It’s been many, many months since I’ve done one of these, and my only excuse is that I’ve been too busy watching and writing about movies to re-read comics that I wanted to write about on Saturday. The last book I wrote about was Dynamite Entertainment’s Magnus (way back in August!), which sadly did not last very long as a series, but I’m going to continue to write about comics that might be of interest, because I’ve been a big booster of the medium as long as I’ve been writing for the internet.
Mind you, the reason I’m doing this sporadic “Essential Reading” column on Saturdays is not to sell you on buying the rights to turn the books I’m recommending into movies (though that would indeed be cool). Instead, I would hope you might seek out some of the books I’m recommending to hopefully inspire your own writing.
So let’s get to GOD COUNTRY, a six-issue series published by Image Comics that I feel epitomizes the best that the comics medium has to offer right now.
It’s written by Donny Cates and drawn by Geoff Shaw, two creators so hot that Marvel Comics hired them to write and draw its Thanos comic book, which is also worth reading, especially with the character being the prime baddie in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
But let’s get back to God Country, which was the first time I became aware of Cates, who is an absolutely fantastic writer. God Country is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, while at the same time, it could have just as easily been a story that was told using Thor and the gods of Asgard.
As you can tell from the title, the book involves gods, but it puts them in a very different context in West Texas. It centers around a family living in a remote area of rural Texas: Roy, Janey and their adorable young daughter Deena, who we meet as they’re dealing with Roy’s elderly father Emmett, who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s. Just as you’re adjusting to this being a family drama in the vein of Mudbound, replete with endless pouring rain, the area is then hit by a tornado that destroys their home and a sword called Valofax comes into the picture.
When Emmett gets his hands on Valofax, he’s no longer the frail and forgetful old man, but a brave and powerful warrior, and we learn that Valofax has a consciousness, and it picks who it wants to wield it. As expected, others want to get their hands on Valofax, particularly its creator, a God named Attum, who sends his sons to retrieve it.
First up is Aristus, a heroic God in the vein of Thor or Hercules, and he tries to reason with Emmett to give up the sword, although he’s hesitant to give up Valofax since it allows him to remember things. When that fails, Attum’s less polite son Balegrim, Lord of the Underworld, shows up at Roy’s home and kidnaps his daughter Deena, taking her down to Hell. Emmett and Valofax go after the girl for his second confrontation with a God, and that’s only the halfway point of the story.
So the basic story in God Country is about the possession of this amazing sword, but it’s also about the relationship between Roy and his father Emmett, and how they need to protect their family as they’re drawn into the battle to wield Valofax.
What’s really amazing about God Country is that it was written as a six-issue limited series with a beginning, middle and end, which is something fairly rare these days with comic book series that go on and on seemingly forever. (I’m talking to you, Robert Kirkman!)
The last issue of God Country ends the story in such a beautiful and emotional way it’s almost impossible not to get teary-eyed, and that’s not something that I can say about many (or any) comic books.
And then you get to Geoff Shaw’s art, which in my opinion is on par with Walter Simonson’s artwork on The Mighty Thor (and if you know how much I love that run, you’ll know that this is the highest compliment I can give any comic book artist.) But actually, it’s more in line with a cross between Sam Keith and Journey creator William Messner-Loebs. One of the reasons why I’m such a fan of the comic book medium is that you have many great storytellers on the writing side, but then you have artists who can create a one or two-page spread that’s suitable for framing. Shaw’s artwork falls into that category, and I wish I could find a suitable two-page spread to share without possibly spoiling some of the story. Also, big kudos to Jason Wordie, whose colors embellishes Shaw’s artwork rather than overpowering it.
The fact is that while everyone talks about Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as the height of the comics (or “graphic novel”) medium, they both feel dated compared to this wonderful story by Cates and Shaw that I’m absolutely shocked not only that it didn’t win the Eisner for limited series (or in other categories) but the sad fact is that it wasn’t even nominated! This tells me that not enough people in the comics industry read God Country, so I’m not sure how many people outside of it are even aware of its existence.
(I haven’t gotten around to reading Cates’ other Image book Redneck, but that involves vampires in the deep South, a bit like True Blood, and I have a feeling I’ll like it as much as God Country.)
Keep an eye on Cates, because with Brian Michael Bendis venturing over to DC Comics, there’s a vacuum at Marvel that’s looking to be filled by some of the talented newer writers that have come over to Marvel. Shaw should also have a long history as an artist, and hopefully he’ll be used in creative ways (as he is in Thanos).
That aside, God Country, which has been collected into a trade paperback, is one of the best recent comics I’ve read that seriously deserves way more attention than it’s received so far.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to do another one of these “Essential Reading” columns sooner rather than later, as I have a couple other books to recommend.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor