Current Reviews

subheader

Sunday Slugfest: Supergod #1

Posted: Sunday, November 15, 2009
By: Thom Young

Warren Ellis
Garrie Gastonny
Avatar Press
“Church of the Supergod”

In the world of Supergod, super-powered humans are the ultimate expression of the Messiah complex, and scientists can build Messiahs who will fly down from the skies to save the world. Supergod is the story of how supermen killed ended the world just because people wanted to be rescued by human-shaped saviors created by science!

Paul Brian McCoy:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:
Dave Wallace:




Paul Brian McCoy:

"Black Summer was about superhumans who were too human. No Hero was about superhumans who were inhuman. Supergod is about superhumans who are no longer human at all, but something else. The third leg of a thematic trilogy if you like." -- Warren Ellis
Supergod #1 is a damn-near perfect first issue.

I say "damn near" because some readers might not be happy with the narrative approach Ellis takes. Rather than tell the story as it happens, following characters directly involved, we get a lone survivor telling the story for posterity.

I don't have a problem with the approach. It works thematically to keep the supergods distant and inhuman. We aren't supposed to get into their heads--or even be able to--so we get the tale told in flashback by someone with inside knowledge.

However, what I really love about this story is the assertion that our gods are man-made and have been from the very beginning of time--that the compulsion to worship a higher power is masturbatory at best and anti-life at worst. Ellis's story indicates that the projection of human emotional states onto idealized objects of worship is childlike and ultimately appalling.

Surely there's a little bit of outrage behind the narrative conceit of a country investing billions into the creation of a manifestation of religious mythology designed to cure all their nation's problems rather than investing that money in combating the problems directly?

Surely there's a little bit of outrage behind the concept of using religious symbolism in the representation of power relations between countries?

Surely there's a little bit of outrage behind the exploration of religious compulsion leading to the subversion of reason first, and finally to the destruction of everything and everyone--of leaving humanity in a new stone age?

I love this book for raising these issues--whether Ellis intended them or not.

As for the illustrations, Garrie Gastonny is an artistic find. From what I can tell after a quick Google search, he lives in Indonesia and works out of Imaginary Friends Studios. He's done some cover work, as well as the fully painted art for Radical Comics' Caliber: First Canon of Justice--a retelling of Arthurian legend set in the American Old West.

His work here is fantastic. It's realistic with a nice dramatic sense when it comes to staging scenes and orchestrating action. Gastonny's art isn't as hyper-detailed as the art by Juan Jose Ryp on the previous two series in this "thematic trilogy," but Gastonny still successfully captures the feel of other Avatar releases without losing his own identity.

This book is a success on every level, and I applaud Avatar for providing an outlet for creators to push the boundaries of what is acceptable subject matter in American comics. I can't wait to read more.




Chris Kiser:

The atheism of Warren Ellis has long been a backdrop for his stories in comics. We’ve seen it in his final arc on The Authority and in the miniseries Ocean, where the origin of life on Earth was attributed to the implantation of extraterrestrial genetic codes.

Ellis's atheism also pervaded the pages of the beloved Planetary, which more than once sought to explain the nature of religious phenomena like angels and the afterlife in purely scientific terms. So, of course, one would expect to find an atheist worldview front and center in an Ellis book titled Supergod.

Indeed, a criticism of mankind’s belief and hope in gods is the focus of Supergod #1. Set at an undefined point in the 21st century, the issue recaps a decades-spanning arms race in which humanity builds super-powered beings instead of weapons--venerating these creations as deities. Predictably, disaster ensues.

Make no mistake, this is the Ellis of Planetary writing here, pumping the narration full of tersely and calmly explained otherworldly concepts--and Garrie Gastonny’s art strongly backs the script in this endeavor by providing clean, realistic characters and detailed geographical references that contrast well against the outlandish creatures who roam these pages.

Strangely enough, however, Supergod may be the rare book that earns a high rating from me not because it effectively delivers its message but rather because it somewhat fails to do so. If the book were merely a perfect atheist homily, it would immediately wall itself off from me and any other readers who adhere to a lifestyle of faith.

Though Ellis depicts the worship of the godlike entities in his story as undeniably foolish, these scenes are not ultimately analogous to genuine religious practice. The “gods” of Supergod are all physical beings whose natures, though complex, could be analyzed and fully known. They are not the transcendent God of Western religious texts.

I would suggest then that Supergod works best as a condemnation of idolatry--which is to say that it demonstrates the ramifications of treating lesser, created objects with the extraordinary affections properly reserved for the true God. The scientists and politicians of the story who find their world decimated by monsters are in that situation because of a misplaced trust in an ultimately flawed entity.

