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Issue #287

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #287

Given that it’s Lent and all, the right time to contemplate these things, let me say: I’m tired of God.

In comics.

Not that I have anything against religious comics. Hell, THE LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II paid off my student loans. But, given how iconography is held suspect by many religions and particularly their more fundamentalist wings, I find the whole concept of religious comics pretty funny, especially since, at least among Christians, it’s usually the more fundamentalist sects that think they can use comics to spread their message. My amusement is scarcely tempered by the appearance of so many variations on “Super-Moses” or “Abraham The Rabbit” among their efforts. But, once upon a time, when certain types were trying to tell me and mine that our stories should emphasize messages they wanted pushed at the expense of others, my response was: if you want comics that forward your agenda, do your own damn comics. So they took my advice, can’t argue with that.

Just to be clear, I’m an atheist. It was a gradual thing, I was raised Catholic, did a lot of reading, and by the time I’d gotten through a couple hundred comparative mythology texts and seen whence most of the bits and pieces had accrued, I’d pretty much made up my mind. I’m not trying to convert anyone, I don’t write many stories that have anything to do with atheism (though I have one in mind I kind of like), and, frankly, whatever you want to believe is fine with me as long as it doesn’t entail persecution, repression, brutality, murder or metaphysical justifications for war. Not that I’m not going to mock religion – all religion; it’s all just weird cults of various sizes to me – but usually only when it’s thrown in my face and, you know, if you don’t want to be mocked, don’t try telling me I should be believing patently ridiculous things.

On the other hand.

Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve ended up with this vast collection of comics, mostly horror comics or claiming to be, involving devils, demons, angels and God. For a long time, religion in comics was, um, sacrosanct, and what there tended to be of it was either winking “miracle” stories (very popular around Xmas) or transliterated into humanist terms – “good” beats “evil” – and it was all tied in with various other “pro-social” tenets: the policeman is always your friend, the government never lies to you, do whatever your parents tell you, anyone can grow up to be president, etc. Existence as a series of clear cut, reductionist morality tales. There are still a few people, mostly inside the business, who think that’s what comics should be. Blame Marvel for what’s come since, sort of. As the Comics Code weakened and “horror heroes” were seen to be the company’s new bread and butter in the ’70s (it didn’t quite work out that way, but at least the trend lasted long enough to give us “the world’s first Jewish monster hero,” since Jewish monsters were certainly what everyone had been clamoring for) Marvel steered clear of God (except for a literal deus ex machine cameo by Jesus) but, leaving devil stand-ins Mephisto for “godly” heroes like Thor and the Silver Surfer and Satannish (I guess he was only sort of like Satan) for Dr. Strange, invoked The Devil himself as a villain in GHOST RIDER. Which led to series starring the Prince Of Evil’s hitherto unsuspected half-human offspring, SON OF SATAN, and his more evil sister, Satana. Not that Marvel was the first publisher to go this route, not quite, but it was the highest profile.

It was the first to face the logistical problems of inserting concrete Judeo-Christian figures (as opposed to standard Judeo-Christian mores) into what was until then pretty much a liberal humanist (even pantheonic) fictional universe. It was never a comfortable fit. It’s the curse of theology that you can insert God without inserting the Devil, but not the other way around: you stick Old Nick in there, you’re automatically talking about the Big Guy In The Sky as well. Later companies were mostly able to dodge Marvel’s problem mainly by dodging the whole liberal humanist thing altogether, pumping out story after story of humanity beset, knowingly or otherwise, in a war between angelic and demonic forces. Throw in a popular perception by the late ’90s that “grim’n’gritty” is where it’s at, and suddenly there are slews of comics embodying the Chaos! Comics approach: the demonic forces are the protagonists, or, more often, a usually highly buxom demonic protagonist rebelling against Satan or a stand-in as Satan rebelled against all that’s good and holy. Demonic protagonists are exceptionally useful when the focus is on guts and bloodshed, and it’s in this context that issues of creative freedom are shallowly, probably unwittingly, reflected in what amounts to tales of Luciferian rebellion.

