Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Heaven's War - A Critical Review

Heaven’s War is a unique graphic novel written by newcomer Micah Harris, illustrated by Michael Gaydos, and published by Image Comics, the third largest comic publisher in the world. Unlike many graphic novels which can be read quickly, Heaven’s War required several careful reads, even with the assistance of annotations to the story’s more esoteric elements, contained at the end of the book. It is a very adult comic due to its incredibly deep subject matter, and the nature of the illustrations. Glossy colours and anatomically impossible heroes and villains are absent here; the book is drawn in stark black and white, and the characters are bookish scholarly types. For fans of the Inklings, something more spectacular and sensational would have been crass. Harris' writing, while at times esoteric, honours the memory of these amazing creative powers.
Basic Plot
Reading Heaven’s War is to graphic novels what Pulp Fiction and Memento are to film; the opening panels confuse the reader as the story dances on non-linear borders before grounding itself in reality. Explaining the ‘basic plot’ of a book as convoluted as Heaven’s War does it an injustice, but anything more than a synopsis opens up one proverbial can of worms after another. I once described the plot as simply “The Inklings vs. Aleister Crowley.” Set in 1938, the story pits the Inklings’ most notorious members, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams against Aleister Crowley, arguably the most influential occultist of the twentieth century. This fictional cosmic struggle is played around actual events, such as Crowley and William’s deaths.
The book’s protagonist is the least famous of the three Inklings, Charles Williams, who finds himself summoned to a secretive meeting with Arthur E. Waite, another well-known occultist of the early twentieth century. Waite informs Williams and later Lewis and Tolkien of Crowley’s plans to gain access into the heaven realms and “affect the war there.”[1] The Inklings find themselves on a quest to the Rennes Le Chateau, racing against Crowley to discover and unlock the gates of paradise. In a struggle to restrain Crowley, Lewis is mortally wounded, and while Tolkien remains with Lewis, Williams forges ahead. When Williams reaches the heavenly realms, he and Crowley are tested before a heavenly assembly; Crowley fails and is expelled, while Williams is granted permission to drink from the cup of Christ. This action allows Williams to undo Lewis’ death by taking Crowley’s attack upon himself, subsequently affecting his own actual death in 1945.
Analysis of Bias
Any intelligent reader of Heaven’s War could assume Harris has a substantial background in Christian theology and practice, or that he did his research well when it came to depicting the Inklings’ Christian perspectives, from Tolkien’s dogmatic Catholicism to Lewis’ more playful Protestantism. The fashion in which Williams wins the contest between he and Crowley in heaven decidedly reveals the author’s bias. Both men are asked to answer a riddle with such questions as “out of what sprung creation?” and “by what right are you here?” and “to which should Asmodeus yield—the cross, or the pentagram?”[2] The choice is illustrated; Crowley and Williams are standing upon a black and white chessboard. Crowley places one foot on the black and the other on the white and states that “they are both part of one whole,” while Williams chooses to stand only upon the white, saying “there is really nowhere else to stand.”[3] I had the opportunity to interview Harris for my web site,, and he stated that he holds “many of the Christian beliefs of my story's real-life protagonists,” and that “Heaven’s War” is “a very personal statement.”[4]
As such, the story’s point of view is decidedly not scientific; rather, the events are explained through an interesting hybrid of magical and religious philosophy. This is largely due to its protagonist Williams’ who was “a devout member of the Church of England, but…was also interested in magic.”[5] The book opens with a quote from T.S. Elliot who states, “For Him there was no frontier between the material and spiritual world. Had I ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, I should have felt secure with Williams in my company…to him the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural also supernatural.”[6] Unlike the Christian fiction of the present day that purports to have elements of horror or occult, Williams “was thoroughly acquainted with the terminology and practices of black magic,”[7] and used this knowledge extensively in his writing, mixing occult imagery with Christian theology.
