Thursday, October 24, 2013

Atheists battle the Supernatural in S.H.O.O.T. First

S.H.O.O.T. First is a new comic series from publisher Dark Horse Comics written by Justin Aclin (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Twisted ToyFare Theatre) with art by Nicolás Daniel Selma (Tomb Raider: The Beginning). S.H.O.O.T. stands for Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce, a rather tortured acronym, but the key takeaway is that the heroes are atheists who fight against extra-dimensional invaders who pose as supernatural creatures such as “Angels, Demons, Yetis, Elves” and “Jinn.” These creatures, referred to collectively as “outside actors” or “O.A.’s,” feed on religious faith, so only weapons designed to harness the psychic power of an atheist’s doubt can kill them.

As Seth Hersch, who heads up the research arm of the outfit explains, “The O.A.’s have been feeding on us for millennia, self-evolving into new forms when their old ones no longer command our faith. But they know their time is ending. Science is winning. So they’re ready to trigger a plan-- Global Apocalypse.” Even though an apocalypse will drastically reduce the population of the Earth, the survivors will have more faith than ever in the false Gods, because the prophecies will have been proven. The remaining human population will feed he O.A.’s forever.

Dark Horse describes the series as “original, irreverent and controversial.” That might be an understatement. Every religion on Earth, the premise maintains, is false, and worse than that, religion is a massive con game being perpetrated on humanity with the result that we are little more than herd animals being milked for our nourishing faith. The opening action sequence begins in a mosque, where what appears to be a suicide bomber is revealed to be an O.A. species we call a Jinn. An unnamed man is kneeling in the mosque but his prayer reveals that he has lost his faith: he no longer believes in God. By the end of the first issue he takes on the name “Infidel” and joins the team.

Near the end of the book we are shown the interior of the Vatican, where Cardinal Rafacz is shown kneeling before and taking orders from a creature that pretends to be an Angel. How representatives of the various religions portrayed in this book will react to their depictions will depend on how popular the comic becomes, and whether it gets noticed. Needless to say, religion, faith and the supernatural are not portrayed as deserving of our respect.

The first issue is divided between exposition and action, which is a good mix for a comic that seems more high concept than it is. A lot needs to be explained in this book, the plot and back story needs to be given, the characters introduced and rendered interesting enough to bring us back next month, the technology has needs the appearance of verisimilitude and the rules of the world need to be laid out. In the meantime, this being an action comic book, there has to be enough action to provide a hint at what excitements are to follow in the next three issues. No easy task in 22 pages.

Fortunately the writer, Justin Aclin, has the confidence to show the world and let the characters speak, relying on the excellent Nicolás Daniel Selma art and his crisp ear for dialog to tell his story. Sometimes the expositional dialog can be a little long, but it avoids being excessively clunky or forced. The art is crisp and clean and the colors pop. Having established the world and set the tone through story and art, Aclin and Selma can now spend the rest of the series building their characters and exploring their world.

This should be a very interesting world to explore. The idea of creatures that come to Earth to exploit our tendency towards “faith” is reminiscent of one that I remember being used in the original Star Trek, the one with the Greek god Apollo thriving on human worship. S.H.O.O.T. First portrays the relationship between worshipper and worshipped as more tenuous and less open. The villainous extra-dimensional creatures running the world behind the scenes are busy engineering just enough unusual sightings and miracles to keep the average person in a position of faith. According to the mythos established in the first issues, if these creatures fully reveal themselves, the “faith energy” would dry up, and become “factual knowledge.”

Aclin started coming up with the idea for the series over three years ago after dealing with his own loss of faith, while in what he calls his “strident atheist” phase. Later Aclin mellowed out a bit and went for a more meditative approach to his story. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Aclin explained:
“...as I went along developing the ideas, I went beyond that strident stage and into a point where I was living a life feeling, ‘I know what I am, and I don't need to spend time preaching at people about it. I know other people like me are out there.’ Then I started to realize that there are issues you deal with when you make this decision or have a change of belief happen to you.”
This allowed Aclin to explore some interesting ideas:
“One of the biggest [issues atheists deal with] is ‘How do you talk to children about death when you don't have the very comforting story about Heaven to fall back on?’ That became one of the key emotions that the story revolves around. It's not just dealing with children, but it's about what you lose when you decide to live without faith and know this is the truth for you. You have no other choice but to believe what you believe, but you gain the idea that you can live your own truth. That's the unifying theme of this whole story, and you'll see all the characters go through that in some form or another.”
The “Secular Humanist” characters don’t believe in the supernatural, but they do apparently believe in psychic energy and massive alien being conspiracy theories. This makes sense because, unlike in our world, such things are real and verifiable in the universe of S.H.O.O.T. First. These things are no longer taken on weak evidence and faith, they have become “factual knowledge.”

To my knowledge S.H.O.O.T. First is the first comic written by an atheist featuring a team of atheists fighting the supernatural in a universe that is completely naturalistic in nature. It bears some similarity to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whose supernatural horrors were always extraterrestrial and naturalistic, even if beyond our scientific understanding. Science has been combating the supernatural since Van Helsing fought Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel and that idea has invaded pop culture through shows like The X-Files and been played for laughs in Ghostbusters. Recently however, I have been noticing a tendency to move away from purely supernatural explanations for so-called supernatural events. Fringe was a The X-Files type show that eschewed the supernatural in favor of weird science, and zombie apocalypses like The Walking Dead now routinely posit viral rather than supernatural reanimation.

S.H.O.O.T. First is a four issue comic mini-series available from Dark Horse Comics for $3.99 an issue. The first issue is on the stands now.

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