August 2, 2017

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REVIEW: God Country

 

God Country 
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Geoff Shaw
Colors by Jason Wordie
Letters and Design by John J. Hill
Published by Image Comics

I want to tell you about God Country, but first I want to tell you about my grandfather.


My grandfather was my role model. Growing up, and into adulthood, he was exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a corporate lawyer because that's what Grandpa was. I had no idea what that meant, I just knew that if my grandfather did that, it must be good. But it wasn't just that he had been professionally successful. He was well regarded in the community, he was involved in numerous charitable and philanthropic matters, and he did all of this while being a loving husband and father and grandfather and while also being a quiet and gentle guy. In short, he was a mensch. One of my favorite memories of him was playing tennis with him when I was 18 and he was 80. He'd already had hip replacement surgery a few years earlier, but he was still kicking my ass on the tennis court. He'd been playing for decades, and while his mobility was fairly limited, he could put the ball wherever he wanted, so he had me running all the way up and down the court while he basically just stood there. My Grandpa was awesome

But age and time are relentless and unforgiving. He'd spent his final 3 years living in an almost catatonic state. He barely spoke and then eventually didn't speak at all, he was confined to a bed or a wheelchair, and I had no idea what he even knew or experienced of the world. I'd go visit and talk to him - I'd like to think he heard or understood something of what I said, but I have no idea. By the time I was 28, he was gone. And my reaction when I heard he'd finally passed? More than sadness or grief, it was just relief that his suffering was finally over. Because I'd watched this man, who was a giant to me growing up, decline into a state that seemed to me to be barely alive. There were many times I remember thinking "What's it all for? What's the purpose of keeping him alive in this state?" Like I said, relentless and unforgiving.

It's been years since my Grandpa passed away, and I hadn't thought about him that much recently (particularly his final few years), until I read the wonderful, powerful God Country, from writer Donny Cates and illustrator Geoff Shaw, with colors by Jason Wordie and letters and design from John J. Hill. God Country is doing several things and all of them really well; its a story about fighting and ultimately coming to terms with aging and loss, and seeing those you love change and ultimately fade away from you, but all the while treasuring those moments you do have with them. Oh, and it's also an epic sci-fi/fantasy story featuring a talking sword and giant cosmic gods.

The creative team behind God Country have done excellent work in setting the scale and scope of this story. It's an intimate story about one family's difficult times, but it's also imbued with the weight of Biblical presence. In the way that the story of Noah is just the story of a guy who builds a boat but is also a tale of the destruction and rebirth of humanity; God Country, from the very beginning, feels like it has the heft of a story that's at once intimate and vast. God Country begins with an appropriately Biblical quote from Cormac McCarthy, and the lush, detailed art and narration set the scene (shown above) of vast loneliness that is in the plains of West Texas.
God Country #1
God Country tells the story of Roy and Janey Quinlan and their daughter Deena. They've recently relocated from Austin back to rural West Texas so that they can take care of Roy's father Emmett who has Alzheimer's Disease. As the story begins, it's clear that Emmett has no idea who any of them are. While his memories and identity are leaving him, it is clear he is an imposing and sometimes terrifying figure. And then along comes a huge storm (again, shades of Noah), which brings an unearthly tornado to the farm. Out of the tornado emerges a monstrous demon, who's thankfully vanquished by Emmett, holding a giant mystical sword, with his memories and personality restored to the state before he was afflicted with Alzheimer's. 

The sword is called Valofax, and it's more than a mere sword, it's the God of Swords, in all battles at all places at all times, forged from the heart of a dying realm. And it talks. After killing the demon, the Quinlans are visited by Aristus, God of War, Blood and Honor (because their day hasn't already been weird enough). Aristus and Emmett speak, and Emmett conveys that he will not give up Valofax, and as the story continues, the Quinlans face further threats including Aristus' brother Balegrim, the God of Death, and eventually Emmett confronts Attum, father of Aristus and Balegrim and the ruler of a thousand realms. I wouldn't say the story has a happy ending, but I think it's a satisfying one that suits the story.

There's so many ideas and feelings that are raised in God Country, but the place I want to start is to say what kind of story this is. I love an excellent mashup story where multiple genres are brought together (such as in books like Birthright (high fantasy meets family drama), and Ghosted (crime story meets ghost story)). This is one of the most successful ones I've read, because it doesn't read like "over here is the fantasy story, and over there is the family drama". It's all one big story; Cates and team are telling a story that seamlessly blends disparate elements. 


