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God Country #1 (review)

God Country #1
Image Comics, January 11, 2017
Writer: Donny Cates

“God Country” is a new comic book series from innovative American publisher Image Comics. The title revolves around an enchanted sword that was brought to a West Texas town by a storm. An old widower named Emmett Quinlan is suffering from either Alzheimer’s disease or dementia (we are aware of the differences between the two and hope we do not cause offence by using the terms interchangeably in this critique). Emmett has his mental and physical health mysteriously restored upon wielding the sword.

The first issue tells the story from the perspective of Emmett’s son, Roy. With his wife and daughter in tow, Roy drove to West Texas in order to check on his father after being notified by the sheriff of an unhappy incident. Emmett had wandered away from home and had to be returned by the sheriff and his deputies.

From the conversation between Roy and the Sherriff, we get a glimpse into Emmett’s character: in his prime, Emmett was a rough-hewn man who can handle himself. He has retained this strength even in his old age, and this is a problem for the town when coupled with the violent outbursts and serious memory loss that come with dementia. It required three men to get Emmett into a patrol car, a messy incident that had Emmett breaking one deputy’s jaw, prompting the other to draw his gun.

The few pages that depict Roy’s conversation with the sheriff is quiet yet strained – the reader can tell that the town is close-knit and Emmett is well-liked by his neighbors, but the Sheriff makes it clear that Emmett’s condition is getting to be too much for the authorities to handle. The warning is plain: Emmett’s going to hurt someone eventually or he could get hurt by someone. The scenario is emotionally jarring to any reader exposed to the heart ache to family arising from dementia’s horrible manifestations.

The precarious situation is emphasized when mid-conversation the huge, imposing figure of Emmett lunges downstairs. Unable to recognize anyone in the house and mistaking them for thieves, Emmett threatens to kill every one, sending Roy’s wife and daughter running out of the house and straight into the rain. Roy is then faced with an ultimatum from his wife: go home with his family and no longer be involved, or stay and take care of his father. There is no middle ground, as his wife does not feel safe living in the same house as the old man. Roy chooses to stay with his father, at least for the duration.

And there is a sudden shift in tone in the comic from this point on. The plot dealing with the struggles of a family dealing with the onset of a debilitating and progressive mental disorder morphs: a magical storm and a twenty-foot demon crosses paths with Roy’s wife and daughter.

Salvation came from the most unlikely of places. Emmett appears and destroys the demon using a 12-foot enchanted sword he found in the middle of the storm. The sword had a name: Valofax, and as long as Emmett is touching it, he is rejuvenated and no longer inhibited by the diseases of his old age (though he remains an old man.)

There is a brief reunion between Roy, his family and Emmett (who finally recognizes everyone, including his grand daughter). But the comic’s anonymous narrator makes it clear that there are struggles ahead, and the issue ends with the cliffhanger shot of an entity – described as a “god” – watching from outer space, desiring the sword.

The premise of “God Country” is not unique – a weak or infirm character that gains fantastical powers through an ancient weapon is very common in fiction, especially in super hero comic books (more contemporary examples include several of Marvel’s “Thor” characters and DC’s “Captain Marvel Jr”), but the execution is sound and engaging. Magic swords have a long pedigree indeed and invoking the mythos of magic swords creates an immediate recognition in, and accessibility by, a fantasy-lored readership.

Mr Cates does not linger too much on the problems caused by dementia on Emmett and his loved ones. Juggling this sensitive concern with the introduction of the story’s fantasy elements in the first issue was always going to be difficult. And we believe that there is still room in future issues to tackle Emmett’s struggles with Alzheimer’s Disease when not in possession of the sword, the most interesting aspects of the story, preventing it from being too generic. As a plus, Mr Cates also tackles the subject of a mental disorder without going overboard or turning the disorder into a punchline- a common problem in many superhero stories featuring characters with mental disorders.

Save for minor problems with pacing which we have described, this first issue shows much potential.