by Spencer Irwin and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: Simon Spurrier may just be the best world builder working in comics today. We here at Retcon Punch are continually impressed by Spurrier’s ability to birth creative new world after creative new world, each with its own rules, vernacular, and aesthetic (thanks to the talented artists he’s enlisted), each feeling far vaster than the stories Spurrier decides to tell in them, each reflecting systematic problems, abuses, and issues we face here in the real world. Following on the heels of The Spire and Godshaper, Angelic finds Spurrier and Caspar Wijngaard using a world of sentient animals and oppressive lore to tell a story about the dangers of blind faith.
Qora is the star of our tale, a young monkey who is seemingly the only member of her religion to question the restrictive, omnipresent traditions by which her people live their lives. Qora’s people are a race of sentient, cotton candy-colored monkeys with wings, opposable thumbs, and the power of speech. They consider themselves monks and owe their abilities to their gods, “makers” who eventually left them, but left behind strict rules for the monks to follow until they eventually return.
The monks believe in the makers and their return with all their heart, but Spurrier and Wijngaard seed details throughout the issue that paint a different picture. The first comes on the very first recap page, when Angelic is called “a story of Earth, after us,” with us being humans. Next, we discover that the monks owe their sentience to a sort of breeding machine that the makers left behind, along with strict maintenance instructions (any monkeys born of traditional intercourse are simply “normal” monkeys, and are killed by the monks). Finally, we see hermit crabs (hermies) from the ocean beyond the monks’ jurisdiction using human skulls as shells. My guess is that the monks (along with the other tribes of sentient animals that inhabit this world) are the result of human experimentation, and that no humans are ever coming back — they’re all long dead, their remains littering the ocean floor.
Also playing into this theory is the distinct, childlike dialect the monks speak.
This isn’t just the slang and malapropisms of a child — all the monks use similar language. Despite the monks using these words to describe their holiest rituals, it sounds like baby-talk, which to me suggests that the expressions originally came from human scientists talking down or talking playfully to the original monks.
But the monks’ language is also a barrier. Although all the sentient animals in Angelic 1 technically speak English, various tribes’ dialects are so different that they can’t understand each other. It seems like a potent metaphor for the way our deepest held beliefs and traditions can prevent us from ever really understanding the different people around us.
Of course, the monks would never dare try to understand any other viewpoint anyway. Qora’s “crime” that makes her a “bad wicked nobedient” is simply asking “why?” It’s significant that Qora still believes in the makers themselves and in much of what she’s been taught (in fact, coming from someone who grew up in a very religious background, the fact that Qora seems rebellious to her elders but instantly retreats to her faith when confronted by those outside her religion is a well-observed detail) — she just wants to know the reasons behind their traditions.
The truth is that there are none, and the monks don’t want explanations. The most devout of them require only faith, while others use their traditions to actively oppress others.
Alfer’s language is damning — he doesn’t care about blessing the makers or about any of the monks’ well-being, he’s only interested in making sure they “know their place,” in upholding a system that gives him authority. It’s all too easy to twist religion to suit one’s own ambitions — I’m reminded of the New Testament Pharisees who twisted Jewish law to elevate themselves, but also of Republicans name-dropping Jesus as they strip children of their health care and deport refugees. I’m a firm believer that there are worthwhile elements to religion, but also that giving too much authority to any one person, or having faith without understanding why is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
The most chilling thing here, though, is Alfer’s intention to take Qora as a bride. Even if it wasn’t being done against her will and partially as a form of punishment, she’s a child — it’s abhorrent on so many levels. The Catholic Church’s pedophilia epidemic immediately springs to mind, but I’m also reminded of Mormon sects that have passed off child abuse and child rape as a part of their teachings, even in our modern age. It’s dangerous to give a person a moral pass because they’re a religious figure, or an action a pass just because it’s a religious belief. Religious teachings can still be abhorrent and morally wrong, and need to be continually evaluated (just as Qora is trying to do), not passed along brainlessly just because they’re dogma or lore. “It’s tradition” has never been a good excuse.
Mark, I found this to be another thoughtful debut from Spurrier — how about you? I’ll admit that, even though I understand its purpose, some of the baby-talk slang got on my nerves after a while, did you run into that problem too? And how about that bright, gorgeous art from Wijngaard — it really helps to balance a story that could otherwise be incredibly depressing. Do you have any thoughts on his work?
Mark: This really is a gorgeous debut issue.
What impresses me most about the Angelic 1 is its unpredictable nature. Even though Spurrier is working with familiar elements — stories about oppressive religions and corrupted faith are not new — it remains unpredictable. Comic books often build to a twist ending or big reveal to try and lure readers into coming back for the next issue, but the nature of shocking revelations is that they tend to retrospectively make everything that came before feel inconsequential. An unpredictable narrative, one that surprises the reader constantly, is much more satisfying.
When Qora is introduced disguising herself as a boy in order to fight and protect her clan, I thought for sure I knew where things were going. I’ve seen Mulan after all. But where I expected the issue to zig, Spurrier zagged instead. The introduction of the oppressive religious society, the fazecat, the reveal that the being inside the pod is a manatee, not a human; Angelic 1 is filled with unexpected choices.
Another unexpected choice that ends up paying dividends is Wijngaard‘s decision to render the world as adorable and non-threatening. It’s initially jarring to try and determine the tone of the issue when the darkness of the material continually clashes with the Disney-like presentation. What do you make of a world where flying monkeys sporting Easter colors and jet-powered dolphins grapple with war and child brides and female genital mutilation (my read on the pregnant monkey’s wings getting cut off)? But the juxtaposition works in the same way it works for Watership Down or Animal Farm. Told “realistically” with humans, such material could easily become too heavy and depressing. With animals, there’s a certain amount of distance afforded the story, which allows Spurrier and Wijngaard an opportunity to go dark without feeling relentlessly bleak.
So, as much as I found the monk’s baby-talk slang tiresome after a while, I do wonder if Spurrier is trying to make a point by infantilizing them. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but Alfer doesn’t seem to speak in quite the same way. Yes, he uses some baby-talk when speaking to Qora, but he also speaks more eloquently than any other monk in the issue. Perhaps within the monk’s society language and knowledge are just more tools used by the ruling class to maintain control over those deemed beneath them.
From a purely mechanical perspective, the monk’s language gives them a unique voice in the world of Angelic 1. In fact, each faction that we meet — the monks, the dolts, the fazecats, the mans — all speak and sound distinct from one another. Their unique voices and points of view lend the world a sense of authenticity, since that’s what our world sounds like to. It’s that sort of attention to detail that defines the world building and makes it compelling. There’s a satisfying sense of the unknown left in the world of Angelic, a feeling that there’s still so much more to learn and understand.
Also, is 2017 a banner year for creator-owned comics, or am I just finally catching on to something that’s been happening for a while? Image, in particular, feels like it’s home to books that are consistently the best of this year. Guys, what have I been missing?!
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?