Saturday, 12 July 2014

Original Sin

(Being a discussion of the sixteenth arc of Lucifer. Spoilers from jump, you lovely people.)

It’s now been almost a dozen issues since Yahweh left the Silver City, and sooner or later we were going to have to stop dancing around the elephant-shaped hole in the room. We’ve had the comic relief to catch our breath, we’ve explored Lucifer’s immediate response, and we’ve taken a stroll through the distant past to gain some context on this story’s final act.

It’s time to get to work.

The immediate and burning question is, naturally, how? It would be a complete misreading of the comic up to now to describe Yahweh as the title’s villain, but he was certainly the ultimate protagonist, and now he’s gone. What is there out amongst his creation that can fill his role?

To some extent the answer to that is simple: the antagonist now is God’s absence itself. Whilst he was here he caused all sorts of trouble for Lucifer, but his disappearance raises the small issue of the total inevitable destruction of his Creation. But, whilst that’s obviously pretty bad news for all involved, it isn’t actually enough. It isn’t enough for Lucifer, who gives Daddy’s model train set scarcely more thought than he did the Mansions of the Silence. And it isn’t enough for us, either, or at least for a lot of us. Natural disasters, however triggered and however wide in scope, tend not to work in comics, where the spectacle you can generate in a disaster movie is rather trickier to pull off.  In our little frozen pictures, we like an enemy with anima.  We like our foes to have fangs.

And so: enter Fenris, our villain for much of what remains of Lucifer’s run. There's a line of argument here that suggests this is a bit of a problem, in that after fifty issues of exploring the severed (but never severed entirely) links between Lucifer and his father, this is something of an extreme turn which runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (with God playing the role of bathwater in this rather strange metaphor).

It’s an odd thing to admit, but I always feel a little bit sorry for Fenris here.  I mean, I get it: after you’ve spent almost fifty issues reading about the struggle between Lucifer and God, replacing the main antagonist with someone who never featured in the comic up to that point (indeed I’m not sure he even gets a mention)  feels a bit like we’re watching one of those TV shows that gets a last-minute reprieve and has to introduce a whole new villain because the story had reached its conclusion.  Think Stargate: SGI replacing the Goa’uld with the Ori, or – appropriately enough – Supernatural completing its Lucifer arc and having to create the Alphas, Eve, and ultimately the Leviathans (admittedly this example is more recent than the comic under discussion). It's very hard to run this play without the end result feeling a little jarring. 

But how reasonable a criticism is this? Isn't the only alternative to an unannounced late arrival would be to show everyone's father of a sun-swallower earlier on twiddling his digital pads waiting for Yahweh to hurry up and leave the house so he could wreck up the place like a mischievous puppy?  It’s not remotely tough to see how that wouldn’t have worked.
That’s only half a defence, though, because it simply states this is the best way to introduce a new antagonist for Lucifer conditional on Yahweh leaving.  If we’re to properly consider the abrupt turn the title takes in its final third, we need to talk about how successful a move God’s abdication is in the context of the story’s structure.

My feelings on this are mixed.  The obvious point to make here is that Lucifer is in many ways a family drama, much like its parent series Sandman (notice how Lucifer and his brother are never closer than after the loss of their father, just as Morpheus’ funeral brought his family closer together than they had been for a very long time). The difference is that whilst Gaiman focused on what you do when the approaches and attitudes you consider essential to your being manifestly aren’t working any more – on the character doing the abdication – Carey focuses on the responses of those who are left behind. Necessarily, this requires a seismic shift; if the patriarch walking out doesn't change pretty much everything, you're not doing your job right. Moreover, Lucifer’s familial structure is multi-generational, as oppose to Sandman’s squabbling siblings, and the nature of such stories is that sooner or later the elder generation has to pass away, and problems and responsibilities the younger generation had never conceived of suddenly become immediate and all-consuming.

