What you read in the Bible is not the entire story of Jesus. That’s the result of multiple efforts starting around the 2nd Century to create approved lists of Christian texts for worship, which eventually led to the 15th Century consolidation of these lists among the churches to create the Bible as we know it. That means a lot of narratives about Jesus and other stories of Biblical concern are actually left out what we know as the Christian Bible, including the Apocrypha, some of which are included in the Catholic Bible, and the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, the Book of Judas, and multiple others.
I’ve always thought of this as the creative model that large comics publishers like DC and Marvel embraced — there is canon and all the stories from the past that don’t fit into that continuity are discarded. Comics history is scattered with its own Apocrypha. So it’s only fitting that The Harrowing of Hell should find its way into the comics format.
Evan Dahm’s tale of Jesus’ descent into Hell is based on an Apocrypha-like story about Jesus that some claim has scriptural support and others reject. It originally appeared in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which dates back to probably the 4th Century, though it is written in Greek. It’s a depiction of the same story Dahm tells here in The Harrowing of Hell (which there’s also an 8th Century stage drama of), but I’m not enough of an expert to pretend that I know any difference between what is laid out in Nicodemus and what Dahm puts on the page. I will say that Nicodemus covers more than Jesus’ underground adventure, but also that from what I can tell, Dahm’s telling is pretty faithful.
It begins with the sentencing of Jesus and takes us through to his crucifixion, but rather than progress to his resurrection as all we good Christian — and former Christian — children are taught, Jesus springs forth from his resting place and enters a glowing red pit that leads him straight into Hell. The journey is basic enough — Jesus wanders, enduring taunts from the tortured residents of this barren, cavern-like nightmare. When they reveal themselves, they are humanoids with craggy giant mouths for heads, ready to escort Jesus to his destiny.
Dahm interrupts this solemn journey with some moments from Jesus’ life that speak to his difference within the world he inhabited. One digression covers his penchant for demanding mind work from his disciples rather than offering them the answers for everything, while another depicts his ability to perform miracles without guiding the recipients of them to any clear conclusion that would give him exalted credit. Dahm finishes with Jesus’ attack on the temple, clarifying his mission and giving a larger indication of the nature of the authority behind it.
Dahm manages to create a chilling mood with this piece. In black and white, with reds placed to add stark malevolence in certain places, most obviously Hell, he avoids the stereotypical crowded frenzy of a Hell packed with sinners and opts instead for a creepy Hell that brings unease instead. Rather than the full onslaught of terrorizing punishment, there’s a foreboding in this Hell, a seemingly endless tunnel within a rocky chasm, populated by creatures behind cages who embrace the darkness as their protection from the manifestation of the light.
This Jesus is a tired but determined one, one who will face whatever comes, and Dahm follows him through his preordained promenade in Hell and what transpires. The Harrowing of Hell recaptures the moody, mystical, and mythological aspects that have been long lost in Christianity, the with riveting imagery that accompanied the tales. The Harrowing of Hell presents a Christianity that is power in the same way that Greek mythology is powerful, an aspect that will probably in the end account for its endurance within western culture long past the point people take it as the gospel truth.
NOTE: Iron Circus Comics announced some printing delays caused by the Coronavirus outbreak and the current release date for The Harrowing of Hell is now May 12.