guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006


Douglas Rushkoff, Liam Sharp, et. al, Testament (Vertigo, 2006). Monthly. $2.99

by Beth Hewitt

Serial comics, Douglas Ruskoff explains, are the ideal media for telling the “real story of the Bible,” and this is the project of Testament, written by Rushkoff and illustrated by Liam Sharp, which works to translate scripture into graphic form. His point, however, is not merely to choose a visual and sequential media to retell the ur-texts of the 3 major monotheistic religions; Testament is not, then, like Eric Shanower’s wonderful Age of Bronze. Instead Ruskoff uses the comic to tell two simultaneous “testaments”: one set in the biblical past and the other set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, in which the United States uses sophisticated nanotechnology to track and draft its citizens into a project of world domination against the “neonationalists” who oppose this authority. The parallelism of the storylines is part of the comic’s larger theoretical agenda, which is to argue that biblical narratives saturate human culture across the centuries—that there is, in fact, nothing new in our contemporary geopolitical situation.

There is no subtlety to this message: the comic wants to make the parallel between old and newest testament absolutely manifest. So it begins with a striking representation of Abraham rousing his son to take him up the mountain for sacrifice, and immediately following we see a repetition of this same scene (with the same paneling) as Alan (a scientist who reluctantly works for the biotechnical company that manufactures the chips that are tracking and controlling the nation’s citizens) rouses his own son Jake on the morning of his sacrifice. Jake had been spared implantation because he was born in France (his mother is a French psychologist), where they don’t routinely implant chips, but his father has been called (as had Abraham) finally to give up his son to this larger authority. That this modern authority is secular is crucial to Rushoff’s larger argument, which is to refute religious fundamentalists (of all denominations) who use biblical scripture as an absolute moral code. Moreover, the clear wrongness of Alan’s willingness to give up his son (simply because his employer requires it) reveals the moral difficulty with Akedah (Abraham’s sacrifice)—a story that famously is theologically and textually complicated. Indeed, while Jews have read the scene as evidence of Abraham’s covenant with God, Christians read it as an archetype for God’s ultimate sacrifice of his son (which, unlike Abraham, he is willing to make) and conventional Muslim interpretation is that Ibrahim does sacrifice his first son, Ishmael. Consequentially, the comic does not merely set up the old testament in a contemporary scene; no god intervenes to stop Alan’s hand (although he chooses not to tag his son), and this compels us to consider the issue of free will and authority not just in the context of the contemporary story, but also the biblical one.

This basic formal structure continues through the first five issues: alongside the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see the biotechnical firm, Brookhaven National Laboratory, use its implants to attack and capture a large group of students protesting the draft (which is enforced by the implants). Alongside Abraham’s battle with the Anakim (after the capture of Lot), we see Alan join forces with the resistance group with which Jake is associated to rescue him from the government and corporate conglomerate that have taken him. Alongside Lot’s bedding of his daughters, we see Jake have sex with a young woman he once tutored, Dinah. (Obviously this parallel seems to have infinitely less intellectual payoff than the others and seems largely an opportunity to justify yet another picture of naked Dinah—who is, admittedly, very sexy.) I mention the superfluity of Dinah because in many ways her presence reveals a larger problem with the whole of the book: it is not entirely clear where either Rushkoff or Sharp want their emphasis to lie. Is the emphasis on the theoretical argument about scripture as the recording of nasty human truth? Or is the emphasis on political critique of the United States and its capacity for human surveillance?

The comic falters not because it cannot answer the question, but because it tries to. That is, the weakest moments are the mystical (but also absolutely mystifying) attempts to make a narrative connection (and not merely a typological one) between the biblical past and the future. This happens by way of a storyline involving Dinah. Training to be a new “priestess,” she takes a sort of “scientific” ritual bath with other characters that allows them to connect with each other and with their biblical prototypes. Organizing these transpersonal and transhistorical connections are the omnipresent gods Astarte and Moloch, who vie with Adonai for authority. These sections do offer some of the most visually interesting moments in the comic; abandoning rectangles and linear gutters, we have full-page panel montages and elaborate and abstract frames. Yet, as visually interesting as these may be, such moments substantially undercut what I took to be the crucial project of the entire comic—to assert that there is no sovereign authorship of testaments. This, after all, is the substance of Rushkoff’s provocative (but also true) claim about the Bible as an early open-source collaborative text. And this is what Rushkoff explicitly tells us in his commentary on
Testament (in the “On the Ledge” column at the end of the first issue): “sequential narrative is a perfect way to tell a story that takes place in multiple universes at the same time.” While I’m not sure that sequential narrative is the key to this telling, I do agree that the comic form (which allows for a kind of transhistorical juxtaposition of images) is ideal. And moments where Sharp provides these parallel images do indeed tell this story perfectly. But why then does the comic insist that there are gods who orchestrate the parallels between Abraham and Alan, between Dinah and Lot’s daughter, between the Anikim and the giant robots that Alan had manufactured for Brookhaven? Not only can I not fathom the ways these transcendental gods figure in the plot of the story, but the insistence on giving these gods (never mind that they aren’t Judaic-Christian ones) the ability to “write” the connections between the testaments and to insist that these connections follow linear narrative undermines what I like best about the comic as a whole.