In Heaven’s War Micah Harris allows Williams to walk about in the secondary world he created through his novels. It is a world where the Christian God is still in his heaven, but the law of Cosmos, and the power of Will are also considerable forces to be dealt with. The story abounds with Christian religious elements, but at times the way these elements are used has a magical bent to them. The clearest example of this synthesis is observed when Williams discovers a perfect replica of the Inner Sanctuaries of Solomon’s temple in a cave near the Rennes Le Chateau, reconstructed by the Knights Templar. At the end of the Inner Sanctuary is the Holy of Holies, the place where heaven touched earth and God’s presence dwelt in Hebrew belief. Harris’ concept is that consequent of the tearing of the veil in Herod’s Temple at Christ’s crucifixion, were anyone able to perfectly reconstruct that original temple they would have a direct door to the heavenly realms. The concepts regarding why this would be possible are religious, but the manipulation of the building materials of the temple is magical. It assumes the magical law of this secondary Cosmos; if Christ was God and had opened the way to heaven for all humanity, then the physical Holy of Holies would in some sense become the doorway to Heaven, according to the rules of the Cosmos God had made for it. Harris pays a great tribute to Charles Williams by not allowing the magic of Heaven’s War to denigrate to the work of the devil as many Christian authors do. Like Williams, Harris allows his characters to exist in a secondary universe, without getting hung up on the theology of Aleister Crowley being able to challenge heaven at all.
Another synthesis of magic and religion occurs when Williams discovers that his “doctrine of substitution” is indeed true. Part of Williams’ concept of Christianity was that it might actually be possible to literally bear another person’s pain and suffering, as Christ had done for humanity.[8] In Heaven’s War he discovers he was correct. As Williams states: “’Connections?’ You mean the web of exchange isn’t merely my own philosophical musings? It is a truth into which I’ve been allowed to glimpse…”[9] It is at this point that by drinking from the Grail, the cup of Christ from the last supper that Williams is able to take Lewis’ wound upon him. This action contains magical elements – the use of the Grail as an item of power, and again the Law of Cosmos within this secondary universe once again at work.
This is not to say that Harris has created a world where the supernatural is left in moral ambiguity. The supernatural of heavenly realms is portrayed as good, and the supernatural of the fallen angels as evil; like most Christian fiction, it is the favourable that perform miracles, while the unfavourable are forced to perform magic. This delineation is much more subtle than most Christian fiction though, since both Crowley and Williams enter the Heavenly Realms by the same door. The issue of good and evil in Heaven’s War is not so much concerned with the characters’ actions as it is their intentions. Again, Harris has Williams’ acting as a character in a universe much like the ones in his novels, which were not ethical morality plays, but were “all concerned with the rightful and wrongful use of power.”[10] It almost goes without saying that Williams’ “doctrine of substitution” would not have worked for Crowley, and so cannot be seen as a purely magical action.
It should also be noted that while the book has an abundance of occult or magical references, the rituals of Crowley and other characters employing magic “are not presented as being effectual as a means of conjuring.”[11]
…both Father Sauniere and Aleister Crowley have performed these sex / astrological rites, but if you look at it, these actions ultimately served no "magical" purpose. There would have been physical gratification, and, for Sauniere, something of a "show" to impress his clients, but none of that effort opened the portal to the Kingdom of the Air. It made not one whit of difference. After all, Williams passes through the extra-dimensional portal without going through Crowley or Sauniere's "exercise" in magic.[12]
Harris himself differentiates between the occult or magic and a more general concept of the supernatural. While he admits to the possible interpretation of the issue with the Inner Sanctuary as “sacred geometry”, he denies that magic is an operating element of the world of “Heaven’s War”. While this may have been his intention, the ambiguity of what makes a supernatural occurrence magic or miracle makes the issue a semantic one.
Harris’ definitions of magic and religion are slightly different from the definitions given in this course. Harris stated that “Yes, I do believe in the reality of the supernatural. I've experienced the numinous -- an awareness of the presence of God -- at certain times in my life…” However, he sees religion as “ritual and practice” that at times “can be completely devoid of the supernatural” and that magic is an attempt to harness the power of the supernatural.[13] Since Harris is a Christian, the supernatural would be the Christian God, His angels, the Devil and his fallen angels.
