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Rant #486
(published May 13, 2010)
Sword of My Mouth: A Review in Conversation
by Morgan Johnson and David Erik Nelson
Dave-o and I were recently fortunate enough to get our hands on review copies of Jim Munroe's new graphic novel, Sword of My Mouth (with art by Shannon Gerald). We have been fans of Munroe's for at least a decade, since reading Angry Young Spaceman.

Sword concerns life in post-Rapture Detroit, centering on a collectivist farming commune and the efforts of Famine, as in the Horseman of the Apocalypse, to sabotage Detroit's food supply. Sword is a sequel to Therefore, Repent! though this detail is not given anywhere on the book.

Below is the slightly edited transcript of our review-as-conversation.


Morgan Johnson: The last thing of Munroe's I read was the satanism novel, An Opening Act Of Unspeakable Evil.

Dave Nelson: OK, that's a good place to start: Therefore Repent! (the first full-fledged graphic novel, the prequel to this one) is an outgrowth of An Opening Act; it's principally about the Crow-Headed Girl and Mummy Boy. Incidentally, I really liked Opening Act. Did you dig Repent!?

Morgan Johnson: Could you remind me? It's been a while and I didn't get into Opening Act and haven't read Repent. I remember hipsters? And an art gallery/apartment?

Dave Nelson: Yeah, basically. In Opening Act there are hipster/artist/Toronto/socialized health care twenty-somethings. And Protagonist Girl (who ends up being all crow-headed) gets this roomy who does this opening act for their performance art shows, a weird meditation candle-magic thing. And the central question of the book is: "Is roommate Lilith a legit Satanist, or just the child of new Age hippies?"

Morgan Johnson: Is she literally crow headed?

Dave Nelson: She ends up literally crow headed post-Rapture, but in the book she makes this crow mask that she wears when she starts performing in the opening act. But, anyway, in Opening Act, the real narrative juice comes from the slow reveal on the Mummy Guy's back story and nature, and the development of his relationship with Crow-Headed Girl.

Morgan Johnson: Does the Rapture happen in Opening Act? I didn't finish it.

Dave Nelson: No, the Rapture is post-Opening Act. He did a small comic, I think, called The Bold Explorers, where the Rapture actually happens. The whole thing is covered and expanded in Therefore Repent!

Morgan Johnson: Okay, so Opening Act is a prelude to what goes down in Repent. Can you summarize Repent for me?

Dave Nelson: Aside: You don't really need to know Opening Act to understand any of the graphic novels, but I think that Sword of My Mouth is almost unintelligible without Repent.

Morgan Johnson: Really? I feel like I got most of what was going on in Sword without having read Repent. Our impressions will show, I guess. You read Repent, I didn't.

Dave Nelson: Anyway, I don't think you need to read Repent to understand Sword, but I think you do need to have read Repent in order to come remotely close to enjoying Sword.

So, Repent: The Crow-Headed Girl and Mummy Boy end up in Chicago post-Rapture. All of the good Christian people literally floated off to Heaven one day (like, you could see them float up and away) and everyone else was left wondering, "WtF?"

Morgan Johnson: Like balloons?

Dave Nelson: Exactly: Like balloons. For reals.

Morgan Johnson: Weird.

Dave Nelson: Post-Rapture, the folks left behind begin expressing "mutations" that often take the form of magic powers. Meanwhile, they have to re-organize some semblance of society (like any Apocalypse story). And then the angels show up. With guns. And start slaughtering everyone that's left.

Morgan Johnson: Is there reason or rhyme to who mutates?

Dave Nelson: Sort of; it's complicated. Like, for example, Crow Head's crow-mask becomes permanent—folks sorta "express" their power/mutation by force of will.

Morgan Johnson: That's the impression I got from Sword. That the mutations had a Freudian-secret desire-poetic justice nature to them.

Dave Nelson: So, there is an organized resistance to the Angels in Chicago. And it's a basic WWII-France situation: Angels want to subdue/rule the populace, resistance fighters wanna defend their independence. Some regular folks help the invaders, others resist, lots just wanna keep their heads down and not die.

