Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a pretty intense comic book. That shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone familiar with his other work, particularly his films. But it bears repeating that, unlike the classic Bill Cosby sketch, there aren’t many laughs to be had in this handsome comic. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film based on this comic, but I presume it covers similar thematic and narrative ground.)
Not that the Book of Genesis is a barrel of laughs, nor is the entire Old Testament for that matter. The theme I get (being an extremely amateur theologian) from Genesis is a simple one: submission to the will of God. That is, it doesn’t matter what you want, do what God wants because, to coin an ironic phrase, “He’s the man.” From Adam and Eve, to Abraham, Moses, etc, all of these figures struggle with the same basic challenge, namely how to subsume their will to the will of this “God” fellow.
Noah is, in this context, right on-theme. God tells him that the world is going to be destroyed for the “wickedness of man” and that Noah is charged with saving all the animals on earth. The twist, or at least the take, on the story that Aronofsky and his longtime writing partner Ari Handel put on the tale is that Noah is more than a bit literal-minded. He truly believes, in this telling, that God is determined to wipe out humanity forever and save all the animals (or, of course the biologist in me immediately interjects, all the rest of the animals). So he rigidly determines that no human can survive the flood, or at least those who survive are forbidden to reproduce, by the will of God. This leads to the dramatic climax in which Noah threatens to kill his newly-born granddaughters just as the Ark nears dry land.
I summarize the plot and give away the ending early on here so we can get past the story (which, to put it mildly, is a bit old) and on to the style this comic adopts to tell it. But certainly there are interesting resonances with this take on the familiar story. Noah here is a strange combination of religious fundamentalist, being a bit too literal-minded and rigid to the point of committing some pretty terrible acts in the name of what he believes to be divine inspiration, and on the other hand a rabid environmentalist, judging that what’s wrong with this planet is the “human infestation” and every other living thing is worthy of its place in nature. Noah has no problem killing and wounding humans, it seems, but God forbid (literally) that he would ever harm any sort of bird, or insect, or lizard. That portrayal reaches right from the distant mythic past into the issues of today’s environmental culture war, and it’s a smart take on a familiar myth.
Naturally, the religious people who would benefit most from a metaphorical and poetic reading of the book probably won’t ever read it, because they won’t be able to get over the “changes to the original story” or any sort of artistic embellishment. And on the other side, hard-core environmentalist types will probably be alienated by the overt religious themes and the fact that this story is deeply embedded in Western Civilization. That leaves a relatively small audience of intelligent, sensitive skeptics. Which is, to my way of thinking, high in the running for “Irony of the Year”.
Full credit is due, though, to Aronofsky, Handel and artist Niko Henrichon (best known for his work on X Men) for committing to this fantasy-influenced and grand take on a familiar story. The very first splash page is impressive in its scope, rendering out the smouldering ruins of a city (perhaps Sodom and Gomorra) in the background, contrasted with the tiny figures of a family walking over dry and mud-caked land in the foreground. The second splash page showing fire raining from the sky on armies of spear-carrying humans is contrasted with the quote, straight from Genesis, “And The Creator saw that the wickedness of man was great upon The World. And it grieved him to his heart.” It’s the second sentence there that really captures the mood of this book. There’s no celebration or glee in “The Creator”’s act of destruction, nor in Noah’s act of sacrifice. No joy is to be found anywhere here, except possibly in Noah’s children and their discovery, later on, of that naughtiest of acts that sometimes leads to the production of new humans.
Early on, here, Henrichon’s art shows us a world already halfway (or more) down the road to ruin. Noah himself picks only the smallest of shrubs from rocks to feed his family in the endless dry wasteland. Aronofsky and Handel’s first words echo the barren sentiment both in style and content: “The long drought. Man had nearly forgotten that water once fell from the sky.”
Men, that is, except for Noah, who is haunted and tortured by visions of floods, rain and drowning. Noah, with his flowing red cape and Keith Urban stubble and Rock Star hair, is a bit unlike how we’re used to seeing him. He’s drawn as a stubborn, humourless, shaggy Paterfamilias, who has little or no faith his in fellow humans, leaving his children to fend for themselves while he fights off a group of hunters attempting to bring down a large animal. He then pulls out the arrows from the hunted animal’s body and carries it to safety, nursing it back to health. This is Aronofsky’s Noah in a nutshell: a crazy, cynical, single-minded eco-warrior. Which does indeed seem to fit logically with the mission he’s chosen to carry out.
Noah’s wife and family tolerate his behaviour (and his wife is drawn as sexy and lithe as he is burly and muscled, perhaps betraying Henrichon’s superhero comic roots). Another very handsome and almost Bruegel-quality splash page shows Noah and his son Shem making a journey to “Bab-ilim” (where they’re building some sort of tower) to warn the powers that be about the coming ecological catastrophe. As a Biblical prophet, his message is fairly predictable: “We must change our ways so that the Creator will show us mercy” (once again, the theme of submission).
Here the authors introduce the villain of the piece, the representative of all that’s wrong with humanity, the cackling and tattooed “Tubal-Cain”, feasting on raw meat and basically twirling his moustache. His arguments against Noah will be familiar to us today in terms of the “debate” over climate change: “So, let me get this straight: you want us to sacrifice everything we have today and watch our children starve because of something that might happen?” It isn’t too long after his introduction that Noah packs up his family and they set out to Mount Ararat to speak with the ultimate earthy authority on matters divine: Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah.