So even with all the occult and magic elements, Harris is primarily religious in his writing of Heaven’s War, with the Christian Inklings as the heroes, and unabashed occultist Crowley as the villain. Had Harris been an occultist himself, he might have made Crowley the hero and had him actually attain heaven. While the occult elements of Heaven’s War are handled in a fashion that sets the book apart from most fantastic fiction written by Christians, it remains a work of faith.
Critical Evaluation
My own view of the universe isn’t far from the fictional one of Heaven’s War. Having grown up on a steady diet of the Inklings’ writings as Harris has, I find myself nodding a lot while reading Heaven’s War. Williams’ ruminations that quote Lewis regarding the nature of good and evil have been part of my beliefs for years now. I am also still convinced that there are personal powers of good and evil in the universe, and that our lives are a series of choices between those sides.
I don’t necessarily believe that a reconstruction of the Jewish Temple would open a gateway to Heaven, but I do believe that the universe is more mysterious that the Evangelical tradition I was raised in would have me believe. My own cosmology is a blend of science, religion and magic. I believe that God created the world, but I find myself in stronger agreement with science than Creationism on how He went about doing that. Believing that God created the universe to work in a certain way provides for why I think magic might actually work – if there are certain correspondences, then they’re part of the natural order, and harnessing them is as possible as harnessing electricity. Whether this is evil or not is another issue entirely. I would like to believe that the dreams I’ve had that seem numinous were actually visions, or that one really could time travel, but know they are improbabilities. A book like Heaven’s War tickles my fancies in the all the right places, without requiring me to commit to any of them.
This is due largely to the fact that, despite its religious subject matter and the religious bias of its author, Heaven’s War is not a piece of Christian propaganda. despite its religious subject matter and the religious bias of its author, does not tell its reader how to think, and the non-linear storytelling lends an ambiguity to the tale that Christian fiction generally is afraid to leave its readers with. There is no after word telling the reader how they too can accept the God of the Inklings as their personal saviour. Instead, there is a bitter sting to the book’s ending, reminiscent of Shadowlands, the biographical stage play and film depicting C.S. Lewis’ marriage to Joy Davidman. Heaven’s War has too much mystery and enchantment to be propaganda. While it is a decidedly Christian work, it is not a “tool for evangelism” as much of the Evangelical sub-culture’s art usually is. When Williams wins the contest between him and Crowley and realizes that Lewis has died unnecessarily, he says, “My faith was wrongly placed.”[14] He struggles with his faith and with the conclusions he should come to, and so too must the reader of Heaven’s War.
Heaven’s War is an excellent piece of fiction relating to Christianity and the occult, especially in light of how connected the two are in Western culture. Crowley is reduced at times to a stereotypical occultist, but that is more a story device to paint him as the antagonist than an attempt at accurate biography. At any rate, Heaven’s War does not leave us with the impression that all occultists are evil, as it is A.H. Waite who alerts the Inklings to Crowley’s intentions, and many occult clues that lead them to victory. In addition, since they were not stereotypical of their own faith, the Inklings are not caricatures of the Christian religion either. As already stated, Tolkien is appropriately Catholic, aghast that Lewis would allow Waite, a Mason to attend their meeting, and of Williams’ occult influences, Crowley remarks, “I’m most eager to take his measure, to look at him eye to eye, and see how alike we turn out to be.” As in life, the Inklings are not Christian stereotypes.
Heaven’s War provides an entertaining way of looking at the relationships and differences between the viewpoints of religion and magic, and is definitely worth a read, for a certain type of fantasy fan. For the millions caught up in Tolkien fever thinking this graphic novel will include moments of John Ronald Ruel wielding a two handed mock-up of Narsil, they should stay away from this book. For the childhood fans of Lewis' Narnia chronicles who love a whimsical fantasy involving talking animals, they should stay far, far away from this book. If, however one has had the distinct pleasure of reading one of Charles Williams' fictional pieces and enjoyed it immensely, then they ought to pick up Heaven’s War. In looking at Heaven’s War from an academic perspective I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for its depth, its cleverness, and ultimately how strongly it adheres to Williams’ concept of the universe, as he explained it in his writings and life.

