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Interview: THE LIFE AFTER Creator Joshua Hale Fialkov on God, Death, and Hemingway

Last week, the first issue of The Life After hit shelves from Oni Press. If you read my review, you know I was something of a fan of this afterlife fantasy from writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Gabo. The series follows Jude, a worn-down guy whose chance encounter with a pretty girl on his bus route reveals that his world isn’t what it seems.

So I was happy to ask the book’s writer about the origins of The Life After in a recent e-mail interview. In our chat, Fialkov, co-creator of The Bunker (also at Oni), talks about some of the influences for the miniseries, what it’s like writing a gun-toting, trash-talking, dead Ernest Hemingway, and how there’s a little bit of Beetlejuice and Robin Williams in Jude’s journey.

Plus, get an exclusive look at the variant cover for the second issue!

****This interview will contain some spoilers for the first issue of The Life After.****

Nerdist: What was the genesis of The Life After?

Joshua Hale Fialkov: I wanted to tell an epic adventure story. That was really the core of it. And I wanted to do it in a fantasy world that just wasn’t swords and sorcery. A place that we all fear. A place that we all understand, almost instinctively.

The series follows the adventures of Jude, an everyman who, like so many people, is stuck in the monotony of his own daily life. He wakes up at the same time every day. Goes to the same dead end job. But something happens to him in the first issue that wakes him up to the reality of his situation. And his situation is pretty surprising. Because that place he’s stuck in is the afterlife.

No matter what we believe, from atheist to born again, we have an image of the afterlife. And as someone without faith, it very quickly began to unravel. The rules and the questions and the, well, frankly, fairness of the whole thing really bugged me. And what better place to set an epic story than a place where rules are constantly shifting and changing, where there’s no such thing as safety.

Nerdist: Here, Purgatory is represented by routine – endless routine. Why does that concept of Purgatory appeal to you?

Fialkov: Well, I think each of us until we get our lives in gear, we spend much of our early adulthood in something resembling that purgatory. We’ve all had those jobs that seemingly run forever and that we all feel trapped in. We all have had times in our lives where we feel like we’re walking in infinite circles. To some degree, every hero, before they start their journey, they’re in their own version of purgatory, so, making it literal seemed like a no-brainer.

The good news for Jude – and for our readers – is that he has a guide to Purgatory. And it’s not just any guide, it’s Ernest Hemingway. Now Papa Hemingway is essential to the story I’m telling with Gabo because he’s a man of action. He can drive the narrative. And he’s also damn fun to write. He certainly brings a different tonality to the proceedings which could get a little grim otherwise, right?

Nerdist: I personally find Purgatory more frightening than the concept of hell in a way – the idea of being trapped in stasis. At the end of the day, what scares you most about whatever happens (if anything does) after we die?

Fialkov: Well, again, I suppose what would scare the shit out of me would be if I was wrong. If everything that I believed was completely wrong, and suddenly I find myself punished for simply believing the wrong thing. Not being judged unfit for actions or how I lived my life, but, y’know, for what is essentially an archaic technicality. That’s at the core of the book: that the rules are black and white, until they aren’t.

Nerdist: By the end of the first issue, it feels like the heart of Jude’s ability is empathy. And then you contrast that with the men in the control room’s lack of empathy. For you, is that some kind of moral dividing line between the divine and whatever else we might describe the other side as being?

Fialkov: That’s a smart observation. Jude definitely has an empathy that’s missing from everyone else. The fun part for me is that the empathy doesn’t extend to his own situation. He can’t quite… see who he is. But he can also see the hypocrisy. He can see the mistakes in the system, and the sheer absurdity of the rules. That’s something that we don’t see when the rules are our own. It’s something only an outsider can see.

TLA #2 COVER VARIANT 300 DPI

Exclusive The Life After #2 variant cover by Gabo

Nerdist: A lot of fiction of this type has kind of hedged the concept of god/gods/God into something unfeeling, apathetic, absent, or outright hostile. Why do you think that’s the case?

Fialkov: Because so much of what the various religious texts dictate is counter intuitive. Look, we’re taught in just about every faith that we should do unto others, and all that good stuff. And yet, the powers that be, well, don’t. They set up rules and regulations that are diametrically opposed to the idea that our higher powers are all loving, all feeling creatures. So, in order to know all, and yet still do such hard things… well, it takes a degree of stoicism, right?

Nerdist: How deep are you personally have you delved into different religious narratives about the afterlife?

Fialkov: A bit. I grew up Jewish, and spent a good amount of time in my twenties reading the various religious texts. And I’m a huge nerd for afterlife movies, from Defending Your Life to Beetlejuice and even What Dreams May Come (although the book more than the movie). Those three in particular have had the biggest influence on this story.

Nerdist: One of the key moments of the first issue is that 20-panel spread featuring Jude’s day-to-day life. Could you walk us through yours and Gabo’s process of building this sequence?

Fialkov: Well, I apologized a LOT. The first time we did it I didn’t know it was going to become a motif, but, as the book has grown, it’s become one of our favorite tools. And by “our” I mean, “my.” Gabo is just such a badass, that he manages to make these dense pages tell such beautiful, tragic little stories, flawlessly. I get to write one in every issue, and Gabo manages to just kill them each and every time.

Nerdist: Finally – what does it all mean, Joshua? (Feel free to choose your own “it”)

Fialkov: It means that we have to live in the moment, and chase love and hope and feelings. It means we need to enjoy ourselves because every moment we aren’t is the prison we’re building for ourselves. It means we have to fear those that judge us, but we don’t have to live our lives by their rules. And hopefully, it means a story that you’ll remember for a long, long time.

For Jude, it means his journey is just beginning.

For Hemingway, it means he’s found a new purpose.

For me and Gabo? It means we have a wonderful opportunity to tell risky and unusual stories and to be published by the incredibly supportive people at Oni Press. Let me tell you, it’s incredibly rewarding to have The Life After come out [through] Oni and join amazing books like Scott Pilgrim and Queen & Country and my book with Joe Infurnari, The Bunker, which comes out in trade paperback at the beginning of August. These are really personal stories that we’re telling and it means so much when they find their audience and readers reach out through Twitter and at events. Now we just want to do book club events with Hemingway fanatics.

The Life After #1 is available now from Oni Press. What do you think it all means? Let us know in the comments below.

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