Let’s peel away at the layers of the problem. While officially acknowledged as such by no significant Christian sect that I’m aware of, in the popular imagination the God-Devil relationship is pretty much Zoroastrian: like thousands of bad heroic fantasy novels, a war between the forces of good and evil for the souls and future of humanity. Not that there aren’t plenty of other interesting theological issues born of Christian thought, but throw these concretized concepts into a literature already obsessed with good vs. evil, and everything suddenly becomes Good vs. Evil, and usually far more simplistic than discussions of more complex issues would allow. Throw in generations now of comics writers and artists compelled to use their art to detail cosmic secrets of the universe (it was Jim Starlin who popularized that particular runaway train) they somehow managed to stumble on while living over their parents’ garage. (Mainly, I think, the cosmic secret is that if you can’t get a date you can always draw pictures of your perfect inflatable dream girl, even though, if she were real, she certainly would never give you the time of day either.) Thing is, these stories are almost universally dull; the binary viewpoint of Good vs Evil automatically rigs the game, and a rigged game is only interesting in the long term to him what rigged it. Everyone else just keeps playing in a desperate hope of somehow making their money back.

Enter Vertigo. Again, Vertigo wasn’t the first company working with any of these things, nor, perhaps, even a primary one, but much of its material does embody the whole thing, as a crowd of Vertigo talent saw fit to get into the Judeo-Christian comics shell game. The approach, far from limited to Vertigo, is embodied in HELLBLAZER‘s John Constantine, humanist reprobate magician with a cancerous heart of gold, who challenges the cosmic dominion of both sides of what’s essentially a good vs evil game. But those terms are now tainted; angels are just as merciless and ego-driven as demons, and basically just as faceless (in most comics, pretty much interchangeable demons serve the same function the Joker’s henchmen did on the old BATMAN TV show: cannon fodder), and Constantine can’t be considered “good” in any traditional sense, except when authors choose to play him that way. God himself is usually referenced as a remote, capricious bastard.

The “Vertigo approach” is basically one big mockery of the whole Christian mythology. Which, in itself (at least from my POV), there’s nothing wrong with. It’s fiction. You can broach anything in fiction. That’s what it’s there for.

But here’s what is wrong with it:

It’s candyass.

If the whole idea is that the Christian mythos is sheer bollocks – and, believe me, I can live with that – why play so much with aggrandizing it so they can tear it down? Why not just say, “Sorry, it’s all crap” and be done with it?

If you’re going to mock it, fine, go ahead and mock it. But everyone plays with a safety net. Whatever can be said about impiety in this sort of story, I’ve read virtually none that doesn’t at base acknowledge the existence of what they’re supposedly denying and position it as the way the universe really works, whether the story’s hero rebels against or in some way defeats that order or not. They might make fun of it, but it’s the arena they’re playing in, and stories almost never actually challenge that notion.

It’s been in vogue for almost 20 years now – whatever you can find in Vertigo, you can find dozens more independent comics treading the same rancid water as if, wow, this is the coolest, most original thing anybody ever thought of – and maybe it was a “cutting edge” notion once to play with Christian theology like it’s Norse mythology, but now it’s tired, and tiresome. If it’s tiresome for non-believers, I can only imagine how tiresome it is for believers.

So how about a halt to all this now? If you want to say God doesn’t exist, fine. Do a story that says it. Don’t do a story that says God exists but he’s a right wanker. It’s not the same thing. Unless you’ve got something genuinely original to say, let the Christians have God back and move on. There are more interesting things to write about.

Notes from under the floorboard:

Hmm… Megacorporation Halliburton, perhaps becoming aware that ex-CEO and current vice president Dick Cheney’s ability to shield them from prosecution for milking government coffers via the gobs of no-bid contracts the current administration had generously laid on them for “services” both at home and abroad (like in Iraw) is dwindling by the day, are moving the headquarters to the presumably friendly gulf state of Dubai. Now Marvel’s opening a supersized amusement park in Dubai… hmmm…

Those who’ve been buying the Ghost’s stance on global warming (“global warming is a natural thing, admissions standards will only hurt industry, and don’t talk to us about polar bears”) hopefully didn’t miss by former Administration environmental hack Phil Cooney‘s admission to Congress that he adjusted climate data received by the White House Council On Environmental Quality to better support the Ghost’s stance. Which strongly suggests the unmassaged data didn’t support it. Cooney, not surprisingly, has long since left public life and gone to work for Exxon. Meanwhile, you may remember Dick Cheney recently scoffed at the idea that the skyrocketing deficits the Administration has racked up might have any negative effect on the economy at all. Certainly not on his economy, anyway; KIPLINGER’S MAGAZINE, hardly a hotbed of rabid leftist thought, studied Cheney’s official financial statement and found he’s investing heavily on municipal bonds and European funds that grow more profitable as the dollar weakens. So, yeah, you can take his word that your money’s safe as houses. After all, if this country sinks into a depression under the weight of all the debt the Ghost & co. have piled up borrowing from China to pay for their little war, Cheney always has Dubai to retire to now. I hear they’ll have amusement parks there soon and everything…

Meanwhile, those upset by the guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby trial will be comforted by Fox News’ fair and balanced coverage

Another Tuesday pitifully jammed for time; Sorry for the shortish column this week. Three more months and all that changes.

