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Wednesday: [weds] Falling Out of Love with the God Shot II (Interlude: Background)

[The divine time machine is from There's A New World Coming by Al Hartley and Hal Lindsey.](I'm afraid this isn't much about comics, but please bear with me. If I don't write some of this down, I feel like I'll be doing the rest of the Chick piece a disservice.)

I became interested in religion on a recreational basis at roughly the same point in my life I first became seriously involved with it. Once someone's made a good faith effort to throw demons out of your head, arguably unsuccessfully, it's really hard to take anything entirely seriously again.

"Recreational religion" is a difficult concept to convey. As I said, everyone has their comfort trash. There's a phenomenon -- and, really, we're all in the teapot here; we've seen the storms -- whereby it's desperately easy to take some insignificant thing very, very seriously when you get too close. On occasion, the most sensible way to cope with things is to do exactly the opposite: step away from the big dogs and laugh.

It has nothing to do with disrespect, except inasmuch as it's hard to respect stuff which is doing its best to exploit a state of indecision or inquisitiveness. There's meaning well, and then there's the service of agenda. "Unintentional metahumour," perhaps, if that wasn't such a bloody pretentious way of putting it, with a side order of what?!

Missionary zeal often has trouble making the transition to popular media, which is part of what can make it so entertaining. Or so disastrous. The most unsettling material, for my money, is the stuff where you realize, no, the person really has gone off the edge. They are deadly earnest, they are incredibly serious, and they cannot grasp why you have completely lost your shit. You must know this laugh: it's ever so slightly nervous. You put up your own field of lunacy so that you can pass through theirs intact.

It's not always the stuff you can check for glorious internal consistency, either. I always seem to bring up the same examples, which is frustrating; it feels rather like concentrating on poorly executed Christianity, not poorly executed religion. (There's just such a wealth of material. I'd love to hear about stuff from other faiths which pulls this sort of thing off; I know from neopaganism, but I fall short in other respects. Anyhow.)

That said, American rapture cinema is so representative of the condition, whether or not one's taking up the campy pulp of the seventies (the feel of which was captured perfectly by Chick and Carter in The Last Generation) or the glossy, overproduced-yet-cheap shite from the past ten or so years (Omega Code, Left Behind/Tribulation Force, that sort of thing). On the one hand: what?! On the other hand: and you're playing this straight while you what?! I figure this must have been the reaction everyone but Hal Warren had to Manos: The Hands of Fate when it came out. (The viewing experience is, I assure you, not dissimilar; there are, for example, only so many ways you can depict Torgo's little altar to Ba'al, let alone your demonic harem. Especially without the MST3K track. "Beat! Beat!" indeed... but I digress.)

Another shot from the divine time machine.The old Spire comics do a fantastic job with this as well. I don't know how common this was for a lot of people growing up -- I'm told the answer is "quite" for certain pockets of North America -- but there does come a point where, after you've gone through all of the used bookstores in town, you really have just run out of Archie. The next step is dangerous: you wander, innocently, into your local purveyor of Precious berloody Moments and find the stuff which just isn't canonical.. Weatherbee bussing everyone out of the school district to pray? Reggie the swell, swell guy? Veronica unsexed? A vibrant Big Ethel?!

And that way lies madness. Madness and adaptations of Nicky Cruz's street punk phase. Madness and Hansi. The common threads are this bafflingly earnest bombast, the sense that someone has had what seemed to them a fantastic idea spun out long past its logical conclusion, and the creepily dawning concept that your soul's relative value has just diminished by dint of coming into contact with their goals.

(Also, Big Ethel. I mean, what?!)

There are really only two directions in which one can go with trainwreck material along these lines: really pulpy, awful dreck (there's a classic of deliverance ministry, Pigs in the Parlor, which works for this; Salem Kirban's elliptical perspective hops are great here, too, and there's an apostolic TV show coming out of San Francisco which is killer) or stylish, slick delivery that just somehow misses the mark (like the Spire comics, any of the Hal Lindsey/Johanna Michaelsen antioccultism materials, Bob Larson at his peak...).

