A story is a powerful concept. If enough people believe in a particular story, it can alter the way we perceive reality. “Testament,” a new ongoing series from Vertigo set to premier in December– by writer Douglas Rushkoff and artist Liam Sharpe– explores the effects a story can have on society. CBR News spoke to Rushkoff about the series, which uses biblical parallels to examine the fight for freedom in a future society.
Rushkoff’s interest in stories and the way they can influence reality deepened with the rise of the cyber phenomenon and hacking. “The question of the era seemed to be, ‘How much of our reality is programmable? Redesignable? Up for grabs?'” Rushkoff told CBR News. “The newfound power of coding, hacking, and computing threatened a lot of established institutions.”
His exploration of the idea of an open source reality and his Jewish background lead Rushkoff to examine the sacred texts of Judaism. “As I explored the Jewish texts– Torah, really, and the rest of the Bible– I saw that it was really saying close to the opposite of what most of us think it’s saying,” Rushkoff said. “There’s a lot of Bible-thumping going on these days– in Judaism and Christianity alike. And it has left the impression that it’s some sort of book of rules to follow, tenets to believe in and historical events to set in stone. Where it’s actually the story of a revolution– both of a bunch of people, and of human consciousness. It’s a proposition for an open source reality and a set of guidelines for how to break the news to real people who love to believe in idols.”
Rushkoff tried to communicate his findings in his book “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism.” “I got blacklisted by some Jewish groups who never even read the book– just reviews of the book,” Rushkoff stated. “I learned early on in life that if you have something that might be truly dangerous to say, say it in comics. The other advantage to comics is that you can tell more than one story at a time. It’s a sequential narrative, so it lets you communicate between the frames, in the gaps, as well as by relating frames to one another.
“So I did a little series in ‘BPM’ magazine– it was originally intended as a 500-page epic, but when Disinfo agreed to publish it in 112, I condensed it considerably, and to the story’s detriment,” Rushkoff explained. “Still, it allowed me to do some interviews in comics journals, through which sent up the flare that I really wanted to do some comics through Marvel or DC. Then [Vertigo Editor] Jonathan Vankin called, and I made the pitch.”
“Testament” is set in three different times and places. “Most simply stated, it takes place in a near future where things have gone a bit further in the direction they’re already going,” Rushkoff said. “The Gulf War has expanded, the draft has been implemented, the economy has crashed. We’re in the New York area– mostly Brooklyn to start— with a group of draft-dodgers who are trying to change things.
“But their adventures have all happened before– or are happening simultaneously, depending how you look at it– played out by characters in the Bible. So there’s parallel action happening in Bible time, which is kind of like 1100 BC and all, but I don’t see bible time as historical, so it’s more like myth-time. And, like Torah, time is all screwy in there, anyway. Torah doesn’t happen quite in order and events resonate with other ones centuries before or after. Something happening in one century can either trigger or justify things happening in another.
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“Then there’s a third space, the space of the gods. They exist outside linear time, so they’re not allowed into the frames of the comic,” Rushkoff continued. “At least not in their embodied form. If they try to stick their hand in a frame, it ends up becoming flame or smoke or whatever element over which they can exert influence.”
The protagonist of “Testament” is Jake Stern, who Rushkoff said is the son of two “hyper-smart” people– a Jewish bioengineer and a French psychologist. “He was raised in France as a boy, mostly by his mom, and then moved to the US as his parents got back together. He became a psychology student and– thanks to the fact that no one can really afford to pay for college anymore– has to go to the school where his parents are professors and researchers.
“All this gets screwed up by the draft,” Rushkoff continued. “Jake ends up with his former high school posse, operating in a ‘cell’ of resistance against the draft and the forces behind it. Jake’s a bit unique in that, unlike most American kids, he wasn’t implanted with an RFID locator tag. The French weren’t into that.”
Jake is also part of the biblical parallels found in “Testament.” “He ends up playing Jacob in the Bible– and a number of other characters, just as all the other people do,” Rushkoff explained. “What Jake wants is for people to be free of the demons that inhibit them; he’s kind of a Jungian, which he got from his mom. He also wants to lead an adult, responsible life, but he’s still totally caught up in his sexuality, so he’s got to learn to channel that upwards a bit better.”
The first story arc of “Testament” is called “Abraham of Ur.” “It begins with the implementation of the draft in modern times, and the sacrifice of sons to Molloch (the god people believed in before the Bible’s God came around),” Rushkoff said. “Most people don’t talk about it, but there are plenty of instances of child sacrifice in the Bible. Prior to the whole Israelite way of doing things, it was a standard practice. And whenever times get hard, you see God’s Israelites resorting to it all over again. All the prophets keep pleading with the people to stop sacrificing their kids.
“It seemed like a great way to demonstrate the premise of the book– that particular forms change, but the central behaviors and beliefs remain the same. Here we are, sacrificing our sons in the name of the Christian God against other people who are sacrificing their sons in the name of the Muslim God. (Who are the same God, of course– only the prophets are different– but no one likes to remember that part.)
“A lot of it has to do with Jake’s dad, who also plays Abraham, and his realization that so much of his work is being used against his own ethical principles,” Rushkoff continued. “This parallels the Abraham story– which is really about a reformed mercenary soldier, married to a temple priestess (or temple prostitute, depending on how you look at it), who adopts a new faceless God as his Lord, and then fights all sorts of battles on his behalf. The big one is against some giants who still pray to the goddess Astarte. And then there’s a subplot about his nephew Lot, living in Sodom, who offers his virgin daughters up to an angry mob, eventually runs away with them and has sex with them. Pretty much every Bible hero from King David to Jesus himself have this bizarre incest in their common ancestry.”
