Thursday, 16 February 2017

The secularisation of Satan

Examining how Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson's portrayal of Satan is informed by the shifting depiction and ideas of the devil in pop culture, and the secularisation of evil

'Once I was Lucifer- bright morningstar. Well I think I was'

It comes from above. Encased in a vast rune-marked stone, a collision with an exploding spacecraft pushes the mysterious object's trajectory towards Earth. From the dust and flame of the crash-landing rises a colossal, winged figure: the devil. This is the premise of Alan Grant's and Arthur Ranson's Satan, where as bloodshed and madness engulf the land the psychic empath Judge Anderson must determine whether the alien being is indeed the devil, whilst pondering the ramifications of his existence on a metaphysical, spiritual level; and, of course, if and how the he can be overcome.

Reading about something is different to seeing it, so the reader's first visual encounter with Ranson's Satan is significant: his appearance alone allows us to glean certain symbolic inferences. He is a gleaming white giant, his horns molten marble: bubbled growths that extend from around his head like an incomplete crown-like halo. His eyes are searing fire-filled sockets, at once flat and bottomless; his mouth a sardonic scarlet smear. That he is represented by only these two colours is significant: red is connoted to danger, anger, and passion; while white is most traditionally bound with depictions of light, goodness, and purity. On the surface at least, he does not appear monstrous, his overall visage more reminiscent of Greek sculpture, an evolved gargoyle conveying specific ideologies; Ranson marrying mythological threads of angelic derivation, a fallen favourite, with currents of temptation and manipulation. His wings further reinforce those juxtaposing parallels: again harking to Lucifer, yet their leathery texture provides a contrast to the image of untouchable deity. They're organic, animalistic, binding him by nature to those he aspires to lord over. On initial approach he is undeniably impressive; Anderson feels 'physically sick in his presence, awed by his beauty.' He wants people to be seduced by his majesty, of how he looks. Ranson's exceptional draughtsmanship, with his lines and realism rooted in a traditionally-illustrative style, serves to anchor and add weight to this portrayal.

Upon arrival, Satan announces himself repeatedly, beading together a litany of names given to the devil. 'I am the Adversary... He Who Opposes. I am the Serpent crawling in Eden-- The Dragon-of Old--The Midnight Goat. I am the Prince of Lies... the Lord of Deceit... Betrayer Supreme. I am Diablos, and you must whisper my name!' He quotes from the Book of Amos and then pokes fun at the language 'Did I say that?... quite poetic in a bleak sort of way.' This meta-defensive, mocking rhetoric becomes a pattern throughout, a sneery finger poking at the narratives credited to him. But under the theatricality, there is also pride and assertion: there is power in names and he embraces the opportunity to claim the many bestowed upon him; to claim the history with which each is associated, the dread they inspire. The belief in these names and all that they encompass, is what powers him. It is the belief in his existence; in his influence. It help feed his myth -and so feeds him. It's how he defines himself. Facts are true whether you believe them or not, but faith is true irrespective of the integrity of the subject in which it is invested. From the offset, then, Grant has the devil toying with who he is; the repetition of names and faux-reluctance a first hint at an underlying question, if not doubt.

Accompanying this passage is a snaking full-page spread in which Ranson charts a visual history of devil interpretations encompassing shifting literary and theological concepts: here is Dante's and Dore's frozen colossus, a pentagram-inscribed Baphomet, the serpent himself, Pan, the dragoned Diablos, a pitchfork-wielding imp, the morning-star.

This presents the reader with a wad of cultural heft that acts to reinforce Satan's identity, whilst simultaneously highlighting its constant construction; the fragmentisation of a monolithic personification. Via the use of these references, Ranson and Grant draw attention to Satan's bluster, a performance that goes beyond pretending to be affected by crosses and incantations, or setting aflame a group of religious diplomats with an imperious look. His identity seems overly pieced together, too pat. With his physical presence on Earth causing wide-spread insanity and destruction, and the Judges at a loss as to what to throw at him next, this is what gives Anderson an in. She capitalises on that chink of doubt and insecurity. For an idea to have strength it requires belief, and it is humanity's faith in Satan's stature as this immense demonic force that allows him the refuge of a power fantasy. It's preferable to Satan to believe himself the big bad- it gives him billing. And it protects him from the reality of himself. As Anderson discovers, at his core he fears the cost of that mantle. He feels the weight of his actions. Her telepathic connection sees a scared and lost child sat huddled amidst vast fields of piled corpses, crying, 'It wasn't me honest!' Where earlier Satan leafs though mankind's history, revelling in the war and bloodshed he's inspired since his imprisonment, here are shards of guilt and despair, of loneliness. At some level, he is distant from the very idea of himself he ouwardly embraces, rejecting culpability.

