Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Small Gods by Jason Rand (writer), Juan E. Ferreyra (artist/toner), Eduardo Ferreyra (gray tones, issues #2-10), and Jim Keplinger (letterer). Back-up stories: “Outside the Box” (issues #1-4) by Jason Rand (writer), Mahmud Asrar (artist), and Jim Keplinger (letterer); “The Report” (issue #5) by Jason Rand (writer), Jean-Paul Mavinga (artist), and Jim Keplinger (letterer); “Snapshots” (issues #6-9) by Jason Rand (writer), Aadi Salman (artist, issues #6, 8-9), Juan E. Ferreyra (artist, issue #7), and Jim Keplinger (letterer); “Touching Fate” (issues #10-12) by Jim Keplinger (writer/letterer), Lucius Romero (artist, issue #10), and Scott Story (artist, issues #11-12).
Published by Image, 13 issues (issues #1-12 plus a Special, which came out after issue #9 but takes place after issue #12), cover dated June 2004 – November 2005.
I don’t think there are any major SPOILERS, but as always, proceed at your own risk!
Small Gods is Jason Rand’s first published work, and he did two things right: His idea, that various powers based on the brain – precognition, telepathy, telekinesis, and the like – exist in the “real world” and regular, non-superhero people would possess them, is a good one; and he somehow got Juan Ferreyra to draw the book. I’ll get to the second thing, but the first is all Rand. The idea that people would possess these powers but there would be no superheroes isn’t new, but Rand, like a lot of other writers who do this kind of thing and unlike a lot of superhero writers, actually thinks about the real-world applications of powers like these. In the first issue, we get an info-dump about the way the world is, and our hero (at least for the first arc), Owen Young, explains what has happened, going back to a 1991 report determining that psychic talents were real:
That’s led a number of scientists to theorise [sic – Rand is Australian] that psychic abilities are innate; latent in many, if not all of us. As the environment continues to change, more and more of us will discover our psychic gifts. They say it’s inevitable. … Three months after the release of the findings, congress [sic] passed a bill declaring the use of telepathy and empathy to be invasions of privacy. … In the U.S., all telepaths and empaths were required to register with their local authorities. They weren’t forbidden to use their abilities, because THAT would be unconstitutional.
Rand also explains that telepaths and empaths were forbidden to be police officers, because reading the thoughts and emotions of a suspect is a violation of their civil rights. But precognition was finally allowed, as long as the police caught the perpetrator in the act. Owen is a precog, as we learn at the very beginning of the book, but he doesn’t always get visions in time to stop a crime, as we also see on the first few pages. So that’s the situation when the book begins. In the first arc, we also learn that Owen is an unregistered telepath, which means every arrest he’s ever made could be in jeopardy if his secret gets out. We learn that he’s a telepath because a suspect he’s about to arrest is one, too, and telepaths can figure it out if one lets his guard down. So the suspect knows Owen’s secret, and Owen and the small circle of cops who are in on his secret need to figure out what to do. Either the suspect outs him and he goes to prison and all his arrests are overturned, or he, you know, kills the suspect. Oh, it’s a real Scylla and Charybdis situation!
Interestingly enough, Rand doesn’t stick with Owen after the four-issue arc is over. Small Gods is not about one protagonist, it’s about the world in which these people live, and that makes it a far more fascinating comic because Rand can explore many different aspects of these powers without using the same small circle of characters. The book is set in Denver (the final arc doesn’t begin there, but it ends up there, and one of the back-up stories takes place in New Orleans), so Rand switches focus in the second arc to Bobby Pope, a low-level scam artist who’s quite good at it because he’s a precog. Bobby is picked up by dirty cops who take him a drug meet so he can “see” if the dealers are about to try anything, and after he alerts the cops and they kill everyone, they try to kill him, too. He goes on the run, but he has to figure out a way to get out of it. He and his occasional girlfriend, Lucy, stay one step ahead of the cops until he runs out of options. In the third arc, Rand introduces a government assassin who’s telekinetic and more than a little crazy. She’s kept under wraps by the feds, but she escapes and heads to … Denver. Rand shows that he has a bigger plot in mind when Owen Young shows up in issue #12, and the Special features a story in which both Bobby Pope and Owen feature prominently. At the end of the second arc, Bobby is visited by a mysterious bad guy who tells him that Bobby has to do some odd jobs for him. In the Special, Bobby has to do just that – show up at a bank moments before it gets robbed and keep the thieves there for several hours. Rand, it’s clear, had a bigger plot in mind for the book, but he was unable to finish it. Still, the idea of using different protagonists who might cross paths with characters from different arcs is a good one, as it allows him to tell different kinds of stories and show people using their abilities in different ways. So we get a tense, morally challenging police story, in which Owen has to deal with the fall-out of the revelation of his secret, including how it affects his personal life; we get an action-packed chase comic with the (relatively) innocent man on the run, chased by powerful people whom everyone else will believe over the victim; a hostage situation; and the story of a woman pushed to the very edge who simply wants the voice in her head to stop and will kill anyone who she thinks is an enemy, which is unfortunately most people. Rand does each of these quite well, which is pretty cool.
