From the moment I first saw it as a child, the 1946 Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven as it was called in America) instilled in me a strange fascination with death. Not in the morbid sense, but with the logistics that would inevitably be a part of any agency burdened with the organization of life after death. In A Matter of Life and Death, a WWII pilot whose plane goes down is lost in the fog and the agents of heaven miss picking him up when he should have died, so he goes on living for a little while. In that time he meets an American woman and they fall in love, when the heavenly agents come to claim him he argues that now two lives will be ruined which would otherwise never have intersected. The issue is deemed complex enough to warrant a trial, one adjudicated and witnessed by the massed ranks of the dead residing in heaven. The sheer enormity of the bureaucracy involved in this one lost death is only hinted at, but the scope of it is quite fascinating.
When I read Si Spurrier and PJ Holden’s Numbercruncher I knew that I’d finally found someone just as enthralled by the administration and inhuman efficiency set forth in A Matter of Life and Death. Numbercruncher presents a story about a man so in love that he is willing to sell his soul in order to get another chance at life with his beloved. As is so often the case in these situations it doesn’t quite work out that simply. However, in a radical and refreshing departure from the norm this story is not presented from the point of view of our lovestruck young man, but instead from the perspective of the beleaguered administrative “angel” who is assigned to his case. This miserably reluctant employee of the afterlife is descriptively named “Bastard Zane” (which tells you nearly everything you need to know about this frustrated thug).
In the reality of Numbercruncher there are no heavenly choirs of angels riding chariots through the clouds to praise glory to God. Instead the great one is depicted as a cranky accountant sifting through endless piles of paperwork, subtly torturing his staff (who putter about in undignified golf carts). Spurrier’s detailed descriptions of the karmic accountant’s unrelenting halitosis and bloody-minded enforcement of the letter of the law meshes perfectly with Holden’s minutiae-filled, monochrome vision of a very grim heaven. Similarly to Powell and Pressburger in A Matter of Life and Death, Holden uses color only to denote the world of the living, with bold, rich hues implying the warmth and immediacy of the time there, contrasting it with an afterlife entirely drained of color.
Right from the start of the story, the tone is set for this behind-the-scenes look at an afterlife which seems more like the worst office job imaginable than heaven. For Bastard Zane and his colleagues there is no way out unless they can convince someone at deaths door to make a deal, thereby recruiting their own replacement. This is where our star-crossed lovers come in.
Due to the unconventional change of perspective, with Mr. Zane as our bitter protagonist (instead of merely a fly in the ointment of a typical love story), we are allowed a peek behind the curtain at his own tragic path, watching events unfold as he rales against them. In this way it is a far more entertaining and intriguing story, with the forces of heaven flailing to adjust their balance sheet in a pursuit which travels all over time and earth.
Originally, one of the most entertaining aspects of A Matter of Life and Death was the way heaven’s emissaries were presented as canny officials with a strong commitment to efficiency, instead of the usual vision of neutered angels in white robes, floating aimlessly on clouds. A Matter of Life and Death hinted at a dizzying afterlife of checks and balances, but it never quite gave us more than a glimpse of it. With Numbercruncher, Spurrier and Holden finally give us the full tour of all the officious insanity and the ultimate outcome of such an existence for those workers. The book almost feels like a contemporary second chapter to the marvelously weird story begun in the 1946 film, but this time told with brash humor and a pragmatically zen approach.
Si Spurrier and PJ Holden’s Numbercruncher is published by Titan Comics.