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Outside the Lines

Douglas Rushkoff turns open source Judaism into a comic book

Douglas Wolk
July 17, 2007

You can say this much for Testament: it’s ambitious. Launched early in 2006, the ongoing comics series, written by prolific cultural theorist Douglas Rushkoff, almost always has three levels of narrative going on at once. The first issue begins with a familiar scenario: Abraham waking Isaac up for their appointment on Mount Moriah. Then the scene abruptly shifts to the not-too-distant future, where a grouchy young man named Jake Stern is preparing for his father to implant a subcutaneous RFID chip in his arm, in accordance with a new American law. The two plots continue in parallel—sometimes very tenuous parallel—as the panels cut back and forth between Torah and science fiction. Meanwhile, a consortium of gods and their representatives from various traditions (bull-headed Canaanite god Moloch, Levantine sex goddess Astarte, Egyptian creation god Atum-Ra) hover outside the first two levels’ panels, more or less in the manner of Talmudic commentary, discussing the dual stories and nudging them forward.

Rushkoff, who first made a splash with his 1993 survey of new digital culture, Cyberia, has turned his attentions to religion in recent years. His 2003 book Nothing Sacred proposed what he calls “open source Judaism”—the idea that Judaism should evolve dynamically, constantly rebuilt by its practitioners, rather than being nailed down as orthodoxy. (Understandably, it went over like a lead latke with the Jewish establishment.) The big point he’s making in Testament is that Torah is comprised of written stories that resonate across time and space, and that consequently they’re meant to be rewritten. In his introduction to the first five-issue storyline of Testament (collected as Akedah), he calls the Bible “the ultimate handbook for psychic revolt. . . . Think you’re an accomplished magician? Check out the source code on reality hacking, and see if you can handle it.”

As a piece of rhetoric, Testament is awfully clever, if nearly as full of itself as that quote. (A character who looks exactly like Rushkoff even makes a few cameo appearances as kindly “Professor Ross,” who’s very concerned about America having “descended into a new era of corporatism.”) As a comic book, unfortunately, it’s something of a disaster.

At the start of Akedah, Jake takes refuge with a group of anti-RFID rebels in an abandoned building called “The Temple,” a former synagogue that curiously also contains a large swimming pool. As it turns out, those RFID chips are powerful little plot devices—they don’t just track their bearers’ locations, they can administer disciplinary electric shocks or kill by remote control, they’re the medium of exchange for a sinister new global currency, and—oh yes—they’re alive and can grow, because they’re based on an artificial intelligence program that Jake’s dad, it turns out, created 20 years earlier. There’s also some tension involving Jake and his almost-legal former pupil Dinah; she’s one of the Temple crew, but identifies with Astarte (which is apparently why artist Liam Sharp always draws her wearing hot pants or Gothic Lolita fetish gear) and works at a strip club called—nyuk, nyuk—Babylon.

All that could be the setup for a standard-issue ragtag-band-of-rebels-against-the-Man plot, but Rushkoff barely lets it breathe. Almost every scene is meant to echo Torah explicitly: A woman refusing to abandon a group protest and getting zapped by the government is Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, Jake getting a lap dance from a masked Dinah is Judah impregnating the disguised Tamar, and so on. The pantheon of divine onlookers makes sure we don’t miss any of this, interjecting comments like, “Then as now, faith rules the day.”

Still, for all its straining to reinvigorate biblical interpretation in a new medium, Testament isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as Rushkoff seems to think it is. In the past, comics have tackled the Bible from dozens of angles, from the 40s kiddie series Picture Stories from the Bible, to the irreverent 1987 anthology Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament (which included contributions from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman), to Dave Sim’s extensive, deeply eccentric Torah commentary in Cerebus: Latter Days, in which an anthropomorphic aardvark spends 140 pages explaining the first 38 chapters of Genesis to a Woody Allen lookalike. The best may be yet to come: the legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb has been working for several years on his own adaptation of Genesis.

Rushkoff wrote one comic before Testament—the messy 2004 graphic novel Club Zero-G—but he’s turned to the comics format here, he’s explained, so that the three sections of his story can be visually adjacent to each other. In fact, there’s a very specific precedent for the way Rushkoff and Sharp try to juxtapose multiple times, places, and metaphysical realities: Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s Promethea, also a complicated explication of a mystical world-view, in this case a five-volume guided tour of Kabbalah, Tarot, and Moore’s personal cosmology, framed as a fantasy story about a superheroine. Williams’ tricky page designs seem to have inspired Sharp’s.

But while Sharp comes up with some striking individual images (fill-in artists Peter Gross and Dean Ormston largely follow his lead), he doesn’t have Williams’ gifts for either design or storytelling. Crucial passages of Testament have to be explained in text because the images don’t make them clear. Rushkoff’s 10 pages of annotations for the first two volumes (both printed at the end of the second, West of Eden) are helpful in decoding whatever the heck he’s getting at, but only up to a point. And, although Promethea is even more of a lecture than Testament, Moore and Williams aestheticize their arguments at every turn. Rushkoff and Sharp’s series is interesting far more often than it’s enjoyable. It’s so singlemindedly intent on its theses that it neglects the bare rudiments of entertainment—clarity, engaging plot, characters that it’s possible to care about. (Readers appear to be losing patience: Despite some encouraging early reviews, sales of Testament have been plummeting, from just over 18,000 copies of the first issue to a bit over 7,000 copies of April’s issue #17.)

Testament doesn’t work as comics, because it doesn’t work as fiction. Rushkoff repeatedly lapses into depressingly clichéd conspiracy-theorist fantasy, made even more awkward by his forced biblical parallels: RFID tags as the mark of Cain, computer programs so evil that they’ve got the same visual design as the serpent from the Garden of Eden. At one point, the decadent industrialist behind the global currency plot (we know he’s decadent because we see him sprawled in a papasan chair and served grapes by near-naked attendants) literally ties off and shoots up “Globos,” then takes to the roof of his skyscraper—which also represents the Tower of Babel—and declares “Hear me, people. I am the world. The world is one.”

That’s not subtle, but neither is the rest of Rushkoff’s dialogue. It’s virtually all clunky exposition (“Looks like the flash upgrade worked as planned. Their bloodstreams are flooding with nanocash. Must have an effect on serotonin, too”), spelled-out subtext (“In one time as another . . . I am manifest again”), or melodrama so awkwardly over-the-top that it reads like badly translated movie subtitles. “Don’t cry to me, Atum-Ra. I’m quite engaged. Only the humans can save us now,” declares Astarte, who’s weeping as she’s apparently being raped by the Babylonian god Marduk.

There are some witty touches here, like a mikvah that doubles as a sort of theological, psychedelic space-time-traveling machine. One issue, about a humanitarian aid worker who’s tortured but not broken, is entitled “Shit Happens: The Book of Job.” But the moments when Testament becomes forceful and dramatic are, almost without exception, dramatizations of slivers of Torah, incorporating Rushkoff’s ideas about the biblical text and its implications about the struggles between early Judaism and the other sects of its time. In Testament’s version of the Mount Moriah scene, it’s Moloch who orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and it’s Melchizedek, standing in for the never-quite-visible God, who provides the substituted ram; Rushkoff claims in his notes that the story would have been understood by its original audience as a metaphor for the move away from old religious practices.

Sometimes, Testament even uses the comics form in ingenious ways. The Tree of Knowledge, for instance, is drawn as an extension of Astarte’s arm, which reaches into the Garden of Eden just as Elijah seals it off with the letter “beit” that begins Genesis—and doubles as a panel border around the image of the Garden. The Torah stories the series is playing with are the bedrock of Judaism and Western culture, and Rushkoff smartly pokes at their historical context and enduring meaning. But when he tries to graft his own creations onto them, the result isn’t the deep resonance he’s aiming for. The difference between Rushkoff’s midrashic fantasia and his flat, sluggish science fiction tale is the difference between archetype and cliché.