While the stories are good, Rand does good work taking what are archetypal characters and making them interesting. Owen is living with a doctor named Dani who doesn’t know that he’s a telepath. When he comes clean to her, she reacts strongly and walks out. It’s a good scene, because Rand brings in prejudice without being overt about it – Dani can’t trust Owen because she can’t believe he wouldn’t read her mind, even though he swears he’s never done it. Owen becomes the “Other” in Dani’s mind, and she can’t overcome her natural prejudice against telepaths even though she’s never had any reason to suspect he’s the kind of person who would manipulate her. That’s one of the issues with telepaths that always comes up in comics, but Rand does a nice job with it. Neither Owen nor Dani is a bad person, but Dani’s position is perfectly plausible – how could she know? Without being too obvious about it, Rand gets to the heart of relationships in general – you have to trust someone, and if you don’t, the relationship doesn’t work. He makes it more overt, of course, but it’s still the bedrock of a relationship, and Dani can’t make that leap. Similarly, Rand certainly implies that Owen wouldn’t do something awful like that, but then he spends most of the arc hinting around that Owen will kill the suspect who knows he’s a telepath. It’s a nice moral conundrum, especially against the backdrop of his “coming out” to Dani. Rand can’t quite escape the clichés of drama, however, and Owen does have sex with Jodi, one of the cops who know he’s a telepath. She’s obviously carrying a torch for him, and she sees an opportunity when Dani walks out on him. What keeps it from being too annoying is that Jodi is an interesting character in her own right, and the fact that she knows Owen’s secret but Dani did not opens up some interesting story possibilities about who Owen really trusts. The other cops who know are male, but because Jodi knows, one could argue that Owen trusts her more than he trusts the woman he loves. It goes back to the idea of police having each other’s backs, but because Jodi is interested in Owen, it becomes more problematic. It’s another thread that Rand didn’t get to follow up on – Owen and Dani get back together, and in the Special, Jodi confronts him about it and tells him that she loves him, but it never goes any further than that because the book got cancelled. Still, it’s an intriguing romantic triangle because of what Owen can do and who he chose to tell about it.
Rand knows that contentious romantic relationships make for good drama, so he introduces another one in the second arc, as Bobby Pope has an on-again off-again relationship with Lucy Naylor (her last name is such only so Rand can make one “nail her” joke, apparently). The contrast between Lucy and Dani is interesting, because Lucy knows all about Bobby’s abilities and is, indeed, tough as nails, and she is in the comic almost as much as Bobby is. There’s a love triangle as well, as the two fugitives need to go to Bobby’s ex-lover for help (she’s some kind of high-level mover and shaker in Denver) and she’s quite catty about it. Lucy and Bobby’s relationship, despite some contentiousness when we first meet her, is much healthier than Owen and Dani’s, mainly because Lucy is fully aware of who Bobby is. It’s interesting to contrast the two.
In the third arc, the relationship is even more interesting, because it’s not really a romantic one, but it is one of obsession. The insane assassin, Christina Fiero, and her CIA handler, Michael Hanley, are linked because Hanley is the only one whom Crissy can’t control. Hanley wants to have sex with Crissy, but he can’t, and Rand makes this more explicit in issue #12, when Hanley has sex with one of the field operatives, Natalie Kent. She can see that he’d rather be with Crissy, and Rand gives her an interesting line: “Truth be told … so would I.” Perhaps she’s a lesbian and is just seizing whatever intimacy she can before they go to fight Crissy and possibly die, but Rand also implies that people – male or female, straight or gay – are drawn to Crissy, who can manipulate feelings. Rand, of course, had implied this about the characters who have powers in Small Gods before, when Dani believed it about Owen, and in this arc, he makes it clear that they can control people, but he never quite answers whether Hanley and Kent want Crissy because of her powers, her beauty, her creepy charisma, or a combination of all three. This is a storytelling thread that Rand doesn’t get to pursue further, but it’s an interesting one nevertheless.