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The opening story also involves a war protest, which is actually a government trap to capture and re-educate protestors. It also chronicles Jake’s joining of the resistance cell and the opening shots of the fight for freedom.
The members of Jake’s resistance cell are part of a large and important supporting cast in “Testament.” “There’s Amos, the guy who has set up this cell. He’s something of a daredevil,” Rushkoff stated. “There’s Pig, the main hacker. Greco, an artist and propagandist. Dinah– a former tutoring student of Jake’s who has now grown up into a beautiful young novice sorceress, and Miriam– Jake’s ex-girlfriend and the girl he’s really ‘supposed’ to be with. They all play various Bible characters, whose plights parallel what’s going on for the modern characters. But– for the time being, anyway– they’re not aware of their dual selves.
“Then there’s what we’d normally think of as the ‘bad guys’– Dr. Green, who runs Brookhaven Lab, which is really a technology lab for the military,” Rushkoff said. “There’s Pierre Fallow– kind of a George Soros figure gone a bit wrong. There’s a protestor named Alec who doesn’t quite turn out to be what he seems– he ends up playing Joseph from the Bible, who is really the main reason everyone ends up in slavery (though most people don’t find this out unless they actually read the book).
“Finally there are the gods,” continued Rushkoff. “We meet Astarte and Molloch from one side, and Mechizeldek, Elijah, and even Atman on the other. The latter don’t present themselves as the ‘one true god,’ though– just his representatives.”
While it may first appear that the villains of “Testament” are played by the Gods, the out of control military and economic elite found in the story, Rushkoff says there’s more to it than just that. “I suppose the real adversaries are the human qualities in themselves that end up being manifest or exploited (depending on how you look at it) by the gods who live off these fears and desires. It’s a story, so I’ve personified the adversaries. But the real adversaries are almost always internal or projected.”
At the beginning, the biblical stories will run as a parallel narrative to the future story in “Testament.” “Eventually the lines stop moving in parallel, and that’s when everything goes a bit haywire,” Rushkoff explained. “For the first arc, I keep it all pretty much in line– but towards the end the gods become a bit surprised. I mean, that’s why the story starts where it does. Human will starts to interfere with the narrative.”
For those of you not familiar with the stories of the Bible, Rushkoff says that won’t hurt your enjoyment of “Testament.” “We get the Cecile B. Demille stuff, but we don’t generally know the stories as they were written or, better, as they were understood at the time. Out of context, a lot of Biblical action and ethics seem pretty out there. So, by telling the Bible narrative along with a modern allegory, I think I make it easier to relate to some of the stranger choices these Bible characters make. Sure, there are some inside jokes and new interpretations that people very familiar with the Bible would get a kick out of, bu first-timers will be at an advantage, in a certain way, because they won’t experience that cognitive dissonance between what they were told happened in the Bible and the narrative I’m conveying. They’ll just say, ‘Oh, cool– there were two creation stories in the Bible. I didn’t know that.'”
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A comic like “Testament” can be a tough sell. Readers on one side of the political spectrum might be opposed to or uninterested in a comic that explores biblical stories. While readers from the other side of the political spectrum might be opposed to a comic that explores and interprets biblical stories in a different way from what they believe. “Most people either like this stuff for what I see as the wrong reasons, or hate this stuff because they think those other people have a monopoly on the Bible,” Rushkoff stated. “They’ve bought the religious institutional take on what Bible is about. Kind of like buying the Microsoft version of computing, instead of the Linux version.
“Fact is, the Bible can be used as a set-in-stone sacred and unchangeable viewpoint, or it can be used as the entrance to an utterly open source perspective on reality. As I see it, these stories give people the tools they need to begin to confront life and reality in a very open, evolutionary fashion. To me, the Bible makes a case for evolution– not creationism. And it’s important that I expose people to this side of things, before they completely dismiss this stuff as irrelevant or sanctimonious.”
The tone of “Testament” reflects some of the bleakness of our current reality. “I mean, what’s the tone of today? It’s feeling like dystopian sci-fi to me,” Rushkoff said. “But all science fiction is actually optimistic on a certain level. I mean, there’s a future, and we’re still in it. That’s about as good as we can hope for, really.”
If sales permit, Rushkoff has enough material to explore to keep “Testament” going for a long time. “I’ve got a five-year storyline I’d love to play out– that would take us pretty far,” Rushkoff said. “But even after the characters liberate from one storyline, there’s always a ‘then what?’ And there are so many places for spin-offs and diversions. Each of these characters and their Biblical allegories could go a long way. Esther would make a great series; so would Ezekiel, who goes into other realms; Pharaoh deserves his own book, even if he is pretty much evil; so do the Anakim (giants) and Nephalim (alien angel creatures who have sex with earth women). It’s like an entire Kirby universe to play with.”
Rushkoff may cause some controversy with “Testament,” but that’s not his goal with the book. “It’s really just to tell a good story, and to make people think about the role of stories at the same time,” Rushkoff explained. “In a sense, the worst thing that can happen to a story is that it become a sacred truth. That’s what kills its life. I’m trying to bring the best stories I’ve ever come into contact with back into the common vernacular, where they can be resurrected– or even mined for their magic.
“The Bible is a blueprint for overcoming repression– military, political, monetary, psychological and spiritual,” Rushkoff said. “This is an era where access to such tools and knowledge should be encouraged. If people were to get 1/10th as turned on by what I’m writing as I was by Kirby’s ‘Eternals’, I’ll have unleashed some really powerful thought viruses into the noosphere.”
[Editor’s Note: For more with Rushkoff, check out our September, 2004 interview with the writer.]