Morgan Johnson: And the angels are actual angels? Are they killable? Do they have mutant/magic powers?

Dave Nelson: The angels are real paramilitary angels. They are strong and fast and ruthless, but can be beaten. (Just like real Bible angels.) Incidentally, the Rapture was legit good folks floating away. One of the reveals is that the Mummy guy—who is a legitimately good guy—actually started to float away during the Rapture and held on to keep from going. I.e., he skipped out on Heaven (or so we think when he admits this). The big final reveal is this: They aren't real angels; they're extra terrestrials that have come to colonize the planet, but they are amorphous beings: Wherever they arrive, they just absorb the prominent psychic mythos of that place, and take on its ruling forms—the angels really believe they're angels, but aren't.

Morgan Johnson: . . . What?

Dave Nelson: And their alien juju is what has juiced everyone to begin expressing these Freudian Magick mutations.

Morgan Johnson: How does a species evolve to become what other people imagine them being? And not know what they are?

Dave Nelson: They're like chameleons: They take on the local color, but instead of doing it to blend in and hide, they do it to dominate.

Morgan Johnson: Right, but how do they not know they aren't angels?

Dave Nelson: Does a chameleon know it's faking being a fichus tree, or does it just know "I'm blending"? The angels think they are angels. Just like a chameleon probably thinks "I'm dark" or "I'm green." Or just like any of us thinks "I'm fitting in. I belong here."

Morgan Johnson: So you're suggesting that the amorphous blobbo aliens aren't exactly sentient or highly intelligent. They're blobs without conscience that just absorb the psychic cloud they land in?

Dave Nelson: I am saying that, but I can't recall how explicitly that's outlined in book. That was my takeaway. Also, the Raptured folks?

Morgan Johnson: Food?

Dave Nelson: Nope. But certainly not in Heaven . . . They floated up, because that's what the "End of the World" meant in their culture, then suffocated in space. There's a pretty chilling picture of this asteroid-like belt of corpses ringing Earth.

Morgan Johnson: So when the aliens hit the non-Christian world, what do they become? Like, the billions in China, what do they see?

Dave Nelson: Undefined value (which is a bummer).

Morgan Johnson: How do they pick the "nicest folk"?

Dave Nelson: They don't pick anyone; it's self-selected: Folks that have actualized float off.

Morgan Johnson: And die in space. Yeesh.

Dave Nelson: . . . and die and space. Yeah. It's pretty good, actually.

Morgan Johnson: Okay, I like the die in space thing. And the aliens-take-on-the-belief-forms is interesting. Marvel comics did something similar with the Asgardian and Greek gods a decade ago in the "Earth X" series.

Dave Nelson: So, from a review perspective: Repent might sound hokey, but it was really good—accepting that I don't read many comics, and what I have read is basically the stuff that knowledgeable folks say is the best, so my meter stick is entirely calibrated to, like, Maus and Watchmen—but it was solid. And I grant that Opening Act was really hard to get into, but I ultimately liked it, too, even though I felt, in a plot sense, cheated by the ending.

Morgan Johnson: How does Opening Act end?

Dave Nelson: With a handwave. As I recall, the "Is Lilith a witch?" question gets some hokey, "Oh, it all makes perfect, non-supernatural sense" resolution. It's almost Scooby-doobian, but without any sinister overtones.

Morgan Johnson: Midichlorians?

Dave Nelson: It verges on "total misunderstanding." And, as I believe I've made clear, I hardly remember it, apart from being let down. But I really dug the love story between Crow and Mummy, that human part really worked, and redeemed the book for me.


Morgan Johnson: So let's talk about Sword. Wanna give a brief rundown of the plot, for our review?

Dave Nelson: Well, just to put the cart first—'cause I was going somewhere with explaining what worked for me in Opening Act. What annoyed me in Sword was that the interpersonal relationships I cared about basically stayed unexplored in service of working out a plot complication I found entirely uninteresting.

Morgan Johnson: Ella and Luke?

Dave Nelson: Ella and Luke and Andre.

Morgan Johnson: Yeah, that's the story right there.

Dave Nelson: Or should be. Instead the story was composed of all of the places where the tangents jutted off.

