Losing My Religion

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God may be watching us, but we’d be fools to think that He’s got our best intentions at heart—He definitely doesn’t act like it, that’s for sure.

Such is the brutal lesson Adam Chamberlain learns when Cassie, the love of his life, gets beheaded by terrorists while on a humanitarian Peace Corps mission in third-world Mozambique. A teenage ‘godaholic’ known around the country for his speeches to get Young America to abstain from premarital sex at large, Adam was convinced it was written in the stars—or in the Lord’s master plan anyway—that he and Cassie would live happily ever after… and have intercourse as soon as both had uttered the words ‘I do.’ Not anymore.

Welcome to the world of American Virgin, the most confrontational of all of Vertigo’s newest titles for everyone who freaked out over Janet Jackson dangling her boob on national television.

With this enthralling read, writer Steven T. Seagle puts religion-crazy America on its head and dares the faithful to ask themselves if they’d still believe in God after their lives got shook up like Adam’s has. Whatever the answer, there’s no way this book would be on George W.’s pull list were he into comics.

The overt social commentary, and the kicking of conservative Americans’ conscience along the way, is what separates this book from the rest of the pack. After all, isn’t the best fiction the one where readers get offered a mirror on society? This holds true for all genres, whether you crave science fiction, fables, fairy tales, or a moralistic tome like American Virgin.

Issues one through four, encompassing the soon-to-be-collected opening story arc “Head”, did a great job at paving the way for the rest of the series. When the news of Cassie’s assassination is reported at the end of the first chapter, Adam’s belief system takes a major blow and continues to crumble down bit by bit with each instalment. Although young Chamberlain hasn’t completely let go of his faith, it becomes harder and harder as the story proceeds. The times where he’s acted like a borderline psycho are countless, but then again, we might behave accordingly if we were in his shoes.

In the wake of the shocking events, Adam decides the only meaningful thing left for him to do is leave his Miami home and go see Cassie’s headless body with his own eyes. Travelling together with his younger, and decidedly less kosher sister, he gets a quick 101 on African tribal life and finds out that his dearly beloved has been a tad too intimate with one of her male Peace Corps companions. Talk about being in for a shocker—the first time your girlfriend leaves you for an extended period of time, she decides to, ahum, grab life by the balls… with both hands.

As the series progresses, Adam slides further down the moral scale and finds that he’s incapable of living up to the suffocating goals he’s set for himself. Once in Mabchaze, the small village in Mozambique where the Peace Corps is stationed, Adam notices the locals and stumbles: “These women are -- are naked. And those boys are -- are I don’t even want to say what that looks like. She (Cassie) never told me they were all heathens.” before admonishing two boys that God is watching them.

Adam’s reaction symbolises the glaring gap between an über-conservative Western society and the so-called ‘primitive’ tribal life in Africa and creates an interesting dichotomy between Cassie and himself: for all of his devotion to Christianity and his focus on sexual abstention, Adam doesn’t show any charity towards the natives, while Cassie clearly did. In an age threatened by terror, extremism and misunderstanding, isn’t tolerance of one’s fellow man much more important than holding on to your sacred flower? Considerably so, the title says between the lines.

The real stroke of brilliance of Seagle’s writing lies in how he’s chosen to portray Adam’s moral descent: Seagle makes Adam visualise Cassie as a Holy porn star, tempting him to release those sexual frustrations he’s kept pent-up for years. It all starts in issue #2, when the passenger sitting next to him on the flight to Africa tosses a copy of Detention Girls in his lap. When the guy turns to the bathroom hoping to join the Mile High Club together with the flight attendant, Adam grabs the cross around his neck asking God to help him resist temptation, but the magazine calls his name and urges him to open it. “Cassie…? What -- what are you doing in there?” he says, drops of sweat rolling down his face. “God said you’d see me where you wanted to see me. I guess this is where you wanted me, huh?”

The Heavenly Father works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he?

Things only get worse for Adam’s value system from there. In issue #3, he gives in to the desires of the flesh and masturbates with the copy of Detention Girls in hand. He’s so shocked about what he’s done that he spends the night rattling off bible verse after bible verse to make up for his ‘unclean’ act. In issue #4, Cassie comes to Adam in a vision to tell him of the different ways in which adultery can be interpreted and some other contradictions found in God’s Word. Then, in issue #5, Adam completely loses it at Cassie’s funeral service when, in front of a stunned audience, he confesses wanting to have had sex with her, after which he climbs on her coffin and imagines touching her naked body.

Illustrating Seagle’s inventive plots is Becky Cloonan. After rising to fame in indie circles with her work on AiT/Planet Lar’s Demo, Cloonan is currently experiencing her mainstream breakthrough at Vertigo, now also the home of her Demo partner, Brian Wood.

In an industry where female talent is sparse—at least the recognition of it is—Vertigo is known for letting women lift their craft to new heights. Pia Guerra and Tara McPherson already took the chance to heart, and now Becky Cloonan too is showing what she’s made of. Her work on American Virgin shows Cloonan at her best, displaying a mature cartoony style, packed with a tough edge to support Seagle’s script.

It will definitely be interesting to see how the rest of the series plays out. The ironic 'Save Yourself' t-shirt Adam wears, while possibly also a foreshadowing of his future actions causing him to fall out of God’s favor as he goes on a personal rampage, is a clear sign that he can no longer save himself. And unless there are some surprising twists and turns waiting on the road ahead, it’s highly unlikely Adam can count on any help from above.

After all, there doesn’t seem to be any God in the world of American Virgin. Perhaps, by the end of the story, that’s just how Adam Chamberlain wants it to be.

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