All of that is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a clear problem here: Lucifer hasn’t the slightest interest in dealing with his father’s duties. He’s very clear on the fact that he’s perfectly happy with the idea of all of Yahweh’s Creation collapsing into nothingness. This doesn’t matter quite as much as it once would have, since Elaine Belloc is taking a larger and larger role in the proceedings, and neither she nor Michael intend to sit on their heavenly hands. Still, considering the nature of the story up until this point – and remembering whose name the comic bears – the idea that Lucifer will respond to the destruction of the original Creation with nothing but a shrug is rather implausible.

And so along lopes Fenris to threaten Lucifer’s cosmos, and force our protagonist into action. Reasonable people can disagree on whether this feels too much like authorial fiat, but that's not an argument that interests me, because even beyond it, the end result of this is not completely satisfactory. The idea that Yahweh’s absence is an opportunity for lesser gods to act out is clearly a good one, but the unavoidably corollary to that is that we’ve downgraded in terms of who Lucifer stands in opposition to, a fact which isn’t really countered by the higher stakes we’ve suddenly found ourselves playing for (really it’s the opposite; Rules of Fiction 101 tells us that the greater the level of threat the more we can be sure it will never actually come to pass).

But then Fenris’ insufficiency was always baked into the cake, and not just because we’re never entirely sure his desire to destroy Creation is doing anything more than hastening what Yahweh has already made inevitable.  For all the aspects of Sandman that I loved, I was immensely disappointed when the bewildering array of gods and demigods in their swirling, Byzantine patterns were declared to all pale into insignificance compared to the God of the Covenant.  There’s no point hiding my cards here, so I’ll be blunt: I am sick to death of contemporary fantasy stories that place the Abrahamic God at the top of the pyramid.  It’s not hard to understand why he so often features in such stories (indeed his conspicuous near-absence from, say, American Gods is irritating in itself; special treatment through omission is still special treatment).  It’s the suggestion of unique might that rankles, as though the fact he happens to be top dog in all the places Western literature gets written should translate across all of reality.  You don’t need to say something familiar is uniquely important in order to write about its importance from your perspective.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story in which Yahweh takes his place amongst equals, both in terms of his power/importance and the time he spends in the narrative, portrayed neither as a calf to be worshipped [1] nor an elephant to be avoided. When Gaiman chose to go the Silver City uber alles route he made his fantastical universe a little less interesting and unconstrained. The very bones of his world were shaken.  Destiny stopped being an askance look at the nature of determinism, and instead becomes, as Lucifer says here, a mere side-effect.  The idea that God created the Endless - even if it was less in the way humanity created factories and more like how we created global warming – is the most boring origin imaginable for entities I’d always seen as being more than that. I once got into trouble for blocking out other staffroom conversations with an animated discussion of the proper order for the Endless to coalesce; did I annoy all those geography teachers for nothing?

Up until now, this problem hasn’t really affected Lucifer all that much. After all, a book in which the title character’s father is the most important god makes strong thematic sense, if nothing else.  It’s only here, as the narrative is pushed outwards, that we realise it must necessarily descend at the same time.

All of this doesn’t deal with Fenris specifically, of course. We should probably do that, by way of noting how popular the Norse Gods seem to be when choosing non-Christian mythologies to bring into the present day. Marvel’s Thor, the Doctor Who stories “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” and “The Curse of Fenric”, the aforementioned Stargate: SGI, Supernatural, and American Gods; it’s by no means a small list, and it’s worth asking why that is. After all, the Norse spent far less time as a trans-European concern than did the Romans and Greeks (the only other European peoples to enjoy a pantheon so regularly mined in fiction). I also refuse to believe that, wonderful though they are, there is some uniquely impressive quality to the stories of the Norse that other cultures simply lack – I’ve dipped in to too much of the gorgeously dark and sinister Welsh mythology to believe that.

