Michael Ong once planned to become a pastor like his father, but then went into the hard sciences instead. Having earned a doctorate and a Nobel prize (“for science”!) before age twenty, Michael is sinning it up in L.A. when he gets a call from the government. His background makes him the perfect fit for a research lab that examines unexplained phenomena. Michael decides to go, even though the lab is located in Turlock, the small town where he grew up.
Michael doesn’t fit in with the natives of Turlock. That’s probably because he’s an unreasoned stereotype of an angry atheist, right down to gunning his motorcycle past little old ladies. The other Turlockians, meanwhile, are a bunch of rednecks (the book jacket’s term, not mine, but apt), all assumed or explicitly Christian, who somehow manage to win every logical – and especially theological – argument they enter into with Michael. They show more compassion and acceptance than he does, too.
Mercifully, we’re granted one character who doesn’t care whether Michael gets religion; there’s just the little matter of that character being undead and evil. Dr. Jameson died a century and a half ago without achieving his dream of taking over the world with a giant space eel. His ghost has been hanging around ever since, and now he’s in luck: Michael’s lab has just opened a crate containing an artifact that brings back the dead. That artifact is – are you ready for this? – the Shroud of Turin.
The ghost swipes the Shroud to return himself to life. In the chaos of his getaway, an alien creature escapes from another lab crate and attacks Michael. The alien, dubbed “the symbiote,” will die without a host; it crushes Michael’s heart, then takes over its function, ensuring that he needs it as much as it needs him. Luckily for Michael, the symbiote brings with it some cool powers, including extra limbs. That will be useful now that he has to fight Dr. Jameson’s army of demon cats, protect girlfriend Katie, and stop the doctor from carrying out his grand scheme. Of course, he’ll have the assistance of a town full of preternaturally wise rednecks, a government-created mantis-man called Blue, and, you know, God.
Because that really is inescapable in this book. Along with the Shroud of Turin, we have prayers bringing back a dying character (after first aid, of course, fails) and an alien culture that has an exact parallel to Jesus, right down to the crucifixion. My best summary is that this book lures you in with promises of giant space eels and then feeds you the story of a strawman atheist seeing the error of his ways and returning to God.
In fairness, there are giant space eels. There’s also an apropos-of-nothing romance between the protagonist and Katie, a girl distinguished mostly by her utter lack of agency. There’s even a villain who I admit is campily fun. But woven, often clumsily, through the book is the return of the clueless, unrealistic atheist protagonist to Christianity.
Michael’s atheism is written with a lack of understanding that verges on contempt. He refers unironically to his lack of faith and decision not to become a pastor as his “youthful rebellion” – as if anyone would categorize his career, beliefs, and continued way of life in such terms. Just to spread the disrespect around, another character’s claim of being a pacifist is made into a joke, and he’s cheerfully pumping lead into monsters a few panels later. (This is probably a good time to mention that there’s also a fair bit of violence, though nothing especially gory.)
The art is bold and expressive, the monsters interesting and humorous. (It would probably be a mistake to aim for anything else when your monsters are demon cats and a giant space eel.)
It’s clear from Mr. TenNapel’s biographical note that the author takes this book seriously. He says of reviews of the previous edition that “a few, vocal, skeptics were furious” that he “dignified Christianity” in a graphic novel. Well, this reviewer is a big fan of dignity. Maybe if he’d given his protagonist’s atheism a shred of it, I’d be a bigger fan of this book.