“Abraham of Ur, Part 2: Sodom and Gomorrah”
Writer: Douglas Rushkoff
Artist: Liam Sharp
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
Douglas Rushkoff in last month’s “On the Ledge” Vertigo column wrote: “I discovered the perfect place to tell what I’ve come to believe is the real story of the Bible: comics… A comic is camouflage allowing me to expose the essential mythic battle underlying Western Civilization...”
Testament is a “heady” book with a dual purpose (from what I can tell): (1) to present a frighteningly possible dystopian near future and (2) to demonstrate Rushkoff’s conception of the Bible as a part of a “collective narrative” that recurs throughout history.
The dystopian story centers around the development and implementation of a nationwide tracking system that can detect a subcutaneous computer chip, the implantation of which is required in every American child. Originally conceived to locate missing/abducted children within the United States as well as American soldiers in a battlefield abroad, the system now is being used to enforce a reinstated military draft (The United States is waging war on six fronts). Undoubtedly then, this story has contemporary contextual relevance for the reader as the United States seems headed toward more military conflict with other sovereign nations (next up: North Korea and Iran), and many pundits argue a military draft is the only way the United States can make sure its Armed Forces will have enough soldiers to perform operations within all these potential areas of conflict. In Testament, several interest groups protest the draft including all of the acquaintances of the protagonist, Jake, a college student who never received the tracking chip because he was born in France. This second issue portrays Jake’s strengthening affiliation with a group of underground fugitives who have rid themselves of their chips, effectively making them undetectable. The conclusion to this issue also demonstrates that this “RFID system” can do more than merely track people.
That concise description is Testament stripped to its plot skeleton. What I’ve neglected to relate about the comic book in that paragraph is what makes it such an important publication: the execution of the story, the manner in which Testament is told, is as fascinating as its dystopian story is relevant. The presentation of Jake and his acquaintances grappling with coerced military service is visually juxtaposed with the presentation of the Biblical story of Abraham. The conclusion to Testament #1 has Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac halted by the hand of God. The conclusion to Testament #2 shows the annihilation of Sodom's sexually perverse populace. Both of these conclusions are linked thematically to Jake’s situation. Duplicated dialogue and duplicated panel perspectives link Jake and Abraham’s stories as well. For instance, on the second page of this second issue Abraham looks down upon the wicked city of Gomorroh. On the very next page Abraham has been replaced by Dr. Alan Stern, Jake’s scientist father, who from his office windows looks down upon the draft protestors. These artwork and dialogue “echoes” demonstrate Rushkoff’s conviction that sequential narrative is the most appropriate medium in which to present his ideas. Just so my point is not misconstrued: this is not a matter of Abraham’s story being “modernized” or “redressed” into 21st century circumstances. The juxtaposition of Jake’s story and Abraham’s is Rushkoff’s way of asserting that Western Civilization has a “collective narrative,” the archetypes of which recur throughout history. This is the controversial nature of Testament: it posits the Bible as narratological and psychological truth rather than religious, historical Truth. Unsurprisingly, many groups find Rushkoff’s claim sacrilegious, heretical, blasphemous, choose your condemnatory term.
It’s unfortunate that Liam Sharp’s wonderful cross-hatching work will probably be overlooked by most readers as they try to wrap their head around Rushkoff’s agenda here. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Sharp’s; I thought his work on Wildstorm’s The Possessed was incoherent and impenetrable. Here though Sharp provides clear continuity from panel to panel and both story threads are adeptly paralleled. In a brilliant sequence, the final pages of issue #2 weave back and forth between the Biblical and Dystopian narratives, and to Sharp's credit, the deliberately chaotic presentation never gets confusing; He is proving himself up to the task of conveying Rushkoff’s concepts. What’s more, his young female faces possess a beautiful glow (with help from colorist Jamie Grant), and facial expressions of both genders are palpable. By far, Testament presents my favorite work by Sharp.
Testament is the epitome of what Vertigo prides itself as being: thoughtful, sophisticated, controversial, avant-garde. Comic book enthusiasts are always on the look-out for titles that legitimize and dignify the medium, titles that reveal the grandest of possibilities for sequential narrative, titles that are worthy of being taught in the college classroom alongside canonical literature, titles like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Art Spiegelman's Maus.
Testament is such a title.
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