Jason Aaron’s The Goddamned is best described as a cross between the Bible and Mad Max, with all the brutality and wit that implies. But somehow it goes so far into the depths of inhumanity that it crosses over into being funny, and even joyful. There’s the spirit of a dare about the whole book, as if the creators are just pushing their imaginations as far as they can be pushed, well beyond the realm of bad taste. For example , an early scene in issue #3 features a flashback to just after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and Eve spits out the charming line, “Fuck you. The snake was more man than you are, you dickless coward.” Adam, serene and buff, simply cradles Cain in his hands and points out that the whole world is his for the taking. And what a world it is.
In the first three issues there was a certain amount of plot and dialogue, but for the most part The Goddamned focused on the style and the world that was being created. This time, we get some genuine plot momentum, with Cain’s sympathies being stirred by a young mother separated from her son. His default setting is cynicism (that’s the default setting of this entire universe), but he eventually comes around to believing that saving this boy from a gang of people who are evil and brutal even by the appalling standards of this world.
It wold be easy to dismiss The Goddamned as a long exploitative exercise in rendering out images of human cruelty, but there’s something deeper and more insightful at its heart. At one point Cain overhears the mother praying to God, and having had some personal insight into the workings of the supreme being, he advises her to “save your breath”. A conversation ensues in which she asks, “Do you think [God] can hear us anymore?” “He hears,” Cain answers, “He just doesn’t give a fuck.” We have to remember that Cain’s whole childhood was spent in a haze of perfect loving harmony, until, of course, he killed his brother and his parents got into trouble over a piece of fruit. Recall that it was Cain who was rejected by God in the original Genesis story, not the other way around. He brought offerings to the Lord and God said, “Meh”, which aroused his anger and pettiness, leading him to kill Abel and thus be given the mark of Cain. (The Goddamned has great fun speculating where that mark is actually situation on Cain’s body. He has to be nude in order for people to see it, which is a big hint.) The mark is, for those who need reminding, just a symbol of the fact that God has basically told Cain that no matter how hard he works or what he does, he will always come up short. He will always fail in life. He’s cursed to be a perpetual disappointment to himself and others.
God also, according to the original stories, doesn’t have that much sympathy for the rest of the human race either. We’re just before Noah, here, and frankly God wouldn’t have wiped out all the humans on the planet (save for Noah’s family) if things weren’t really, really bad. In that way, Aaron’s book (and rm Guera’s illustrations) aren’t so much indulgent as simply accurate. We get such a white-washed picture of the antediluvian world in Sunday School (at least I did), that this book might actually hold claim to representing what the Bible implies more accurately than many previous interpretations. Cain has a right to be angry and resentful. God, in the Old Testament, is often portrayed as a jealous and vindictive power that demands 100% loyalty and isn’t afraid to enforce this at the drop of a hat. Cain seems like the only person left on earth that has any knowledge of God’s existence and his power. (The young mother prays only because she remembers an older woman doing that years ago.) This is literally a land abandoned by God.
All that nihilism makes Cain’s decision to perform this one act of selfless sacrifice all the more remarkable. He agrees to help rescue the young boy (Lodo is his name) from ferocious looking people who intend to turn him into a source of cheap meat. Guera has great fun rendering out Mad Max-style scenes of desolation and discontent, complete with wooden cages and improvised weapons, and leads up to some brutal violence at the end of the issue. Cain, of course, denies that he is in any way good – when his lady friend says, “You’re a good man. I didn’t think those existed anymore,” Cain simply replies, “They don’t. They never have.” Once again: Cain’s experiences have made him this way. He has good reasons for believing the things he does.
The existential anger and cynicism of The Goddamned, combined with its obvious deep knowledge of Biblical history and theology, make it one of the most peculiar and in many ways refreshing of the current crop of comics. Like Jason Aaron’s other books Scalped and Southern Bastards, this one finds the humour and the insight in the most dire and impossible of settings. One can’t look away from its glorious ugliness.