The Wretch, Volume One
Written and Illustrated by Phil Hester
I’ve been a big fan of Phil Hester’s art since his Green Arrow days. I think it was The Atheist or thereabouts where I realized he could write too and became an even bigger fan of that part of his career. Since then, I’ve slowly been tracking down stuff like The Coffin, Stronghold (which I hope he and Tyler Walpole will finish some day), and now The Wretch.
I didn’t know what to expect from The Wretch. I guess from the costumed character with the pitiful name I figured it must be about some kind of under-appreciated superhero. Knowing Hester’s other work, I knew there had to be something else to it than that, something deeper, but I never anticipated the metaphysical questions Hester introduces.
I remember reading something Hester said in an interview or wrote in an article when The Atheist came out. He wouldn’t pin down exactly what he was trying to say in The Atheist, but he did specify what it wasn’t doing. He wasn’t trying to declare his world-view through the mouth of his title character. He was, in fact, coy about what his world-view actually is. I’d be putting words into Hester’s mouth to try and paraphrase further, but the feeling I got was that he was trying to raise some worthwhile questions without specifying what he thought the answers are. I see a lot of that in The Wretch too.
The six stories in The Wretch are unconnected to each other except that they all feature the same, dark avenger of Glass City jumping in at just the right time to stop some evil-doer from achieving its goals. In “The End of the World,” it’s the priest of an ancient god trying to resurrect his deity. In “Bad Dog,” it’s a monster canine. “Snow” features an abusive, controlling father and “The Church Bus” has a spooky cult. He fights an emotion-feeding creature in “White Lie” and finishes up against a Galactus-like cosmic entity in “Doomsday.”
All of these are swell concepts for an average superhero story, but Hester takes them beyond that by using them to make you think. The priest in “The End of the World” needs Glass City’s worthless junk as part of his ritual. When he includes a young man’s Very Good condition comic book in the collection, the man is forced to consider the value he placed on it. Another poignant, but simple example is the title monster of “Bad Dog” that represents a community’s tearing itself apart during a nasty strike. “Snow” powerfully illustrates the difference between fear and love and how horrifying it is when we confuse the two.
In the last three stories Hester gets downright theological. Some neighborhood kids have to be rescued from a demonic cult in “The Church Bus.” The cult lures the kids onto the bus with promises of “free cookies and stuff,” but then demands that they be stripped of their distinctiveness and melted in with the rest of the cult. “Smother him with your fellowship, my children!” orders the cult’s leader. “Burn away his identity!” When the leader finds a comic book on a victim, he throws it away like it’s a burning coal. “Imagination,” he says. “Such a waste of energy, child.”
If just about anyone else had written that, I’d suspect that it was a commentary on organized religion; Christianity in particular. And maybe it is. There’s certainly a huge perception that religion calls for followers to give up their individuality in favor of conforming to the group’s standards. That perception didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Many religious groups do expect conformity, and not just to the teachings they claim to follow. Evangelical Christianity has a reputation for piling on all sorts of extra behaviors and responsibilities.
He doesn’t come right out and say it in the narrative, but I suspect that Hester isn’t confusing observance of group mores with actual spirituality. The beings behind the Church Bus aren’t religious people, well-meaning or otherwise. They’re demons, masquerading as religious people. They’ve subverted whatever teaching they claim to promote and made something nasty of it. My understanding of Christ’s teachings (I’ll focus on his because they’re the ones I’m most familiar with) is that they embrace diversity while giving their varied adherents a common goal to focus on: love. If Hester understands that too, then “The Church Bus” isn’t a condemnation of the teachings; just those who pervert them into something that kills creativity and distinctiveness.
And I think it’s obvious that Hester does understand. In “White Lie” he includes a young man who’s struggling with his faith amongst various other people victimized by the monster feeding off their doubt and fear. He judges none of these people. Instead, he sends in the Wretch to help them overcome their insecurities and conquer the beast.
My favorite bit of theologizing is in “Doomsday.” The Galactus-like being has come to destroy the earth, but the Wretch stops him with a Kurt Vonnegut See-and-Say that explains the lesson hinted at in the earlier “Snow” story. Good and evil are actually just products of two, stronger forces: love and fear. It’s a distinction that’s not original to Hester (C.S. Lewis made it in Prince Caspian; I’m not familiar enough with Vonnegut to know if he made it too), but it is profound and extremely useful. And Hester does us all a favor by decorating it with a Jack Kirby celestial entity and an awesome toy.
That last bit shouldn’t be understated. For all its making you think about humanity and God, The Wretch remembers that you can’t spell “profundity” without the “fun.” The quality of Hester’s writing doesn’t end at his ability to inject genuine insight to the work. He also gives us demonic fisticuffs, giant snowmen, Lovecraftian horrors, and a giant, shotgun-eating bulldog. Truly the best of both worlds.