Along the way they encounter the most “fantasy” of all Aronofsky’s additions to the Noah story: strange six-armed giants, complete with loincloths, tattoos, beads and all the other symbols of Native Americans/Indigenous people. These initially hostile-looking folks, of course, become Noah’s allies being as they are, fallen angels. (“Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor” is the sound they make as they walk. Or they should.) We’re a good third of the way through the book before Noah, having extracted little insight from his ancient grandfather, hits upon the idea of building an Ark. Using his newfound giant six-armed friends and walking construction cranes, this falls into the realm of possibility. Book Two shows the building of the Ark itself, and we should say that the art here is particularly monumental and handsome. Lots of images of a shaggy, muscled Noah gazing up “significantly” at the incredibly elaborate construction project, working his family and friends to the bone while coddling and revering even the smallest bird who happens to perch on the massive structure.
Meanwhile, as the construction goes on, Aronofsky notes in the “voiceover” that enough time passes for Ila, a young girl the family rescues from the “evil humans” under Tubal-Cain has “grown to a woman”. Shem certainly notices, but despite their cavorting in a lush field (God has provided a small oasis in the drought-ridden land so enough trees can rise to provide wood for the Ark), the two young lovers can’t consummate their relationship. Ila has had “her womanhood” damaged and destroyed in a childhood battle, and though she wants to give herself to Shem, she will never bear children. Something that suits Noah just fine, as, in his interpretation of the message there can be no more humans after his family has died.
In a predictable turn, as the Ark nears completing, Tubal-Cain and his people re-appear and attempt to “storm” the Ark or at least claim their seats. Noah makes a compromise (agreeing to allow 25 of the foreigners on the Ark) but he does it with duplicity, as he knows the rains will come soon enough. And then he goes back to beating his children when they accidentally kill one species of lizard. Noah’s wife, Naameh, takes it upon herself to bring some happiness ands mercy to her family and goes to see Methuselah, begging for him to use his influence with the Lord to bring some happiness to their situation. In the end, Methuselah uses his power to heal Ila, bringing about some fantastic sex for her and Shem (good for them) and an awkward situation for Noah in the story’s final act.
But before we get to the flood, the dove, and Noah’s choice about the fate of his grandchildren, we must have the “Big Battle” between the forces of the fallen, six-armed angels and those of the evil humans led by Tubal-Cain. For all of the skill and artistry in the rendering here, and Henrichon adopts a rich, dust-filled Ridley Scott style for the big battle sequences, I found them a little tedious. I would imagine that in the film version, this is the occasion for big music and CGI battles, which is where I usually “tune out”. I was flipping pages impatiently at this point, fairly begging the book to “bring on the water!”
With the help of the fallen angles (who get their wings back when they die: good for them), Noah manages to launch the Ark with only his family aboard (or so he thinks). In fact, in a twist borrowed from every monster movie ever made by the hand of humans, Tubal-Cain has snuck aboard and will be heard from again. But the long journey (40 days and 40 nights, if my Sunday School is remembered correctly) is set against big splash pages where the story of Creation is recounted, complete with modern elaborations like showing molecules of DNA and alluding to progressive evolution (which is a bit scientifically flawed, but this IS a story with six-armed giants in it, after all).
The final act, which by all rights should feature the famous Dove returning from land with an olive branch, signifying the presence of dry land and the resurrection of the earth (the Bible adopts that “death and resurrection” theme for its well-known second testament) is unfortunately weighed down by the necessity to deal with Tubal-Cain. The drama around Noah offering up his newly born twin granddaughters to God, Abraham-style, is rich enough. There’s no need for fisticuffs between two muscled, bearded guys, but sadly, that’s where we have to spend some time at the end of the Noah comic.
Once that bit of unnecessary and cliched business is out of the way, we get to a powerful final scene featuring the birth of the twins, Noah’s attempted sacrifice and the final redemption of the human race. The birth scene, on the Ark, has a couple of relatively amusing panels, such as two Gorillas who serve as “orderlies” to restrain the young father-to-be, Shem.
Noah’s final inability to carry out the murder of his grandchildren produces one of the more classically-styled but effective splash pages, with the upturned, tearful face of Noah symbolizing the guilt, grief and conscience of an entire species.
When the Noah family finally gets back to land and the Paterfamilias heads into the hills to get drunk (that’s in the Bible, by the way), it’s that classic American sort of drinking. If the authors of the comic could have set that scene in a bar, with Noah confessing his sins to Moe Sizlack, that would be consistent with their image system.
And here we have the final, Christian theme, which is sin and redemption. For Noah, at least in this comic, that sin is personal, and so his the redemption. It’s great drama, as people have been telling the story for thousands of years, but the last bit of business of battling Tubal-Cain would have been better left on the drawing room floor.
Aronofsky’s Noah is in fact very much in line with his previous film work, focusing on “big” themes of sin and redemption, of obedience and indulgence and of the consequences of actions resonating through eternity. From Requiem for a Dream, through The Fountain and even The Wrestler, Aronofsky isn’t afraid to “go big”, so this story is not unfamiliar ground. Seemingly feeling the need to go “even bigger” here with the subplot involving human conflict is a curious and, to my mind, unnecessary choice but this story “makes its own gravy”, particularly with those of us who come from an Abrahamic religious background. Readers could choose to be offended, or they could choose to be inspired. I don’t feel either of those responses, personally. But I am intrigued and certainly admiring of the artistic ambition and skill it takes to bring a story like this out of the ancient past and into the present.