This is a series that feels like it’s been a long time coming, having first been announced in December 2020. Issue # 1 will be out November 2nd and is the start of a much larger shared universe writer Charles Soule and artist Will Sliney are creating. Hell to Pay is the story of a married couple in their 30s, saddled with near-crippling debt from college, trying to do anything they can to get out from under it and finally begin the lives they imagined when they were still students; a relatable tale to be sure.
Although I should mention that in this tale, Hell is real, the college is a mysterious organization known as The Shrouded College, and the couple, Maia and Sebastian Stone, appear to have the ability to use mythological weapons, both of which are pretty cool. In fact, there’s a lot of cool in this comic. Will Sliney had the difficult task of creating a unique version of Hell, and he delivered. Part Gothic cathedral, part simple trading post, and all tortured, tentacled nightmare. The design of the demons themselves is terrifying, but names like LORD SIX-PERCENT-YEAR-OVER-YEAR-GROWTH and MASTER DIVESTITURE reinforce the transactional nature of this version of Hell and the central theme of the series. A central theme that Charles Soule isn’t subtle with, making sure the reader understands.
Hell to Pay #1 opens with Maia acting as the honey pot to attempt to ensnare a braggadocious Billionaire into revealing the location of a qurrakh, the currency of Hell that he possesses. Hundreds of years ago, 666 of these coins were brought to Earth, and 15 years before the comic opens, The Shrouded College made a deal with the Stones to retrieve 317 of them, still in circulation. This deal (doesn’t really sound like much of a deal, to be sure) the Stones made permeates every panel, coupled with Hell as a type of stock exchange for souls. There’s no denying Soule’s disdain for late-stage capitalism.
I don’t want to make it sound as though Soule’s writing is heavy-handed. It certainly doesn’t feel that way, especially with the stunning visuals by Sliney, aided by colorist Rachelle Rosenberg. This is a first issue that sets up a lot and is exposition-heavy, so it’s essential that the elements of visual storytelling are compelling and vibrant; Sliney’s work is impeccable here. In particular, the panels set in Hell. It’s brutal and visceral, yet there’s a mundanity to the transactional nature of it all. Colored by Rosenberg to be bright and fiery, there’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition as a reader where you’d wish some if it was relegated to shadow. The last element of visual storytelling, the lettering by Crank, is the final key to the pacing that elevates the story rather than bogging it down.
I hope that as the story continues, we see more of the backstory of the Stones or that we get to see them together more. If a happily married couple are your protagonists, it’s important to get that connection between them, especially if the reader is supposed to care about them and want them to be out from under this hellish debt. Although there was a flashback or two here, I was hoping for more chemistry between Maia and Sebastian. Perhaps that will come as the story progresses and we learn more of their backstory, or they are able to spend more time together in the panels. They aren’t in the same scene that isn’t a flashback until page 21 of a 28-page issue.
Soule certainly knows a thing or two about world-building and now, with Sliney, has a world that couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment of economic uncertainty disguised as an endlessly fun supernatural adventure story. Hell to Pay is certainly worth sticking around for the fights and flaming swords or to uncover the mystery of The Shrouded College, but there’s something special about getting in on the ground floor of what’s promised to be a much bigger story with this much potential.