In my quest to read more graphic novels, I was really excited to get my hands on Her Infernal Descent, a modernized retelling of the Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, my excitement for the novel started and ended with the premise.
Let’s get into it.
The Run Down
Her Infernal Descent follows mother and wife, Lynn, after the accidental deaths of her husband and children. Visited in the depths of depression by the spirit of William Blake—a call back to Dante’s visitation and guidance by the poet Virgil—Lynn descends through the layers of hell on a quest to retrieve her family’s souls. She encounters the prolific Judge K who turns out to be Franz Kafka, the great beast Cerberus with five heads instead of three, and the lord of hell himself along the way in her journey to bring her family back.
The Nitty Gritty
The largest issue I had with this graphic novel was that it was a premise, and little more. It was hard to find investment in Lynn’s story—and part of the reason that I was drawn to this graphic novel in the first place was the promise of an emotional journey. After all, what’s more evoking of heart-wrenching emotion than a mother literally plummeting through the circles of hell for her family?
Her Infernal Descent, however, doesn’t deliver on this. It doesn’t deliver on much, if I’m honest, aside from the general idea that this is a retelling of the Divine Comedy. We don’t get much of a chance to connect with Lynn and empathize with her situation, especially with how much we’re just told is supposed to be sad through interspersed sections of exposition rather than being shown through illustration. The story itself doesn’t do a lot of work to give foundation to what should be an emotional, potentially philosophical, trek through what is arguably one of the most horrific places a person could find themselves, either. Instead, what I read was more a meandering stroll through a somewhat weird landscape with the occasional horror meant to shock but not really do much else for the story as a whole.
On a less objective, structural sense, I had a lot of issues with the content’s execution. The ideas of hell and what constitutes sinning were outdated for something that ought to be a modernized version of a classic (consensual sadism and sodomy is still apparently punishable by the fires of hell, but given it’s 2019 and this was released in 2018, I’d need a better reason why than just ‘because.’) To sin implies a grievous act against nature, something that is immoral and wrong and even in the in-text attempts at explaining the hypocrisy behind this, its self-awareness doesn’t hold up with the actual lore.
The ideas that were modernized were things that I’ve already seen executed elsewhere better. For example, when Lynn encounters the circle representing gluttony, the hot take on this circle was not the consumption of food, but of media, with those confined there forced to wonder in bulbous, misshapen bodies with electronic screens for faces, reciting internet colloquialisms like SUB 4 SUB and LIKE MY POST robotically, as if no millennial has encountered being told social media is the devil.
Ha. The devil. Get it? Because they’re in hell.
Her Infernal Descent, for me, ended up being a graphic novel that felt like it was doing the most, to say the least. And the kicker is… nothing ever really happens.
We get to see each layer of hell, and a lot of Lynn’s journey is a mirror of the original journey Dante took in The Divine Comedy. The most exciting part of this was Lynn encountering Cerberus, and being made to find what would sate its hunger. Even then it felt pointless as this little side quest to feed Cerberus the famous Andy Warhol painting of Campbell’s Tomato Soup provided little to no real challenge and didn’t culminate into any character growth or insight. It’s just a thing she does, thinly sprinkled with the bare minimum commentary on consumption being a sin. She also meets Van Gogh.
Overall, there weren’t a lot of stakes that kept Lynn from her goals, and she had an incredibly easy time getting through hell to say that hell is supposed to be a laborious and unimaginable toll. Even the title, Her Infernal Descent, suggests a struggle, implies turmoil, but Lynn has none of that, aside from a few areas of exposition that I felt did a poor job of making up for there not being a dynamic storyline carrying Lynn through this graphic novel. Nothing of note happens to her to change her, she doesn’t exactly confront anything either literal or metaphorical to challenge her, and even the attempts at tying in the stages of grief as an overarching theme falls flat because in order to cycle through the stages of grief you have to change, it’s a metamorphosis of the human condition. Hell remains a spooky but overall not that threatening entity, Lucifer is comical at best and ineffectual at worst as the focal ‘antagonist’ or barrier between Lynn and her family, and Lynn gets what she wants by essentially taking a grumpy Sunday walk through hell, griping as though she’s encountered a minor inconvenience interrupting her brunch over literally struggling to get back to her family.
This isn’t even touching on why Lynn’s whole family ended up in hell in the first place, given it’s never mentioned what sins her husband and children committed in order to get sent downstairs. (And it would have been logical to be mentioned, given that Judge K sends souls where they belong based on their sins and meticulously keeps note of it.) Lynn even questions why her family is there, because they’re good people, and it’s never addressed. One could argue that maybe Lucifer is just an asshole (I’d believe it) but if such a concept—like the hypocrisy of the church—was going to be introduced, one would think it would actually be a part of the content, not left up to the reader to fill in the gaps.
This could have easily been a five star read for me. I love the concept of classical retellings and seeing how authors can put a modern spin on tried and true stories. Her Infernal Descent, however, felt almost like the graphic novel equivalent of a first draft: lots of good ideas (the premise, layering in the stages of grief, character designs, the overall ideas represented in each circle of hell) with lukewarm execution. I did enjoy the art style and in general, what this graphic novel attempted to do, I just wish it had been better.
This graphic novel is for you if: you’re looking to test the waters on graphic novels and looking for a light-weight starter; are interested in checking out classic retellings; enjoy unconventional protagonists; like stylized artistic gore; really enjoy William Blake because his character in this novel is prominent and speaks entirely in rhyme.