Morgan Johnson: But to try and make this discussion make sense for other people, lets back up a step.

Dave Nelson: It was like they consciously avoided telling the story I cared about.

Morgan Johnson: So, Sword of my Mouth is set in post-Rapture Detroit. And focuses on a small, anarchist, farming commune.

Dave Nelson: Yup—a commune that has pre-Rapture roots (and actually knows about brownfields; yeah!)

Morgan Johnson: Brownfields?

Dave Nelson: Soil contamination that makes land unsuitable for certain types of development, like food-service.

Morgan Johnson: Seriously? Like lead contamination or what?

Dave Nelson: Yeah. I've never bitched about this? For historical reasons, Detroit was a major nexus of lead- and mercury-based paint production and use. So eating food grown there is a real crap shoot.

Morgan Johnson: Well, I know that the D has some of the best lead poisoning experts in the world. I assumed there was a damn good reason.

Dave Nelson: Eating fish from the Detroit river? . . . shit . . . The DNR used to formally recommend you keep it under once per month. For real.

Morgan Johnson: I've heard waaaaay too much about the microfarms in the D. When I go back there, everyone (except you) tells me that there is no problem with the soil. That since auto production was the main industry, the soil is TOTALLY FINE. But, c'mon, ain't nothing in Detroit totally fine.

Dave Nelson: The soil isn't fine. There is major and unpredictable spot contamination. Ask any developer—they are legally mandated to test the soil and clean before building. Some places the soil is great. Others, it's toxic. And—OMFG!—Don't get me started about paint in Detroit! Short story: Detroit was the major point of production for mercury-based paint, which was generally used in marine applications (freighters, etc.) and only outlawed in the early 1990s. Just before it became illegal, the manufacturers donated all the old paint in the warehouses to Detroit Public Schools. Manufacturers got a write-off for the charitable donation, DPS coated every damn handrail, flagpole, window frame, etc. in a Detroit school with ultra-durable mercury paint.

Morgan Johnson: *shakes head* Fucking Detroit. "Hey this paint is illegal because it's toxic; let's paint EVERYTHING with it!" But the brownfields thing is a solid point in Munroe's favor, as are many other pieces of the Detroit picture.

Dave Nelson: EXACTLY!

Morgan Johnson: He has the abandoned train station. He has the Heidelberg Project. The microfarms, the scrappers, the crackheads, Joe Louis's fist . . .

Dave Nelson: The fact that Munroe's Rapture doesn't involved blacks all magically disappearing makes it almost unique in SF/F, esp. SF/F about Detroit.

Morgan Johnson: Okay. Let's talk about the black thing.

Dave Nelson: The setting is solid. Totally agree. As is the social setting.

Morgan Johnson: My biggest problem for the first two-thirds of the book was that it's totally white. Detroit! White! Just like in Robocop!

Dave Nelson: YES! TOTALLY AGREE! I Was actually formulating my core complaint when blacks and Bosnians suddenly showed up.

Morgan Johnson: I know SciFi and comics tend to be overwhelmingly White (except when they're not — Hi, Milestone!—but still.)

Dave Nelson: Well, they ended up being Arab, but I initially took them to be Bosnian Muslims.

Morgan Johnson: I was getting angry at the book, and then there was a black congregation and some Chaldeans. But even then, it feels shoe-horned in at the last second. Like, what do they add to the story?

Dave Nelson: Chaldeans speak Assyrian. I think these are Saudis or something

Morgan Johnson: Well we will never know. They are Random Arab Party Store Owners. But, lets go back to the plot a sec:

Ella has been ditched by Andre, who has gone to Chicago to fight angels. She has a baby named Wilson. Ella is white, Andre is black. Wilson has a full mouth of adult teeth despite being a baby (this is his mutation). At the daycare, Ella bumps into a friend and gets invited to live in their post-apocalypse urban farming hipster artistic paradise commune. Which, I have to say, reminded me mostly of Bechdel's The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.

Dave Nelson: Don't know Dykes, sorry. Book or comic or movie or . . .