All of these ambitious storytelling goals rest upon the art and sequential storytelling in God Country. Thankfully, this comic is just stunning and gorgeous and hugely successful in accomplishing what it feels like the creative team set out to accomplish. The lettering and design of the book (from Hill) are ominous, stylish and appealing.  It's a great-looking trade and I'm a huge fan of the strong logo for the book - powerful and Texas-sized. And within the pages of the book, Shaw and Wordie bring the story to life. I wasn't familiar with Shaw's work before reading God Country, but he's immediately in my list of people who can pull off epic storytelling while not losing sight of the humanity of all of his characters (a great list to be on). As I alluded to in regards to biblical tales (particularly those in the Book of Genesis, like Noah and the various Patriarchs and Matriarchs), those are huge stories that have had an impact across civilizations and affected the lives of millions over the course of thousands of years. But they're ultimately just stories about individual people making difficult decisions. God Country is a book that's simultaneously huge and intimate, and that's thanks in large part to the fantastic artistic storytelling.

Shaw has a detailed, grounded, exaggerated yet realistic style that really brings the characters and the story to life, in conjunction with Wordie's colors. Shaw's lush, highly detailed depictions of nature and animal life reminded me a little in early places of the work of Emma Rios.  His depiction of strong facial features, and striking eyes of the protagonists, reminded me a little of Sean Murphy.  And the pointy noses of some of the characters, and other exaggerated, angular features, reminded me a little of Matteo Scalera. All great company to be in, but Shaw's style is very much his own. This is grounded, skilled, alive sequential storytelling. This story is full of a lot of small, quiet moments, and Shaw and Wordie make those really compelling moments so that as a reader you really want to sit with these characters and feel what they're feeling. Simultaneously, there is some huge action in this story and Shaw excels in that area as well. He sells the sword combat sequences really well, as well as bringing to life the weirder aspects of the book. When Balegrim and his followers (zombies?) invade the family farm, the comic is genuinely scary and tense and action-packed. As are the scenes taking place in the far off realms in which these cosmic gods live.


Early on in the story, the art team does a great job in bringing the reader from the broad cosmic arena down to the human-level perspective. The setting feels entirely real and lived-in (due in no small part to the work of Wordie, discussed further below). From the physical backgrounds and settings, to the house and truck and the clothes worn by the characters, this feels like a fully realized world. The art team does a great job conveying the sense that the story takes place somewhere in the past, but not too far back. 

Shaw does detailed character design in regards to all of the main characters (including the cosmic gods, who look like interesting blends of science fiction and fantasy), as each of them has a distinctive look and personality. In particular, the physical contrast between Emmett and Roy is striking. Even in his confused disheveled state, Emmett is a big, burly man, and Roy is more slight, with less exaggerated features. Shaw also isn't afraid to bring to light the inherent ridiculousness of an elderly man wielding a huge sword, as he at points shows Emmett raising the huge sword, belly protruding - but I don't think he's mocking the character, I think he's just driving home the inherent contradictions in the situation. Shaw does terrific, precise work in conveying body language and facial acting. The complex, sometimes confused emotions of the characters really come across in this story, in striking detail. But when the characters are happy or emotional? You really feel that on the page, and it's hard not to empathize with those characters in those moments.

Shaw's lines are complemented perfectly with Wordie's colors. This is a dusty, lived-in world and Wordie's colors do a great job bringing that to life. Wordie's warm, atmospheric colors in regards to natural backgrounds convey that this is a wide open place, but it's not desolate, it's full of life. My sense is that some colorists would lean too heavily in this situation on bleak colors here to convey a sense of desolation, but Wordie doesn't do that. His colors convey that while sparsely populated, this is a place people call home. Similarly, Wordie's colors are a big part of how the comic successfully conveys the sense that it takes place some time in the indeterminate past. The book has a faded, slightly weathered feel to it, which works in conveying the old pickup truck and the very lived-in house where Emmett lives. But this effect is not over the top, and it's not distracting. It just provides a sense of warmth to the book which provides a timeless quality.
But it's not just a comic with gorgeous art. Cates creates an interesting dichotomy between the narration in the story, which effectively at establishing the stakes and conveys the sense that the story is big and also maybe a little distant, in the realm of myth or legend. By contrast, the dialogue is naturalistic, and Cates and company do a great job bringing the identities and voices of these distinct characters to life. They feel real to me, their motivations and reactions are understandable as human beings (or gods, as even Aristus comes across as a kind and sympathetic figure). Roy wants to be a good son, and feels a sense of duty to his father. Janey, not feeling that same sense of duty, is frustrated and resentful towards Roy for putting their family in a very difficult situation, and I think, for putting his obligations to his father ahead of his own wife and daughter. And Emmett, he makes perfect sense to me, as a man who's had his mind taken away from him only to have it returned? In that situation, a person would be desperate to hold on to what they'd regained. 

