Saturday, February 02, 2008

Testament: 1-10

Testament is a comic that is tailor made for me. Grant Morrison is quoted on the cover, and the book itself, a tale of cyber-revolutionaries battling the man against a backdrop of gods and magic is just like The Invisibles, and countless projects that I’ve done myself. These are the themes I find fascinating, the motifs that obsess me for whatever reason, and they’re all gathered under one roof in this book. The book itself is not a total success, Rushkoff lacks Morrison’s ability to create fully realized characters and singular emotional moments, but there’s so much good stuff here, I can highly recommend the book, and am sad to see that it’ll soon be cancelled.

People, both in and out of the comics world, frequently crack on the medium and its obsession with telling the same superhero stories over and over again. But, I think there’s as wide a wealth of quality material as in films or TV. Look at Vertigo alone, over the past ten years, they’ve produced as many classic series as HBO. The Invisibles, Preacher or Sandman all stand with the best of film or television. Recently, Vertigo has had a crisis of identity similar to HBO’s, doing a lot of great series that haven’t broken out in the way that their 90s works did.

I think a lot of that is due to a change in the market. Particularly with these complex, longform works, people are inclined to wait until they’re out in trade, or even until the series finishes to buy it. I know with Y: The Last Man, I’m a few trades behind, and I’ll just wait until the last trade comes out, then read the whole thing. The same is true for 100 Bullets, which is so complex, I doubt anyone could fully get it in monthly format. So, even though they might lose money on the singles of these books, they’ll be selling Y TPBs for years, and making a lot of money there.

Anyway, back to the book itself. Testament takes a Philip K. Dick “the empire never ended” style approach to storytelling, claiming that the same conflicts chronicled in the bible are happening today. To do this, he uses the cast of present day characters in various biblical roles, and crosscuts between the two different time periods, which usually line up, but occasionally split from each other. It’s an interesting concept, and works to expand the scope of the stories he’s telling. I think Rushkoff’s central point is that the narrative of the bible itself is what has engaged people, that these stories themselves, not the historical events they refer to, are what has engaged people. That’s what he has the God stand in say in the book, that it’s the word itself that will make people believe, the word that gives him power.

If the bible is the text at the center of Western civilization, the source of our moral codes and worldview, then it would make sense that the narratives it contains would recur. In the world in which we live, George Bush casts himself as a holy warrior battling the Islamic menace, he wants to connect with that biblical impulse, make us believe we are living in important times, and that America is God’s chosen land.

However, one of Rushkoff’s central points is that the bible has been co-opted by the forces of darkness and oppression. The characters in the bible weren’t like Bush, they weren’t powerful, they were revolutionaries, stirring up trouble and battling the existing order. Bush would be the pharaoh in the bible, the man oppressing the freedom fighters. Reading the book made me think about the awful way the religious right has co-opted the story of Jesus and warped it. The real person, or biblical character, was out there with prostitutes, the sick and diseased, helping them and fighting the entrenched religious power. How have we reached the point where people can use Jesus’s message to spread hate, hatred of gays, hatred of those who are different than us?

Why is it that those who claim to believe the most are the ones who don’t want to help the poor, and who want to give tax cuts to the rich? It’s all about control of the narrative, Jesus would have supported gay rights, he would have been there with the oppressed peoples, fighting for them. He would not invade Iraq to impose his own order with violence, he would have done it with love. This is relevant whether you’re a Christian or not, the message of the man was a positive one, but the religious establishment frequently corrupts it.

So, that’s the backdrop against which the book was born. It’s hugely relevant for our times, but there is some clumsiness in the execution. The core characters are Jake and his cell of revolutionary dissidents. The problem with the book is that we don’t really get to know these characters. Jake is sketched out to some extent, but there’s no one I deeply care about in the cell. Most of them are just there, spouting the usual system-shaking rhetoric.

The character who stands out the most is Dinah, and I’m torn on her. On the one hand, she’s the most powerful and connected character in the gang, equated with the goddess Astarte, she is able to see things in a way no one else can. I absolutely love the scenes where she goes into the tank and is able to see outside of time in a trippy, Promethea like panel array. At the end of each major storyline, she goes on a journey that gives her a view of the larger stakes, and it feels like she is going to be a major player as the book goes on.

The downside of the character is that she’s also presented as a fucktoy for these all male revolutionary band. She’s always sexualized, wearing little to no clothes, and looking a bit ridiculous for it. While everyone else is wearing a shirt and jeans, she’s wearing a bra and panties. I can understand the desire to equate her to Astarte, and make her sexuality a factor, but it comes off more as pandering, and a relic of the sexism inherent in 60s countercultural activity. She doesn’t get her own agency, she’s a tool to move Jake’s storyline forward. I can see Rushkoff’s intention, but there’s a thin line between thematic point and an artist who likes to draw big tits. Ragged Robin was a similarly sexualized character in Invis Volume II, but she always seemed in control of her presentation, Dinah seems more subject to male order.

The first few issues make the biblical parallels very clear and direct, but as it goes on, we witness more revisions to the stories, individual action subverting the pre-ordained direction that God has chosen for the characters. This comes to the fore in the Joseph and the Dreamcoat story that closes out the second volume. There, the Joseph story sets up our expectations, which are subverted in the end. Alec is not able to trick Fallow, but Jake’s crew injects a chaos element into the situation, and disrupts everything, only to find that no one cares.

The whole Manna thing raised some questions for me. I was able to follow most of the book pretty easily, but I wasn’t sure the point he was making with the Manna. The basic idea seemed to be that money controls us so much, and is so powerful that it is inevitable it takes on a life of its own. The Manna will be a living currency that can literally control us from the inside. It’s a bit heavy handed, but it generally works. The place that Rushkoff lets me down is the ads for the Manna. The clichéd teen pitch should be a bit more sophisticated for a post MySpace generation. Do kids respond to TV ads as much anymore, wouldn’t it have been cooler to create Manna profiles on MySpace, literally have the Manna come alive and promote itself?

I’m also not sure what his great fear about the world currency is. Would that control us any more than our individual ones? I suppose it’s part of the biblical parallels, but a world currency isn’t too high on my list of fears. I guess the point is, the more unified the world becomes, the easier it is for one person to control.

The thing I really love about the book is the way the worldview meshes all kinds of human religious history together. Gods watch over everything that happens, influencing the happenings, and occasionally intervening. It reminds me a bit Neil Gaiman’s worldview, the way old gods struggle to maintain their influence, and appear in new ways. The difference between this work and Neil’s is that Neil’s stuff always remains fictional, you don’ get the sense he believes in the reality of what’s happening in the way that Rushkoff does. Like Morrison’s work, this is sci-fi, but based very much in philosophical reality. It’s a treatise within a story, like Promethea or The Invisibles.

And, generally, the book works best on an idea level. Each issue left me thinking about a lot of things, and the stories do have a lot of relevance to the world we live in today. This is the kind of work people should be reading and considering in the world we live in. I love the meshing of concepts and reality into a kind of indeterminate mytho-reality where everything’s true.

But, the book is definitely held back by the lack of emotional engagement with a lot of the cast. The characters frequently seem manipulated by the need to conform to the biblical storylines, they don’t have their own agency. Again, this is part of the thematic point, but it winds up hemming them in. The cell in particular is just a collection of clichés. However, not every writer is about emotion, and Rushkoff is doing his thing, and doing it well. I’m going to pick up the third trade this week, I’m eager to see how things develop.

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