Part of the point is recognizing, without actually acknowledging or submitting to, the innate power of the work. This actually makes the materials very difficult to effectively satirize. The Landover Baptists of this world, and sometimes even the Lark Newses, ultimately fail by flaunting the power instead of flirting with it. Beat the same drum too hard, too often, and the rhythm gets lost. This is also where The Wittenburg Door has been known to fall down in recent years, although they still pull some admirable turns.

This is also what makes the middle ground so very difficult to really enjoy, inasmuch as one enjoys such things. There is such a glut of mediocrity in this vein, and there are so many people with a middlingly unremarkable case of agenda. With most forms of entertainment, study, self-initiation, or whatever you're up to that can possibly correspond, you're wading through dreck to get to what you need, and that's irritating on its own. Here, you're also wading through a mass of grasping hands; I don't know about you, but I have one hell of a huge concept of personal space.

So, when a star falls from the firmament into tedium, it's always a shame. You have the older materials, of course, but what now? Where the hell is this going? Do we stick around and see if it gets better? Or worse?

I usually do. I'm nothing if not loyal.

(Illustrations are from the Hal Lindsey/Al Hartley Spire comic There's A New World Coming. Eric should be back tomorrow, Kyriotate willing and the creek don't rise. I'll be yelling at screens for the next couple days, then yammering something about Bob (for real next time). Takeover! resumes after God Shot IV: Officer Carter and the Squandering of Ms. Henn.)

Posted by Wednesday Burns-White at March 21, 2005 5:32 PM


Comment from: Lyndon W posted at March 21, 2005 9:59 PM

I used to think those comics where intentionally funny as a young lad.

Comment from: mckenzee posted at March 21, 2005 10:33 PM

Wasn't Scarface a Spire comic? Man, I remember those... and Nicky Cruz.

Comment from: miyaa posted at March 22, 2005 1:13 AM

I remember reading those religious Archies in a Christian Bookstore, and then thinking that this was the same guy who supposedily also drew naked versions of the characters in very compromising positions for his own collection. If I'm wrong about that, I would welcome to be corrected on it.

The problem with these, and pretty much a lot of Christian graphic novels is that they still think of it as appealing to a young unsophiscated audience. Even the adult written fiction is seen to aim for an audience that is considered to be less elitists. And to some extent, the Left Behind series still has some roots in that in both the children and the adult versions.

Trying to turn essentially religious education into something hip and fun is too often a near impossible task, which is also true for using cartoons for trying to educate children on a particular subject. I think the two cartoons that did the best job were the Schoolhouse Rock series and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

If they can give such religious graphic novels a decidedly adult feel and maturity, as the movie the Passion of the Christ can surely attest to, perhaps you'll find something really worth while to praise.

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at March 22, 2005 9:39 AM

I think miyaa may have hit the nail on the head--my own experience with similiar things as a kid mostly involved looking at such things and thinking "You just have no idea what kids are thinking about, do you?"

The classic of this genre was some little illustrated newsletter handed out at Sunday School, which always included a moral tale of some child's crisis. The one that sticks in my mind was the story of a kid who got enough Christmas money for a basketball, but knew that he should *gasp* tithe ten percent! But then he couldn't afford the basketball! Oh, horrors! The story followed him for two sleepless nights as he writhed in moral agony over whether or not to tithe, then finally did so and felt much better, whereupon Jesus put a used basketball in his path.

You can't make shit like this up. Except obviously somebody did. I read it, thinking "Dude. Kids are SO not worried about tithing. Get a grip," which may have been my first moment of literary criticism as well, now that I think about it.

Chick tracts, whatever their failings (and god knows, there are plenty) didn't have that problem. They might be condescending and freakish, but they're condescending and freakish on a whole different level. You don't get the feeling that they're dumbed down for the kiddies so much as that Chick really does live in a mental world where things are crisply black and white and people speak with biblical footnotes. And he never, ever tried to be hip.

It's probably weird to give Chick credit for being true to his particular vision, but in a sense, you gotta admire that. Sort of.

Comment from: William_G posted at March 22, 2005 11:03 AM

Gotta give the Spire artists some props, though... Good looking stuff. I guess you can polish a turd after all.

Comment from: John posted at March 22, 2005 11:31 AM

Nice analysis, Wednesday. You can be very insightful when you stop trying so hard to be James Joyce.

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