The book is full of memorable moments.  One moment in God Country that really sticks with me is when Emmett confronts the king of the gods, Attum. Emmett, not surprisingly, is willing to go to extreme lengths to keep what he has regained, and has confronted Attum. Attum mocks Emmett's situation by pointing out that he's not special. He didn't get Alzheimer's because he was cursed, and he didn't get Valofax because he was blessed. While Attum is cruel, the point stands. Good things and bad things happen to us and often there just isn't a reason, and while Attum wouldn't say this, the lesson there is probably to appreciate the blessings you have in life without thinking that the universe is either rewarding or a punishing you for anything. I'm reminded of the Rabbinic teaching, of a Rabbi that carried two slips of paper with him, one of which said "for my sake the world was created" and the other "I am but dust and ashes" - we're both unique and insignificant at once. 

I also see this story as an example of the beauty and perils of wish fulfillment. There's a tremendous amount of wish fulfillment around the idea that Emmett could wield a giant sword and his Alzheimer's would just fade away, and he could return to being the strong, vital man he once was. I would've given anything to experience just a few more moments with my Grandpa where he was himself, and where he and I could talk about the law, or the Red Sox. Or he could just beat me at tennis one more time. 

What's interesting about the wish fulfillment in this story, is that at one moment Roy and Janey are talking about Emmett (after his memory has been restored) who's kindly talking with their daughter, and Janey says she sees the appeal of Emmett as a person. Roy says, that's just it, Emmett wasn't that way when Roy was a kid, he was harder, more distant. What I find fascinating is that the Emmett that came back as a result of Valofax may not be the Emmett that was. He may be more of the Emmett as seen through rose-colored glasses, or even may be the father that Roy had wished Emmett would be. Because if you could restore someone you love, you might want to bring back the idealized version of them in your head, as opposed to how they truly were. Of course, part of that may also be due to the fact that Emmett remembers how he felt himself declining and now he's restored, and he's decided to enjoy and appreciate what he's got more than he did the first time around.
For Emmett, it's a miracle surrounded by sadness, as he remembers all over again that he's lost his wife. For Roy, is not even something he knows how to process, as this man he sees isn't even really the father he remembers. One of the most powerful moments in the story for me was when Roy was trying to understand what was happening, and he confessed to Janey that he felt that this was all his fault. The demon that tried to kill everyone, Roy believed that this was in response to his prayers that his father just be taken away. That anger and resentment towards the loved one who's now suffering and who isn't who you remember and who's become a burden to you, that desire for them to just stop being a problem for you? Which is immediately followed by feelings of guilt and self loathing for having that sort of reaction? God Country may be dealing with gods and demons, but these very natural, very real feelings are as human as they come. 

God Country does a fantastic job of bringing together both epic and intimate moments and making them work together. And what moments they are. God Country is, ultimately, a story about losing the people we love and learning to let them go, as hard as that process may be. It's also about some of the other rawer, uglier emotions often felt by those who are taking care of people in physical and mental decline. Because when you're with someone you love who's experiencing dementia or some other condition that makes them not the person they used to be, it can be a continually painful process. Here they are in front of you, looking something like the person you know. But it's not them, it doesn't feel like them. Not the person you know and love and hold in your memories. Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are cruel that way. Whether those people don't know who you are, or they're saying things that don't make any sense, it can make you feel like you need to mourn that person while they're still alive. And begin to resent them and sometimes even more ugly, difficult feelings. So, the idea that someone could return to themselves and their loved ones...well, I get the appeal of that giant sword.