November 11, 2015

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The Goddamned #1 - Biblical Bastards


The Goddamned #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Illustrated by r.m. Guéra
Colors by Giulia Brusco
Letters and design by Jared K. Fletcher
Edited by Sebastian Girner
Image Comics

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day, God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.

Genesis 2:1-3

The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, until every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. 

Genesis 6:5

That didn't take long, did it? For God to go from the creation of the universe (and taking a well-earned rest), to the point where the Lord decided that man was beyond saving and it was time to destroy everything and start over again. We get off on a bad foot. Pretty much the first thing that human beings ever do is to defy God, and get themselves kicked out of paradise. Now the historical veracity of the Bible is something that many people have spent a lot of time thinking about over the course of centuries but it's irrelevant for purposes of this discussion (and also not a debate that interests me), so let's assume that what happens in the Bible is true (at least for storytelling purposes). The more interesting questions are, what is the Bible actually telling us, and what might the world described in Bible have been like? It's a world so corrupt, that God, the author of all creation (and who only a few chapters earlier had looked at everything God made and said it was good) decided that this was a world not worth saving and then it was time to simply start over.  Must've been pretty terrible. 

This is the world of The Goddamned, a world of corruption, violence, sorrow and death. It is a world perfectly suited for the storytelling capabilities of Jason Aaron and r.m. Guéra, storytelling partners on Scalped (another great story filled with morally compromised characters). More recently in Southern Bastards, Aaron (along with artist Jason Latour) has been telling another tale of unholy men living in a highly compromised, grimy world.


I'm not going to say much about the plot of issue 1 of The Goddamned is it introduces some interesting characters and it's worth getting a chance to meet those characters for yourself (without spoilers). The purpose of a first issue is, I think, to get you to want to read the second issue. More generally stated, the purpose of the first issue of a comic is to set the table for the reader. If the issue establishes clearly what is the world of the story, sets the parameters, and gives you a sense for the tone and feeling and stakes of the story to come, then I would consider that to be a successful first issue. 

Given all that, without giving too much away plot-wise, The Goddamned #1 is a highly successful first issue. Above, I asked the question, what must the world have been like, what could have made the world so bad that God decided to destroy God's own creation and start over again? Thankfully, Aaron, Guéra and remarkable colorist Giulia Brusco are up to the challenge of creating a world that is clearly so horrible, so depraved, so without hope, that it must be destroyed. The stakes here are the whole world, and spoiler: it's all going to be destroyed and pretty much everyone you meet is going to die.

Guéra is a remarkable visual story teller, and along with Brusco, ably creates not only a world that is ancient and foreign, but one where death and savagery are not just a part of life, they seem to be pretty much the greater or only part of life. The character design is on point here, as the men (and consistent with the Bible, our focus seems to be mostly on men) range from unkempt to quite frightening. The design of the world is shown as one that is on its last proverbial legs. Guéra and Brusco show that this is fundamentally a world filled with violence; blood is everywhere, and given some of the characters involved this makes perfect thematic sense. The art team here is exceptional and unflinching in portraying the way in which one man kills a whole group of people; the violence is kinetic and brutal.

The first issue of Southern Bastards opens with a double page spread showing the road to Craw County, Alabama with a picture of a dog taking a dump on the side of the road. This does a lot to set the scene and the expectations for what kind of story it's going to be. Similarly, The Goddamned opens with a double page spread showing the decaying world, with dead trees, rocks dripping with blood, the skeletal remains of both man and beast, and a boy taking a piss off of the side of a rock onto the ground below (and onto what turns out to be another man who was unconscious in the dirt). Brusco's colors in this story suit the mood perfectly. It's a barren, arid, rotting world and the tans and browns of the landscape demonstrate this world, which are contrasted with the blood and piss and grime of the people living in the world.  It's not a place you'd ever want to visit, but that's a testament to how vividly the world is illustrated and colored. 

The two-page spread which begins the book (after a recitation of Genesis 6:5) tells the reader much of what you'll need to know going into The Goddamned, establishing not only the darkness of this world but also the irreverence of the storytelling. And this is an irreverent and sometimes very darkly funny story. To give you a sense of that (and as seen above), the first words that any character speaks in the story are "Holy fuck!"  The humor in this story will come from dark places, such as the realization that characters we see in the story who are ostensibly "good guys" are still people doing what we would consider to be fundamentally terrible things. There's also something funny about the choice Aaron makes to have the characters speak in a modern vernacular. While this is initially a little distracting, it makes sense as a storytelling choice. These are vulgar men who'd say vulgar, coarse things, so rather than make up swear words, it seems reasonable to use the ones we have.

Something that Aaron excels at, here and elsewhere, is taking your assumptions about what's good and what's moral and who's "righteous" and who's "evil" and completely subverting them. In stories such as Scalped and Southern Bastards, there are no simple heroes and easy villains. It doesn't even do those books justice to say that there are shades of gray; Aaron's character work is much more complex and layered than that. He has the capability to show you that a character (such as Coach Boss in Southern Bastards) is a truly awful human being, and yet he's also a man with recognizable motivations who's suffered tremendously and was once a boy with hopes and dreams.  But, the moment you get lulled into feeling bad for him, you realize what Aaron's done, as you're now in the bag for an awful guy.  That's a writer (working with fantastic artistic collaborators) working at the highest level of morally complex storytelling.

The Goddamned is an interesting contrast to the Noah graphic novel published last year by Image Comics and based on a first draft of the screenplay for the 2014 movie. I reviewed that book for Panel Patter, and it covers some of the same ground, but takes a very different approach. The Noah story had a more supernatural feel (and felt like a more internal, spiritual tale), and while it depicted an arid, wicked world, it also felt like a world that was once great and that had fallen into decay, and where true righteousness still existed.  By contrast, the world of The Goddamned feels like a world that was wicked and flawed and doomed from the outset. While that may make for a grim read, based on the first issue, it should make for some fantastic storytelling.