comics, comics criticism, writing

Image Comics’ Ordinary Gods Questions Heroism and Mythmaking

Comics are often synonymous with superheroes; they dominate the industry whether you like it or not. Their myths and their tropes and their cycles of stagnation, reinvention, and their inevitable return to the way things Always Are. Heroes win, and more important than that: they are heroes. There is comfort in them; I am a fan of them. I don’t begrudge the status quo in and of itself. But often these demands and these cycles hide the hard truths of the industry that creates these stories, the way the corporate sponsors of these lucrative properties exploit and stifle the creators they rely on for their tentpole films and licensing initiatives. The heroes and gods are the myth, but the reality is as ordinary and petty and deflating as any other industry, with its dark secrets and interpersonal frustrations. While Ordinary Gods is not a superhero story, their dominance of the medium and the expectations readers bring to the comics reading experience are inescapable.

Ordinary Gods is a new creator owned series by the red-hot writer Kyle Higgins and artist Felipe Watanabe. Higgins looks to explore and unmask these ideals of heroism and take a harder look at the truth. It serves as a commentary not only on our human tendency for myth-making and hero-worship more broadly but also a metatextual commentary about the comics industry itself that channels his professional frustration of the work for hire system into a cosmic, eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Christopher is 22, he has a decent but passionless job, a loving family with two parents, and a 12-year-old sister. What he does not know is that inside him is the soul of an immortal, one of five from a reality beyond ours, leaders in an eternal War of the Immortals. As punishment for leading a rebellion against a despotic leader, they have been trapped on Earth, a planet made into a prison. They are doomed to live an endless cycle of death and reincarnation as living creatures. To break the cycle, Christopher has been drafted by other immortals, because their leader lives in him.

After the opening scene, a violent introduction to the end of his previous life, we meet Christopher in therapy, in a scene illustrated with great empathy by Watanabe. These are text-heavy pages but balanced well with a strong command of facial expressions. The panels stick largely to close-up images of the main character but are broken up with quieter panels absent of text, where Watanabe pulls out to show Christopher and his therapist smaller on the page. These moments allow the heavy text to feel more manageable on a visual scale and provide Christopher a chance to be heard and absorbed.

In this scene, Christopher alludes to his depression and an attempt to take his own life. He explains that the thing that made him reach out for help was a poster of his favorite superhero character, the Red Rebel. The poster has been in his room since he was 12. The realization that his favorite hero was only created to “screw the creator of the Rebel out of their royalties,” made him think of the lost innocence of his youth. Staring at the Red Rebel, he could not bring himself to be responsible for exposing his 12-year-old sister to the harsh reality of the world before adulthood forces it upon her. He wants her to live in the same blissful ignorance of his childhood when the only thing he knew about the Red Rebel was how cool he looked.

This divergence into a story about a superhero character and the creators’ rights questions is an important point not just for Christopher’s character and the love he holds for his sister, but for the overall themes at work in this first issue. Kyle Higgins has not been shy about the difficulties and struggles of the work-for-hire structure of superhero comics. The truth of how the sausage is made can scrape these heroes of their grandeur and the ideals they are meant to represent. Comics is a business founded on the exploitation of the people who make them. It relies on using creators to develop stories, then discards them and exploits the ideas in perpetuity. How can we hold these characters as models of virtue when the truth behind them is so often so demeaning to the real people behind it?

Ultimately, the heroes are not real—only the people who tell their stories. Broken, flawed, ordinary people. To live in the world, to consume media, to exist at all, is to recognize that many of the stories we tell and are told about how the things we encounter came to be are just that: stories. They are told to justify the violence, the exploitation, the petty squabbles that have brought each of us to where we are. America as a concept as much as anything else is founded on genocide and exploitation. In this, Ordinary Gods is a product of our ever-unfolding and deteriorating postmodern condition, where the metanarratives we clung to in the past to provide meaning to our experience are cast aside and recognized as imperfect and insufficient. We have witnessed our institutions buckle, our labor exploited, and capital bring ruin to the planet.

Higgins smartly avoids using gods of any specific mythology, instead, his immortals embody general concepts that govern human experience; Love, savagery, strength, sorrow, envy, intelligence, and others. By doing so he universalizes the narrative. Notably, the immortal spirits are all presented as white figures, which, if intentional, could be a pointed commentary on colonialism, particularly as they so often seem to inhabit the bodies of minorities or persecuted peoples. If it is unintentional it is a regrettable oversight from the creators that can make some of the events of the first issue uncomfortable.

Ordinary Gods is explicitly not a story about heroes, but of taking down heroic myth-making and stripping away the metanarratives that have defined our society. The same spirit lived in Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Stalin. Existence is an illusion of freedom as we are trapped in cycles of violence both large and small. The gods are forever killed and reborn only to be killed again as they begin to realize their true nature. Watanabe presents these intrusions of Christopher’s past lives by small panels that overlap the rest of the story as if they are unwanted images in Christopher’s mind of the many ways he has died before. But they also act as a drumbeat of the issue’s violent midpoint, a haunting echo that acts as a warning siren.

Just as the myth of the Red Rebel was broken for Christopher by the harsh truth of the comics industry, Higgins defies easy classifications for the gods themselves, neither good nor evil, but enmeshed in eternal violence that leaves the death of innocents in its wake. The motives for the immortals’ rebellion are nominally against tyranny, but as the earth becomes a pawn in their war, and as the eternals use violence and human conflict to further their ends, there seems to be little righteousness to their cause.

It is a violent book that doesn’t shy away from the darkness and the human toll of its violence. It doesn’t glorify the killing within, but by showing the gruesome results of the action, the reader is forced to reckon with the human toll of the immortals’ violence and the way it exploits the people in their wake. They say it is for freedom, but it is for their own, not the emancipation of others. The gods are not heroically out to break the cycle for the good of humanity. They only want their freedom back. Christopher, as a human, as a unique being unaware of his godly heritage, faces the emptiness within himself and longs to take control of his destiny, but the eternal soul within him longs for her revenge, the right to make her decisions and impose her will upon creation.

Watanabe’s art is a strong complement to these themes, able to balance the epic war of the gods and the small human moments with equal command and a focus on the humanity behind the events. His gods evoke a science fiction fantasy mash-up that reads as an homage to Jack Kirby’s superheroic tales, with geometric patterns and dramatic capes that remind the reader of superhero stories in their iconography. The thick lines that are a hallmark of heroic tales are absent, instead, Watanabe’s linework is sketchy and thin which gives the story a grittier, rough texture that is particularly effective in selling the violent scenes. Frank Williams gives the story a more muted palette, avoiding primaries in favor of a more desaturated and muddled look that robs any of the characters from traditional visual codes of heroism.

These visuals choices further Higgins’ skeptical story. By projecting our ideals upon individuals who are as ordinary and broken as we are, by mythologizing them, we obscure the harsh truths and the struggles of the ordinary people behind those myths. We do it to make our way through the world, but ignoring those harsh truths allows cycles of exploitation to continue, as they do so often in the mainstream comics industry. As a first issue, Ordinary Gods delivers high concepts and plenty of background exposition but its strength is in its mining of the human condition. It wrestles with these heavy questions of mythmaking, breaks down our penchant for hero-worship, and invites us to reckon with how these things limit our individual freedoms for the sake of comfort.

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