Friday, September 25, 2009

The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel

DC Comics, 2007, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Steve Gerber
Artist: Peter Snejbjerg
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Phil Balsman
Cover artists: Michael Wm. Kaluta, Lee Moyer

Due to its nature as a 22-page one-shot, Zauriel may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking of Steve Gerber’s major works. Together with four other specials by other creators, it was released as a prologue to Gerber’s revamp of the DC Comics character Doctor Fate, which was in progress at the time of his death in February 2008.

Still, in more than one sense, Zauriel makes for a fitting wrap-up to the series of reviews of Gerber’s work I’ve posted over the past week. For one thing, it’s a very well-made and inspired little one-shot story in its own right. For another, it ties in with quite a few themes that were also touched upon those earlier stories.

Zauriel, a character created by Grant Morrison for JLA in 1997, is an angel of God in the DC Universe—a meat-and-potatoes Judeo-Christian God, to be precise—and he’s well known as such to the general populace. At the beginning of the one-shot, Zauriel is speaking before a Sunday-school class full of ten-year-olds with lots of tricky questions for him that he’s either unable or unwilling to answer: “Where’s heaven?” “How come God wants praise all the time?” “Yeah, does he have, like, low self-esteem?” You get the idea.

The session is interrupted by Malachy, a fellow angel who sends Zauriel on a mission to another planet, so as to prevent “Okeontis and her band of freedom fighters” from overthrowing “Hyathis, tyrant queen of Alstair.” Alstair being, as we learn, a planet where animals and plants are still much closer related than on Earth—it’s something of a modern Garden of Eden, you might say. Zauriel is confused, initially. Why does Heaven want him to help a tyrant stay in power? Malachy understands his confusion:
“You’re correct, of course. Ordinarily, Heaven looks favorably upon the establishment of democracy, everywhere except in Heaven. 
“Alstair, though, is a special case. Okeontis represents a magical and spiritual threat of such magnitude as to compel divine intervention.”
The reason for that, according to Malachy, is Okeontis’s possession of the Helmet of Fate, a magical artifact that makes her untouchable to mortals. Sufficiently convinced of his mission to take the helmet away from Okeontis, Zauriel eagerly embarks to his “chariot”—not least, it appears, because it’s a great excuse to dodge the kids’ questions. “Thank you, God,” Zauriel thinks as he flies away from the school.

Once Zauriel has established contact with the tyrant he’s meant to protect, he elaborates on the exact nature of the threat posed by Okeontis: It—or, rather, she, as it turns out—is an evil fungus.
“The fungus comprises a distributed consciousness. It goes for the brain, insinuates itself into the neural pathways, cohabits with the host personality. 
“Either way, the fungus fulfills its biological and psychic imperatives: to propagate. To expand its consciousness. To know ever more, through the cumulative perceptual organs of its hosts. And, through knowing, to dominate.
So, in other words, the story is a clever staging of the Book of Genesis, the heart of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, as a straightforward superhero story—from the perspective of the Bible, no less, in which knowledge, as the ultimate expression of evil, equals death.

Consequently, Okeontis is in the role of Satan, the serpent who brings forbidden knowledge to the Garden of Eden: She’s portrayed as a bloodthirsty vampire with “perverse” desires who infects her victims with flesh-eating, death-bringing knowledge. They become “fungoids,” suicide troops bent on spreading their fungal intelligence.

Zauriel, on the other hand, is the hero of the story, who kills the serpent and thereby protects “all of creation” from the evil of knowledge. “The people of that world are about to fall into the grip of a great wickedness,” Malachy warns Zauriel in an earlier scene. That great wickedness, we learn, is knowledge, and Zauriel’s mission is to squash it.

It’s wonderful, fabulously twisted stuff.

The germ of the idea can be traced in Mr. Gerber’s body of work to a scene in Sub-Mariner #69, from way back in 1973. In a subplot of that issue, a group of rebels against a totalitarian regime in a parallel world has just discovered the means to defeat the bad guys: music!

Because, we recall,
“To make music is to create—and to create is to grow—and growth—! Growth is the bane of all tyrants, all who pretend to sacredness! For it implies learning… and as men learn, their sacred things diminish in number…”
So, in a sense, Gerber’s thoughts on knowledge vs. faith are coming full circle in Zauriel.

Back in Sub-Mariner, he threw in an observation in a fairly random fashion. Now, almost 35 years later, Zauriel provides a full dramatization of those ideas: The school children’s probing, their pastor’s attitude that “belief should be able to withstand a little scrutiny,” Zauriel’s relief when he no longer has to face the questions—everything plays into the larger theme of knowing vs. believing.
Only this time, Gerber turns the idea on its head by fully embracing, for the purposes of this story, the Christian viewpoint that “knowledge” means “evil”—and why wouldn’t he? After all, Zauriel’s existence pretty much proves the existence of God in the DC Universe, so there’s no reason to doubt the Bible anymore, either.

“You’re not merely incompatible with the fungus,” Okeontis says at one point. “Your angelic nature is anathema to it.” And she’s right: Zauriel is the “hardened dogmatist” that Malachy suggests earlier on in the story, because his belief in the goodness of Heaven is absolute—that’s what makes him perfect for this particular mission. In the end, Okeontis bursts into a cloud of spores, which are inadvertently set alight and destroyed by Zauriel’s sword.
“Perhaps, then, I’ve eliminated the fungal intelligence. And perhaps that was Heaven’s plan all along.”
Once again, Gerber found a new way to subvert the role of the superhero: as the credulous follower of an ideology whose legitimacy he never challenges.

Even when it turns out that Zauriel has been deceived—because Heaven was less interested in the helmet than in preventing the “fungal intelligence” from spreading in the Garden of Eden—he just shrugs it off and comes to the circular conclusion that, well, if this is what God wanted, then it was probably for the best, because how can it not be when it’s God who wanted it. After all, if that weren’t true, Zauriel would have to question his very existence, and we can’t have that.

Arguably, Zauriel’s character could have used a little more depth—or humanity, I suppose—and there’s a little too much backstory on the Helmet of Fate that’s not all that relevant to the narrative at hand. Overall, though, this is a well-constructed little story with great timing, good dialogue filled to the brim with double entendres and, ultimately, more layers than an onion.

Also, as a nice change of pace, the rest of the creative team is able to keep up with Gerber here. Peter Snejbjerg’s storytelling is fluid and graceful, and his smooth, disarmingly straightforward but somehow slightly eerie style suits the material perfectly.

The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel doesn’t have the overt piss and vinegar and in-your-face ambitions of some of Gerber’s earlier work, but it makes up for that in subtlety and craftsmanship. There’s still a lot of outrage and explosive ideas in these pages—they’re just packaged much more subtly and with much more deliberation and skill this time around.

Zauriel may just be one of the most well-rounded, most brilliantly subversive pieces of comics storytelling Gerber turned in during his career.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I favor the Zauriel angel character far more than the blasphemous portrayals of other Judeo-Christian characters in DC Comics. Come on, the DC version of "God" was found "missing" from Heaven, is apparently limited in power, and is eventually replaced by his human granddaughter. Sigh...Marvel at least doesn't feature as much Judeo-Christian themes...though Ennis and Aarons's Ghost Rider run, involving Zauriel (a benevolent Biblical angle) being portrayed as villainous and having apparently overthrown God and Heaven, is, repulsive, yes. But comics and religion do not mix, maybe we should not have expected them to.