[12 August 2009]
If nothing else, Christian Northeast’s first book is certainly different from any other comic that has come out recently. Prayer Requested, as Northeast points out himself on the back cover, are “prayers found on the internet,” which are then illustrated by Northeast, a frequent illustrator for such publications as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney’s. Essentially the book functions on this theme, and different prayers of varying tones are given a visual component.
Northeast’s illustrations are largely appealing and well-put together, and the notion of using internet prayers is certainly a novel one, but despite its aesthetic slickness and original subject matter, Prayer Requested comes of feeling a little uninspired and flat.
Maybe it is the fact that his background is in illustration that drove Northeast to use found material as the text for his first book. Whatever the reason, the text is perhaps the most flawed aspect of Prayer Requested. The prayers that Northeast chooses to include run the gamut from praying for relief from illness to praying that “Jesus will keep me busy with crafts to do, so I can stop sinful thoughts.” Even with the less bizarre or oddly-phrased prayers that Northeast chooses (and there are many strange prayers he chose for inclusion), his illustrations seem to retain the same absurdist, brash qualities, complete with dizzying patterns and neon colors. It often comes of as if he slapped the prayer text on to pre-existing illustrations he did that seem only marginally referential to the text.
For instance, in one of the longer prayers that is included a person asks that people pray for a sick rabbit that must undergo “exploratory gut surgery.” The specificity of the prayer renders it somewhat absurd, but the subtext is a lonely person is in real danger of losing a beloved pet and has sought out support via an internet prayer community. Northeast illustrates the prayer with an enormous cartoon rabbit with seemingly random numbers and pictures collaged around it.
Beyond the connection of the rabbit, the text and picture work in parallel, not touching or commenting on each other at all. Many other prayers illustrations almost seem to mock the prayers they are married up with, giving the book an overall sort of flippant feel. In this way, Prayer Requested seems sort of cowardly as it sneers and guffaws at other’s sincerity while it offers up nothing revealing or sincere about itself or its author.
In the end, the decision to use prayers off the internet comes off feeling a bit like a gimmick. While an interesting concept, there is no exploration of how prayers might take on new life in cyberspace or how the internet has changed the way in which religious communities are formed in the first place. It seems like the subject matter of internet prayers was only chosen for the sake of novelty, or even maybe randomly chosen. If Northeast has interest in this specific phenomenon and what it might mean in our culture at large, it isn’t apparent in the pages of Prayer Requested. That is to say, Prayer Requested seemingly accomplishes nothing beyond giving us an often all too personal look into other people’s lives which isn’t really anything we couldn’t have dug up ourselves with a good search engine.
The illustrations in Prayer Requested are, as mentioned before, very appealing and interesting to examine, but they perhaps would have been better left without text. They save the book from being a complete throwaway and are quite well put together. Northeast’s lettering, too, is well-designed and interesting throughout the book, and these talents combined its no wonder that Northeast has succeeded as an illustrator for various magazines and news publications. Bolstered by the illustrations, Prayer Requested ends up hitting a middle note, and perhaps with a better or more sparing usage of text, Northeast’s sophomore effort will improve upon and highlight the strength of the illustration skills seen in his first book.