The Goddamned is one of two major comics that have recently offered us a reimagined version of the Biblical character Noah. The other book — Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also made into a big budget movie — seemed gritty and violent at the time, but in retrospect it’s a very respectful and deeply spiritual statement about the epic power of Bible stories. The Goddamned is, by contrast, a violent charcoal sketch of the Bible and it has a Noah fitting for that environment, who gets a star turn in issue #4.
Our central character, Cain, spends much of this issue on a cross. Unlike a certain future figure with whom that form of execution is forever connected, Cain yearns for death, and in fact begs for release from the horrible earthly existence in a savage and violent antediluvian world. The ironic thing is that Cain cannot die, or even be seriously injured. In this issue he’s whipped, repeatedly crucified and even has his head smashed in with a giant hammer, only to survive it all with blonde locks and Greek physique intact. The message is rather clear: this world is the hell. He’s forever barred from heaven for his sin of committing the world’s first murder, and is forced to live for an eternity in a world where violence, rape and brutality are the order of the day.
The only way out of this hell on earth (or indeed, hell AS earth) seems to come from Noah himself. This Noah is a pure barbarian chieftain, complete with braided beard, loincloth, slaves and one heck of an earring. In the plain-speaking (literally “vulgar”) dialogue of The Goddamned, Noah lays out the situation for Cain: “You are the sinner who cursed the world. And I am the chosen one who will redeem it.” Far from the fatherly carpenter of the usual Biblical portrayal, this Noah uses slave labour and whips to build his ark, a symbol of his covenant with God (and it also gives writer Jason Aaron an excuse to use the deliciously rich term “Ark of the Covenant”). He knows Cain, and knows what he represents, but is in no way threatened by the son of Adam. Noah, as he is portrayed here, is supremely confident that God is on his side, and that he has carte blanche to do just about anything he likes with this broken and bruised world. Like religious fanatics of all stripes, Noah has no room for doubt, and seems to be having the best time of all, looking forward to the day when he can stand on top of his ark and gaze down upon the teeming masses of humanity being destroyed while he and those he chooses are saved. He doesn’t have the most generous of spirits, to say the least, but he knows that by the cold reality of their current situation, he’s a winner.
The real dramatic tension here is whether Cain can actually bring himself to pull out of his nihilistic funk and believe in something again. His conscience was somewhat pricked in the previous issue by encountering a woman who was searching for her lost child, pressed into the most breathtakingly horrible form of slavery the mind of a creative writer can conjure. It’s an encounter with this boy, Lodo, during one of Cain’s spells on a cross that finally becomes his tipping point. Somewhere in Cain’s wounded and angry heart, there is still a soul waiting to be reached. After all, the Bible is about sin but it’s also about redemption, and those wanting redemption, according to the rules, need to seek it out without actually seeking it out. (A tricky moral problem, not to mention a philosophical head scratcher.) By doing good deeds simply because it’s the right thing to do, rather than for personal gain, Cain is actually acting like a good man for once. This sort of thing tends to get noticed by Supreme Beings.
Aside from the narrative, and the spectacular grotesque art from rm Guera, with colours by Giulia Brusco, there are some fairly profound visual motifs here in issue #4. It was a bold move to introduce the very specifically Christian image of a beautiful man on a cross here, and to play it for all the ironic satire possible. When JC is on the cross many years later, there’s no hint that he could actually just hop down and beat up the Roman guards anytime he wanted, but here, Cain does just that and walks away, sporting the tightest white buns since Charlton Heston flashed the audience in Planet of the Apes. The religious implications are fairly clear: God wanted JC to die, but he wanted Cain to live, since that’s the best path to redemption for each of them. But from the perspective of western culture, to have a man literally climb off the cross and say “fuck it,” is quite a statement of defiance, freedom of will and control of one’s own destiny. In the end, that’s the attitude that shines through the pages of The Goddamned. We may be damned, but we’re still here, and we’re still kicking ass. It’s that sort of punk rock Christian revisionism that makes this book so appealing, and so refreshing.