Pullbox Reviews: The Heathens #1- Probably for the best that Bill & Ted didn’t try to snag these historical figures…

When evil men and women escape from the depths of the eternal abyss, the Pirate Queen Lady Shih is sent to retrieve them. But when one of history’s most notorious killers breaks free, even she needs help. Enter the Heathens: Shih, Lucky Luciano, Bumpy Johnson, Sofia the Golden Hand, and Billy the Kid. From Hell they came to mete out a justice as dark as their own tormented souls.

From the wonderfully wretched imaginations of AfterShock horror-alum Cullen Bunn (EDEN, PIECEMEAL, DARK ARK) and Heath Amodio (SuperCLEAN), and illustrated by superstar Sami Kivelä (UNDONE BY BLOOD), in THE HEATHENS, evil meets its match – five of them, to be exact

At the height of her pirating career in the early 1800’s, Lady Shih (born Shi Yang and later known as Zheng Yi Sao) was reported to have over 400 ships and 40 to 60 thousand pirates under her command. Then after a highly successful career by pirating standards, she did what so few did in her time, negotiating a peaceful surrender for herself and her people, retiring to live a comfortable life, and finally dying peacefully at the age of 68. Still, throughout her career she’d come into conflict with multiple nations and the East India Trading Company (debatable which might have been the bigger deal), and was responsible for the deaths of more men than could be easily counted. For that, her soul was consigned to eternal damnation…

But really, with the right negotiating angle, “eternal” is a more flexible term than you might think. When the damned are able to escape, returning to the world of the living to pick up the habits that landed them in Hell to begin with, it would take a special kind of individual to track them down and return them to the pit. In the spirit of the Dirty Dozen, every now and then there’s a mission that’s just too hairy for one person to tackle. When the wicked soul known as The Ripper slips his prison to stalk the streets, Lady Shih gathers her team to rein him in.

Okay, I’m kinda past worrying about dating myself so I feel okay confessing that the first thing I thought about when I saw this Aftershock comic was a television series from the late 90’s called Brimstone. In it, dead police detective Ezekiel Stone winds up in Hell after killing the man who murdered his wife. Fifteen years later, when 113 of the most vicious demons escape from Hell, Stone makes a deal with Lucifer himself: return the souls and get a second chance at life.

In The Heathens, Cullen Bunn & Heath Amodio strike a similar cord but find a new angle from which to approach it. Where Brimstone returned its protagonist to the world a mere fifteen years after his death, the youngest souls here are Lucky Luciano and Bumpy Johnson, both gangsters active in the 1930’s. This spin throws more of a fish out of water aspect into the mix, raising the challenge factor by a significant amount when Team Heathen is thrown into the modern world. Bunn & Amodio sneak their way around insignificant hurdles like language (“No matter the language we speak, it all translates to the Language of the Dead.”) so they can focus on their characters. When you look at the pack of Alphas assembled here, you have to consider the personalities involved and the potential for clashes. Luciano and Johnson come into the story with a beef, having butted heads in life, but when you consider the cultural differences between Lady Shih & Billy the Kid the fodder for intellectual interaction is off the chart.

And all of this hasn’t even gotten us to the actual tracking of the escaped sinner.

As great as the writing is in The Heathens, it’d be a pretty lame comic book without artwork. With much of this first issue being tied up with introductions, it was important to have an artist able to work with more subtle character moments. Artist Sami Kivelä balances any lack of action by putting together great and interesting designs. Considering the cast of characters covers a Chinese pirate queen and a Russian con woman from the 1800’s, a gunslinger from the Wild American West, and a pair of 1930’s New York gangsters, those visual depictions are key. Kivelä has a knack for giving everyone involved a distinct look and staying true to that without clinging strictly to stereotypes that aren’t always on the mark (Billy the Kid wasn’t the picture of the rugged cowpoke and looked nothing like Emilio Estevez). When the violent action does happen, there’s a great fluidity and dynamic aspect that gives a sense of motion on the page. Jason Wordie lays the final piece by filling The Heathens with color and depth. Wordie also has a knack for using various kinds of light sources (moonlight, fire, artificial) to set the mood for a given scene.

Simon Bowland uses a steady hand at the lettering, holding his flourishes back for when they really count. Most notable are some great examples of sound effects being integrated into the artwork of a panel. Along with that, Bowland’s work helps with the “voice” of the characters, giving emphasis where it’s needed to impart the impression of a vocal cadence. It might not sound like a lot, but when a reader can get closer to “hearing” the characters in a story, it goes a long way toward making the subtle connections. I might be repeating myself (who am I kidding, anyone who’s read more than one of my reviews without nodding off is a total unicorn), but if you’re not clear on what makes for good lettering has probably never actually run across really bad lettering.

The Heathens hits a great balance between a promise of great action to come, in a story featuring historical figures that have often been misunderstood or inaccurately represented. I ran across it by chance, and my only true regret is that my quota for good luck might be up for the month (so much for the Powerball). This is, simply put, great storytelling from a creative team firing on all cylinders.

Final Score: 12/13

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