Morgan Johnson: It's a comic strip, ran nationally in papers for, like, 20 years. Tells the story of lesbians in St. Paul, MN. Some of whom live in a cozy co-op. Anyways, so Ella fits in well at the commune. She makes friends, meets people. I don't know any of their names or what their deals are except one woman has become part-fishperson, one guy named Paul is a farming nerd and there is a testy artist named Luke who used to be a crackhead scrapper. And is rumored to have been black before the apocalypse and maybe used the magics to make himself white. But this information is a rumor from a shady character, so who knows. Moving on.

Ella and Luke hit it off. It's cute. They're both scared and broken people who find something in each other. It's the stuff stories are made out of these days. I can see Zach Galifiankais playing Luke in the movie.

Paul the farm-nerd's sister comes in from New York. She explains that the Angels basically won there. They rule. Stuff works. They have food shipped in. But Ursula—that's her name—has no eyes and yet she can see with the sight-beyond-sight (Thundercats, Ho!). She has a sort of psychometry: can read the history of objects. And when she touches food that the angels ship in, it reeks of the environmental damage long-haul shipping causes, and of the immigrants' pain in picking it.

Dave Nelson: Zach Galifianakis. That'd be cool.

Morgan Johnson: What'd you think of the food part?

Dave Nelson: Honestly? I mean, I thought it was kind of simplistic.

Morgan Johnson: Is her power the ability to see liberal white guilt? Like, do socks from the Gap bleed around her? Does non-fair trade coffee taste like the tears of child labor in Africa?

Dave Nelson: I mean, in essence—and I like Jim as a guy and like a lot of his work—but like many activists from functional social democracies, he comes off as a trade protectionist. But the question of oranges—and vitamin C—is a valid one in this book. This is Michigan: If we don't trade, then our diet is root vegetables and meat for most of the year (and hemlock pine tea if you don't want to die of scurvy).

Morgan Johnson: When she uses a plastic bag does it smell like dead dinosaurs? And really, why are immigrants still picking vegetables in California? Wouldn't they, y'know, get Raptured?

Dave Nelson: The Rapture invites a lot of questions. And these questions stay in the background in Repent because the narrative is tightly focused on the local. As he expands it, we're invited to wonder what form the angels take when they land in atheist China and why so many good Catholic farm workers are still picking.

Morgan Johnson: I feel like the questions get handwaved off by the black preacher who says, basically, "Half my flock got raptured. Should I be honored it's so many or insulted it's so few?"

Dave Nelson: I don't even think that handwave works. Seriously: What happened in China? Dragons? Mao?

Morgan Johnson: Buddha? Maybe the aliens looked at China and said, "Nah. You too crazy." This is what bothers me: the book at the same time asks us to be aware of our global impact while at the same time being ignorant of its plot's global impact.

Back to the plot: So Andre, Ella's runoft boyfriend comes back. He's angry. He has a monster jaw. He confronts his father about abuse in a really passive aggressive douchey way. He says hi to Ella and then . . . leaves? What was the point of that?

Dave Nelson: Hey, man has a thing to do. Gotta fuck with whitey-no-hands [Editor's note: Famine has skeleton hands].

Morgan Johnson: Okay, you explain that part of the plot, Mr. I Read The Prequel. It's the A plot, after all.

Dave Nelson: But, so, Famine rolls into Detroit because Detroit is the only place that's working around the food problem—

Morgan Johnson: Is he really Famine the Horseman? Or is he just another mutant?

Dave Nelson: Hmm . . . It's sorta undefined at first, but the end tends to imply that Famine is a human who has mutated. Whereas all—and only—the angels are Alien/Chameleons. There are no real Angels or Famine or anything; it's all just mutant-human-turncoats and Alien/Chameleon/Angels.

Morgan Johnson: Right, but could an alien turn into Famine? Or Jesus?

Dave Nelson: I think it could have, but I had the sense from Repent that once they glommed onto the "Angel meme," they were all basically married to it.