Like Dante's Lucifer, he is caught in his own trap: stuck in the ice at the bottom of the ninth circle equally as powerless as the other sinners, instead of being a free and powerful being. It fits in with the theological notion that Hell is indeed self-inflicted.

Grant's and Ranson's portrayal of repression, trauma, and vulnerability is informed by decades of literature that increasingly drew parallels of Satan's standing with that of mankind's, specifically the similarities in nature. If the 15th and 16th centuries solidified his position as "the personification of evil, seen as the great enemy of Christ, the Church, and mankind: a horned, bestial, furry figure," the age of enlightenment in popularising reason began to consider the story of Lucifer's rebellion with greater nuance and depth. But it wasn't the diminishing thrall of Christianity alone that distilled the devil; as an increasingly secular society began to explore alternative causes of evil, the notion of good and bad as rigid pillars waned. Science and psychology made inroads in demystifying various medical conditions, with focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. On a wider scale, this loosening translated into complexity of character; an acceptance of flaws.

Thus this resulted in not only more sophisticated representations of the devil, but literal and figurative shifts of him as a bestial creature who is the enemy of man, to a more human and humanoid figure (most seminal among these was John Milton's Paradise Lost, which essayed Lucifer as a defiant and charismatic anti-hero granting him new perspective, and effectively reinventing modern conceptions along the way). He is inherently human in his rebellion; his flaws of pride and jealousy are familiar emotions. If all reactions stem from an action, then causality is applicable. The devil/evil is a reaction or direct effect- to the concepts of god/good. He is angry and hurt and wants to stick it to both God and man as those who have hurt him. He doesn't simply want to see mankind fall and turn, he wants to see mankind fall and turn to spite God, to prove his long-standing point over and over; 'This is what you chose over me, this is what you cast me out for. Look how weak and easy they are. Look how I can make them turn from you.' And he knows so well because he's the same. It's one long lashing out. He has motive. He can be understood. Satan became sympathetic.

If Faust and Chaucer seem a reach today, no matter; we've seen the devil as everyone from Tim Curry to Elizabeth Hurley to Al Pacino; as an animated robot in Futurama; as a used car salesmen in Reaper; a discontented Bowie/James Dean-esqe figure in Mike Carey's Lucifer; as a goat in Robert Eggers' The Witch. These incarnations embody the human character and experience: from comedic relief to tragedy, delight to desolation, as canny, seductive, triumphant. So not only are Satan's impulses and emotions known to us, repetitious cultural exposure of the devil as a personification of id took root, disseminating the potency of Satan as the ultimate murky, sinister bogeyman; an intravenous desensitisation realigning the devil as normal, and fundamentally, as something less adversarial. 

Key to this is the de-weaponising of Satan's own power, and the shift from vengeful anger (an emotion people intrinsically recoil from) to misunderstood everyman, done over by the big guy. Few things reconcile people as much as shared resentment towards those deemed superior. In theory, Satan became specific, smaller, more successful, undergoing an ideological transformation accessible to all, irrespective of religious denomination. As the representation of the flaws of man he is ironically omnipresent. If God is within us then why shouldn't the devil be, too? He is of us, and thus easier to understand. And when we understand something, we no longer fear it. The devil becomes knowable, and knowledge is power. If you don't have it, then someone has it over you (Those qualities now instead rest heavily with God. God is powerful. God is knowing, yet unknowable. God in his judgement is man's adversary.). In knowing Satan, we aim to assert power over him, and therein lies his ultimate contemporary seduction: that he is one of us. He is legion: he is us all.

It is this evolution that Grant and Ranson's 1996 portrayal charts. Their is no definitiveness to their Satan: he exists within the multitudes. He exists as an individual entity and a symbolic quantification of evil, and as such has his own life in addition to those that are thrust upon him. Grant and Ranson provide us with literal and allegorical deconstruction of this once proud and magnificent being who, in the depths of hurt, embraces the narratives and labels heaped upon him as a form of consolation. A creature who opts to mounts these projected stories as both reassurance and defence rather than confront the reality of himself, because 'to be weak is to be miserable'. He still matters, he is still worth contending with. Grant and Ranson's Satan is lost deep within those structures, at first purposefully and then for survival. It's no longer clear which came first: being called a monster, or the being of the monster. The parallel drawn is of a superficial inversion of man: a beastly exterior concealing the confusion within, as opposed to a benign exterior concealing the ugliness inside. 

Grant and Ranson present Satan as someone who humans require to be separate, marked by contorted difference in order to fit with our idea, our need, of a looming, evil 'other.' Like a fire that never lacks for tinder, Satan is a golem brought to life by our pain, horrors, and weaknesses, created to cover our complicity. He gains power and import via the oxygen of fear. Not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of those deeds, that culpability, returning home.

"Nobody makes us bad. We get to choose between good and evil and we're all responsible for our choice. Even the devil.' 

(An early version of this essay was published in Critical Chips)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

James Stokoe's Alien: Dead Orbit, a preview

Announced in late 2016, James Stokoe's 4-issue Alien mini-series is fast-approaching. As both a big Stokoe and Alien fan, it's one of the comics I've been looking forward to most this year. Stokoe is a big Alien fan; he'd been working on comics ideas for an Alien story in his own time as far as 6-7 years back when Brandon Graham shared some of those pencilled pages on his livejournal (shown below). It takes a while, but I like to think that as with both his Godzilla comic and his Galactus piece, which resulted in The Half Century War and work with Marvel, it takes a few years or so for the concept to gestate before some sensible comics person taps him to do the trade-marked thing. You can have immense passion for a thing and still not be good at it, so it's lucky Stokoe has talent by the bucket-load. I'm excited to see that hyper-detailed art and those mad gradients on ol' double-jaws.

Anyway, here's what I wrote about Dead Orbit for the Guardian in a comics preview last month: "Many licensed comic properties hum unremarkably along, but every now and again publishers wrangle a pairing worthy of notice. Such is the case for Stokoe’s upcoming Aliens mini-series, Dead Orbit. He is a rare cartoonist, gifted not only in technical ability, but also in eliciting fresh depth and pathos from popular characters without straying from their essence. With Ridley Scott releasing Alien: Covenant in May, this could well be a banner year for everybody’s favourite xenomorph."

Although after seeing the Covenant trailer, I'm having second thoughts. My high hopes for Dead Orbit, however, remain intact. There's only 2 things I consider myself fannish about, in that I actually *care* and have specific ideas about how they should or shouldn't be treated: Batman is one and Alien stories are another. With Alien, less creatures work better, a lone one works best. Sure, there's only so many times you can use this to trade on awe and fear, but unless the story facilitates it, using swarms of xenomorphs for no purpose other than numbers and the supposed 'cool' shock value of it is ineffective. The xeonomorph is an iconic design, but has become so distilled in power. I have the Dark Horse Alien omnibuses and many of the comics explore how the xenomorphs are captured and integrated as resources, which never made sense to me considering the whole perfect organism emphasis. Ultimately, where I stand on monsters is some of them you just cannot fight. And that's it. Which should be the case for Alien: you can kill them, and wrangle enough time to survive, but the bottom line is: they will get you. Anyway, enough of my incoherent ramblings; I'm confident Stokoe will do a good job as he's able to a) draw and colour magically, and b) marry his own sensibilities to character and story without compromising the integrity of either. I'm yet to read something of his I don't like.

Here's the official Dead Orbit blurby thing, and you can find some preview pages of the opening issue further down this post:

Dead Orbit finds Wascylewsk, an engineering officer, trapped in a space station after a horrific accident. Wascylewsk is forced to use all available tools—a timer, a utility kit, and his wits—to survive an attack from the deadliest creature known to man. James Stokoe (Wonton Soup, Orc Stain) writes and illustrates the series. Geof Darrow (The Shaolin Cowboy, The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot) will provide a variant cover for the first issue. The first issue is out April 26th.

Interior pages from the first issue of Dark Orbit; for more, visit Paste who have an exclusive multi-page preview. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Mickey's Craziest Adventures

Mickey's Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim (writer), Nicolas Keramidas (artist), Brigitte Findakly (colourist) [IDW]

An anonymous introduction to this book tells a tale of a bored Trondheim and leisurely Keramidas at a car boot sale, stumbling upon the treasure of rare, 'lost' Mickey Mouse comics serialised in one-page instalments in the 60's. Eager to share their find, Trondheim and Keramaidas worked to restore these comics, reproducing them for the very first time in this collection. Or so the story goes...

A mouse of many guises, here Mickey is a policeman (plain clothes, of course), thrown together with Donald Duck to retrieve the shrink ray and scaled-down gold stolen from Donald's Uncle Scrooge; Donald's the reluctant civilian, forced along on the escapade due to the magnitude of debt he owes Scrooge. The focus isn't whodunnit but adventure, an opportunity for Trondheim and Keramidas to let loose the characters on a breathless journey of skirmishes against an ever-changing backdrop of landscapes, sending up the globe-trotting chase with aplomb even as they reaffirm it. Stock adventure situations are whistled through: a plane crash-landing in a jungle, discovery of numerous lost ancient cities heaving with gold, stumbling upon Atlantis *and* a land of dinosaurs ('I had not noticed, but all der dinosaurs haff feathers! ... If der mobile phone was invented, we could spread der news!' exclaims Dr Einmug), a voyage to space. To the Trondheim fan, poking fun at the silliness of genre-conventions whilst subverting them is familiar fare, and it generally works both because its tertiary to the larger concern of creating an entertaining comic and because it's done with affection.

Playful effort has gone into the overlaying narrative of the 'lost' strips: replicating the dotted effect of offset printing and spot colouring, torn pages, stains and yellowing, missing pages (strips jump from chapter 24 to 27). Deliberation means the imaginary plot gaps don't lead to an indiscernible mess, instead paralleling the incomprehensible leaps such stories often make. By and large these elements are balanced enough to not feel contrived, yet there remain passages that are simply unengaging. This isn't a book with deep characterisation, emotional investment, or plot; its purpose is fun. There are a few good gags: a thwarted Mickey unsuccessfully attempting to buy modes of transport from various pragmatic kids in a non-chase; a monkey stealing Mickey's suitcase for it to come open and reveal multiple pairs of those famous red pants as its sole contents.  But essentially there's only one joke. The construct of deconstruction begins to feel thin.

Similarly, patchy commitment to emulating a retro palette appears to have an adverse effect on Brigitte Findakly's colouring. Throughout most of the book, her colouring is wonderful: intuitive, earthy, and interesting. There's a lovely strip in which Mickey and Donald are riding a flying mushroom island (somehwat ridiculously piloting it like the balloon house in Up), and the contrast of the teal-and-white fungi against a mustard sky is gorgeous. In another wide panel, the rich blues and browns of a meteor-shower hurtling to Earth provide it an additional foreboding frisson. But then there are flat, insipid pages which the eye passes over with nothing of attention to anchor the gaze. Since the limitations of 60's colouring aren't adhered to anyway, and Findackly is clearly capable, this in-between wavering seems a poor directive.

Keramidas art is well-judged; carrying movement and expression that feeds into the pacing without overwhelming it and there's a nice, level elasticity that comes to the fore now and again. It has pleasurable appeal, and he's able to hit a tonal appropriateness that evokes a stylistic era without it coming off as mimicry. Amongst it all, his textures and shading are a real highlight, adding life and body to everything from rocks, plants, clothes, caves.

I've never read any Mickey Mouse comics previously, and bought this book because I was curious about Glénat bringing on names such as Trondheim, Cossey, Regis Loisel and others, and what those pairings would produce. Mickey's Craziest Adventures is a mostly solid affair and while it goes through the motions well enough, there's an unshakeable feeling that it's missing something vital. Something to make you care. Soul, or a heart, perhaps.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hourly comics day 2017

February 1st means hourly comics day, an event which sees participating artists produce comics every hour over the course of the day. That format isn't one that's strictly adhered to, considering many people are working throughout the day, but the variation in approach is another of the things that makes the comics enjoyable. Most cartoonists choose to stick to autobiographical comics, with a running narration of their day and the inevitable meta thoughts on the process itself. For comics fans, it means there's always a treasure trove of free comics to enjoy, and this year -for me, at least- the influx of art on the day was a welcome and affirming respire from the unrelenting onslaught of current events. I've gathered some of my favourites below, with links embedded in the artist names- click through to read all the comics in full; there's a few that will lead to Twitter and Instagram that might require a bit of scrolling to get at.

Carta Monir:

Steve Wolfhard Part 1, part 2:

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Upcoming books of interest

There's a couple of new manga series starting English-language release in February that have my interest piqued. The first is Kei Sanbe's Erased (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), published by Yen Press. Originally serialised in Kadokawa Shoten's Young Ace magazine between 2012 and 2016, the 7-volume story has undergone both anime and live-action film adaptations. Erased follows Satoru Fujinuma, manga artist and part-time pizza delivery guy, who possesses a mysterious ability that sends him back in time moments before a life-threatening incident, giving him the opportunity to prevent it from happening. The occurrence of a traumatic event in Satoru's present propels him eighteen years into the past, to when he was still in elementary school, and on the cusp of a kidnapping incident that took the lives of three of his childhood friends.

I'm not wild on the 'time-travel to change significant events' trope (although, as with anything, it depends on *how* its done) but the mystery element here makes me hope there's going to be something more going on. It's appealing to me also on the grounds that it's a wrapped-up, finite series (Yen Press will be publishing the books in 2 hardback omnibus editions), so I know what I'm committing to, while the optimist in me likes to think that limitation is indicative of the author's specific vision and therefore tighter plotting... The pages I've seen look pretty good: I'd not previously come across Kei Sanbe's work, and she has a very clean style that's a nice amalgam of cutesy and realistic. 

The second manga that caught my eye and the first volume of which releases in early February is the uniquely-titled Girl from the other side: Siuil, a Run (Totsukuni no Shoujo) by Nagabe [Seven Seas]. From what I can tell, this is a fairly new ongoing series, with volumes 1 and 2 published in Japan last year. I have this on pre-order, by virtue of that beautiful cover alone: the pairing of the smiling little girl and the tall, horned figure strolling through a woodland setting is intriguing, as is the appeal of the fine-lined art style (there's a Scandinavian, European vibe to it) in which it's rendered. I've been looking at some of the interior pages (shown below) and though they range from sparse to more full, they're atmospheric and attractive.

A magical fantasy set in a world that's split between the realms of Inside and Outside, residents of each realm are told never to cross over to the other side, for fear of great catastrophe. Somewhere beyond all this is a vacant village home only to a young girl named Shiva and her demonic guardian known only as "Teacher." 'Although the two are forbidden to touch, they seem to share a bond that transcends their disparate appearances. But when Shiva leaves Teacher's care to seek out her grandmother, the secret behind her mysterious living arrangement comes to light.' Each volume in the series will be released with a textured matte finish cover and will include at least one full-colour insert.

Mathilde Vangheluwe has done a comic with everyone's favourite Latvian comics outfit, kuš! Newly released on January 27th, Vangheluwe is one of my favourite cartoonists, and I'm yet to read something by her I didn't like. I pre-ordered this as soon as it was announced, and I wish she put out more. Joining the set of a hip late late talk show, 'Spectacular Vermacular' sees famous Hollywood star Vlad the Cat remembers the glorious old days, in a bittersweet tale of an overwhelming Hollywood career. A new, full-colour comic from Mathilde is a good way to start the year. 

The Interview by Manuele Fior [Fantagraphics]
The Interview is Fior's fifth graphic novel, and the second of the award-winning Italian authors works to be translated into English (Fantagraphics also published his '5000 Kilometres Per Second' last year). As beautifuly painted as 5000 KM was, it was also rather conventional, and I'm holding out for something beyond that here. The Interview is set in a future Italy of 2048, and brings together a seemingly familiar scenario: a fifty-something psychologist with a failing marriage and his young, free-spirited patient, Dora. It's the backdrop that prevents this falling into cliche. Strange bright triangles have appeared in the sky, purportedly bearing mysterious messages from an extraterrestrial civilisation. Messages that Dora claims she can parse with her telepathic abilities...

How exquisite do these pages look?

Speaking of Fior, he's recently done an A3 (I think) foldout poster comic, semi-inspired by Charles Gleyre's The Deluge. That looks okay, too.