[1] Micah Harris, and Michael Gaydos, Heaven’s War (Orange, CA: Image Comics, 2003) 17.
[2] Harris and Gaydos, 90.
[3] Harris and Gaydos, 93.
[4] Mike Perschon, An Interview with Micah Harris 26 May 2004.
[5] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends (Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978) 80.
[6] Harris and Gaydos, 3.
[7] Carpenter, 83.
[8] Carpenter, 104-105.
[9] Harris and Gaydos, 96.
[10] Carpenter, 96.
[11] Mike Perschon, Another Interview with Micah Harris 8 June 2003 .
[12] Mike Perschon, Another Interview with Micah Harris 8 June 2003
[13] Mike Perschon, Another Interview with Micah Harris 8 June 2003
[14] Harris and Gaydos, 95.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Criteria for Comic Book Movies Revisited

NOTE: This muse was originally published here at Gotthammer in May of 2003. I've reposted it in light of some new thoughts I had on the subject, and have updated the posting with what I think are the top 10 best superhero films as well.
Roger Ebert make a statement in his review for "X2: X-Men United" that he can't quite fathom how Wolverine aka Logan, the claw popping mutant with extraordinary healing gets to be the main attraction in the film, since his powers really don't rate as being all that amazing. This is the same man who spent most of his review for "Pearl Harbor" going on about the lack of historicity, and for "Fellowship of the Ring" bemoaning that it didn't seem to stay true to the book in some aspects.
I suspect that most of the reviews you'll read about X2 that are negative go something like, "I just can't see how..." and then fill in the blank; ...mutants would be hunted, not made into celebrities, guy with steel claws gets top billing, any of this could actually happen, blahblahblah. Reality check - this movie is not about reality, so quit bitching about how it isn't possible for things to happen. I swear some of these people never played pretend.
If Ebert had done some more research, he could have applauded Brian Singer and his crew for doing what the movie world has finally realized is the key to comic book movies; stay true to the source. In the early 80's, we had Superman doing a mattress dance with Lois Lane which cost him his powers; as a child, I remember feeling cheated, partially because I had to watch so much kissing and pink sheets, but also because I didn't ever recall that being one of the rules about Superman's powers - magic, which is why Captain Marvel aka Shazam can kick his ass, and of course, the oft-sung about Kryptonite. Then in the late 80's and on into the 90's I endured Tim Burton's vision of Batman, which was only true to the comics insofar as the names and personas of the characters. Plot devices be damned. The Joker might have been skinny in the comic but we're going to get an overweight man to play him, 'cause it's Jack. And the Penguin might have been a cavalier-gentleman-thief in the comic, but we're going to have him be a deformed mutant who nearly bites someone's nose off. And sure Freeze should sound like an emotionless automaton which is something Schwarzenegger actually built his career on doing, but we're going to have him mug for the camera and deliver asinine dialogue. And Catwoman is a really adept thief with a few screws loose upstairs, but...oh wait, they got one right. Two, counting the Riddler.
The rules for comic book movies are simple.
1. Don't reinvent the wheel. In other words, stick to the source material and USE IT. If Superman has villains you haven't used, don't make up dumb ones like the Nuclear guy in Superman 4. Pointless.
2. Visual Storytelling is a comic medium which film should use. Show me don't tell me. If you need to waste screentime with expository language, you shouldn't be making a comic book film. For a good example of how this ISN'T done, rent The Phantom with Billy Zane.
3. If you can't make the costume cooler than it was in the book, don't change it. I think one of the reasons The Punisher sucked as much as it did was that Dolph Lundgren didn't have a big skull on his chest. He just looked like The Terminator with a lot of Brill Cream in his hair.
4. Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. If Bruce Wayne really had sex as often as the films implied, his arch-nemesis would be an STD, not the Joker. Superheroes are supposed to be good. The only one whose getting some is Spiderman, 'cause HE'S MARRIED. (Okay, I know that isn't completely true, but let's face it; gratuitous sex belongs in suspense thrillers, not superhero movies.)
5. Keep Joel Shumacher the hell away from your set. The man's some sort of neon and black light fetishist. He will turn Gotham into Las Vegas in no time flat. Do not let this man work on your movie.
6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Like history buffs, we're lurking in the theaters, noticing when Marvel comics guru Stan Lee makes a cameo, or telling our wives that "the girl who can walk through walls and other people is Shadowcat, whose real name is Kitty Pryde and she was real popular during the 80's when she was Collossus' girlfriend...."
7. Make sure you've got good villains. And by good villains I'm not talking about jamming three different villains into one film, as the Batman franchise became fond of doing. We're not talking about Arnold saying "freeze heroes." We're talking about Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jack Nicholson as the Joker (even though he wouldn't have been my pick, he still did a great job), and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin. No hammy villains please. Camp does not cut it.
Bottom line for reviewing comic book movies: If you are reviewing a comic book movie but know nothing about the comic, reserve your comments about plausibility and plot until you DO know something. Saying that it seems silly that Wolverine be such a central character betrays an enormous lack of knowledge about how incredibly popular that character actually is. To make him fifth billing would be career suicide. And, it would be like saying Titanic would have been a better movie if the ship hadn't sunk.
Very few comic book movies have succeeded, and I think it's because they broke my rules. Sure, it could be argued that only digital effects have really allowed for these sorts of movies to be made and made well, but my issue was never the blue screen lines around Christopher Reeve's cape. It was the way he could kiss Lois Lane in the fourth installment and make her forget they did the humpty-hump. Use chloroform to achieve the same end and they put you in jail. Superman would never do that.
For the record, here's my take on comic book movies that followed my rules and rocked.
1. Superman the movie - not the sequels. The sequels broke the rules, big time. Superman getting it on with Lois Lane, losing his powers, chucking his "S" around, firing a laser beam from his finger...come on. The original however, was phenomenal, and remains nearly 30 years later, a classic piece of film, with maybe the exception of Margo Kidder as Lois Lane.
2. Spider-man - the first sign that Hollywood not only understood the concept of a comic book film, but the movie I had to eat crow about. Initial previews made me think it was going to suck. It didn't. And with the exception of the web shooters being a mutation, it stuck to it's source material very faithfully.
3. X-men 1 and 2 - both great films; Wolverine realized on screen...amazing. Someone might say they broke rule #3 - don't change the costume, but remember, that's only if you can't improve on it, and to quote Cyclops in the movie - "would you rather have blue and yellow spandex?" Also gets demerits for that atrocious line about lightning and toads.
4. Hellboy - this could take X-men out once I find out how faithful it was to source material. Hell, it might even knock Spider-man down a notch. Just a great piece of comic book movie. Breaks none of the rules to my knowledge.
5. The Hulk - everyone says, "they changed everything!" But what they're referring to was the TV series, which broke rule #1. The movie restored it. Sure, the origin was a little different, but the gamma radiation was still there, the villains were baaaaad, and the romance precarious but precious. I personally think Hellboy did a better job of the Hulk-like mayhem, but I enjoyed Ang Lee's take all the same.
6. The Crow - it broke it's connection with the source material in the final moments, but was overall a spectacular portrayal of O'Barr's dark vision.
7. Blade II - way more fun than the first, and way more like a comic book in it's visual style. Sort of seems like del Toro was flexing to prepare for making Hellboy.
8. Batman - sits at the bottom even though it's a great movie just because of the whole "revealing your secret identity in the first movie" thing. Stupid. Wouldn't have happened. It's a franchise. Do it NEXT movie. As for the sequels...there were high points, but mostly there was neon and overacting.