Anyway, the story is this: non-Raptured Christian turncoat humans (the "Risen") have taken control of interstate infrastructure (the rails and highways), and only let food traffic pass for the Angels. Most cities—like Chicago and NYC—are getting choked off (in my eyes, the whole Arab-Angel deal to kill Detroit's Farm Market is a thin Wal*Mart metaphor). But Detroit, with its native food production, is thriving. (Aside: Detroit is, in fact, the only major US city that has enough arable land within its borders, today, to entirely support its population.)

Morgan Johnson: (But the land is mostly full of lead, mercury, and PCBs . . .)

Dave Nelson: (exactimundo—also, the only reason it has enough arable land to support the population is because so much of the city is abandoned and has crumbled back to greenspace, and because the population has sagged so badly. anyway . . .)

But, so, Famine—who I ultimately believe is a mutant human turncoat—shows up in order to formally ally with the Angels, because he's the man that can choke off the Detroit food supply. Why they need him to do it, rather than just shooting everyone, (as they did in Chicago), is unclear. It appears that there is no Angel militarization in the D., and I don't understand why that is. Famine, in service of the Angels, hooks up with Arabs (who, being greedy and meretricious, are in it for the money) to Wal*Mart the Detroit market. But that doesn't work because of guns, Arab trickery, black tenacity, and the indomitable something of hyper-local whatever anarchist-DIY-spirit-thing. It's a Horatio Alger story for hipsters.

Morgan Johnson: Explicitly, the Angels want to deliver cheap, migrant-sourced food to the Arab corner stores, in order to drive down the prices and make the Eastern Market, where local producers sell, fail. Funny enough, in the real world the Eastern Market is the point at which nearly all of the migrant-sourced food enters Detroit.

Dave Nelson: Well, yeah. Maybe we aren't being post-ironic enough to enjoy the book.

Morgan Johnson: But, okay, the Arabs agree to it. But not really. Secretly they are in league with a black preacher. And then at the end . . . Famine gets ganked by an Angel? Why?

Dave Nelson: Because they only had room for two more pages, and needed to wrap up none of the threads that matter to me?

Morgan Johnson: Was it supposed to be because the Arab whipped out an angel skull?

Dave Nelson: Basically, Andre and the Arabs collude to make it look like the Arab accidentally reveals that Famine is paying him in Angel skulls—and thus a "Don't point that gun at my Dad, Harvey Keitel!" scene ensues.

Morgan Johnson: Okay, that was super unclear and rushed and what the fuck?

Dave Nelson: It's underdeveloped, and ultimately sort of a "so what?" I actually paged past it, hit the credits, and then paged back and re-read the ending because I thought maybe I'd missed it or my PDF was messed up.

Morgan Johnson: So it seems that Munroe really wanted to write a magickal realism story about Detroit and the hipster utopian farm thing going on there now, but he'd already written this Angel/Alien story . . . and so jammed them together, doing disservice to both.

Dave Nelson: I can't speak to his motivations. To me, this book is an add-on adventure to Therefore Repent!, which I really liked. There are things to enjoy here—the Detroit sites cameos, the existence of Arabs and blacks—but I don't think it's possible to really understand this without having read Repent, and I feel like I maybe only liked what I liked because I remembered how well Repent worked for me. This book felt rushed.

Morgan Johnson: Also, I didn't get that the magickal joy thing that happened to Ella and Luke was a Heidelberg dot until they explicitly say it pages later. [Note: the Heidelberg Project in Detroit was covered in polka dots. In Sword the dots blow around town and stick to things. At one point a dot smacks into Ella and Luke while they are on a date and they get all jazzed up about creating art.]

Morgan Johnson: And there seems to be no acknowledgment of what those dots meant in Detroit. They were put on buildings by Mayor Archer to mark them for destruction. And repurposed by whatshisname from the Heidelberg Project.

Dave Nelson: Guyton. Tyree Guyton.

Morgan Johnson: Right!

Dave Nelson: Yeah. The Detroit cameos might have been a little thin, but still, I liked them.

Morgan Johnson: Yeah.

