“Do you see, now? Do you understand?”
This line is said near the end of this issue between one character and another, and the great irony is that though we see what’s going on, we don’t really understand it. Not really.
Testament‘s first story arc ends with this issue with some questions answered and many more left unanswered. For the first time, readers start to get a feel for all the odd cosmological events that have happened in this series this far. We see that events on Earth are in part a reaction to bizarre battles between different pantheons of gods. Events on Earth, past and present, are abstract cubes for the gods, worlds for them to access and influence, manipulate and create conflict. But what is the ultimate purpose of the gods on Earth? Is there indeed a purpose or is it all really, in an existential way, purposeless?
Your reaction to this comic will really depend on a few things.
First of all, it’s absolutely necessary to read all five issues at once. I pity any reader trying to make sense of this comic who begins with this issue. The whole complex plot of the series simply doesn’t make sense at all unless you can really get a feel for the characters’ arcs.
Secondly, you need to be a tolerant reader. You have to be tolerant of Old Testament stories turned upside down and seen in different lights. You have to be willing to see religions directly in conflict with each other, literally battling each other for supremacy. You also have to be tolerant of nudity and sexual activity, under various different circumstances.
But mostly your enjoyment of this series will be directly proportional to your willingness to read a story that’s full of bizarre moments, unexplained complexity, and odd mysteries. Testament is a book in which very strange things happen in very strange world to very strange people. Not a lot is explained. Much is implied, often by analogy, but little is actually spelled out for readers. For example, readers receive no explanation of the evil Mr. Fallow, with no explanation for the bizarre libertine lifestyle that surrounds him. It’s not even clear if Mr. Fallow is a literal presence or one of the Gods, since his world is so abstracted from the real world of the story. The series seems to carry the promise that Mr. Fallow’s motivations and background will come out in time, but without that, the reader is left to interpret cryptic pieces such as the weird cover of issue #5 or the bizarre things shown in the background in his mansion without a lot of help from writer Douglas Rushkoff. Readers are told that Fallow is the face of evil, but in a world with a vast cosmology of godlike entities, what does that term actually mean?
Personally I really have enjoyed this first arc. It’s a ballsy move for Vertigo to release a comic that so boldly pushes the boundaries. I haven’t looked at the Diamond sales charts, but I’d be shocked if this comic wasn’t one of the lowest selling comics in the line. This isn’t a book like Y: the Last Man, Fables or DMZ, where the central concept of the comic can be contained in one pithy line. In fact, at the end of the first arc, I’m left trying to explain the comic by describing its themes: mankind’s struggle for independence against almost insurmountable odds, perhaps. Or mankind’s struggle for deeper meaning in a world driven in part by a group of self-serving manipulators.
There’s heroism in this comic, but it’s an odd sort of heroism. When Abraham fights the giants, or when Jake and Miriam fight to free their friends, neither is done out of altruism, really, nor are they done out of simple self-interest. Their lives and actions seem to be driven by a higher purpose, a loftier goal somehow. People are striving to transcend their nasty and brutish lives, find some great kernel of individuality in worlds where individuality is only tolerated within specific limits.
In the end, what makes Testament remarkable is its expectations of readers. This is simply not a comic book in which good triumphs over evil, or in which a hero goes on a quest to find or resolve a great personal problem – though there are elements of each in this comic. Instead, Douglas Rushkoff challenges readers to embrace a different sort of story, something that defies tradition and finds its own pace and style and feel, in which characters reveal themselves in odd and interesting ways. It is a comic book that embraces ambiguity and complexity. It is a comic book where the reader is asked to form his own conclusions about the characters and the plots and the motivations of everyone in the book. Rushkoff asks a lot from his readers.
I should also mention the remarkable job that Liam Sharp does with the art. Sharp adds immeasurably to the comic with his complex and detailed depictions of people and places. I have no way of knowing how much Rushkoff’s stories give Sharp, but it seems he’s given pretty free reign to create his vision of the world of this comic, and given the freedom to experiment with some very strange page layouts. As much as Rushkoff’s writing, Sharp’s art pushes the comic literally off-center with his unique page designs and thoughtful character depictions. Rushkoff asks a lot of Sharp in this series, and Sharp consistently delivers work that lifts the comic to some uniquely exciting heights.
In these days of hyped-up civil wars and one year time jumps, isn’t it great that one of the largest comics publishers in the world offers something with real complexity and ambiguity? Testament isn’t a perfect comic book, but it’s a damn interesting one.