illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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Past Glories

Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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Who killed God? Chaos theory did it.

Writen by: Grant Morrison
Illustrated by: John J. Muth
Lettered by: Todd Klein
80 Page Graphic Novel
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo 1994
US $9.95
ISBN 1-56389-189-1

Reviewed By Damon Crumpler

Grant Morrison is known for writing dense, opaque allegories. THE MYSTERY PLAY is the strongest of these that I've read. I love it, but can't figure it out. It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a wombat. A nasty wombat that snarls and bites. But it's your fate to love that wombat. No, not in THAT way. Pervert.

In there beginning, there was darkness. Then came the light. Then clouds, and the spire of the building followed. Then, after an otherworldly scream, God enters, and Satan falls. As far as creation myths go, this one is a step in the right direction. It's also the beginning of THE MYSTERY PLAY, and serves its purpose there as well. Within short order, God is dead, and a police inspector is trying to solve the crime. In this case, God is actually an actor, whose role is in a series of plays called mystery plays, which interpret various stories from the Bible. The English village of Townely was producing these plays in an attempt to improve public morale, hit hard by a local recession. The murder of the actor playing God sets the stage for the rest of the novel, in which police detective Frank Carpenter tries to solve the mystery. Along the way, we meet the suspects, who include the town's mayor, the reverend, and, of course, Satan. And, just beneath him, the reporter for the town's paper.

Of course, since this is a murder mystery, all is not what it seems to be. There are the requisite revealing plot twists and turns, drama, suspense, police helicopters. What there isn't, however, is any sort of comprehensible ending. I've heard that Morrison refuses to explain the ending, saying that there are contextual clues within the body of work. Well, if there are, they've flown over my head, laughing gibbously with gleeful scorn and bald-faced derision. The bastards. And, just in case you aren't confused enough with the ending, Morrison adds a short epilogue to make things even more confusing. God bless him.

But that's okay. After years of therapy, I've stopped sending the mailbombs. See, THE MYSTERY PLAY is not about the murder mystery. It's about everything else instead. The book is one huge allegory. Rather, it's thousands of tiny little allegories, buzzing about and drilling into your brain, that Morrison continually beats us over the head with. Every other page, it's "God is dead", or "see things as a whole". This is what the book is about. The nature of God, and the god of nature. Neitzsche. In fact, considering the multiple references to God being dead, I'm surprised the old German philosopher isn't mentioned once, making the novel an odd mix of overkill and subtlety. For instance, he doesn't mention chaos theory by name. But Carpenter goes on and on about it throughout the book.

It's also about the police detective, and his secret past. In one sense, Carpenter's past fuels the book, and his quest for redemption relates to the rest of the story, culminating in the final scene which ties everything together, in a way which makes sense, yet is still incomprehensible. See, it's satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. This maddens me, and confounds my ability to say much about it without giving anything away. And I'm not gonna do that. So there.

I'm sure there are lots of other allegories I've missed. I know I missed a lot in his other works. But in THE MYSTERY PLAY, I still got a lot of what I did see. I suspect the book is a bit of a Rorschach test about it's meaning and nature, but what I saw in it made it worthwhile. It's something you can puzzle over, and argue endlessly about it with your other geeky friends. If you're not geeky or have no friends, then you'll have to argue about it with yourself. You'll have to.

Then there's Muth's artwork. Muth is a photorealist, but not a rigid one. In fact, his work is softer, and much better, than the more widely known Ross. He can capture a body's natural positions and facial expressions in a way that I've never seen Ross manage. One criticism many have about photorealistic artwork is that it's often stiff, and doesn't suggest motion in the way normal comics do, as it resembles a series of still life's rather than a flow of related images. Muth's work doesn't suffer that for several reasons. He uses a softer style that, while capturing people well, mutes the backgrounds, or softens the focus. His transitions between the more realistic style and the more ethereal fantasy sequences are seamless, especially during the mystery play segments.

I can't gush enough about Jon Muth's artwork. I'm tempted to keep writing paragraph upon paragraph about it, but to be honest I can't come up with enough different ways to say how great he is. In terms of style, he's among the top five artists doing comics today, and he's also excellent in his panel composition. Others might pass him in panel flow, or design, in which he is merely good, but none can top his sheer talent. And, like McKean and Sienkiewicz, isn't tied down to just one style of illustration. In THE MYSTERY PLAY, he's fairly uniform, but he does use some photographs, along with his photorealistic style, and as I've mentioned, switches at times to a more fantastical style. He also uses palette choices to alter the mood of scenes, something noteworthy only in how well he does it, especially since he generally uses a limited color scheme in the book.

I don't know how many of you don't read comics in general, or weren't weaned on superheroes, and are just casual browsers of the media. If there were a fair and just god, hundreds of you would be. Nay, millions. You would all be slavishly addicted to my reviews, worshipping my insight and wit. Regardless, I tend to review books which don't fall into the common perception of what comics are. THE MYSTERY PLAY is a good example of that. It's dense, it's beautiful, it's about things like religion and holism, and it's not easily describable or digestible. It has someone who looks like Sean Young in a prominent role, and it has crazy golf. So, it may not be perfect, but it's close to heaven on earth.

Highly Recommended

Damon Crumpler is an irregular contributor to PopImage. They can't keep him away, no matter how hard they try.

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