4 out of 5
This is… close to being a masterpiece.
What has Jason Aaron proven to us so far? With Southern Bastards, we seem to be getting a homegrown study on – in different senses – loyalty. In Scalped, although I’m just digging into that, a culture-stained back alley tale dissecting degrees of corruption. The Goddamned, in its opening salvo, is again plucking at the flaws that make us human, but taking a crack at the root of that tree with a Biblical spin: Cain, the inventor of murder, has seen the world go awry in the wake of his actions. He wants to die. He cannot die. In The Goddamned, Jason Aaron starts to pull apart the protective shell that we live beneath: that we are good people, deserving of a good life.
And in all three series, he swears a hell of a lot.
Swearing can be effective, and it can establish a certain tone. Aaron’s swearing is not completely ineffective, and it most certainly does the latter, but it can come at a cost. I initially passed on Scalped when it came out because of its potty mouth, which a flipthrough suggested to me wasn’t justified by the text. Southern Bastards cast of (pardon the simplification) football dullards shared the same proliferation of profanity, but it felt right for the characters, especially matched with Jason Latour’s twisted pencils and the garish color schemes. I started to understand how Jason heard the world, and given that he has a preference for focusing on the dredges, the language can come with that. It’s still a big heavy-handed in Scalped, but armed with some expectations I was able to get past it and get hooked.
Goddamned opens with Cain being awoken in a literal pool of shit by a boy pissing on him. The discussion that ensues involves plenty of blue language, as does… everything else in the series. This world, ‘before the flood,’ is a horror-show of dirt and rain and skulls and murderers and rapists. It’s dirty. It’s vile. It’s run by humans, acting – as the script tells us – as they are ought to do. And so I can understand that the excessive four-letters are part of that, or perhaps a shorthand representation for how base it all is. With a massive assist from the scrawled-looking lettering of Jared K. Fletcher, Aaron’s use of language in the book does establish tone. But so does everything else: the nature of the story, r.m. guera’s every-page-a-painting art, Giulia Brusco’s ominous yet earthy colors… and so tone, yes, but the vulgarity soon becomes ineffective. Some of it is used, I would say, purposefully for that very effect, an over-saturation to paint an even more dire picture, but when Aaron flips back to badass one-liner voice here and there and uses the same words, that effect becomes inconsistent. And criticizing from a different perspective, the modernness of the language was something of an immersion breaker. There isn’t necessarily a good way around any of this, but we’ve come to expect naughty language from Jason, and so it’s sort of aw-shucks to think that a writer not so ingrained to that might’ve found that good way.
Now I’ve talked about that for quite a bit, but man oh man – everything else in the book blows way past that nit. And if there the other mentioned series’ were / are maybe just dark tales that have potential for bigger concepts, there’s no doubt that Goddamned is already conceptually robust. As a counterpoint, I’m currently reading through Preacher, and there’s never been any mystery regarding Garth Ennis’ preoccupation with religious hypocrisy, and the moral grayness of mankind. But he uses a lot of words to examine the matter, or there’s a very violent component to the tale to punctuate his expressions – a la Crossed and Punisher MAX. (Both of which, mind you, I would tag as the writer’s best works and fantastic – and fantastically bleak – reading.) What I admired so much while reading Goddamned is how little Jason was directly saying to tell his tale. He puts a point on it at the end, but even then it’s very distilled; very much only what needs to be said and no more. I’d also say that Ennis’ agenda in those titles is pretty clear, and then his arcs are about poking and prodding at that agenda via different characters or perspectives. But interestingly, for as downtrodden a point of view as Goddamned would seem to have – which could be summed up as people suck – and having stated its thesis implicitly and explicitly across these five issues, it doesn’t just feel like we’re waiting for Aaron to pick on us some more in future issues: it feels like there’s actually more to be said and thought on the matter. Which is exciting.
The Goddamned is a wallop of a read. Every other page is signed by guera, which is a little off-putting, but lord, the art is disgustingly stunning and deserves whatever it’s being sold for. The layouts, the pacing, the colors, the letters all combine for a moralistic beatdown, but one that doesn’t just end with finger-pointing; Cain still has places to go. I do hope Jason figures out how to wash out his mouth at some point, but even the excessive language can’t distract from how powerful this first arc is.