Slugfest Special - Testament #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Bob Agamemnon, Kevin T. Brown, Shaun Manning, Jason Sacks
“Abraham of Ur, Part 1: Akedah”

Bob Agamemnon

Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp’s Testament #1 suffers a bit from intellectual heavy-handedness. Rushkoff, a media theorist, is so intent on elucidating his concept of “open source narrative” that artistic inspiration has taken a backseat. This opening issue juxtaposes the Biblical story of God (or in this remixed version, Moloch) commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, with a classic dystopic near-future tale of a United States in which the draft has been reinstituted and young people are implanted with traceable microchips in order to insure compliance. The idea of fathers sacrificing their sons for a higher authority is played out between Jake, a grad student and potential draftee, and his father, a bioengineer responsible for designing the “genetic trace” for the microchips.

Somewhere in between these Big Ideas About Narrative falls a story of youthful rebellion, in which Rushkoff introduces the “cyber-alchemist revolutionaries” he promised in this month’s “On The Ledge” column. These stereotypical subculture types occupy themselves with hacking into computer networks, hand-painting protest posters (“Increase your Capacity 4 Resistance”), and of course taking mind-altering drugs. What they fail to do, unfortunately, is become round characters. Each seems to be fulfilling a function in the writer’s schema: Jake, the good kid conflicted about rebelling; Amos, the antiestablishment visionary; Greco, the artist-propagandist; and Dinah, the seventeen-year-old mystic with enormous breasts.

Yes, enormous breasts. Liam Sharp’s rendition of Dinah puts the lie to Rushkoff’s claim to understand that the power of comics lies in the medium’s ability to communicate subtle notions of sequence and meaning in storytelling. Ideas about layers of narrative co-existing throughout time have found their expression most profoundly in Alan Moore’s Promethea, and that book’s fluency and seamlessness are in large part the result of the intimacy of collaboration between Moore and artist J. H. Williams III. The level of commitment the two gave to the series was reflected in the way Williams brought each of Moore’s verbal expressions to visual light. With Testament, one has to ask what function Dinah’s breasts play in the story. It no longer seems possible to take Rushkoff’s high-flown thesis very seriously when some of the most unfortunate tendencies of genre comics find their way into the book.

Perhaps even more disappointingly, Rushkoff and Sharp fail to seize opportunities to take advantage of comics as a visual medium. In a two-page sequence, Jake and his ex-girlfriend have a whispered discussion during a psychology lecture in which the professor (drawn to resemble Rushkoff) explicates the concept of narrative as a tool for interpreting the world. Behind the professor are slide projections, which, one can only assume, are illustrating his argument. However, with the exception of a contextless sop to comics fans in the form of an old Hawkman panel, the images are impossible to make out. Instead of integrating his abstract explanations with concrete visuals (and thus making good on his assertion that “sequential narrative is a perfect way to tell a story that takes place in multiple universes at the same time”), Rushkoff passes on the opportunity, putting paid to the notion that he is fully in command of the medium.

Comics creators have been dealing with the ideas in Testament #1, whether overtly or not, throughout the medium’s history. Most recently, writers like Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis have played virtuoso games with strands of narrative, be they variations on archetypal tales or recombinations of their own making. Currently, Mike Carey builds his epic Lucifer (also from Vertigo) out of the Biblical sources that so interest Rushkoff. Perhaps he should begin as these writers clearly do: with character and story first, letting the more abstract notions find their way out along with the artistic expression, rather than in lieu of it.

Kevin T. Brown

What sacrifices are you willing to make? Such is the immortal question we ask ourselves. It’s also the gist of the story of this first issue, which, appropriately enough opens with the telling of Genesis 22 before moving ahead to here and now, though not quite the here and now we know.

This is my first exposure to Douglas Rushkoff's writing, and I have to admit I am duly impressed. He did what I thought would be impossible for me to enjoy: He created a story steeped in religion, but not one that is preachy. The story he has created is designed to have you asking questions, and not the easy questions either. For that, Rushkoff has created an eclectic cast of characters. From the lead character of grad student Jake Stern to his mother and father to his group of friends that can be called nothing less than “the Resistance.”

So what are they resisting against? Being “tagged.” Tagged means getting implanted first with computer chip and then later on with a genetic marker, to replace the easily removed chip, in which the government can now track, or rather “trace” as it’s called in the book, its youth. This is their draft registration and it’s the law, a law that Jake’s friends are breaking with great delight. Among his friends is a girl, Dinah, who is apparently able to use alchemy, as well as a sensory deprivation tank, to see visions of the past, present and future. Is any of it real? We shall see. Of those who were introduced in this issue, she’s the one who truly intrigues me.

Jake’s father, Alan, and mother, Greta, are not your typical parents. His father is a research scientist, and his mother works in the Pysch department in the college Jake attends. His mother, for the lack of a better word, is a radical. His father is the one who helped to create the new genetic marker for the US Government. His father feels torn about what he has done in this creation, he’s literally filled with guilt in giving the government the ability to now spy on its populace, including Jake, but he realizes he had a job to do. So what sacrifice must Alan now make? Does he “sacrifice” his son by injecting the marker as is the law or…?

As for the art by Liam Sharp, it’s astoundingly beautiful. Sharp’s talent for telling a story that is just a little off “normal” is perfect for this book. Here he had to tell a story that begins in Biblical times then moves to a somewhat futuristic version of the present. All the while trying to keep it as realistic as possible. Oh, as well as throwing in a few representations of Gods (yes, Gods) as well. He pulls it all together seamlessly. As I said, it’s beautiful.

Finally, as someone who is not exactly a religious person to begin with, I nonetheless found this story interesting from beginning to end and then some. I know I basically glossed over the religious aspects of this story, which was not my intention. Believe me, every page is filled in some way with the religious overtones that moves this story. I am eagerly looking forward to the next issue to see where Jake goes in his life and beyond. Testament will never be an “easy” read, you’re going to need to actually sit down and read this book to take it all in. Trust me, it’s time well spent.

Shaun Manning

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of several books on “digital culture” and in-depth explorations of the media culture of deceit, turns his skills once again to comics. While his first attempt in the medium, Club Zero-G, read like an Introduction to Weird Shit while appealing mainly to readers well versed in subject, Testament looks to a grander scale. Blending Old Testament stories with an Orwellian near-future, Rushkoff begins a tale that could be a great allegorical epic... or just another dystopia with the Bible thrown in for fun.

Every story begins somewhere, and Testament begins with Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. Flash forward a few thousand years, and a father once again contemplates sacrificing his child, this time to government surveillance. In an unending war, the President mandates that all young persons will be subject to a draft, and that regardless of whether or not they are called up, the children must be implanted with an RFID device to track their movement. (Yes, this is a real technology.) Most Americans of this generation received the chip shortly after birth, but Jake, born out of the country, missed out, and his free thinking mother refused to have it installed in him voluntarily. Meanwhile, Jake’s friend Amos has just removed his RFID chip, taking him off the grid and making him forever an outlaw. Luckily, there’s a resistance movement to back him up. But what do the old gods have to say about all this?

This first issue provides a general introduction to the world of Testament, its characters and conflicts, and why the Biblical stories are still relevant. What sets this apart from many other stories in the genre is that this series does not forget that there existed other gods in Yahweh’s time (being the “one, true God” does not mean that there were not others, and indeed why be Jealous if there were not either deities to be jealous of?) and these gods look to be at the center of the coming doom.

Liam Sharp’s art is exquisitely intricate, detailing the smallest clamps and panels of scientific machinery and the myriad wrinkles of an old man's forehead. The Abraham and Isaac scenes, too, are heavy with emotion, and the fiery tableau of Moloch’s power is striking. The “soul tripping” episode is also quite amazing.

Testament #1 is a solid foundation, and it will be interesting to watch what Rushkoff and Sharp build upon it.

Jason Sacks

Wow, this is a spooky comic book. The main story takes place in a future where people feel free, but where there’s an ever-increasing fear that the government has gone fascist, that in a world where the government is involved in six different wars, the country is falling into a horrific state. Adding to that stress is the fact that all people of draft-eligible age are required to wear subcutaneous tracking chips in their arms. A group of ragtag young resistors have decided to resist this effort, forming a kind of underground network to escape the system. Meanwhile, the comic begins and ends with a secondary story, the Biblical tale of Abraham, called by God to sacrifice his son. How these two stories fit together is yet to be seen, but there are some very odd symbols and moments in these stories that seem to overlap.

Writer Douglas Rushkoff and artist Liam Sharp have created an interesting and spooky world. Sharp's art, especially, gives the setting a wonderfully rundown look, as if the world is slowly in decline due to its corruption. He also does a great job with showing his characters as conflicted by the choices they have to face. It’s a hard world, and these characters feel that hardness.

Rushkoff does a terrific job of showing this horrific future society, setting the stage well for what will almost certainly be some strange moments on future issues. Around the edges of the future story are small references to the Biblical story, references that seem a bit obscure now but will certainly be more explicit in future issues.

I do wish that some of these connections were a bit more explicit in this issue - I wish there was more of a clear hook between the two stories, and I wish I had some clue who the blue topless demon woman called Astarte is, but I guess I can be patient. This is a uniquely spooky comic book.

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