Rand’s scripts make for a perfectly good comic, and had he worked with a lesser artist, I would probably consider Small Gods an interesting comic but nothing more. However, Rand had the good fortune to work with Juan Ferreyra, who was making his American debut with this comic. I have never seen Ferreyra’s pre-Small Gods work, but it’s astonishing how good it is relatively early in his career (and how he always seems to improve with every project he takes on, too). Ferreyra populates the book with wildly good-looking people, which is not that different from many other comics, but because he’s so good at clothing them and making sure they move like real people, it’s far less egregious than it would be in your standard superhero comic. And while someone like Crissy is attractive, Ferreyra does an excellent job showing how insane she is, too. The attractiveness of his characters doesn’t hinder his character work, so it’s not a distraction.
Ferreyra shows early on how good he is at storytelling. On the first few pages of the series, Owen and his partner, John Meyer, are tracking a serial killer based on one of Owen’s visions. Ferreyra splits the pages between the two men trying to figure out where the killer is and the killer actually dispatching his victim (Owen and John arrive too late to save the girl, making this a fairly bleak comic from the very beginning). Ferreyra does a very nice job building the tension – he draws good rage and anxiety on the faces of the cops as they troll for information, while the killing is absolutely chilling. Each panel switches first-person points of view – in the first three, we see the victim from the killer’s point of view, and then we switch to the victim’s point of view and then back and forth. The fact that Ferreyra draws it in almost total darkness, with the eerie glow of sunlight coming through cracks in the curtains, is terrifying as well, and the look on the victim’s face as she dies is awful but brilliant. After the first few pages, we can see that Ferreyra knows exactly what he’s doing in terms of heightening the tension of the story. He’s also good at grounding the comic, which could be hard to do because of the slightly esoteric subject matter. When Owen returns home in issue #1, we see Dani getting ready for work. She’s brushing her teeth over the sink and putting on her jacket at the same time. With just a few simple panels, Ferreyra makes her a real person, even before she says anything. As usual with Ferreyra, she’s a beautiful woman, but the way he draws her doing something so mundane and the way he draws Owen staring at her says a great deal about what kind of person Dani is and how Owen feels about her. Ferreyra is as good at these small character moments as he is at the big action pieces. The first time he draws Jodi, he shows on her face that she cares more about Owen than he realizes. When he tells his lieutenant that he’s a telepath, Ferreyra draws her with a wonderfully angry face right before she yells at him, as if she’s trying very hard not to leap over the desk and beat him to death. John and Jodi interview the suspect who knows Owen is a telepath, and Ferreyra shows it from the suspect’s point of view, and he does a great job showing how differently the two cops react to the interrogation. All of these character moments make the book far more about the people than the high concept, and another artist might not have been able to capture that. When Jodi starts kissing Owen, she knows it’s a bad idea, but she saw her chance and she took it. In the next arc, Ferreyra does a marvelous job showing how venomous Melissa – Bobby’s ex – is around Lucy, his current lover. It never reaches catfight level, because Rand is too smart for that, but Ferreyra is really good at showing how much the two women dislike each other. In the final arc, he makes Crissy’s eyes just a bit wider than other characters’, so that when her mind goes elsewhere, we can see the fear and despair in her face through her eyes. This also makes the moments when her eyes get thinner even scarier, because she’s focusing far more on killing people, and she’s good at killing people. Ferreyra adds the right amount of darkness around her eyes, as well, which makes it even clearer that she has more problems than your average person. All of this works to make Rand’s scripts more interesting, which a lesser artist might not have been able to do.
