God in the gutter
Douglas Rushkoff strips the Bible back to basics
Comics aren't just a kids' medium anymore. They're selling more than most books 20,000 to 40,000 a pop - and doing so in bookstores, where their seemingly 'fringe' status frees them to tackle controversial issues more directly than their text-only counterparts.
That's why when an editor at Vertigo approached me to create a new comic series for them, I knew at once the subject matter I wanted to tackle: the Bible.
For me, the greatest thing about comics is that they communicate in a non-linear way. Sure, there's the story that moves from panel to panel but then there's also the action and sequence between the panels. It's what they call the 'gutter'. It's that mysterious space between the time Clark Kent steps into the phone booth and when he flies up into the air as Superman. It's a space that defies time and logic, yet is completely responsible for the sequence and story. As a kid, it was imagining what occurred between one panel and the next that always excited me so about comics and their unique narrative style.
I never experienced quite this sensation again not in poetry, film, or computer games until I engaged with biblical text in a serious way as an adult teaching narrative. Here is a story an amalgam of stories that is working on many levels at once. It's an intertextual work, where no event lives in vacuum, but rather comments on all the events around it. A law in one book might steal words or phrases from an earlier story, as if to wink at the particular episode that created the need for the regulation.
But the deeper, allegorical function of the Bible has been all but lost to more literal-minded interpretations. That's not just sad, it's also dangerous.
Comics, by tradition, are a medium meant for open-ended stories about mythological characters and creatures that transcend time and space. In their modern incarnation, they're also a place to explore controversial subjects like magic, consciousness, sex and violence. Why not give the Bible the contemporary home it deserves and a contemporary audience a Bible they can relate to?
That's what led me to conceive Testament an ongoing comic series about the Bible and it's relevance to all of us right now.
One of the great misperceptions about the Bible one promoted by literalists is that what makes it so important is that all this stuff really happened. So they look for proof that creation really occurred in six days, or that Moses really led a group of slaves out of Egypt. While this may make it easier for one people or another to claim a piece of land as their gift from God, it distracts us from the greater and more important allegory. The Bible isn't just important because it happened at some moment in history (if it did), it's important because it's still happening in every moment.
Testament follows a band of cyber-alchemist revolutionaries, wrestling against the pretty immense challenges of a future when the draft is reinstated in the US and global currency takes the form of an insidiously promoted mind-virus. It also takes place in biblical times exposing how these sagas and their underlying themes have been recurring for centuries. Both story arcs are played out by the same set of characters who for the time being anyway are unaware of each other's existence.
For me, the greatest fun is in showing this visually. Translating this understanding of the Bible to comics has been a natural fit. I've written scripts where the artist, Liam Sharp, can put the real world our world in the panels, and the world of the gods (yeah, turns out there's more than one in the Bible) in the gutters between them. So each book is a little universe, with sequential human action happening in tightly bound boxes, and divine action occurring just outside them. If a god wants to enter the panel, he can only do so in the form of an element, such as wind or fire. Think burning bush.
And sometimes, when the modern action is particularly resonant with a Bible story, the two happen side-by-side or one atop the other. Not that they always end up exactly the same way.
Sure, there's some consternation among the more pious folks out there less over my modern allegories than my tendency to depict Bible stories as they were actually written (there's a lot more incest, rape, violence, and magic going on than most people realise). But the most controversial stuff hasn't even been hinted at, yet.
Imagine, for example, you found out that some god out there was trying to write the story of your life. How would you respond? Would you acquiesce, or would you try to find out his agenda? And if you chose to fight back, where would you start?
For me, the battle begins with a comic book.
Douglas Rushkoff is an author, lecturer and social theorist.