There is an ancient rule in aesthetic theory, which states that gods should not appear as characters in fiction. The deus ex machina verdict became synonymous with a flawed plot relying on a contrived and instant resolution. Deus ex machina referred to the characters of gods in Greek tragedy that were brought to the stage by means of a moving platform – the machine – and were thought of as pertaining to mediocre plots. Why, then, should many of the most relevant comics of the last two decades have the apparition of God in them? I believe the answer is twofold – teleological and contextual – but I prefer to start with a brief description of the God character in each comic. I can also add that the choice of stories doesn’t include biblical comics such as Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis or Chester Brown’s St Matthew’s and St Mark’s Jesus, but only the apparition of God in an otherwise matter of fact storyline.
Both in Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and in Charles Burns’ Burn Again there in an exploration of religion as a somewhat foreign, bizarre phenomenon, and also of God as an alien being who dictates his will through intricate conspiracies and apparitions.
In Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, God is either an alien creature that lives in polluted water whose copulation with humankind produces monsters, or he is ‘God’ (short for Godfrey), the head of a feminist religious sect that overthrows the American government holding Bill Clinton as hostage. Fascistic police officers celebrate the overthrowing of power by ‘God’ («it’s show time!») and the start of a police state. Also, in a conspiracy theory developed by secondary characters, God is to be found in an omnipresent symbol – the Value Ape man – and is thought to be an alien, mysterious life form living in water. He doesn’t understand human utterances and his intercourse with Kitty produces Tina, a semi reptilian, crippled girl with a kind heart and no one to love.
In Charles Burns’ Burn Again, God is a giant, one-eyed alien who explores religion as a form of mass control, using Old Testament style language and tools of persuasion. He issues threats of hell fire and end of the world tactics to gather converts. In a final twist of the story, the converts are burnt by incendiary bombs thrown in by the American government to get rid of the alien God and of alienation. In order to exude all its strangeness, religion is taken literally – the main character, a preacher who is the vessel of God’s word, echoes the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the New – he is close to the terrifying experiences of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, but also to the threats of hell fire implicit in some of Christ’s parables and images.
God is notoriously absent from Art Spiegelman’s Maus. He is nowhere to be found in Vladek’s story of the Holocaust, except in two subtle references. The first one is when Vladek says that praying was useless in the camps, the second when a godly man, a polish priest, brings hope by almost guaranteeing that Vladek will survive the camps. But even this altruistic, godly character calls the camps by their proper name – hell, and can’t mention God’s name, maybe because that would risk obscenity or at least enhance the absurdity of their situation. The human thing to do was to be quiet about an absurdly quiet God.
Daniel Clowes’ David Boring has a God who stares from the sky, in silence, with a detachment that conveys the idea that humans are his blood sport or at least his amusement. He looks irritated when David hesitates or is purposeless, and smiles when David is abandoned by grace and love. God is not an alien, but a total stranger with a colonial stare – planet earth is his province, peopled by an inferior quality of beings. He says nothing and prefers to be inactive, leaving the main character helpless, and humanity giving into the fear of terrorist threats, acting as if it had nothing to lose. One can even imagine that God would be amused by the end of the world, as long as a few of his subjects would survive to start a new game. The story ends while David is retreated in a paradisiacal island with his lover, not knowing if he will be shot down by the police or if the terrorists’ germ bombs will reach him too. He is like Adam before God discovered his misconduct and chased him out, suspended next to the border between bliss and disgrace, on the side of bliss.
In Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the apparition of a man dressed in a super hero costume, who jumps off a roof to his death, has a transcendental nature and impact, especially if one is familiar with the God character in Chris Ware’s previous comics. He is both a father figure and a representation of a domain of the imagination where super creatures fly and have God-like powers. Instead, he jumps to his death, as a father that cannot turn back and face his abandoned son, as a powerless God giving up his life.
Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Man Without Talents – which astonishingly only has a French translation – doesn’t have God in it, but only human figures that are transcendental inasmuch as they reflect the main character’s vision of himself. The first is Seigetsu, an impoverished poet, the second a beggar monk, the ‘man without qualities’ of the title. The apparition of the beggar monk is a moment of cathartic effect – the main character seems to be reflected in the impoverished, out of time and out of place situation of the monk in the modern world. He has no way of earning a steady living, and all his interests seem disconnected from mainstream Japanese culture – found stones, traditional domestic birds, old cameras and thoughtful, personal comics. His sense of loss can only find a reference in the beggar monk, who appears out of nowhere and disappears into oblivion – Tsuge’s disappearance from the world of comics is already present in his masterpiece.
The God of childhood, as an imaginary friend with a kind heart, long hair and white beard, appears in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and in Paul Hornschemeier’s Three Paradoxes. Again, he is powerless and has nothing but wisdom and warmth to give out. In Persepolis he is rejected by the child after she discovers his powerlessness and incapacity to share grief. God is an older friend whose spell depends on the child’s ability to trust in him not as projection but as a second father. Their friendship ends when the child is torn by the basic injustice and absurdity of the adult world.
In Hornschemeier’s – also autobiographical – The Three Paradoxes, God is the «wise guy in the sky», in a story within the story called Paul’s Magic Pencil. While a childlike version of the author is being chased by a monster, God can only dispense New Age wisdom like ‘search your heart and find your path’. The author turns on God and stabs him with his magic pencil, in a burst of rage. The comics’ author’s pencil is mightier than God.
I believe that Paul Hornschemeier’s simple story works as an image as to why God appears so often in contemporary independent comics. It might have to do with an inverted teleology and with the bond between comics and childhood imaginary. By inverted teleology I mean that the independent comics author has a solitary, absolute power over his creation, and taps directly into the potentials of his own minor world in a radical way. He discovers godlike attributes in his process – the puppet master, the sustainer of life, the all-seeing eye – in a way that is more direct and fetishist than in solely written literary forms. He is the first cause and primal mover.
The God character can appear as projected image of the author himself, or his powerless alter ego. He can be the voyeur, the alien, the absent, and watches the unfolding of the action with corresponding detachment, interest or boredom.
As imaginary friend, the God character taps into one of the great tools of comics – its common roots with childhood imaginary and amazement. It is a given that the reader’s first contact with comics was in childhood and that comics are never fully detached from this sphere of play, wonder, and submersion. The curse of comics (with an annoying multitude of articles speaking of how ‘now it’s not just for kids anymore’), is also one of its more powerful potentials. Comics can play with innocence. The bearded, Santa Claus type of God can either appear as part of a portrayal of childhood – as in ‘Persepolis’, or as a more direct confrontation between the adult self and the archetypical God of children – as in The Three Paradoxes. God the imaginary friend, as archetype, connects comics to the world of childhood and of absolute play. He promises and is the product of wish fulfilment, yet he has nothing to give but abstract love. When the child discovers this love to be a prison, the vanishing God comes in, and childhood ends. Comics can be the manifestation of this end of childhood – both in story and in form.
Francisco Sousa Lobo, September 2010