Ferreyra also does very good work with the action in the comic. It’s not all characterization, of course – there’s plenty of violent action in Small Gods, and Ferreyra is excellent at that, too. The first arc is a more psychological drama, but Bobby Pope’s story is full of action, as most of it is Bobby and Lucy on the run from crooked cops. We see a little of it in issues #5-6, when Bobby is taken by the cops and there’s a gun fight in a warehouse, but the action really ramps up in issue #7, when the cops find Bobby and Lucy. There’s a car chase that takes six pages, with three two-page spreads that allows Ferreyra to go a little nuts. There’s very little dialogue on the pages, and it’s up to Ferreyra to do all the storytelling, and he’s amazing. He doesn’t use many big panels, instead constructing the chase out of small, close-up panels that would be annoying in a movie (and often is, as too many movies rely on close-in shots that are incredibly confusing) but are fine here, as we can take in all the small panels and build the scene in our own mind. There’s another good action scene in issue #9, as Lucy holds off the cops while Bobby tries to get to a meeting with the district attorney (Lucy is conveniently a bouncer, so she knows how to kick ass). Ferrerya does a very good job giving us a fight that makes sense, as Lucy devastates the bad guys (until one of them grabs her from behind). Obviously, the final arc is also action-packed, and Ferreyra is again up to the task. When Crissy goes on her mission in issue #10, Ferreyra draws the action from her point of view, so it looks a little like a video game, but because we’re in her head and Rand makes it clear she’s insane, it’s more intense. When Hanley’s team tracks her down in Denver, Ferrerya once again uses double-page landscape-style spreads for the fight, as Crissy seizes control of Hanley’s team and makes them kill each other. And in issue #12, Hanley and Crissy fight in the sewer, and it’s another intense cat-and-mouse game, as Ferreyra uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to his advantage. He does a lot of different things with the action scenes, and they work very well.
What’s also impressive about the artwork is that Ferreyra isn’t afraid to fool around with page layouts and points of view. I’ve already mentioned the few times he uses a first-person point of view, which is always interesting, but he also shows other “camera angles” to shake things up a bit. He does this to emphasize certain things, such as the gun on the first page of issue #3, which looms far larger than its actual size because of the angle Ferrerya uses, but is also given importance because of what Owen is going to do with it. He tilts important panels, uses circular panels in some places, and does a very nice job showing how scary it would be if someone could control the minds of everyone around you. Ferreyra also does an excellent job with the shading on the book, from which he received assistant from Eduardo Ferreyra, who I’m going to assume is related to him. The black and white is used very well, from that opening sequence with the serial killer through Crissy and Hanley’s fight in the sewer. When Owen has a vision in issue #1, Ferreyra softens the pencils, uses more gray tones, and gets rid of panel borders to give it a hazy, “visionary” quality. He uses typical computer effects to blur the pencil work in some places, but it’s always in a place where we’d expect it, and it doesn’t intrude too much on the flow of the story. The transition to glossier paper in issue #5 is a bit jarring, because Ferreyra’s pencils look a bit crisper and his characters a bit more chiseled and perfect, but it’s not too big a deal. In the final arc, the Ferreyras do some very nice, rougher work, as the blacks tend to creep in a bit more, perhaps indicating a more morally murky story, and it’s interesting that Ferreyra appears to soften the pencils a bit when Crissy and Hanley are showing their more “human” sides, which contrasts nicely with their hard-edged personas. The “coloring,” such as it is, is the worst on the Special, and I have to believe it’s because the Special was supposed to be in full color, so Ferrerya may have inked it more darkly and possibly colored it before it was decided to print it in black and white, because it’s far too dark on many pages, and that’s too bad. But otherwise, the gray tones on the book are really well done.
While Ferreyra has moved on and become one of the absolute best artists in the business, Rand disappeared from the comics scene not too long after Small Gods, unfortunately, came to an end. I’m not sure why – there’s a Facebook page and an IMDb page for a Small Gods short film from 2011, but I don’t know if Rand is involved with that and he’s working in film instead of comics. Even though he hasn’t done a lot of comics work, he did give us this comic, which is both a gripping story and an artistic showcase. Image managed to release a trade paperback of the first arc, but the rest hasn’t been collected. I’m also not sure if the trade collects the first back-up story, which is a neat opportunity to see very early Mahmud Asrar art (it’s a bit rough, but you can see the potential). The lack of trades shouldn’t deter you, though! This is an excellent example of a writer having a good idea and thinking about all the consequences of that idea, all drawn by a superb artist. What’s not to love?
If you’re not keen on cop dramas/espionage stories, you can always check out the archives! It’s chock full of cool stuff!
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