Unfortunately I utterly lack the historical perspective necessary to unravel all this in full.  In more recent years, it’s probably safe to suggest it’s mainly exposure bias; everyone knows who Thor and Loki and Odin are, so it’s easy to appropriate them for your own story. More to the point, everyone who ever actually worshipped them as literal beings is now dead, so there’s a limit to how many people you can offend (though making Heimdall black was somehow still beyond the fucking pale for an awful lot of people [2]). Whether any of that factored into Carey's thinking, I've no idea, and have no intention of speculating. Regarding the specific point that we've been down this Scandinavian road many times before,  it’s worth noting that the use of Loki in volume 5 carried great weight, as I argued at the time. Carey took one the three beings most directly responsible for the death of the parent title’s eponymous hero and had his spin-off protagonist help him escape punishment in exchange for a ship. At the time I argued this was a deliberate reminder that Lucifer’s needs and tactics made him fundamentally unsympathetic no matter how unpleasant his enemies might be, but it fulfils two other roles in addition. Firstly, it reminds us of the Norse pantheon’s strong presence in this fictional world, and reminds us that as its spiritual offspring, Lucifer will both echo and kick against Sandman. If Loki brought about the end of Morpheus, might Fenris finally be the one to take down Lucifer?

In short, then, if Carey is treading a well-worn path in his choice of new antagonist, well, there are good reasons for that; for all that, say, another sojourn in the realms of the Japanese kami might have been interesting, the Norse pantheon is what he was presented with. Besides, I’m not aware of anything in the Shinto mythology that matches Fenris for sheer balls-out destructive force (Susano-o-no-Mikoto coming closest, to my knowledge).  And that’s clearly the goal here, hence why his two companions are so unpleasant. Bet Jo’gie is a Navajo goddess best known for seducing young men and then crushing their testicles, and Abonsam is a Ghanaian trickster spirit so unpleasant there’s an entire festival day dedicated to telling it to piss off.  These are not pleasant deities.   

Nor, crucially, are they particularly current, at least in terms of the positions they once enjoyed.  Fenris’ culture is dead.  The number of people in Ghana self-identifying as holding to traditional religions is at under 4% and dropping fast. And whilst I won’t make the mistake of suggesting the Navajo are anything less an ongoing concern than any other culture - not here will you find a buying into the idea that Native Americans are peoples of the past – it’s a sad fact that there are fewer people living in the Navajo Nation than belong to the Church of Scientology (a Lucifer story in which Fenris is helped out by Tom Cruise was, alas, never forthcoming).  Why does that matter? Because it means the gods of the past are rising to challenge their successors, just as in their own way did the Voiceless Gods that kicked this whole thing off.  

That comparison is useful, actually. In “The Morningstar Option” we watched how Lucifer handled the return of forgotten Gods whilst the universe was still very much running according to the new rules.  This time the universe is running according to no rules, and instead of Lucifer having to chafe against Yahweh as he battles the resurrected deities, it looks like it will Elaine who has to fight the battle with Lucifer’s equally uncertain and self-interested support.

This, by the way, is why Michael had to die.  Lucifer had only his father above him. Elaine now has only Lucifer. Marx was only partially correct.  History sometimes repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as tragedy again. It can be mistaken as farcical only by those people without skin in the game, which as of the burning of Yggdrasil is no-one anywhere. And if it’s hard to understand how Yggdrasil can simultaneously be an object from a forgotten, supplanted religion secondary to the true creator and the focal point for all creation, well, if I want an endless interwoven pantheon of pantheons I can’t complain when the result escapes my ability to process it.  

Which I think pretty much wraps things up here. If there is a case to be made against "The Wolf..." over the abrupt shift in focus, it's fair to argue that we're dealing here with the sins of the father. And if that doesn't slot seemlessly into what Lucifer has been doing since its first issue, then what the hell could?

[1] Yes yes, I know. Irony, bitches.

[2] Terrible, terrible people, obviously.

No comments: