Book Marx: Dead@17: Revolution

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“The way I hear it,” Tulip said, “there’s two good places you can look for God: in church, or at the bottom of a bottle.”

“Maybe I’ll go find a liquor store, then,” Jesse replied, “’cause lemme tell you: it sure as hell ain’t the church.”

If Godliness is next to cleanliness, then comic books must be a dirty, dirty business. With the exception of the unintentionally hilarious Jack T. Chick tracts that mix paranoid fundamentalism with lurid descriptions of hell and eternal damnation, God is usually the bad guy in the world of graphic literature.

Jesse and Tulip are two of the main characters in the astonishing “Preacher” series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Vertigo is currently re-releasing each of the nine ground-breaking trade paperbacks, which manage to twist Christian mythology into a gruesomely funny and shocking parody of religious hypocrisy. In the world of “Preacher”, no one is safe from being skewered. God is a self-righteous coward who wants to be loved but enjoys screwing people over. Jesus is a con man who’s spawned generations of inbred imbeciles. And when the angels aren’t busy doing the nasty with netherworld creatures, they’re getting their heads blown off by newborns and serial killers alike.

Not exactly Sunday morning with the folks. You’d think DC would be worried Dr. James Dobson might find out, but Dr. D. is too interested in the sexual proclivities of cartoon characters to pay attention to what the big kids read. As long as he never picks up a Diamond catalog or looks beyond his rather questionable obsession with queers, we should be safe.

In Vertigo titles, God-bashing has become a routine event. Warren Ellis created the brilliant “Transmetropolitan”, featuring one of the most outrageous and amusing journalists this side of PJ O’Rourke. “You don’t help them!” Spider Jerusalem rails against the preachers and prophets that feed off fear and monetary contributions. “You don’t listen to them! They get no truth from you! All you do is scare them with stories of something that doesn’t exist!” With smug condescension, Spider tells a would-be savior, “I killed God. I tracked God down like a rabid dog.” Then he describes torturing and murdering the deity with hedge trimmers and a corncob.

Needless to say, I love it. Like a lot of people, I was taught about God at an early age. Later on, I realized Christianity doesn’t hold up well to questioning. Ask what a specific Bible verse means and people rush to help you. Ask why God created us as sinful creatures if he didn’t like sin, and the crowd begins to dissipate. In an age when the “Left Behind” books rule the charts and Mel Gibson’s “Passion” became a worldwide blockbuster, no one wants to question why God didn’t just forgive us and save all the overblown drama for an episode of “Desperate Housewives”.

Still, I’m beginning to wonder if these negative depictions of God are incisive or just spiteful. We may be constantly bombarded with images of Pat Robertson and other opportunistic vampires hawking hatred for cash and protesting this law and that belief, but is that a reason to retaliate against everyone? Jerry Falwell, the Boss Hog of the right-wing movement, is not your typical Christian and neither are the illiterate shock-monkeys like Limbaugh who only worship money.

So why are Christians almost always portrayed so negatively in comic books?

From the supernatural world of “John Constantine: Hellblazer” to the appropriately titled fantasy series “Lucifer”, God is painted as a manipulative, corrupt and mean-spirited entity whose followers are dim-witted idiots. J. Michael Straczynski’s “Rising Stars” series mentions the religious preferences of just one character, a conniving and twisted Christian evangelist who embodies every lazy cliché ever created. Chris Claremont’s epochal “God Loves, Man Kills” story revolves around a similar preacher who tortures and kills people while using the Bible to defend his bigotry and cruelty.

Kurt Wagner and Rahne Sinclair are two of the only mainstream comic book characters that follow the teachings of God, yet their faith is portrayed more as a tragic flaw (they want to be accepted by the ones who think they’re demonic) then as a legitimate and understandable belief.  They are the equivalent of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of homosexuals who never stop hoping that their sexuality won’t be counted against them as long as they try hard to blend in with the straight guys.

In this day and age, it’s rare to read about a Christian character who isn’t self-righteous or claims to know everything, loves people as much as he or she loves God, and isn’t trying to dictate or manipulate how other people feel. You know, like the 91.23% of Christians in the real world?  It seems there isn’t a comic book writer alive gifted enough to portray religion in anything but a dismissive or caustic manner.

Allow me to introduce Josh Howard. He is the talented writer and artist of the three “Dead@17” series that have been published so far by Viper Comics.

In all fairness, I have to admit that I’m rather biased when it comes to what Viper publishes. “Daisy Kutter: The Last Train” is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and after reading sneak previews of “Oddly Normal” and “Random Encounter”, I will be anxiously awaiting the day when both titles are collected as TPBs. But even a blind man can recognize Howard’s gift.

Josh Howard is the kind of person who says in his dedication, “Finally, all thanks and praise to God, who has blessed me above and beyond what I could ever hope or deserve,” and you’re surprised. Not because he loves God, but because Christians are supposed to be angry pundits on KKK-financed radio stations and manipulative TV shows, screaming condemnation and judgement, blaming hurricanes on Planned Parenthood and the September 11th tragedy on fags and lesbians.

An astonishing joy and love characterizes Howard’s work, and it’s obvious from the first book on that he understands how people make choices (and sometimes mistakes) on the way to becoming who they are meant to be. He isn’t some Baptist terrorist railing against interracial marriages and “activist” judges. Instead, he’s a decent and honorable man who values what is in people’s hearts and eschews political agendas. I don’t know Mr. Howard at all, but I would proudly defend his right to believe in God as strongly as I’d defend my right not to.

The “Dead@17” series revolves around Nara Kilday, a seventeen-year-old girl who is - you guessed it - dead. Fortunately, she’s one of the Resurrected and has “access to great heavenly powers”, which basically means she can kick serious butt. She fights evil (mainly in the form of Bolabogg, the anti-Christ who’s come to destroy the world). And yes, Bolabogg is a really, really silly name for a bad guy, but what can you do? Calling the anti-Christ Paris Hilton would have been way too obvious.

Josh Howard wears his heart on his sleeve. Every panel he draws has the crisp, shiny look of classic animation, and the colors he chooses pop with excitement. He’s got a natural enthusiasm and innocence that gives everything he does a wonderful glow. I wish him nothing but the best, and I feel bad criticizing his work. But the first two series (“Dead@17” and “Dead@17: Blood of Saints”) didn’t really knock me off my feet.

Most of Howard’s female characters look identical. That’s a flaw that’s often seen with DC and Marvel, but in non-superhero books where women dress in street clothes instead of sparkly costumes, the problem becomes much more noticeable and confusing. The men are drawn with exaggerated cheekbones sharp enough to cut steel (a stylistic choice that I don’t particularly care for), but their deformed faces are also hard to tell apart. There are many scenes that could be better choreographed. Sometimes it feels like he only illustrates every third panel, and you’re left wondering exactly what transpired and what happened in the missing sequences.

His scripts need some work also. He tends to change scenes with no warning, and while he packs his stories with plenty of twists, revelations, and juicy action, sometimes it all feels overwhelming and underdeveloped. It would be nice if he’d take a breath every now and then and reveal more than just the surface emotions. He sincerely loves his characters, and that’s a good thing, but he needs to flesh them out a little more so we can share that affection.

On the other hand, there’s plenty to love. Nara is an inspired creation, her friends are likeable, the action moves at a brisk pace that has long since been forgotten in most mainstream books, and it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys without the author resorting to stereotypes or cliches. Even so, when I sat down to read the final four-issue miniseries, I wasn’t expecting much.

“Dead@17: Revolution” gets off to a great start. Senator Victor Alcasan (named after C.S. Lewis’s murderer in “That Hideous Strength”) is assassinated in Colorado as he campaigns for the Presidency. The scene is taut and throws us immediately into the story. The fact that Alcasan’s killer would calmly spray paint a Heaven’s Militia logo on the rooftop after shooting the candidate replaces logic with dramatic effect, but fortunately the story rebounds effortlessly. And the riveting opening sequence is just the beginning.

In the final chapter of Howard’s trilogy, we get to see the rise of the anti-Christ, the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, the truth behind Nara’s parentage, and the final battle between good and evil. Each issue gains momentum and strength, culminating in a blow-out ending that is easily one of the most satisfying series finales ever written. By the end, I was a convert to the rapidly growing fan base of “Dead@17”.

But what really impressed me was how boldly Josh Howard embraces the true core of Christianity in a way that rings believable, true, and inspiring. While there are hints and allusions throughout all three series, in the final issue Howard pulls out all the stops without apology or doubt.

When Jesus appears and extends a blood-stained hand to Nara, even the most cynical reader has to admire the beauty and sincerity of Howard’s story. It reminds me of the pivotal moment in Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” when the little child finally returns to the giant’s garden. “’Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the Giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’”

When the boy told his protector he bore the “wounds of love”, an admission that could have seemed cheesy ended up making me tear up. “And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.’”

I still think Wilde’s masterpiece is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. I may not believe in God or Christianity, but I believe in love and hope, I believe in understanding and forgiveness, and I believe in helping people instead of hurting them. It’s easy to forget in these highly-politicized times, but that’s what Christianity used to stand for too. That’s what the majority of Christians still believe in.

The idea of dismissing people as red-state or blue-state is ludicrous and offensive. We all have to respect and reach out to each other. And that includes liberals as much as conservatives. This country was built on the idea that we should all be free to believe in what we want to believe. And if that means that God plays a major role in most people’s lives, than that should be respected, not ignored.

I’m glad Josh Howard is creating comic books that aren’t afraid to combine a healthy dose of Christianity with action and intrigue. I’m also glad there are books like “Preacher” and “Transmetropolitan” that ridicule his beliefs. Everything should be questioned. Everything should be examined.

But whether or not you believe in a supreme being of any kind, we cannot reach the point where opposing beliefs are drowned out completely.

In the political realm, morality is a debatable topic, as if humanity can be legally constricted into the narrow confines of what a few consider acceptable. In the comic book realm, God is a charming deus ex machina at best, popping up in the pages of the “Fantastic Four” to save the day, and an emasculated and despised despot at worst.

There has to be a better way. Maybe Josh Howard’s work will influence others. Maybe comic books can do what the real world can’t - figure out a way to respect everybody, not just the loud ones. It’s not that unrealistic a hope. I don’t believe in God. But millions and millions of people do. And they deserve role models just as much as I do.

Besides, “Dead@17: Revolution” is a great read. So either way, we win.

- Tommy Marx

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