While Ellis and his ilk may claim that the absence of a real God means that all objects of worship are idols, this comic gives those with different ideologies some room to wiggle. It remains to be seen whether the same can still be said of Supergod once the series is complete. This is just the first issue, after all.

These initial 22 pages of setup are virtually all plot and narration, and the possible introduction of characterization and dialogue could certainly tilt the message to one side of the fence. However, until that day, Warren Ellis hasn’t completely excluded anyone from the congregation just yet.




Thom Young:

With Steve Englehart and Neil Gaiman mostly retired from contemporary comics, Warren Ellis has long been entrenched as my third favorite contemporary comic book writer. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison constantly vie for the top two spots, and now that Moore is going into semi-retirement as well, I guess Ellis is going to become entrenched at #2 on my list of contemporary comic book writers.

However, despite Ellis's position in my pantheon of comic book scribes, his work for Avatar Press (which is where most of his stories now seem to be published) has mostly been off my radar. It's only when my colleagues Paul McCoy and Dave Wallace suddenly show an interest in a book not published by either Marvel or DC that I decide to find out what that book is about.

Ninety-nine percent of the time the "alternative press" comic that Paul and Dave are interested in is an Avatar Press title by Warren Ellis--which is how I managed to find my way to Supergod #1. (I intend to eventually buy all of Ellis's other Avatar Press collected editions that I've missed in a recent years--when I have more money.)

So . . . not knowing anything about Supergod other than it was written by Warren Ellis, I picked it up at my comic book shop with no preconceptions as to what the story would entail--though the cover of the issue I bought shows Superman (in reverse costume colors) crucified on a wooden cross with a gaping hole in his chest where his big blue "S-shield" should be.

Additionally, there seems to be a small fragment of green Kryptonite where the heart and lungs of this "reverse-costumed Superman" should be--making the character appear more like Superman's nemesis Metallo dressed in a reverse-colored Superman costume and then nailed to a cross.

Okay, after seeing the cover, I was prepared for a series that would present Ellis's revisionist view of the Superman mythos. Because of the title (Supergod), I suddenly expected to find the story of a Savior from the Heavens who came to Earth in a rocket in much the same way that Moses came to Pharaoh's daughter in an ark of bulrushes that floated down the Nile.

Like Moses (and later Jesus), I expected Ellis's "Supergod" to come into conflict with the world's reigning Empire (in this case, the United States or United Nations rather than Egypt or Rome) and to eventually be executed by crucifixion for crimes of sedition.

I allowed that this story wasn't going to be the most original superhero comic book out there, but I expected it to be written in Ellis's usual high quality of intricate plots and believable dialog. However, I then actually turned the cover and opened the book to start reading the story, and I discovered it to be something else than what I was expecting.

Oh, Supergod #1 is a well-written story with an intricate plot and believable dialog. However, it is not a reworking of the obvious parallels in the Moses, Jesus, and Superman mythoi.

Instead, Supergod #1 is a reworking of other comic book superhero mythoi--though Superman's mythos might eventually come into play at some later point in this series as well. In fact, the first page of Supergod #1 had me believing that Ellis was giving us a reworking of Jack Kirby's 1976-77 series The Eternals.

Kirby's series began with three people--an archeologist named Dr. Damian, his daughter, and a man they knew as Ike Harris--entering the ruins of an ancient Incan city high in the Andes and finding monuments to "The Space Gods." In Kirby's comic, Ike Harris was recording that archeological expedition on film.

In Ellis's newest comic, a man named Simon Reddin (who looks similar to Kirby's Dr. Damian) appears to be sitting amongst some subterranean ruins while he communicates via Blackberry or iPhone with someone named Tommy.*

The epistolary narrative technique is rarely used in comics, but it has a long tradition in literature--and I am glad to see Ellis use it here with Reddin's "Blackberry/iPhone letter/journal" approach to telling his story. I hope Ellis maintains this epistolary approach for the entire series.

As for my sense from the first page that Ellis might be intentionally evoking Kirby's opening scene in The Eternals, I admit that my assumption was extremely tenuous--and it turns out I was very incorrect. Nevertheless, the first page had me convinced that rather than strictly reworking the Superman mythos (and it's parallels to the mythoi of Moses and Jesus), Ellis might be intending to rework Kirby's The Eternals (with, of course, some of Kirby's New Gods mixed in as well).

However, I then turned that page and discovered a double-page spread on pages two and three. Suddenly I saw that rather than Kirby's concept of superbeings from space who are worshipped as gods by humans (which is also what the Superman mythos is about), Ellis was going to give us a reworking of Alan Moore's Marvelman/Miracleman series from the 1980s.