One of the things I’m doing with my other time is writing articles, and if you’re interested you can go check one out at Disney Family. There’s a pane up top that rotates features. Wait until #4 comes up and click on it.

Weird TV week. As we cruise through the usual early Spring network TV slump, some new shows have risen up to fill the gap, they hope. Last week saw the FX Network’s debut of THE RICHES (Mondays, 10P), featuring the stellar Eddie Izzard and the unbearable Minnie Driver as roving gypsy conmen who use their kids as shills, fronts and blinds. I watched mainly because review after review raved about it – my appreciation of him can’t withstand my dislike of her – and all I could think the whole time was the debut played like some Fox executive was watching HBO’s BIG LOVE one night and barked into the phone, “Why don’t we have a show like this?!!” Seriously, substitute gypsies, tramps and thieves for BIG LOVE polygamists, and it’s practically the same show: family based on unacceptable social principle breaks away from rural compound controlled by intractable, dictatorial leader (who stole control from the rightful leader of the cult/clan) with propensity toward intimidation/violence and a tendency to marry off cult/clan women in whichever way will benefit him the most financially or socially, attempts to carve a place for themselves in “straight” society and a suburban lifestyle while hiding their secrets and risking discovery by the neighbors or through unwanted contact with their old lives. And while the teenage daughter (the show’s other bright spot, played by Shannon Marie Woodward) is pleased by their change in fortunes and looks forward to a total escape from the cult/clan where she was little more than a commodity of exchange, the slightly older teenage son wished to strengthen his connection to The Old Lifestyle. But whereas BIG LOVE‘s outlaw heroes have to scrape for legitimacy, THE RICHES gain it by pure happenstance, when greed-crazed gypsies chasing them in a ramshackle mobile home road race on rural backroads force off the road and into the sleep of death a newly married couple who just happen to be moving to a town where nobody has ever met them, not even when they bought a house and presto-chango! New identities for THE RICHES‘ first family of confidence games to slide right into. After dumping the bodies, of course. Any suggestion of potential, and the first episode did show some, was immediately obliterated by coming attractions that hinted of a deep paucity of imagination, especially when they teased us with the hoary storyline of the teenage boy not having the brains to know that contacting his One True Love back at the gypsy clan compound will probably lead Crazed Clan Leader to their doorstep. Having characters behave really stupidly is one thing, expecting anyone to care about characters that stupid is another. And isn’t there a Romany Anti-Defamation League out there somewhere, or does FX figure it’s their last shot at a group whose worst negative stereotypes they can blithely reaffirm, now that even middle-aged middle-class white men are protesting how they’re always the butt of jokes on TV?

Over on NBC, Thursday nights have temporarily revamped with Andy Richter’s new Conan O’Brien-produced comedy ANDY BARKER, P.I. (9:30P), about a hapless self-employed accountant who finds he has more fun solving crimes, replacing 30 ROCK in the comedy block, and Jeff Goldblum’s cop drama RAINES (10P) subbing for ER. Richter’s show is pretty funny, but much of it has the same dry-ish conceptual humor as a typical sketch on LATE NIGHT – with the same sort of relational semi-dream logic – though the scripts are well written, with throwaway bits gaining important significance later and a very good supporting cast. Enjoy it while it’s here. Goldblum looks a lot like Garry Shandling these days, and RAINES‘ premise – a murder investigator who has running Socratic dialogues with his mutable, imaginary versions of the victims – is already stretched thin almost the moment it’s introduced, but Goldblum, like James Woods’ on the timeslot’s CBS rival SHARK, is pretty much the entire reason to watch the show anyway, and, like Woods, he does keep it watchable.

Congratulations to aspiring comics writer Brendan McGinley, the first to identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as dead civilizations/cultures. Now be nice and go check out his column at Scryptic Studios. For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. There’s one hidden in today’s, but don’t let it get you down if you can’t find it. As Neil Young once pointed out, it’s only castles burning. (And, no, that’s not the clue.) Good luck.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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