Yesterday, I received a review copy of World Missionary Press’ illustrated religious tract The Way to God. They wished me to experience it in the manner intended for its wider audience, and as such placed it under my car’s windshield wiper while I was grocery shopping.
Mostly cobbled together from scripture quotes, The Way to God still shows a great deal of craft, dedication, and idiosyncrasy. The first two elements should be unsurprising, as to be committed enough to religious doctrine to sit down and make a tract instills a certain measure of respect for the form and function of words and images. Luring readers in with an easy, pleasant hook helps readers become copacetic to more intricate teachings: and what could be more pleasant than strong, silent, white, patriarchal Jesus of Nazareth standing on a shore [Wait, that’s a field, I’m stupid] with a bunch of multicultural children (an image of righteous Western imperialism which gets called back in the section “Jesus Loves All The Children,” an inverse of James Bond’s Pop Art hegemony), bathed in the soft, warm, rainbow glow of Edwin B. Wallace’s paints? How about Meryl Esenwein’s depiction of African animals lazing by a river? Both set the stage for Rose Stair Goodman’s practiced Bible School method of throwing passages at the reader.
And yet, Goodman’s style is often contradictory: the section on children is preceded by a quote from Romans 8:9b (“If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his”) insinuating those very same children (often foreign, maybe even from cultures with little contact with Christianity) as Others who are cast out from birth, thus justifying the role of publisher World Missionary Press and similar groups as ‘saviors’ of the unwashed heathens; later, Goodman contrasts “God is Love” with “7 Things God Hates”, with little insight into how to balance these seemingly at-odds notions. In fact, the certainty of her writing almost begs the question of whether saying God is Love yet also Hates is a contradiction at all! Where similar experiments in text and imaging done by Steve Gerber and his various collaborators in Howard the Duck #16 or Giant-Sized Man-Thing #4 (a comic fundamentalist Christians might be appalled by out of context, but in context might be even more appalled by) were existential, seeking a Socratic Truth in a vast, cruel, Absurd cosmos, Goodman is more philosophically confident. Perhaps even more so than the furious rantings of a Chick Tract. Both peddle fear of death, but Goodman gets there by saying there’s a better way as opposed to screaming about evil. And she knows it for a fact, as opposed to Gerber’s often stream-of-conscious musings about writing, life, and society.
As Way to God goes on, Goodman becomes even more bold and experimental, mixing in nursery rhymes (“Jesus loves me, this I know…”), all-caps declarations, and diagrammatic images of the Crucifixion, highlighting the two thieves sentenced with Jesus: one a believer, the other not. Duality and free-will are important in Christianity, as it is in its spiritual grandparent Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu being roughly equivalent to God and Satan); Goodman and Esenwein reinforce this when the tract needs more pizzazz than an uncredited stock image can provide.
Way to God‘s most important duality drawing is of a boy at a forked path: one road is marked with “Eternal Life”, which we see leads to a shining city on a hill (“Ahura Mazda” means “light and wisdom”), the other goes to some unseen place and is marked “Eternal Death” (“Angra Mainyu” is “destructive spirit”) The contrasting of a known, pleasing quantity like “Eternal Life” with an unknown, challenging one like “Eternal Death” creates a brief tension–what lies down there, and why would I want to see it?–quickly assuaged by Esenwein depicting the boy already on the path to Eternal Life. We all make choices, Esenwein shows, but clearly there are good choices and bad choices. Goodman’s caption turns it into a well-staged political cartoon with some cunning wordplay (“This boy makes the right choice…” [emphasis mine]). It’s only after further scripture recitals and advice meant to be both spiritual and political do we get to see where “Eternal Death” takes us–naturally, fornication and faggotry (called “effeminate” here, tying back to an earlier paraphrasing of Eve tempting Adam into eating from the Tree of Knowledge) aren’t down with Jesus, so behave America! Esenwein’s comic depiction of Hell (people screaming for “Help” from a chasm, looking up at the shining city they forsook) seems a welcome relief, a Doonesbury mockup of easily laughable figures–“Who would make this silly choice,” one wonders (so long as you’re not Steve Gerber). If Jack Chick is the loose cannon “bad cop,” Goodman and Esenwein are the affably quirky “good cop” in dogmatic comics.