Noah (the graphic novel)

Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Illustrated by Niko Henrichon and Nicolas Senegas
Image Comics

[Editor's Note: This review was originally published in 2014. Image Comics no longer publishes this graphic novel]

The Biblical story of Noah, of the instruction by God to build an ark, and to load on two of every kind of animal, is one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. Even if you're not particularly religiously literate, you'll probably think of something like this:

"The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, God said to Noah, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth. Make yourself an ark...", Genesis 6:11-14

Or (if you went to Sunday School) this:

"He called for the animals, 
They came in by twosie, twosies
He called for the animals,
They came in by twosie, twosies
Elephants and kangaroosie, roosies
Children of The Lord", Rise and Shine

Noah (the graphic novel), is neither a faithful adaptation of the Biblical story, nor is it a children's tale. Strictly speaking, it is an adaptation of the first draft of the screenplay of Noah (the movie), written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, based (loosely) on the Biblical story of Noah. This is a creative and ambitious book, which attempts to fill in a number of the gaps in and expand upon the Biblical story (which is pretty bare-bones) and wrestle with what the decisions undertaken in that story would have meant (and felt like) to the people living around Noah and his family.
The look and feel of this story is visually striking, starting with the sky, all the way down to the ground. Niko Henrichon and Nicolas Senegas make everything in the sky far larger than in a "real" sky; it feels like this takes place in a time that is much closer to the time of creation, when all the heavenly bodies were still bunched together, before everything settled into what is our world. The "primordial" feel of the sky is contrasted with the look of the land. This is an arid, barren landscape. There is drought everywhere.  During the course of the story we see some glimpses of civilization (including when Noah goes to the city of Bab-ilIm, with a tower meant to be the Tower of Babel), society has the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the remnants of civilization. An interesting choice, given that this story takes place (as far as the Bible is concerned) so close to the beginning of creation. It appears that Civilization 1.0 has gone to hell pretty quickly.

As the story begins, Noah is having visions, first of rain and then of drowning, which he believe portend a great flood. As these dreams continue he goes to the city of Bab-Ilim to address the populace and try to get them to repent from their wickedness. This goes quite poorly (as Noah angers the wicked leader Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain), so Noah and his family flee to the wilderness, where eventually they encounter the race of giants known as the Watchers (also known as Nephilim - the Bible makes general reference to giants, but does not make them part of the Noah story) who were once angels. Noah keeps having visions, but Noah realizes (after an encounter with his grandfather Methuselah) that he must build an Ark to keep the animals alive. Noah and the Watchers build the Ark and eventually we see the animals come (by twosies twosies). The Ark catches the attention of Tubal-Cain, who unsuccessfully tries to take the Ark but eventually sneaks aboard. Noah earns the hatred of his middle son Ham by casting out the girl that Ham intended to marry. 
Aboard the Ark, as they endure the rains, Ham finds an injured Tubal-Cain who he keeps in hiding, as Tubal-Cain plots against Noah. While this is happening, Ila (wife of Shem) discovers that she is pregnant. Noah says that if it is a boy then it shall live but if it is a girl, it will die. When Tubal-Cain makes his move against Noah, it is at the same time that Ila goes into labor. Noah survives the attack by Tubal-Cain, and eventually wavers in his convictions and does not kill Shem's children. At the same time, a dove that they had sent out returns with an olive branch; a sign that dry land has returned. In the final scenes of the story, we see Noah and his family living in a lush, green area. Ham has fled due to the hatred for his father, but the story ends on a hopeful note, as Ila asks Noah to help teach his granddaughters to build a better world.

This is a compelling story in its own right, and a powerful retelling of the Biblical tale.  This version is beautifully rendered, as the art from Henrichon is detailed, haunting and compelling. Noah's visions of destruction are powerful, and the sequential storytelling is very strong here. There are visions of the primordial cosmos here that you'll want to linger on.  You also really feel, through the art, that the whole world is being destroyed and everyone other than those on the Ark have been condemned to die. 

Thematically, Aronofsky makes some interesting choices here as the wickedness that seems to trouble God (and by extension Noah) the most is the way humans have treated the Earth. Noah, as portrayed here, is given a complex, somewhat inscrutable portrayal (as with most Biblical characters, Noah is a pretty flawed protagonist). He is a man driven by visions, and many of these turn out to be correct, but at the same time he is not clear on their meaning, and it leads him to take some pretty horrific actions. Noah has decided that his family's only task is to shepherd the animals to safety and for man to die out. He comes to believe that a world with no humans and only animals will be restored to some sort of harmony or balance, and that this is God's will. This is a choice emphasized by Aronofsky but one which differs from the Bible (as it is stated that all three of Noah's sons had wives). This feels like a commentary by the book's authors on the folly of those who believe they can speak to (and decipher) God's will, but it's not clear if it's meant to be read that way.

Much like in scripture, there's a lot to wrestle with in this story. If you enjoyed the movie*, or have an interest in the Bible generally (though some religious people may find much of the story objectionable) this is well worth taking a look at.**

* I haven't yet seen the movie, so I can't speak to the ways in which the movie differs from this book (based on the first draft of the screenplay).

** Having read this electronically, and having also seen the hardcover of this book, I would recommend picking this up in hard copy format. The book is beautifully presented in oversize format and viewing it on a tablet doesn't really do the art (or presentation and design of the book) justice.