February 7, 2014

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God is Dead...or is he/she/it/they? Some Thoughts on Hickman's andCosta's Series

God is Dead 1-6
Written by Jonathan Hickman and Mike Costa
Illustrated by Di Amorim
Avatar Press

Like many people, I've wrestled over the years with questions of religion and belief in God. The God of my childhood is not something I can easily believe in now. So while I'm happily part of a religious community, the more theological questions: The existence of God, whether such a God could allow suffering in the world, and if this earthly plane is "all there is" are something with which I struggle from time to time. Similarly (though in a far less weighty realm), I've struggled with "God is Dead". I'm on record as saying that Jonathan Hickman is my favorite current comic book writer (I'll write a follow-up post on why at some point, but summarize it to say "huge ideas, skillfully executed, great at both big and small moments"), so I picked up "God is Dead" with the same enthusiasm with which I've approached all of his other projects over the years. But it's been a struggle, as the series feels wildly different and it's left me asking, "Am I missing something?"

God is Dead tells the story of the gods of myth and legend (Greek, Norse, Hindi, Egyptian, Mesoamerican) appearing simultaneously on earth and wreaking havoc. Every society on Earth is upended and there is mass death and destruction, as these are not peaceful deities. They are bloodthirsty, vengeful, and interested only in human subservience (if they are interested in humans at all). At the outset, the gods seem willing to act in alliance with one another, but (not surprisingly, given the way the ancient myths usually went, what with all the violence and betrayal), this pact does not hold, and the gods are at war with one another over the course of a number of issues, and the fate of human beings is of no concern. Interestingly, the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not included in this story as characters (although reference is made to them, and Zeus first reappears in a monotheistic religious location of significance). I don't blame the creators for not wanting to go there. Maybe they'll show up in future installments.

The series also follows a rag-tag group of people (mostly scientists) working underground (literally and figuratively) as they reckon with the changed world and attempt to find a way to fight against gods. Eventually they decide that their only course of action is to create their own god in order to even the odds. Because of course it's hard to imagine that ever going badly.

At the conclusion of Issue 5, Zeus has killed all the other gods (well, those that didn't kill each other) and now reigns supreme over the world. Simultaneously, three of the people we've been following are injected with "god-serum" and are transformed into gods of a sort. Issue 6 picks up these threads, as these gods battle Zeus, who has also found the scientists' secret hideout. This goes as well as you can imagine it would when human resistance meets angry god who's just finished slaying all the other gods. Finally, we get a showdown between the old gods of myth and the new gods of science. I won't spoil how it turns out, except to say that it's an interesting development. This issue felt stronger than some of the preceding ones, as the showdown between the new gods and Zeus is compelling. Additionally, the scene where Zeus confronts the remaining hidden scientist is also filled with real tension and menace.

That being said, I've found the series somewhat challenging overall. The premise is big and dramatic, so it's not a surprise that is reflected in the art. Di Amorim's work on this series has been visceral and, to my mind, somewhat overwrought. It's a significant change from Hickman's regular artists for his Image work (Nick Pitarra, Nick Dragotta, Ryan Bodenheim), as this art is a lot more violent (extremely so in a number of instances), a lot less subtle, and in a number of places, somewhat wonky (particularly in facial expressions). I understand this may be much more typical of the sort of work published by Avatar Press, which has done well for itself putting out exciting, gritty, extremely violent comics for adults. It's compelling in its own way and the action sequences are tense and very well-executed, but there's just something fundamental about it that doesn't speak to me.

The other main criticism I've had about the book is that, while it would be hard to portray the premise (ancient gods of myth return to the modern world and lay waste to it) in a subtle way, a lot of the plotting has felt somewhat obvious to me. Compared to much of Hickman's other work where it feels like there's a lot more going on beneath the surface and the interactions between characters feel laden with subtlety and multiple meanings, the story here is much more straightforward. It makes the treachery easier to see coming. We also see very little of what has happened to humanity and society, apart from our group of underground rebels (and, early on, the fate of some in the American military). That's an area about which I was left curious but like the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God, it's missing from the story.

There are aspects of God is Dead that I have enjoyed, such as the television news broadcaster, whose dramatic transformation and unraveling over the course of a number of issues is darkly funny and clever (there's an info graphic in the story regarding "what to do in the event of the apocalypse" that's absolutely hilarious). The overall story also makes for an interesting read. However, if you're approaching the story because you like East of West or Hickman's run on the Fantastic Four, just know that this is something very different from those books. A comparison that comes to mind to me (from outside of comics) is the difference between Al Pacino's performance in "The Godfather", and his performance in "The Devil's Advocate". The Devil's advocate is compelling viewing, pretty entertaining, very dramatic and intense, has a lot more yelling, and is (to be honest) kind of over-the-top. But in The Godfather, Pacino's performance comes from restraint and things lefty unsaid (seriously, he spends a lot of time in the movie just observing, so you're left curious about what he's thinking), and so in those rare moments when he loses his temper, it really means something. This book is entertaining, but I think it's more Devil's Advocate than The Godfather, and potential readers should adjust their expectations accordingly.