A review a day: The God Machine volume 1

I read a preview of this a while back, and now here's the full novel!

Chandra Free's God Machine, the first volume, is a strange beast. I admire it more than I like it, mainly because of Free's idiosyncratic art, which blends cutesy and horror manga styles with a Goth sensibility to make the book a truly unique-looking piece of work. On the other hand, there's the story, which doesn't hold up terribly well. Such is life, eh? The God Machine, by the way, is $24.95 and comes to us from Archaia. They were nice enough to send it to me scot-free, because they're keen.

Free's problem with the writing is that she shifts wildly between tones, often so abruptly that the reader is unclear if we're supposed to take the book seriously or not. Many people don't have a problem with this, but I do - not because something serious can't have humor in it, but because it makes the characters less like real people and more like devices that shift moods simply because Free wants to surprise us.

The overall plot of the book is serious - teenager Guy Salvatore is down in the dumps because his girlfriend, Sith, has died recently. Over the course of this volume, Guy begins to doubt that she's really dead, though, and his quest for answers forms the crux of the book. Guy, meanwhile, is being watched by a trio of "gods" - Good God, Evil God, and Limbo God - who are very keen to find out why he can see them occasionally. Guy appears to be far more than just a morose teen. Satan shows up briefly, too, so there's that. Guy seems to be capable of disrupting the natural order of the universe, so he's in danger from those whose job it is to maintain that order, and Good God wants to figure out what his deal is.

It's not a terrible plot, and while a death is at the heart of it (or at least an apparent death), there's no reason why it has to be weighed down with gloom for it to work. Free does a decent job of showing how Guy views the universe, as he keeps hallucinating throughout the book, either because he's so depressed or because of his odd connection to the order of things. The nasty creatures he sees in his visions are rude imps, which is fine, as they provide a necessary measure of comic relief. Up in the ethereal realms, Good God's earnestness is offset by Evil God's snottiness, and they balance each other well. Guy hangs out with his Goth friends, and it's here that the tone seems off - Free, a self-styled Goth herself, mercilessly mocks Goths and their entire scene, which makes it very difficult to care about the characters who are, ostensibly, at the center of the book. Even Guy, who has suffered a loss, comes under some mocking scrutiny by the author, and it's difficult to figure out exactly how Free feels about her characters. She doesn't do an excellent job making them real, and by tearing them down almost incessantly, she distances both herself and the reader from the subject matter.

The God Machine feels like satire, but it also feels like Free didn't intend for it to actually be satire, so the humor feels wildly misplaced. The writing is extremely melodramatic, too, so the characters go from sedate to hyper in an instant, which also helps rob the scenes of any drama and makes the book feel more aimlessly satirical. Guy and his friends might have an excuse - they're teenagers, slaves to their hormones - but every character acts this way, and it's too jarring to be effective. It's not funny enough to be a comedy, it's not subtle enough to be a satire, it's not serious enough to be a drama, and the characters are too underdeveloped for it to be a character study. There are solid bits and pieces of all of these things, but Free always pulls back and focuses on something else, with the result the book feels like that - wildly unfocused.

Free's art is a revelation, though. I've never been a big fan of what I like to call "stereotypical manga" art (with the full knowledge that many, many manga don't look like this, before you get on my case) - large, expressive eyes, tiny or non-existent noses, goofy hair styles, impossibly thin and flexible bodies - whenever I see figures like that, I think "manga," whether that's fair or not. Free is obviously influenced by manga, but the art on The God Machine is its own animal, and it's really fun to look at this book. I still don't love the figure work, but Free shifts so delightfully from Guy's spooky visions to Good God's adorable sidekicks to the mundane high school that Guys attends, and she does it effortlessly. As much as I dislike the shifts in tone from a writing standpoint, the panels in which Guy suddenly sees something strange are often jagged and horrifying, juxtaposed nicely with the relatively "normal" panels around them. Free does a lot of good storytelling with characters' facial expressions, as she often packs pages with smaller panels of talking heads before opening up to show beautiful painted vistas. She easily changes styles from a more fluid, fine-line, soft-focus look to a rougher, more aggressive, brutal look, showing us Guy's state of mind when he imagines his teacher turning into a demon, for instance, or when the "antibodies" of order try to get to Guy.

Her colors are phenomenal, too - the book's base palette tends to be a cooler blue and brown, which is easy to contrast when something strange happens (which, of course, happens often). Free uses sickly greens and harsh reds to highlight the insanity of what's happening with Guy, and it's extremely effective. The use of paints combined with Free's often loose pencil work helps give the entire comic a strange, ethereal feel, which is certainly the point. When Free puts Guy in a psychiatrist's office, for comparison's sake, she tones the art down to a more stolid and dull look, and it helps make the scene far more depressing than the extremely odd behavior of the therapist does. As Guy slowly starts hallucinating in the office, the colors come back, making the scene more and more disturbing, the way Free wants it to be. Even if you don't like the style Free employs (and as I pointed out, I'm not a fan of the way her characters look), The God Machine shows us an artist with a lot of talent, and it's impressive to look at the way she lays out a page and tells a story.

In fact, part of my problem with the writing is that Free does such a nice job with the mood and tone shifts through the art. The writing seems like overkill, making it grate even more than it would with more sedate art. In comic books, tonal shifts are usually more effective through art, so the fact that Free is quite good at it on the art side makes it even more disappointing that she feels the need to pile it on with the script. This is a case where toning down the dialogue would be much more effective because instead of being pummeled with the oddities of the mood swings, we would feel them visually and more emotionally, making them less intellectual, which doesn't work too well. The well done art, ironically, clashes with the writing when the writing tries to do the same thing as the art is doing, and in Free's case, trying to oppose the writing to the art might have worked better.

As I flip through the book and review some of the pages, I like the art in The God Machine even more and like the writing even less. So I suppose I should stop looking at it! I can't recommend this unequivocably, but it's an interesting comic nevertheless. I don't know how many volumes Free has planned for this story, and I don't know if I'll get the next one, but Free is a fascinating talent, and definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Tomorrow: Oh, the chickens. Won't someone think of the chickens?!?!?!?

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