This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 31, 2015.
The Goddamned is biblical noir from Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra, the acclaimed creative team of the rez noirScalped. It’s a genre and mood the two both understand very well, even if the setting and inspiration are radically different. The Goddamned #1 is dark, gritty, and slathered in violence. Those traits don’t make it unique though, they simply place it within a genre, a well worn one. Once you look beneath the surface appeal of style and premise in this first issue, a staggering lack of depth or originality is revealed. This is a comic whose appeal can be found almost entirely on the cover, quickly waning with each page turn.
Guéra is first amongst equals (like Eduardo Risso and Wes Craig) when it comes to crafting comics visuals concerning human brutality and ugliness. He understands exactly how to exaggerate and enhance forms and compositions in order to maximize impact. The Bone Boys, a gang of troglodyte thugs and thieves, are wrapped in muscle and fat like warped blankets with faces that bulge. Guéra has drawn them to be 300 pounds of masculine id forced into a 200 pound body. Their terrifying appearance reveals everything that needs to be known about them in a single panel though. Cain is more refined, but the sharpness behind his features reveals something even more sinister. The talmudic settings crafted by Guéra are every bit as raw and informative. They lurch and roll as if just emerging from the ocean, sending trilobites scurrying back under water.
When crafting tone, Guéra’s work is impeccable. The action centerpiece of The Goddamned #1 leaves something to be desired though. There is an enormous fight sequence, composing about one-fourth of the issue. A lot of bodies hit the mud before it is over. Mid-way through, it’s unclear where the bodies are coming from or going. There are so many Bone Boys that, despite their varied appearances, they are impossible to distinguish or track. Instead they roll forward like generic villains in a side-scroller ready to be dispatched. There’s no tension, urgency, or momentum to the fight sequence, as it lets each action beat rest on its own merits.
Some of those individual beats work well on their own. Cain’s slow approach with a spinning blade leads to an excellent payoff in one understated panel. That level of creativity isn’t consistent, and gore is often used as a stand-in for creativity in the violence. Guéra makes the gore juicy too with blood leaping forth from wounds and weapons burying deep into these mens stout bodies. Even the depiction of long dormant bones hints at terribly cruelty in their making. The Goddamned#1 is a comic that prides itself on savage appearance and actions. If its characters must all be cold or unlikable, then the manner in which they dispatch one another must elevate the series. That happens in a few moments, but is never brought to a level that makes for a real selling or sticking point.
Giulia Brusco’s colors fit Guéra’s work perfectly. She encourages his dripping inks, coaching them out with stark, black shadows. She reserves any blending of colors for softer objects like flesh and sky. Meanwhile, the setting, objects, and any character in shadow are revealed in dark reliefs. The earthen palette of The Goddamned #1enhances the dirtiness and violence of the first issue. Everything from man to animal to tree feels as if it has just risen from the mud and might return there at any moment. Brusco manages to construct a potent mood for this series in her colors just as well as Guéra does in his compositions.
That raw feeling of human ugliness and dispassionate anger is The Goddamned at its best, working on a primal level. It’s style that is so well executed it is almost possible to ignore that nothing is being said or accomplished with it. The premise of biblical noir provides a wealth of characters and settings. Two significant names are dropped within the first issue, but neither amounts to much of anything.
Cain is the protagonist of The Goddamned #1, wandering the Earth cursed with eternal life. He is not a hero, but an archetypal (read: generic) anti-hero. He reads like Aaron’s Wolverine with any nuance or interesting details stripped away. Cain is callous, emotionless, and amoral. The comic begins with him rising from a pit of mud, then sees him engage in sparse verbal barbs and cold slaughter, before ending on a splash that looks impressive, but says nothing. If you were to slap a yellow costume on the man, it would be impossible to tell the difference.
This speaks to the lack of ideas in the script because Cain is a conceptually rich character. As the first murderer, a man cursed by god, an immortal wanderer, or any dozen of relatively unique points of view, Cain ought to be fascinating. Here the most engaging thing he manages to accomplish is to kill a few cavemen in a mildly interesting fashion. The Goddamned #1 is hung squarely on Cain’s shoulders and he shrugs off the comics’ opportunity to make its own mark by being the most boring version of himself that he can be.
The second significant Old Testament character is found in the final pages as a reveal. Yet his arrival does not mean anything in relation to Cain or the story so far. It forebodes events to come, but provides no reason to respond either to this foreshadowing or the man himself. Outside of providing a pair of recognizable syllables, the final pages fall entirely flat.
If there was ever any intention to comment on the brutality of the Old Testament, the nature of religion, or any concept more specific than “man, this is some pretty rough stuff, huh”, it’s not apparent in The Goddamned #1. The description provided in solicits is about as deep as the 32 page comic itself. There’s nothing to be found within the characters, concepts, or violence that cannot be easily found elsewhere with more reasons to recall it. For as heavy as The Goddamned feels, it is it noir fluff at its heart.