Yeon Sang-Ho and Choi Kyu-Seok’s manhwa, The Hellbound, tells the story of a new world phenomena, history-altering by its very nature: the confirmation of the existence of Hell.
It features hulking monstrosities that hunt people down and take them to Hell once they’ve been judged by an angel that also offers the time and date of their deaths. It’s terrifying on different levels, but where it cuts deepest is in its unwavering commitment to exploring how human behavior changes when confronted with this information. It poses questions that disturb our own sense of reality, casting doubts on whether our actions come out of the pureness of our hearts or out of self-interest in securing our place in the afterlife.
Some might recognize this manhwa for its Netflix adaptation first, which was developed by Sang-Ho, the director of the modern Korean zombie classic Train to Busan (2016). But the story doesn’t even start with the manhwa. Its origins are found in two animated shorts called The Hell (Two Kinds of Life), developed using the rotoscope technique and focusing on the same core ideas described above with certain key variations.
The manhwa comes after the animated movies and was originally published as a Webtoon comic. It was adapted so faithfully to live-action, panel for panel at times, that it can basically be taken as a fully detailed storyboard version of the story. It gives the impression that it had its sights set on becoming a six-part television series since its inception.
As it goes in the tv adaptation, The Hellbound starts with the brutal killing of a man that was damned to Hell by an angel and then sent there courtesy of a mysterious pack of creatures that appear at a specific date and time to collect the subject’s soul (mainly by beating the person to a pulp first and then burning his or her body to extract their soul from the charred remains).
People all over South Korea are trying to process the meaning of this very public horror, slowly coming to the realization that those who are visited by the angel and its monsters have a history of sinful life choices weighing them down. It’s what makes them potential marks for damnation.
A widowed detective working through the trauma of losing his wife to violent crime, a skeptical lawyer looking out for the best interests of those trying to take advantage of this new Hell business, and a shady religious leader supporting what he proclaims to be God’s work all drive the story forward in the first volume of the manhwa. They each represent a different aspect of faith, morality, and justice, offering readers various entry points into the problem of having what seems to be concrete and reliable affirmation that God exists and that he is watching us.
Sang-Ho and Kyu-Seok set up these characters as metaphors on the fragility of social structures when confronted with the idea that morality could actually be as simple as good and evil, black and white. Just how we come to an objective definition of what’s good and what’s evil is where the book’s genius truly lies.
The story features a conspiracy-obsessed internet personality that represents a group of violently fanatic youths known as the Arrowhead. This group stands to represent how dangerous digital influencers and commentators can be when they speak to a moral duty to conform to the new status quo, which involves the recognition of what the group eventually calls demonstrations of Hell. The story’s at its most frightening when it shows this brainwashed group blindly pledging their allegiance to something that’s not only unprecedented in human history but also complicated to untangle and make sense of.
In this regard, The Hellbound is a treatise on the dangers of aggressive and targeted influencing, and it mines some of society’s darkest elements in the process to tell a story that’s part mystery, part religious philosophy, and all horror. The online radicalization of younger people plays a big role in this and it sets the story on a considerably more complicated path in terms of a people’s tendency to approach big changes with a mob mentality.
Sang-Ho’s script is airtight, surgical in its focus but also interested in meaningful character development. The story is eager to engage readers with its ideas, but it doesn’t lose sight of the things that make for good storytelling. Every character struggles with a looming sense of doom, coupled with a generous helping of dread, that makes their perspective on the events vary wildly. It helps keep the story urgent and stimulating throughout.
Kyu-Seok’s art aims for a very palpable sense of realism that gets thrown around and pummeled into submission once the monsters start claiming the souls of the damned. The creature designs stand out on account of them being so unlike anything classically biblical. In fact, it’s not even clear just exactly what it is they are or which side they represent. Are they angelic servants sent from the heavens or demonic entities carrying out Hell’s orders? All the reader knows is that they are cruelly violent brutes that seem to exist only to inflict pain. Their black, tightly-wound tendril bodies leave more questions than answers in their wake, amplifying the terror they instill into an existentially rattled populace.
The Hellbound settles for nothing less than to shake its readers to their cores, all the way down to their beliefs. It’s a nerve-wracking read at points and it’s unafraid to drop readers into very uncomfortable situations to get at more serious questions about religion, social influence, and morality. It deserves to be read, consumed as a tv series, and seen as a pair of short animated movies. It’s a dark world that Sang-Ho and Kyu-Seok have crafted, one where the prospect of Hell is shaped by very human choices.
Story: Yeon Sang-Ho, Art: Choi Kyu-Seok
Story: 10 Art: 10 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Read and dust off the old Bible just in case
Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review