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The Life Eaters

Mythology and comics go together like Ben & Jerry. It can be argued that mythological characters were the first “superheroes” in the sense that they were stories of men and women who were somehow above humanity, somehow special in their abilities to fly or hurl lightning bolts or wrestle dragons and giant wolves to the ground.

Indeed, comics are no strangers to the idea of anthropomorphic deities walking the pages of their stories. Thor made his debut at Marvel Comics way back in Journey Into Mystery, which later became The Mighty Thor, turning the character into one of Marvel’s most beloved demi-gods/superhero. Hercules and Gilgamesh were also characters for Marvel, and DC has mined the entire Roman and Greek pantheons for stories concerning characters like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. Superheroes are our generation’s myths.

But the gods of comics are rarely truly god-like. In the myths of the Norse and Germanic tribes, Thor was a hard bitten warrior god who loved battle above all, and was more powerful than any army before him. For the purposes of story and drama, the role of “god” in comics has been watered down: the Thor of the Avengers can just as easily be beaten by some random villain of the week as hamstringed by political red tape. He is not, in essence a “god” anymore, simply a superheroic representation of one, despite his many mythological connections within the text. It seems to have become the formula of comics to make gods more human, and less all-powerful.

Which perhaps makes The Life Eaters, adapted by renowned science fiction writer David Brin (The Postman, Earth) from his own short story, all the more surprising. I say this because Brin brings with him a different kind of story involving gods, which is more about humanity and its strength than power of deific proportions.

During the twilight of World War II, just when it seems that the Nazi menace would finally be put down, the gods of Norse legend begin appearing on the battlefield, on the side flying the swastika. The tide of the war quickly changes and the world grows darker as Nazi troops led by the likes of Thor and Odin begin taking control of the world. These gods are strong, powerful, and able to kill thousands with the throw of a hammer.

A generation has passed since the Aesir returned; the few people that remain free and able to act try again and again to find a way of killing gods, hoping to rid the world of its new caretakers, and stop the mass human sacrifice these gods demand. Two men will find a way to turn the tide back in favor of humanity. Chris Turing will show humanity the way to spit defiantly in the face of a god, while a young boy named Lars will usher humanity back into a human age.

Brin’s take on godhood is refreshing, and his reason for the appearance of the Aesir makes a fair amount of sense when the Nazi obsession with mystical artifacts and its association with the Thule society are taken into account. Brin even points this out in his afterword to the story. Another refreshing bit is the way the gods are used as antagonists in every respect. These “gods” are not human and Brin never tries to characterize them as such. Instead, he focuses on the human characters, namely Chris and Lars.

The story unfolds generationally, told in the past tense by Lars at some points, and it covers a span of years from the 1940s to the 1970s, including major conflicts like WWII as well as Viet Nam. I was surprised at the depth Brin was able to reach in the much shorter form of comic books, not only in his interesting take on the alternate history his characters create, but with the main theme of the piece: the power of humanity.

To explain fully would be to give away too many plot points, but Brin makes a fine case for showing the human spirit as an indelible force in The Life Eaters. Both Chris and Lars, acting as our narrators, slowly come to realizations about the nature of the gods that appear in our world, as well as what actually powers and creates them. All of that leads to a great and rather uplifting conclusion about what humankind is capable of, while still grounding the reader in the harsher realities of Brin’s world. It’s as much a story as it is a morality play about the abuses and rejection of power, and it makes for fine reading.

The artwork is, for lack of a less cheesy term, “godly.” The last comic I read that included Scott Hampton’s lushly detailed water colors, was Lucifer, and I have sorely missed the man. He employs much more color and shadow effects in this work than his short Lucifer stint, making some scenes hum with muted energy and others take on noirish feel (one scene of Chris Turing in a submarine, with everything lit and shadowed in black and red, comes to mind). His character design is good and sometimes simplified: both Chris and Lars bear striking Teutonic resemblances to each other, but this seems a specific choice to link the characters through story and art. The deity designs are appropriately sparse, marking the few Norse we see as all similar looking (big damn Vikings with big damn weapons), possessed of beards and scowls, with only a few details to set them apart, which makes quasi-historical sense considering variation in fashion is hard to pull off when your options are chain mail and fur. Hampton’s panels all flow well, and he sets up some very good visuals: everything from splash pages of massive battles, to two page spreads of deities facing off, to pull back perspective shots, Hampton knows his art and makes it good.

Wildstorm/DC are offering this original graphic novel for $19.95, which is a little pricey, but it is a high-end graphic story, not to mention it’s knocked down from the original hardcover’s price. Plus, the small afterword by Brin is interesting, as well is the artwork demonstration Hampton chucked in the back of the book, so dropping $20 on this comic is well worth the loss of Andrew Jackson’s face.

The Life Eaters


Robert Sparling

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