Dave Nelson: I mean, here's my big picture problem: I disagree with Munroe about some aspects of DIY when it comes to producing art-entertainment (novels, films, comics, etc.) His argument is basically that DIY is better because it lines the artists' pockets and keeps control in their hands, but to my eye, by removing the layers of input from folks like developmental editors, outside graphic designers, and even marketing folk, we're ending up with a weaker product. I don't think a developmental editor would have let this go to print, and I don't think a responsible producer would have been satisfied with Infest Wisely [Note: Another Munroe project, this is a totally DIY shoestring sci-fi film; much of the writing is great, and the acting solid, but there are many points where technological and equipment limitations make it really hard to hear/see/enjoy/decrypt the dialogue and action.] For that matter, An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil was weaker than Everyone in Silico, and Silico was weaker than Angry Young Spaceman. Artists—and I speak from harsh experience—often need a kind stranger to tell them that they have an ugly baby.

Morgan Johnson: But Spaceman was better than Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask [Note: The latter was Munroe's first book, which got the full-on editors-proofers-marketing-big-publishing-house treatment from HarperCollins.]


Morgan Johnson: So this is a graphic novel. We should talk about the art and layout and such. I found Shannon Gerald's use of lowercase i and t, and uppercase everything else absolutely maddening. And the page flow was sloppy. This book has no panels. No panels at all past the first few pages. Maybe that's an indie style thing, but whatever. We have them for a reason. I thought the art captured the emotions well enough, but was still static at times. It felt overly photo-referenced. Every single person and background looks like it was traced from a real photo—it saps the page of energy.

Dave Nelson: I agree on all counts. I didn't realize how thrown off I was by the lack of panels until you said it . . .

Morgan Johnson: It reminds me of collage or flipping through someone's notebook. The lack of panels and clear divisions make the pages feel collaged and indistinct. They lack a sense of time passing.

Dave Nelson: She did some innovative stuff with depicting motion, but you are similarly on about the stiffness of some work. And spot on about time! The lettering didn't get to me as much as you, but there were definite moments where I had trouble reading the text itself. I kinda liked the collage-y aspect of the art. Except Andre. If I'd been writing this, I would have taken one look at how Andre was going and re-written his mutation to something more draw-able. [Note: Andre, Ella's ex, has a monstrous lower jaw like a snake.]

Morgan Johnson: Like a monster arm. But not the face. Makes him into a villain, a face like that.

Dave Nelson: It's just awkward as fuck. How does he talk?

Morgan Johnson: So, final thoughts? Would you recommend this to anyone?

Dave Nelson: In and of itself? No. But I really don't want to say that.

Morgan Johnson: The thing is, like most of Munroe's work, I find it has a good heart to it and many good bits, but the whole is put together hastily and I find it hard to recommend that to people. As Spacemen makes clear, the DIY thing can work, but the editorial interventions add value in many cases. Like, the world doesn't need to see more rough drafts, y'know? Especially in indie comics.

Dave Nelson: Yeah. But I don't like where we've ended up, in terms of reviews. I don't feel like there is value in panning something that's hardly out there to begin with, you know?

Morgan Johnson: Yeah. I mean. I still respect the hell out of Munroe for doing this stuff. And I did legitimately enjoy the interpersonal stuff. The Ella and Luke and Andre stuff is sweet. The utopian farm thing is interesting. There are people I'd recommend this to, I think. But not everyone.

Dave Nelson: Final takeaway: I continue to strongly urge folks to read Angry Young Spacemen (a book that I love, and which means an awful lot to me, even now, a decade later) and Everyone in Silico—which is neat. Likewise, Therefore Repent! is great, and if you really end up liking Repent!, then maybe come back and give Sword of My Mouth a read, too.

Morgan Johnson: Final takeaway: Angry Young Spaceman is a wonderful book, (essentially about being an ESL teacher in space). After we wrote this review I went and read Therefore Repent!. I found it intriguing, but ultimately muddled and unclear. The art had the opposite problem from Sword of My Mouth: it was overly worked and indistinct and crowded. I checked the Amazon reviews and I'm not exactly alone in this opinion. As for Sword, I think there will be people out there who are sufficiently into post-Rapture narratives—even ones as anti-Christian as this—who will really dig this.

Morgan Johnson and David Erik Nelson are co-founders and editors of Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) and Newswire.

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