Therefore Repent (2007)

If the recent hullabaloo about the impending end of days served any useful purpose, then that it reminded me of a graphic novel about the same topic I had never finished reading. Over the weekend, I took the opportunity of a train ride to correct that mistake.

Turns out, it’s not actually about the Rapture so much as it is about what happens after the Rapture, which occurs just how many fundamentalist Christians in America thought it would: the true believers literally levitate up to heaven, leaving behind Jews, Hindus, atheists, and other people unworthy of immediate salvation. The premise reminds me of another enjoyable comic, Robert Kirkman’s decade-old Battle Pope, but Repent is less gleefully blasphemous. In comparing the two, it’s interesting how Kirkman’s no-holds-barred, satirical approach makes it read like a fantasy story, with a colourful cast of fantastical creatures that just so happen to have a biblical coat of paint, whereas Repent goes for a somewhat more realistic and subdued way of showing the aftermath of the Rapture, and in the process seems more biblical and “mytho-real” despite featuring fewer supernatural elements.

This is reflected in the art, drawn/painted by Salgood Sam. It’s black and white; not starkly so, but nicely shaded, in a way that’s occasionally more reminiscent of fine crayons or pastels than pen or pencil lines. I’m not a big connoisseur when it comes to graphic novels; if I’m able to tell what’s going on, that’s all I need. Sam’s art goes beyond that: postures are clear and manage to convey both moods and movement well; the faces are detailed, expressive, and consistent. I did at times find it hard to tell characters apart, but that confusion mostly cleared up by the end (with the exception of the angels, where I’m still not exactly sure who is who).

Back to my earlier point about the genre of the work: It’s debatable whether Repent belongs more to fantasy or more to science fiction, but I prefer the latter categorisation, simply because it’s not a typical fantasy environment, where magic has either always been present but we (the modern world) have only just woken up to it, or where (in Battle Pope‘s case literally) all hell breaks loose and magic becomes extremely pervasive from one moment to the next, with everybody easily adjusting to the new reality.
The supernatural (or at least seemingly supernatural) is definitely there, not just in the Rapture event itself, but also afterwards: some people can turn themselves invisible, some can make it rain, some can summon birds made out of ash, some dogs start talking, and so on. But the reader is slowly introduced to these elements, and especially in the first parts of the book, evidence of magic is not widespread at all.
The way magic works is not completely explained, but from what explanations the reader is given, it’s at least somewhat grounded in science and the real world, which makes me tend to deny the book the fantasy label. That’s not a bad thing; I quite liked how the supernatural elements seemed arbitrary and confusingly eclectic at first, and how my comprehension of the underlying order of things increased at the same pace as the use of magic was escalated in the story.

Unfortunately, this progression is the unexpectedly pleasing side-effect of a bigger problem: the book does not tell a complete story. There are a few flashbacks which fill in some of the back story for the two main characters, but for the most part, Therefore Repent feels like a second act, with little exposition and not a lot of payoff (I suspect that this slow, confusing start is the reason I initially stopped reading the book and forgot about it a few years ago). I probably wouldn’t mind the former so much (indeed, I usually prefer stories to imply motivation and background instead of spelling everything out) if the book ended on an actual climax, and not on a blatant cliffhanger. The novel is in part about coming to terms with the end of the world, one’s own role on a de-Christianised Earth, and whether the two main characters’ relationship can survive the tensions of their new lives. All these points are rudimentarily addressed by the ending, but not satisfactorily so. And because not much of substance happens to said relationship, I became much more interested in the mythology of this setting, which there is no resolution of whatsoever.

Speaking of tensions, they’re not just the expected ones that come with any rapidly changed environment and relocation to another city (which is how the story starts). Magic is neither intuitive nor entirely safe to use. Some of the humans left behind have decided to turn their lives around and have become particularly ardent (and occasionally violent) defenders of the faith. Angels with the faces of dead people patrol the streets and seem to randomly kill those who are deemed to have transgressed against God’s laws.
Because of the slice-of-life nature of the comic, the reader is awarded only brief glimpses into these facets of life after the Rapture. Which is regrettable, because the consequences of magic use and the origins of the “faithful” factions would be fascinating stuff. I can only hope we’ll see more of that in the sequel, and, for that matter, more of the world: ironically (the author is Canadian), Therefore Repent focuses entirely on the United States and completely fails to mention the rest of the planet. The mechanics of and the machinations that led to the Rapture are described as very US-centric, so I wonder what happened to, say, Europe or China.

It turns out that there actually is both a prequel novel (now only available on the author’s website, digital or print-on-demand), a short prequel comic (available as a free download), and a companion graphic novel which came out last year. I’ll probably pick up the latter next time I need to pad out an online order to decrease shipping costs; the short bonus comic (also written by Jim Munroe, but drawn by a different artist, Michel Lacombe) is essentially a flashback illustrating an event the main comic already described. It’s like a deleted scene from a movie: nice, but not essential, and you can see why it got cut.

I’m usually wary of recommending decent, but not exceptional graphic novels because they tend to be so expensive relative to page count. I don’t have this objection here; the author recently put the entire book online, for free. So check it out if you find the premise intriguing. (And if you think you can handle it, why don’t you check out Battle Pope as well? It’s a comic that’s aged well in my estimation.)

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