As I say, this was my first full comic, and Rosie’s as well, and there’s rough edges in there. But looking back, I think we touched it just enough. I get the shiver, although not in a scary way. Because, crucially and pleasantly, it’s not a horror comic.
And after all those years, ambitions and discarded plans, it’s good to be moving back into the graveyard neighbourhood in 2022 with Death of a Necromancer, my new graphic novel with Robert Ahmad, David Cooper and DC Hopkins about the arrival of dark magic in a small British town.
This time we are in more horror territory, though there’s plenty of fun goth aesthetic too, a few laughs, plus more beautifully drawn chickens than most other titles on the stands. But make no mistake, it’s time to stare down the Dead Mass and make some dark bargains.
And we hope you’ll come along with us.