So what would you do if your best friend became virtually indestructible? More to the point, what would your friend do? Comics have been concerned with the actions of superheroes since nearly the first days of the genre, but it’s only relatively recently that their true motives have been explored with any kind of depth. A God Somewhere is the most recent of these, and in many ways, one of the best.
The surface story can be summarized in a few sentences. Blonde dude Eric lives through a mysterious explosion that tears his apartment building to pieces, killing most of its tenants but leaving him mysteriously unscathed. More than that, it leaves his with powers — superhuman strength, virtually impenetrable skin, the ability to fly. At first, Eric is hailed as a hero who rescued the few remaining survivors of the explosion, but before long, he begins to turn sour. Really sour.
Is Eric a god? He certainly seems to think so. Before long he’s kicking ass and taking names, knocking helicopters out of the sky, demolishing entire army brigades. The Congress declares war against him, personally. He has transformed from a Good Guy to a Bad Guy astonishingly fast. Or has he? Is it even possible to think of Eric as a “guy” anymore, as any kind of human being? Has he evolved into something else?
If this is reminding you of the Dr. Manhattan storyline in Watchmen, well yes, there are similarities. But A God Somewhere gets much uglier much faster. The story is divided into four quarters, each 48 pages long, and by the second quarter we’re seeing horrible things. Eric has transmuted into something inhuman, or at least non-human, possibly anti-human. From there it only gets worse.
Several elements serve to complicate the presentation of this story, increasing its emotional heft. First, the story is narrated not by Eric but by his good friend Sam. Sam would be the sidekick in most stories, but here he is thrust to center stage, and he becomes the reader’s surrogate, trying to understand outrageous events as they unfold. Sam is black, while Eric and his brother Hugh are white; Hugh’s wife Alma is black as well. So a fairly strong undercurrent of racial dynamics is at work here, as blue-eyed golden-boy Eric turns from hero to terror, and Sam’s black co-workers jibe him for trying to hang with the white guys. It’s tough to say whether anything definite comes out of this subtext, but its very existence lends an unexpected depth to the book.
The most powerful weapon in this book’s arsenal is the artwork. Writer John Arcudi is smart enough to keep his dialogue minimal and to the point, allowing penciler/inker Peter Snejbjerg and colorist Bjarne Hansen to keep things moving. And move they do: the art is relentlessly vibrant, with muted but rich colors and a preponderance of heavy blacks to convey shadowy unease, if not outright horror. Scenes of violence tend to be a little overdone, with dismembered limbs and jaws flying around and blood spouting everywhere, but there is a dynamism in these pictures that is perfectly suited to the story. While there is little reluctance to show violence, there is no attempt to sensationalize it; a rape scene, for example, is handled with restraint.
Panel layouts are varied as well. Some pages are cluttered with six or seven panels and plenty of word balloons, while full-page illustrations show up elsewhere. As with the art itself, the layouts are energetic, designed to keep the eye (and therefore the story) flitting along.
Small artistic touches add immensely to the flow: Eric appears clean-shaven and shaggy-hared at first, but in the months following his transformation he grows a beard, then long hair, then braids, until he finally looks something like a grunge Jesus. This not only serves to reinforce thematic elements in the story but also serves to clue the reader in as to what time it is. This is useful, given that the story jumps around in time, diving often into flashback to present an important conversation or moment of realization.
The book isn’t perfect. Alma is little more than an object of sexual desire for all of the main characters; she serves beer and sandwiches and looks sexy while the men go about doing things like, I don’t know, turning into gods. She is only ever seen in relation to the boys. The boys, admittedly, are usually seen in relation to each other too, but what they’re doing tends to be a lot more interesting than serving sandwiches.
A God Somewhere is nevertheless a very strong book, well worth reading for anyone interested in how the comics medium might make the transition from superhero dominance to a broader canvas of themes and ideas.