Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Sacred & the Profane Space! ...Again!

The sacred & the profane written by Dean Motter and illustrated by Ken Steacy. Eclipse Graphic Album Edition (hardcover). Eclipse Books (Guerneville, California): 1987. n. pag. $24.95. ISBN: 0-913035-18-1.

Let me see if I can get the complicated history of this thing right. Originally, Dean Motter and Ken Steacy published the comic The Sacred and the Profane in five parts from 1977 to 1978 in Star+Reach. In the early 1980s, Motter and Steacy rewrote, re-drew, and colored their work and printed the new version in Epic Illustrated. In 1987, Eclipse Comics collected the Epic version into a single volume, which I recently discovered languishing on a shelf in That Shady Book Store Down the Street where Snuffles and I both do a lot of shopping. The cover art (to your left) was more than enough to convince me to take it home.

The comic's subject is one which, for whatever reason, is of perennial interest in science fiction: Catholics in space. See A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow and Ray Bradbury's 1951 short, "The Fire Balloons," for the classic examples.

The Sacred and the Profane depicts a future in which the discovery of life on another world has swelled religious interest around the globe so that the Catholic Church and numerous other religions are flourishing. Readers will probably recognize this as a sharp contrast with numerous other science fiction works in which the discovery of extraterrestrial life is a challenge to religious faith or even the source of its extinction.

Because of the heightened interest in religion and a set of improbable circumstances, the Catholic Church has convinced the United States to launch three Catholic space missions, known collectively as the Catholic Interstellar Crusade, to colonize distant worlds and evangelize the natives. The Sacred and the Profane chronicles the ill-fated first mission, Saint Catherine's.

Saint Catherine's is essentially a flying cathedral, and Steacy's intriguing Gothic church-cum-spaceship design is one of The Sacred and the Profane's numerous delights. Crewed by 215 people, most of them clergy, the ship comes complete with a sizable chapel, including an organ loft, where much of the action takes place. The story is told largely through the eyes of Sister Marianna, one of the nuns of the ship's convent, who as the story opens is losing her faith due partly to the monotony of space travel and due partly to a possibly inappropriate attraction to one of Saint Catherine's warrior monks, Brother Joshua, who she sees as a paragon of faith and virtue.

She won't have much time for brooding, however, as Saint Catherine's soon approaches a mysterious alien object that opens fire on the ship. Though the clergy commanding the mission hope to turn this unpromising beginning into a peaceful encounter, Brother Joshua, who soon turns out to be a crazed fanatic, returns fire and launches Saint Catherine's small regiment of fighter craft. The attack is a disaster; a number of the warrior monks are killed, and vine-like extraterrestrial entities invade the ship. Able to crawl anywhere and hide, and capable of combining together into creepy humanoid forms, the extraterrestrials begin killing the human crew as Saint Catherine's becomes trapped in a decaying orbit around the alien object. Though at first the aliens are apparently murderous, their motives are ultimately ambiguous, as is much of the story.

The Sacred and the Profane, though overall a fine work, suffers from character glut. Too many people are presented to the reader in too short a space. It becomes difficult to keep track of them and their sometimes convoluted and often less-than-holy relationships. A few of these relationships never have much relevance to the story as a whole.

Though it has has some eccentricities suggesting Motter and Steacy are not entirely familiar with their subject matter, such as a toga-clad archbishop addressed as "Your Holiness," the work is sophisticated in its depiction of religion and religious people: for example, in regards to the order of warrior monks who are supposed to protect the ship and crew, Motter is careful to tell us that the Vatican disapproved the creation of such an order but at last capitulated at the insistence of Archbishop Franklin, who spearheaded the space missions and commands Saint Catherine's. At the same time, it is Archbishop Franklin who confronts Brother Joshua and tries to rein in his violence.

Also impressively nuanced are Sister Marianna's attempts to assess her feelings for Brother Joshua. She admires what she perceives to be his faith and holiness, but fears her admiration has become inappropriate. As she envisions him as a gold-clad crusader knight astride a unicorn, she wonders, "Do I desire his passionate commitment, or do I desire him? Am I losing my ability to distinguish the spiritual from the sensual?" These musings are psychologically believable. Of course, the reader soon learns her admiration is misplaced, and eventually, so does she.

Thematic complexity and boldness prevent The Sacred and the Profane from falling prey to inherent weaknesses such as its excess of underdeveloped characters and a number of science fiction clichés, including but not limited to cabin fever on a space mission, an edgy guy who goes completely insane by the end, and a spaceship with a self-destruct sequence (why would a Catholic missionary ship have a self-destruct sequence?). In the afterword to the Eclipse Volume, Dean Motter discusses his intentions for the comic. His comments are intriguing enough, I wish to quote them at length:

The story is intended to be an allegorical satire, however ridiculing neither Catholicism nor interstellar exploration. It is, in fact, an attack on a civilization that no longer has the spiritual disposition to deal with its own mysticism--the technological alchemy that can produce such miracles as manned space flight, atomic power, instantaneous global communications, and genetic engineering.

A culture must maintain a clear understanding of the relationships between Heaven and Earth; between God and Man; and between man and his church. Such matters, when reduced from belief to mere opinion are left to squirm in the shadow of scientific method.

Religious thought was at one time a very powerful and sophisticated force within our culture. Scientific thought, though infantile and restless, eventually outgrew and overshadowed its secular counterparts. Now a prematurely senile technology and a retarded spiritualism noisily ignore one and other.

The Sacred and the Profane is about the reunion of these two now disparate governments.

I confess I didn't understand all that (does he really mean secular counterparts, or does he mean to say religious counterparts?) , but Motter's statements make clear why The Sacred and the Profane is a good read in spite of itself. If I understand him rightly, he is saying that a culture without a clear philosophical or religious foundation is a culture in trouble. He is saying that the separation of church and state and the separation of science and religion are balderdash. He is saying that a culture that cannot state clearly what it believes and what it stands for is a decadent culture, perhaps a doomed culture. Whether or not the reader is inclined to agree, and whether or not Motter is correct, it is undeniable that this is a good position from which to write a work of religiously themed science fiction: he has no anti-religious chip on his shoulder, but he isn't trying to evangelize, either. Motter states, "It is difficult to approach a story that deals with religion without appearing to either attack or defend it," but in The Sacred and the Profane he succeeds, and that is the comic's great strength.

Many religious readers may ask first if a book with religious themes is positive in its depiction of religion, but I suggest that question is less important than these:

  1. Is it sophisticated in its depiction of religion? Does it avoid depicting religious people either as uniformly evil fanatics or perfect do-gooders?
  2. Does it discuss religious matters in such a way as to encourage the reader to think about the subject further?
  3. Is it good art?
  4. By mentioning it, could I potentially impress women at a science fiction/comic book convention or club?

In the case of The Sacred and the Profane, the answer to all these questions is yes.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Sacred and the Profane:

Myth Level: Medium-High (universal themes)

Quality: Medium-High (some serious bumps, but excellent nonetheless; complex musing expertly encased in a brief science fiction story)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (a great try, but a little more research was in order)

Update: Read Part 2 on the subject of Christian tragedy.
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