The double-page spread in Supergod #1 shows a city in ruins, but it isn't an ancient Incan city high up in the Andes. Instead, it's London, England--just as that capital of the United Kingdom looked in Moore's Miracleman #15 after Kid Miracleman went on a rampage and destroyed everyone and everything in sight.

In Moore's story, Marvelman's (Miracleman's) arch nemesis, Dr. Gargunza, was responsible for turning ordinary human boys--Micky Moran, Dicky Dauntless, and Johnny Bates--into Nietzschean Overmen (Marvelman, Marvelman Jr., and Kid Marvelman, respectively). Gargunza was the chief scientist working on the UK government's Project: Zarathustra that used extraterrestrial technology to create superbeings. Presumably, they chose children to experiment on because the kids would be easier to keep sedated and under control.

In Ellis's reworking of Moore's story (which itself is a reworking of Mick Angelo's reworking of Fawcett's Golden Age Captain Marvel characters), various governments from around the world began their own "Zarathustra Projects"--or "Super Soldier Projects," if you will.

See? Ellis's story really is just a reworking of various comic book superhero mythoi that have been reworked countless times already during the past 71 years. In fact, what Supergod #1 reminds me of the most is Ed Brubaker's The Marvels Project.

However, rather than leading to the current Marvel universe--or, more specifically, the Golden Age Timely Comics universe--it appears that Ellis's Supergod series is essentially Brubaker's Marvels Project leading to Moore's Marvelman/Miracleman universe.

In any event, all of the plot elements in Supergod #1 are things we've seen several times in the past 25 years--ever since Moore introduced the idea of greater verisimilitude into contemporary superhero comic book stories. Still, Ellis has introduced a few new touches of his own.

For instance, in Elllis's story, the UK is the first to try to create superbeings--just as that nation was in Moore's story--and you are most likely familiar with the technique the UK scientists used. In 1955, they sent a mixed gender crew into space in a rocket with inadequate radiation shielding. They wanted to see what would happen when the astronauts were exposed to cosmic radiation for seven days (or three weeks, the story mentions both spans of time).

However, when the British astronauts returned to Earth they did not emerge from their rocket as The Fantastic Four (or even The Terrific Trio, since there were only two men along with one woman). Instead, they emerged as a fused being with three faces that the UK scientists named "Morrigan Lugus" in honor of two different three-headed Celtic deities.

Another Ellis touch is to take the Human Torch android that began the Timely Comics universe in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939 and recast him as the creation of India's version of Project: Zarathustra. India's superbeing, Krishna, is an artificial intelligence spliced onto a human host augmented with a great many cybernetic parts. He doesn't burst into flames upon contact with air, but he does wipe out half the population of the country that created him in order to save it from the ravages of overpopulation.

Despite these slight twists to the Fantastic Four and Human Torch stories, Ellis is mostly just reworking comic book mythoi from the past 71 years by using the "greater verisimilitude storytelling" that Alan Moore introduced about 25 years ago.

So why do I like this same old song and dance so much?

I like it because it's a well-written story that presents Ellis's usual high quality of intricate plots and believable dialog.

Being able to enjoy Ellis's reworking of this material is no different than being able to enjoy Shakespeare's reworking of material previously presented by Ovid or Chaucer--or being able to enjoy separate Faust stories by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, and Thomas Mann.

However, rather than Supergod, I'd prefer to have Ellis complete the newuniversal series he had been doing for Marvel before his hard drive crashed and he lost all of his work. I want to finish reading his reworking of that old Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart material. Nevertheless, Ellis seems to have another worthwhile series here with Supergod.

Finally, I don't believe the cover showing a reverse-costumed Superman being crucified is unconnected to the actual story. I think it's likely that the story will reveal that the US government created a superbeing in the form of a cyborg that is energized by a glowing green rock that is embedded in his chest. In other words, Metallo dressed in a reverse-colored Superman costume.



* This opening to the story includes an allusion to The Who's rock opera Tommy with Simon Reddin's initial lines of "Tommy? Tommy can you hear me?" Of course, The Who's Tommy is a story of a young deaf, dumb, and blind man who is worshipped as the Second Coming of the Christian Messiah, so I don’t believe Ellis's opening lines were accidentally alluding to Tommy--though there doesn't seem to be any substantial reason for the allusion other than the parallel concept of "false Messiah" that Ellis is playing with in his story.




Dave Wallace:

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." --Voltaire
Voltaire’s famous line heavily informs the first issue of Supergod, a book in which Warren Ellis approaches the superhero paradigm from a theological point of view. Ellis’s conception of Supergod’s superhumans as man-made deities is a fresh and novel spin on a genre that is always in danger of growing stale and repetitive, and the alternate-history lesson that’s provided by this debut issue introduces some interesting ideas that I hope to see explored in more depth in future.

The issue is narrated by Simon Reddin, an apparent authority on the history of the superhuman arms race, who communicates his knowledge to an unseen American acquaintance whilst smoking a spliff in the remnants of a London that has been razed to the ground.

Having shown us the final destination that the series is leading to, it’ll be interesting to see how the events depicted in this issue lead up to Ellis's conclusion--and what role will be played by the American superhuman who is glimpsed in the issue’s final panels.

Some readers have accused Ellis of rehashing the same tired themes when it comes to his superhero work. Ellis himself has even stated that this book is the final part of a loose trilogy of Avatar-published books:
"Black Summer was about superhumans who were too human. No Hero was about superhumans who were inhuman. Supergod is about superhumans who are no longer human at all, but something else. The third leg of a thematic trilogy if you like."
Whilst it’s true that Supergod has some ideas in common with those previous miniseries (the inevitability of the abuse of power, the uneasy relationship between humans and superhumans, and the notion of an alternate history in which real-life events are twisted by Ellis’s fictional superhuman additions), many of the ideas explored here are very different to those seen in Black Summer and No Hero.

Whilst Supergod still makes use of the kind of sci-fi/fantasy trappings that we saw in those books, they’re filtered through a very different worldview--one in which superhumans are revered like gods, setting them even further apart from the people whom they’re supposed to save. The book also moves beyond the boundaries of the USA to show superhuman activity on a planetary scale--helping to give this book a wider sense of scope than those previous titles.

Ellis uses his understanding of international culture and politics to his advantage, grounding the book’s more outlandish elements in something approaching the real world with asides that deal with such subjects as the side effects of Indian poverty, or the finer points of Hindu mythology--both of which prove more significant than they may have originally appeared once India’s “supergod” is born.

Garrie Gastonny’s artwork is well-suited to the book, bringing Ellis’s ideas to life vividly and clearly. It’s not quite as uniquely stylised and hyper-detailed as Juan Jose Ryp’s work on Black Summer and No Hero, but Gastonny’s crisp, clean, and reasonably traditional style is still very effective.

Gastonny's storytelling remains clear at all times as he handles both the large-scale scenes of destruction (such as the ruins of Westminster in the opening pages, the double-page spread showing the devastation in India, and the attack on Pakistan) and the smaller moments (such as the subtle reveal that Reddin is carrying an automatic weapon in his bag) equally well. Additionally, his character designs are strong--whether it’s central players like Morrigan Lugus and Krishna, or more throwaway ideas like Iran’s “angel.” Supergod #1 is a visually impressive book, and I look forward to seeing more of Gastonny’s art in future issues.

However, the big draw for me is the story’s core concepts--and Ellis is certainly playing with some very interesting ideas here:
  • What defines godhood?

  • Could a human being ever truly comprehend the mindset and motivations of a god?

  • If humans are creating gods, does that make them superior to their creations?

  • Could it be that the humans of this book are the real supergods?
Ellis doesn’t offer any answers, yet, but he sets up the questions in a compelling manner.

As he explores these ideas, Ellis also offers up some entertaining moments of out-and-out weirdness (I can’t decide whether the most memorable is Haile Selassie’s head being attached to a robotic Somalian supergod or the three-headed mushroom-being that induces masturbation among its worshippers). He also provides some fun riffs on established superhero lore--with a more cynical spin on the Fantastic Four origin story setting the events of the series in motion.

However, there’s a slight sense that the manner in which this information is delivered doesn’t make the material as engaging as it might have been if a more direct storytelling approach had been employed. The entire issue is essentially an illustrated lecture on the alternate history of Supergod’s world, and whilst the illustrations are good and the ideas are compelling, it’s difficult to shake the impression that Ellis has merely combined his notes on the series’ history into a straightforward descriptive monologue rather than actually bringing the events to life with interesting characters and dialogue.

Without these more human elements, the issue struggles to achieve any real emotional resonance to go along with the compelling philosophical questions and inventive ideas. Despite this problem, this first issue is an effective introduction to the world of this new series--although it would have perhaps been more fitting to publish it as a cheaper introductory issue (in the same vein as the setup “#0” issues of Black Summer and No Hero) or as a straightforward sourcebook for the series.

By telling his story in a more engaging manner, Ellis could have produced one of the best opening issues of a new superhero book to have come along in a long time. By delivering the issue as a straight alternate-history lecture, however, it’s merely very good.

Still, I look forward to seeing where the story leads next issue, and whether Ellis plans on tackling the theological implications of his ideas in more depth.



What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!