Yes, this is a few years old. But it’s new to someone!
Inanna’s Tears is one of those graphic novels that I always thought I should buy but I never got around to getting. Then, inexplicably, Archaia sent me a copy in the mail, which was awfully nice, so I figured I should probably read it. It’s written by Rob Vollmar and drawn by mpMann, and it carries a price tag of $19.95 for a nicely-produced hardcover. It first came out in 2007, but that’s not too old a comic to review, right?
Vollmar and Mann tell a story of Sumer of 5000 years ago, just when humanity was learning how to write.
This is a crucial moment in human history, as without writing, there is no actual history, just the daily lives of people who, when they die, leave only monuments that archaeologists must interpret. With writing, events become more concrete, if not more explicable. With writing also we get codification – oral traditions are mutable, dependent on the speaker’s memory, and while writing is also contingent on the writer’s biases, the written word remains unchanged forever and any subsequent mutations must be based off that original document. In this book, Entika, the “husband” of the goddess Inanna, is afraid when her old friend Anarin shows her his attempts at writing down a prayer. She fears this because writing is more democratic than oration – the will of Inanna can only be divined by a chosen one, who interprets the past and the present for the masses. If everything is written down, the masses can skip the intermediary and go straight to the texts. This has been true since the very beginning of the written word, and is one of the reasons the Catholic Church persecuted so strenuously those who translated the Bible into the vernacular.
Writing is not the major issue of Inanna’s Tears, but it does symbolize the greater transition that the city of Birith experiences in the course of the comic.
The priest of Inanna, the goddess of sexual love, fertility, and war (some characters forget this last one, to their regret), dies in the beginning of the book and chooses Entika, his long-time nurse, as the new “husband” to the goddess. A woman in this position is, of course, unprecedented, and it sets in motion events that lead to tragedy. Outside of Birith live the descendants of invaders who, years earlier, were given land around the city in exchange for peace. The leader of these people, Belipotash, decides that with the death of the old priest, the time is right for him to complete the conquest his ancestors began, mainly because the new lord of the city is a woman but also because Entika has not had time to consolidate her power. This conflict is at the heart of the story, as Belipotash wants to link his god, Geru, to Inanna in a sacred marriage (which will be consummated between Belipotash and Entika, representing the gods) that will, naturally, subvert Inanna’s power to his god. Entika is faced with a difficult choice, as Belipotash will spare the city and even reinstate Inanna (alongside Geru) if she agrees to his plan. Or, she can refuse, be killed, and doom her city. What to do, what to do.
Vollmar tells the story slowly and surely, taking his time to make sure we appreciate the layers of Sumerian society, the forces battling each other, and the responsibilities the high priest has toward the city. Beyond the unusual terminology for groups, it’s a fairly familiar society, with guilds demanding concessions of the priest, the priest mediating disputes among the guilds, and the fringe elements of society wanting more input into how things are done. Vollmar presents the story with very little judgment on the characters, even Belipotash, who’s as close to a comic-book villain as you’re going to get in a book set in ancient Sumer.
Belipotash uses Geru to seize power for himself and isn’t all that coy about it, but Vollmar makes it clear that the people he leads do have some grievances, and Entika’s predecessor wasn’t all that good about addressing them. The characters in the book are interesting because Vollmar gives them solid motivations and subtleties of personality – Entika is the “hero” of the story but she is also short-sighted in some ways, while Belipotash, the “villain,” knows which way the future is leading and simply tries to get ahead of it. Vollmar shows the irony inherent in the story nicely – Entika is a woman, so her elevation to leader is seen as invalid by Belipotash, who at first appears conservative. But Entika is herself conservative, attempting to adhere to an ancient tradition that may or may not fulfill the needs of all the people. Belipotash wants the woman to stay in her place, but he also recognizes that “new media” – in this case, writing on clay tablets – can shift the balance of power. While Entika wants Anarin to refrain from writing the prayers, Belipotash wants Anarin to write down a new mythology that he creates, making Inanna submissive to Geru. In this way, Belipotash believes he can control the narrative of the city’s history, and soon, people will accept his version and the “old ways” will be lost because the oral tradition will fade. Vollmar does a nice job leaving the question of which ruler is right – the ending is somewhat ambiguous, implying a great deal without stating anything outright.
Mann, unsurprisingly, does a wonderful job with the illustrations. Mann has carved out an interesting niche as the go-to artist for comics set in the Middle East, and this comic is a good example why. He has a wonderful sense of architectural design with regard to desert structures, allowing the reader to feel like they’re experiencing the way people lived centuries ago. His characters look lean and hardened, a function of desert living, and he does a good deal of research into the way people dressed in the distant past.
Mann also is a fine colorist, and this comes through nicely at certain parts of the book. Mostly, he sticks with dusty browns and oranges and maroons, but when Belipotash and Entika meet in the temple for their “marriage” (Mann points out that we would consider it ritual rape, but it’s uncertain how a priestess would feel about something like this – Entika may have accepted it as an act of erotic celebration, as Inanna was, we should recall, the goddess of sex), he colors the scene in much brighter reds and oranges, not only contrasting it with the mundane scenes of everyday life but also heightening the lurid discomfort we and even Entika feel about the ceremony. When Belipotash confronts Anarin, everything is red, suggesting violence and blood, which has drowned out all else in the comic. Mann’s pencil work is good enough, and his coloring makes the book even better. The only issue that crops up occasionally is some panels are a bit fuzzy – this happens every so often in Archaia’s books, so I assume it’s an issue with reproduction rather than Mann’s original art.
Inanna’s Tears is a gripping work that shows a society in transition and how the members of that society deal with changes. Vollmar tackles religious, social, political, and technological issues, and it’s impressive how modern the book feels even though it’s set 5000 years ago. That he manages to make this almost a thriller is quite nice, too. You might not think you’d like a story set in ancient Sumer, but Inanna’s Tears might prove you wrong!