Back in the early ’80s, Marvel started up a Graphic Novels series, releasing standalone stories and offbeat excursions in a prestige format. It took off and as is usually the case with the Big Two, DC decided to follow suit and create their own graphic novel line, starting with a couple bizarre licensed Atari comics and a Jack Kirby Fourth World adventure, none of which made any kind of splash. And then, because this was DC in the ’80s, things got really weird and the publisher kicked off a short lived but highly eclectic licensed franchise called DC Science Fiction Graphic Novels, pairing top talent with science fiction and horror stories from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Comics and pulp had intersected before, of course, but the first installment of the series, Keith Giffen’s masterful adaptation of the Robert Bloch story “Hell on Earth,” proved that DC was looking for bold reimaginings rather than straight forward adaptations. And that’s probably a big part of why the series only lasted seven issues.
Giffen is now of course best known for his co-writing on JLI, but “Hell on Earth” predates that seminal series by two years and features none of the sitcom humor that made it such a popular work. Instead, “Hell on Earth” is bleak and serious, a grim showcase for Giffen’s frequently overlooked artistic talents that has more in common with the minimalist horror Dark Horse would soon make its stock in trade than the cheeky gallows humor of the Warren magazine style that dominated ’70s comics. Done entirely on a 16 panel grid, with some pages utilizing white space in creative ways, or through the use of novel insertions, like text from articles or books, you could also make a case for “Hell on Earth” as a stylistic predecessor to Watchmen, which would hit stands the year after and have its own horror comic connection. And like Watchmen, many of the panels are in extreme close-up but when viewed from far back they make a larger image as is the case with the summoning circle in the background here:
Giffen’s linework in Hell on Earth seems to purposefully mimic the close shots and quick cuts of the most famous Bloch adaptation Psycho but the occult imagery and Giffen’s abstraction make it stand out as so much more than an homage. That intensifies the narrative of “Hell on Earth” as well, with its focus on the psychological struggle of a horror writer who is brought into a scientific study of witchcraft specifically because he is a hard edged skeptic. Though protagonist Guy Roberts is a horror novelist by trade, he has the speech and mannerisms of a noir anti-hero and the story has the structure of a detective piece, as Roberts enters into the study believing the only demons that exist are the ones inside of us but by the end is facing far more literal spirits. There is a financial incentive that motivates him to take part in what he initially believes is a ridiculous experiment, but he is also motivated by a creative dry spell, certain that regardless of what happens with the experiment, he’ll get a good story out of it.
This last narrative element is of special interest to Giffen and he integrates writerly visual motifs to communicate the exasperation Roberts feels due to his lack of inspiration. Symbols appear and fade and crumble, blank pages and bold white space claustrophobically encroach on Roberts’ perspective. When the trio of Roberts, occult professor Phillips Keith and Doctor Lily Ross accidentally summon the devil, there’s a parallel to the idea of capturing lightning in a bottle (or in this case, a glass cage) and trying to get an indefinable force that defies scientific scrutiny to work to your advantage, something creative people attempt to do on a daily basis, often to their own fatal effects.
The story also plays up the indescribable element of evil, the way it comes in many forms. When the devil first appears in the story, Giffen merely illustrates it as two ominous eyes peeking out from fire and brimstone. When the team captures it, they all disagree over what the devil actually looks like, with Roberts eventually coming to the realization that evil takes on whatever form we imagine in our heads, preying on our fears and superstitions:
Without human minds to bring it to life, the spark of inspiration is formless, incapable of blossoming into a fiery force and one of Giffen’s most remarkable achievements in this work is the middle ground he finds between malleable abstraction and highly specific imagery, communicating and commenting on that formless aspect of evil and imagination. The ending of “Hell on Earth” takes on this concept more literally, as the group is seduced one by one by the devil before Roberts must face it alone, attempting to send it back to hell through a number of ultimately useless methods before finally realizing that what the devil is most susceptible to is the notion that it isn’t an actual force, but imagination personified, a creation of man meant to give a face to the darkness.
As the comic builds to this point, Giffen’s art becomes far more abstract, with some pages consisting almost entirely of bursts of color and text and barely discernible symbols. It’s a powerful expression that stands in heavy contrast to the more grotesquely detailed, monstrous horror works that DC was publishing at the time, like Swamp Thing, more rhythmic than romantic, not as concerned with finding the humanity in monsters as in finding the monsters in every human. That’s a common theme in horror works but “Hell on Earth” is particularly unique in its presentation, fearlessly stylized and stark, withholding tremendous amounts of visual info that other works would make more explicit.
Like a lot of DC’s boldest material in the ’80s, “Hell on Earth” never really got its due probably in part because of how ahead of its time its narrative and visual elements were. A lot of the abstraction in the novella is in line with what would be seen in Doom Patrol a few years later, and also in the darker alt-comix that would emerge in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That lack of oversaturation could be part of why Keith Giffen’s “Hell on Earth” still seems so fresh and invigorating, making it a curious artifact of a horror revolution in comics that could have been.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover