Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer Weighs In: Noah

This is a new feature I'll be playing with as it seems relevant, which will allow me to write about writing, but from the perspective of the stuff I like to watch and read.  This time the focus is on comics, thanks to Jason Aaron's new comic The Goddamned.

Now, with a provocative title like that, hopefully there's some justification for it, and as it turns out there is.  Jason Aaron is an unusual writer, in any medium.  He made his name with the Vertigo comic Scalped, which was about modern life in a Native American reservation, which means if you were looking for ways to bone up on that sort of thing in response to the Standing Rock doings (another would be to read a book by Sherman Alexie), that would be a great place to start.  Lately he's been writing superheroes over at Marvel (Jason's the one responsible for Jane Foster assuming the responsibilities of Thor), but has been making attempts to get back into the kind of storytelling he first made his name with, which is unabashedly violent but socially conscious work. 

Which brings us to The Goddamned.  The series launched a year ago, but publishing delays meant the fifth issue wasn't released until recently.  At any rate, it was that issue that reminded me the series existed.  What attracted me to the idea, initially, besides Jason himself, was that it would deal with the Noah's Ark story from the Bible.  I don't care if you're religious, or if you can tell me that this narrative popped up in a number of Mesopotamian societies (it features in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance), the idea of it has always fascinated me.  In college I read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted On the Voyage, which was not a particularly reverent take on it, including a version of God who's not so much omnipotent or even immortal so much as extremely long-lived (and showing his age in the story).  Later I read David Maine's The Preservationist, which was the reason I became interested in that author to begin with but didn't read until I'd read several other of his extremely humanist takes on biblical lore (Fallen features the story of Adam & Eve, while The Book of Samson kind of explains itself).  In 2014 Darren Aronofsky released his fascinating vision, called Noah simply enough.

The Goddamned isn't really like any of them.  If you've managed to watch Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, his ultra-violent look at Mayan culture (not to mention his directorial follow-up to The Passion of the Chris), you might have an idea how Jason Aaron approaches his Noah.  The Bible suggests God decided to wipe out (most of) humanity because it had descended into truly unconscionable wickedness.  I'm not sure anyone until Jason had really depicted what that might look like.  He's got humans acting so savage and inhumane, everyone's got scars, including a boy who shows up early on with a hand that was previously hacked off.  Anyway, it's just not pretty.

But it's fascinating.  I've long wanted to tackle this subject myself.  The closest I've come to this point is Metatron, which deals with Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel, and humanity's formative steps into civilization.  Adam and Cain separately venture into the new world and discover a lot of disturbing things people have been up to, including one village which I thought was the most horrifying vision possible, people literally pushing each other into a giant bonfire as a way of life.  But that seems decidedly humane compared to Jason's vision.  Imagine the maniacs of Mad Max: Fury Road (or its spiritual predecessor, Doomsday), but without cars.

Interestingly, Jason's lead character isn't Noah, whom he depicts as a savage tyrant (if he were in Aronofsky's Noah, he'd be the guy played by Ray Winstone, who is not Noah), but rather Cain.  Jason's Cain has lived for 1600 years wandering the earth, unable to die.  He's basically become Wolverine, regenerating any wound he suffers, but cursed with remembering everything.  He spares little pity for those around him, because he's come to view life as a curse, not just his but everyone's.  He's the reason the series is titled the way it is, because he's taken a decidedly cynical view of the God who's allowed all this to happen. 

During the course of the first arc, "Before the Flood," Cain's demeanor shows a number of cracks.  He hesitates with the boy I mentioned earlier, and then again with the mother of another boy, who ironically ends up in the same vicious gang as the first boy.  It's Jason's way of deepening his message of just how degenerate humanity has become.  He doesn't depict Adam and Eve much better, by the way.  In short, he seems to be saying that we were never that innocent, but it's less our nature and more the choices we make that lead to all the suffering we endure. 

I have a somewhat eclectic approach to faith.  I believe that God knew all along what would happen, because really there's no way he couldn't.  He knew Eve would eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which is to my mind symbolic of intellectual awakening, once man had been around long enough to start questioning things, because that's really what separates us from other animals, the ability to question the world around us, not so much what we can do but why.  God is omnipresent: he sees the past, present, and future all at the same time.  He knew how it was going to end even before it began.  The idea of Jesus is that God makes peace with humanity, eventually, with the notion of our limited existence, all of our limitations.  The story of Noah is about a time when he tried to let humanity do this for itself, and no matter how the story is told, the end result is the same: we don't learn.  It seems right after the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah had sunk to the same state as the antediluvian world.  That's why Abraham was officially enlisted to begin the Judeo-Christian tradition, so that there would be some tangible thing to remind people that there was a good way to live.

It's ironic to me that there are so many people who are convinced religion only ever leads to bad results, when it has consistently in many different forms sought above and beyond any given government to set rules to live by, some kind of moral and ethical standard that's constantly being challenged.  The Bible suggests that every time this standard is challenged, it ends in disaster.  I would not call this a coincidence, but I'm not out to debate anyone on it.  Jason Aaron's The Goddamned might seem like a profane work, but it's actually a profoundly insightful one, by illustrating in explicit form what it looks like when civilization falls apart.  There will always be those who claim the world only ever gets worse, but I happen to believe it only ever gets better.  It's a slow process.  We're worlds apart from the kind of barbarity depicted in The Goddamned, and I think once you see something attempt to spell it out, it's not so hard to see.  But the challenges remain the same.  Everyday you see people challenging what it means to lead a decent life, to treat each other decently, and I'm not talking about the big things but the small ways, like failing to even respect someone else, whether seen or unseen.  It's not really that hard to see how given a violent shove (The Walking Dead depicts such an event, with the recent Negan head-bashing perhaps the most famous example, or the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones) might loosen all restraints we currently have.

I can't write like that.  I can barely tolerate watching stuff like that, which is why I'm just not a fan of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, or even antihero shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.  I think condoning stuff like that is the next step to approving it.  The Goddamned isn't on that level because it has a moral center, a conflicted man who blames himself more than he blames God (maybe), whom everyone can point to as the source of all the misery but who is himself somehow above the fray.  It's an interesting thing to watch unfold.  Me, the Cain character is someone I could write.  (I mean, I already did, right?)  I don't know if I could stomach Jason's depiction of Noah, though, although in some ways it's a logical extension of the greater narrative, that a would-be savior turns out to be less than ideal, which makes him continually worth revisiting, because he's the more interesting character, the one whose role is so demanding, unlike the ambiguous Cain, that creators have continually been drawn to his story, in one form or another, since storytelling was a thing.  I only know recent examples, although we live in an age where those examples are more likely to happen than perhaps ever before.  I mean, we had Paradise Lost, which depicted Satan's point of view, but can you think of other classical examples? 

So as I work my way ever closer to my Noah, The Goddamned is another example to keep in mind, one of many interesting, thought-provoking, great ones. 

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