‘The Great Disappointment’ Turns a Skeptical Eye on God, Death and What Comes Next
I don't know if the late, great Christopher Hitchens ever read webcomics, but he probably would have enjoyed Box Brown's Ignatz-Award-winning Everything Dies. Brown has spent the past couple of years poking and prodding at religious beliefs, from ancient creation myths to the modern memetic spread of the Rapture. The Great Disappointment is the first print volume of Everything Dies, collecting the tales that believers and non-believers alike tell ourselves to understand the world around us and cope with our own mortality.In the comic "Extraordinary Proof," Brown claims that most atheists "hardly think about God at all," but he nonetheless has an obvious fascination with all things divine. The Great Disappointment is a collection of Brown's shorter comics, each concerned with some aspect of religious belief. The sources of these comics is diverse: "The Book of Job" comes, of course, from the Old Testament (though Brown recasts it in a modern setting), while "Marry Only in the Lord" is based on a Jehovah's Witness e-mail forward that inadvertently landed in Brown's inbox. "Christ of the Ozarks," "I am a Patriot" and the apocalyptic "The Great Upsucking" are based on historical events.
In these episodes, Brown dons the cap of a religious anthropologist, delving into belief systems both familiar and alien. Some, like "Marry Only in the World," are presented with little visual comment, inviting the reader to take these believers at their own word. Others contain surprising moments of poignancy; "I Was Invincible," part of a trilogy about unusual Mormon beliefs, includes the point of view of an ex-Mormon who is reluctant to take off his Temple garments long after he stops going to Temple. "Raisin," which examines a physical phenomenon among Muslims who engage in five-times-daily prayer, exposes Brown's awe for religious piety, even if he doesn't agree with said piety.
Admittedly, I come to The Great Disappointment from a not especially religious stance. I was raised in a rather Jewish part of Long Island, in a very ecumenical outlet of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. My pastor was a bit of a Universalist, and my key memory of catechism class involves a friend of mine reeling in shock after Pastor Charley claimed that God loved even Adolf Hitler.
And I admit that share many of Brown's religious obsessions; I've been keenly interested in the traditions of the Latter-Day Saints, for example, since I grew close to a Mormon dorm mate in high school. (Incidentally, I believe that Mormons are the most likely American population to survive the zombie apocalypse.) I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an atheist, as Brown does, but my Northeastern deism doesn't particularly mind his vivisection of neo-Christian notions or his tendency to render the Creator au natural.
For those whose religious traditions lean more toward the evangelical, The Great Disappointment could be more uncomfortable experience. Although Brown favors rationalism over religion, Sikhs and Muslims fare better than Mormons, who in turn get more favorable treatment than evangelical Christians. The most shocking moment in Brown's simple, thick-lined artwork is a caricature of black people, seen through the eyes of Gerald LK Smith, commissioner of the Christ of the Ozarks statue and notorious racist. Other featured evangelicals include Hal Lindsey, who made his money popularizing the concept of the Rapture, and a heap of people who feel weirdly compelled to bash the popular "Coexist" bumper sticker.
It's rare that I prefer the print version of a webcomic to the online version, I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Great Disappointment actually works better as a book than as a series of Everything Dies comics online. The book starts, appropriately, with "Alpha," a series of creation myths from various religious traditions, and ends with "Omega," a similar run of destruction tales. Toward the middle comes "Paradise" and "The Book of Job." In print these all serve as a nice set of brackets, but online, they're just another set of episodes.
Another nice aspect of the print volume is that it gets more personal as the book goes on. Before "Omega," Brown closes his book with three personal stories "But I don't want to die...," "Ben Died of a Train" and "Pre-Need," which detail Brown's journey to atheism, his own experience with loss and the comforting stories he tells himself about his eventual death. After all those pages of Brown scratching at other people's beliefs, it's a relief to see him turn his wandering fingernail back on himself.
These three stories get at the gooey center beneath Brown's fascination with religion: death. It's not for subtlety that he's named his comic Everything Dies, and the thesis of some (though by no means all) of his comics is that people subscribe to radical metaphysical theories because they fear their own mortality. "But I don't want to die..." opens with young, Catholic Box Brown who prayed to God because he feared World War III and whose introduction to the notion of atheism is similarly coupled with a fear of death. In "Pre-Need," Brown envisions the ideal circumstances of his death and memorial -- and it's not surprising that it's the sort of gentle, fulfilled death many people would wish for, even if they vary on the details.
But it's "Ben Died of a Train" that is the most powerful of the three. In Ben, a childhood friend, Brown comes stunningly close to describing a messianic figure, a magnetic personality who is instantly beloved by all who meet him, and whose life is cut tragically, if not unexpectedly, short. Ben, however, does not rise from the dead, does not combat any demonic god-figures, does not usher in an era of peace (although he is a blast at parties). He is simply there one day and gone the next, and while Brown deliberately refuses to imagine any afterlife scenarios for Ben, he also keeps clear of any smug rationalist platitudes. He simply acknowledges that no matter how much peace he's made with his own mortality and how much he's learned to love the beauty of this world, losing a friend will always be sad.