December 10, 2013

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God is Disappointed in You

Written by Mark Russell
Cartoons by Shannon Wheeler
Top Shelf Comics

In this illustrated parody, writer Mark Russell takes the entire Bible and condenses it to its pithiest elements while artist Shannon Wheeler provides New Yorker style cartoons when space allows in this book that has amazing production values but definitely overreached in its scope.

The Bible is a funny thing. No matter how religious you are as a Christian, it's highly unlikely (as Russell notes in the introduction) that you've read the entire thing. Sure, you've got the Gospels down by heart and go to Church every Sunday, but unless you're a minister, I'm betting you've probably never hit up Nahum or that Second Letter of John.

The fact is, we tend to stick to the good stuff, the things with lots of miracles, deaths, or cool quotes that even non-Christians can use to great effect.

Well, it turns out there's a reason for that. After starting off with a bang while covering Moses, Abraham, and the Founding Fathers of Judaism, it quickly becomes apparent that Russell is trying too hard to stretch to make the material funny. Given the repetition we find in the many prophets that come to tell the Jews how wrong-headed they are, it's no wonder that the jokes start to feel forced and repetitious. This was not due to reading the book in one sitting, either. I purposefully read this one a bit at a time, knowing that there was a chance that reading it as I would a graphic novel would lead to the jokes blending together.

Unfortunately, they did so anyway, and it's not for Russell's lack of working to vary the pace and style of the parody. Sometimes he does straight-up writing, following the narrative and showing just how cruel these stories are. In other cases, he makes them memos or journal entries or letters. The problem is that the gag should always be in the writing itself, not the format, and by the time we get to the end of the Old Testament, it feels like Russell is burnt out, as sick of these tales as the Jews must have been when they were told them.

We get a strong uptick for the Gospels themselves. In a really nice touch that was the highlight of the book for me, Russell actually styles his jokes and coverage for each book based on that book's theme. He skips duplicate passages and concentrates on what makes each Gospel unique, whether it's the miracles, the parables, or the history of Jesus.

It's really amazing work, and sitting apart from the overall novel would be something I'd tell you to grab without hesitation. But once we get into the many letters of Paul, we're back to the same problem as with the Prophets: There's just not enough variety in the narrative to make the parody work. Sure, Russell highlights Paul's arrogance and the other writers' attempts to mitigate that, not to mention the whole "Didn't you say Jesus was coming back soon?" thing. And those barbs fire home with great effect. But overall, it's more of the same, with the jokes missing far more often than they hit.

As though influenced by this ebb and flow of the comedy in God is Disappointed in You, Shannon Wheeler's illustrations similarly start off strong and then fall into things that, frankly, feel like stock images without any attempt to be original or clever. I realize that I do have a bias--I'm not a big fan of New Yorker-style cartoons--but even still, Wheeler is capable of far better work than we see here. (Look at how good Astounding Villain House was, for example.)

Wheeler's work with Moses is good, like when he arrives with a stack of new laws and announces to a table of tattooed, gay men dining with a sheep that he's got rules banning all of them. The subtle looks on the characters' faces and the incredibly large stack of papers that's falling all over is great comedic timing. Showing the Temple's "Grand Opening...Free Hot Dogs" is another clever touch. But when there's just men hanging out in a bar or lying against a wall that's so plain it doesn't even get sides, with a caption the only means of making it "funny," I feel like the artist is cheating. That's not providing an illustration--that's clip art.

The worst case of this is with Paul, however. Making no attempt whatever to link to the actual text, Wheeler draws a man in a prison with a beard over and over again, looking ever worse as he writes letters. That's not funny, clever, or even wry. It's phoning it in, and actually detracts more than it helps. It would have been better to leave those out, because they take away from the ones that work, like a line of reluctant naked men being told they don't have to be circumcised after all.

While I admire Russell and Wheeler's attempt here to try to turn the entire Bible into a parody, the weight of the project just buries the good parts under a ton of ho-hum artistic and not-all-that-humorous rubble. It's really hard to take on the entire Bible, whether you're serious or silly, and this work shows that in all its painfully non-funny pages. When God is Disappointed in You is on, it's really good. But there's just too much reaching for the easy joke that might amuse the right group of people. It's trying hard but just isn't up to the level of  the comedic chops of creators like Sam Henderson, Michael Kupperman, or John Hodgman.

Had this been an abridged Bible, containing only the best Books and the best sarcastic bits, it would have been a candidate for my favorites lists. As it stands, I just can't recommend it. The book's production values, which make it look exactly like my Great-Grandmother's pocket King James Bible, are amazing. Unfortunately, that's the best part of this flawed work whose flashes of promise make it a frustrating but ultimately unsatisfying read.