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There are few titles which have received louder heralding than Donnie Cates latest opus from Image: God Country.
Since it was announced in October, the comics community has anxiously awaited the arrival of what many called the first great comic of 2017.
Well, God Country has arrived, and in a thunderous way.
Pitched as “Southern Bastards meets American Gods” in a high-fantasy epic, the first installment delivers on its immense promise as the creative team turns in a masterful opening salvo.
Cates’ script has an elegant simplicity to it. Despite that, it is poetic in a very old-fashioned sort of way, not lyrical but flowing. Where other writers might have taken an entire arc building the mystery of the Quinlan family’s true nature, Cates implodes that narrative in a single issue. The resultant effect leaves the reader feeling as thought they’ve been breathlessly rushed through the first movement of a classical concerto or an epic poem in the vein of Beowulf.
In under thirty pages, Cates successfully imparts the natures of each of member of his cast. We learn that Roy Quinlan is desperately saddened at the state of his family, specifically his father Emmett. The story of an aging parent beset by Alzheimers is one far too familiar to the children of the Greatest Generation, and even those of the older Baby Boomers. The pain which Roy is obviously experiencing resonates with the reader in a very personal way. Similarly, the struggle of Roy’s wife Jane to manage the situation with a sort of stern strength identifies her as the more powerful (if less compassionate) personality of the couple. Of all the characters, Emmett is the greatest mystery, the exploration of which the ending of the first issue suggests will be the focus of future installments.
Geoff Shaw‘s art is the courier which carries the reader through the tale from a mundane world into the fantastic. His character designs are individually unique, conveying a great deal about each of the characters. Roy is lean and fragile, Jane broad-shouldered and firm, and Emmett depicted initially as massive but seemingly broken. It’s a classic example of the “show, don’t tell” approach to graphic storytelling, and he nails it in this first issue. The individual pages flow brilliantly, moving briskly without seeming hurried, and the sudden shift from placid despair to frenetic action showcases his range and sense of movement. The most startling moment artistically is his final panel, which is downright Kirby-esque. Without spoiling it, the image is an unapologetically obvious homage to some of the King’s most iconic work. As such, it succeeds without quite matching Kirby. It lacks the movement of the work it seeks to emulate, and comes off somewhat lesser as a result. Despite that, it’s an incredibly powerful moment, particularly for those steeped in comic art lore.
The real hero of the creative team is Jason Wordie on colors. His choice of palette exquisitely complements the flow of Cates’ script. Early scenes are washed in shades of orange on grays which evoke a sense of decay. They evolve into depressing blues which carry with them a foreboding sadness before blooming into sickly-bright greens and yellows. The transition carries with it a sense of twisted magic. The most startling transition though, is when the story explodes into its full mystical splendor. The dullness immediately vanishes and detonates energetically into a complete rainbow, a deployment which emphasizes that the adventure has truly begun. Remember Jason Wordie’s name. If he wasn’t already on your Eisner shortlist, he should be now.
It would have been difficult to live up to the advance hype that God Country received, but Cates and company delivered in spades. The opening chapter is a perfectly paced blend of poignant character moments and explosive story beats. The creative team is in near-perfect sync, turning in stellar work. This book is incredibly ambitious, and if its only fault is attempting to reach the scope of a Jack Kirby Fourth World story without QUITE nailing the landing. That said, if it keeps up its pace, then God Country is an early front-runner for the 2017 Eisner Awards in several categories. As such, I feel no compunctions about giving this issue an almost-perfect 9.5/10.