“A stick of dynamite.” I remember, at a conference, a librarian using this metaphor to describe graphic novels that were sure to cause controversy, whether with their visual depictions of sex and/or violence, or tackling situations that were sure to offend at least a few patrons. Her words, even after all these years, stuck with me because she described how many graphic novels gather reputations of being too taboo for a library to even consider purchasing them. The stick-of-dynamite metaphor sprang into my mind as I read Jason Aaron and r.m. Guéra’s series of stories drenched in blood and religion, The Goddamned, which includes Vol. 1: Before the Flood and Vol. 2: The Virgin Brides.
Many are familiar with the story of Noah and the Ark, but Aaron’s story shows why God decided to flood the land: basically, it was a brutal world full of viscerally depicted depravity and violence. Navigating this land in Before the Flood, is Cain, brother of Abel and the first murderer. He wanders this barbaric landscape searching for a way to die, and there are plenty of marauders and zealots with axes and swords who will happily oblige him. What Cain ends up finding among the carnage in this world is a reason to live. The Virgin Brides depicts a seemingly more idyllic place where there are only women, an order of holy sisters who prepare young girls to accept their place as being Brides of the Sons of God. But two girls, rebellious Jael and obedient Shaari, soon suspect that the nuns are keeping secrets, including what happens to the girls once they are married, and what lies beyond the mountain.
These tales seem to be at least a few sticks of dynamite, beginning with the setting, a reimagining of Biblical times that’s dialed up the Old Testament savagery. The celestial beings in this story, though not shown, are depicted as more monstrous than the humans who serve them, even connecting them with this realm’s monsters. The graphic depiction of these times may offend many of your more religious patrons, but these stories are also very solid. The first looks at how even a man whose existence is inexorably tied to violence can find redemption. The second looks at the dangers of groupthink, as well as presenting a coming-of-age narrative that, although present in a book full of very adult situations, is no less meaningful. Aaron shows an aptitude in creating villains who are truly despicable. Vol. 1’s villain, Noah, the architect of the Ark, is portrayed as a controlling zealot, and the nunnery that keep Jael and Shaari prisoner feel their actions, no matter how heinous, are not only justified but noble. Aaron shows he can create both heroes and antiheroes as Cain and the two girls fleeing captivity are ones the reader can root for no matter how bloody their hands get.
The fights in these stories take place in a primitive world gorgeously illustrated by Guéra, full of casual nudity, scarred flesh, and blood-soaked spears. Battles are bloody, wounds will induce wincing, and readers with sensitive stomachs may find them flip-flopping. Guéra’s skill with depicting expressions also helps the reader develop empathy with the characters, especially considering the physical and emotional wringers Aaron puts them through.
The Goddamned can seem like a book ready to explode into a selector’s face, but this series is also a great example of graphic novel storytelling. Aaron shows his understanding of a redemption arc as Cain finds something to fight for in this savage era. The writer also evokes many elements of the best high fantasy as Shaari and Jael trek away from a life they’ve always known. Guéra’s art depicts epic, foreboding landscapes and the anguish in the faces of these characters. I’m thinking that perhaps a more apt metaphor for this series might be a jalapeno pepper, or perhaps a ghost pepper. It’s guaranteed to have a spicy kick, there could even be a little bit of pain, but there’s also a good chance that people who try this book will end up greatly enjoying it.
The Goddamned, Volumes 1 & 2
By Jason Aaron
Art by R. M. Guéra
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781632157003
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781534317208
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Representation: Lesbian