Douglas Rushkoff Looks Back On His Graphic Novel ‘Testament’

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 1.06.01 PMDouglas Rushkoff is a well-known social critic and media theorist. While he may be best known for nonfiction works like Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now and Open Source Democracy, his bibliography is a remarkably diverse one, with entries into prose fiction and even graphic novels.

Recently publisher DC Vertigo released a collected digital omnibus of his graphic novel Testament. (Find it here.)

From the imagination of best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, one of the most iconoclastic and acclaimed minds of our era, comes a graphic novel series that exposes the “real” Bible as it was actually written, and reveals how its mythic tales are repeated today.

Grad student Jake Stern leads an underground band of renegades that uses any means necessary to combat the frightening threats to freedom that permeate the world. They employ technology, alchemy, media hacking and mysticism to fight a modern threat that has its roots in ancient stories destined to recur in the modern age.

I recently enjoyed a short conversation with Rushkoff about the book and revisiting it again after writing it nearly a decade ago.

What’s it like seeing an omnibus collection of something you worked on so long ago? Does it bring back mixed feelings?

When I look at the work itself, I’m pretty impressed. It was my first comic, so I wasn’t quite aware how much effort went into the art. When I look at it now, I’m mostly just filled with gratefulness and humility that Liam, Dean, Peter, and Gary put so much time and heart into this.

I’m also so very proud (are we allowed to be proud?) of the whole idea to put the timeless deities in the space around the actual panels. I hadn’t seen this done before, except in some explanatory panels *about* comics by Scott McCloud. He was the inspiration for me to make a comic that had two different timescapes – one for humans, and one for gods – and to render them this way. Each issue has at least one new major permutation on this theme, stretching the way comics work on the page, and attempting to create a new vernacular.

When you see it all at once, it’s so much easier to follow as a visual language being developed over the course of the story. You get to see how the gods actually long to enter the panels and experience some human time.

I’m also amazed that they went and published a comic where a father has sex with his daughters to preserve his lineage, or where people are tripping their heads off. Then again, that’s all in the Bible so I suppose if it’s fair game for religious people, we pagan types ought to be able to read these stories, too.

And that was kind of the point: to reveal what’s actually in there to people who wouldn’t think of reading the Bible, and to reframe it as an extraordinarily relevant mythology. Only Jonathan Vankin, my editor, fully got this as we worked, and helped me make it more front and center.

I’m also amazed at how much of the story I wrote has begun to happen, from Google Glass to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

Any mixed feelings probably come from resentment that DC and Vertigo were experiencing such profound transitions when Testament first came out, that the collected versions ended up not being available to most people. They were really hard to find, and so many of the regular issues had been sold out, it was hard for even a dedicated reader to get the whole thing.

The ending of the story ended up pretty rushed, too. DC had pretty strong rules at the time that comics whose sales went below around 20k (or something like that) had to be shut down. Today, they’d be delighted with those kinds of numbers, but back then it was a bit different.

I can imagine writing about religion is one of the most controversial things you can do. Did you have any trepidations about doing it?

Not really. I had already gotten lambasted for a book about Judaism called Nothing Sacred, in which I argued that Judaism was meant as an ‘open source’ tradition that’s reinterpreted by each generation. So the comic was really just an extension of that.

I was actually hoping for *more* controversy, but the Christian right and Orthodox Jews never really got hold of it. Even if they did, I think it was likely a battle they didn’t or wouldn’t want to have.

I remember there was a day when Vertigo called me, saying I couldn’t take such liberties with the Bible. They were upset about that scene where Lot’s daughters have sex with him. And so I sent them the chapter and verse in the Bible where it happens – it’s not some interpretation or anything, it’s just the story – and they said, “oh. Then I guess it’s okay.”

But I was expecting some pushback from people who didn’t want to see people using the Bible for sex magick, or giving Astarte and Marduk and Krishna roles in these stories.

What inspired you to use ayahuasca as a plot element?

I suppose it was the ayahuasca itself! As well as the Bible. These folks were tripping.

But I used it in the story as a way of justifying how my regular, modern, human characters end up getting access to these liminal realms between timelines. They needed a way to become aware of the gods who are trying to influence their story. They needed a way to see outside the panels in which they were drawn. The ayahuasca, along with a fictional virtual reality feedback device, allows them to do this.

We sometimes tend to look at our religious traditions as static, unchanging and eternal. It seems like you wanted to challenge that idea?

Yeah, the story is still being written. Sometimes I like to think Torah is such a transcendent document that it actually changes as the human story changes. But it’s really simpler than that. We are living out the same themes, again and again. The challenge of central currency turning everyone into to slaves – that’s a story we’re living out right now. It doesn’t go away, but our response to these dynamics *can* change over time.

The gods in Testament are fighting over who will get to influence us the most – both in our time and in Biblical time.

What kind of relationship with religion do you have, if any?

I guess the answer is that I’m a Jew – but I don’t see Judaism as a religion. I see it as a reaction against religion. It was meant as an alternative to the death cults of Egypt. But over the past thousand years, largely as a result of persecution, it became something of a religion itself. Went from open source to closed source, proprietary, so to speak. I don’t like religions, but I do like Torah.

How do the gods work in our storyline?

I kind of answered that above. They are supposed to be the writers of the story – but the human characters don’t always do what they’re supposed to. The Biblical characters behave as the gods intend, but the reason Testament is being told is that our modern (or near-future) characters end up changing the plot, breaking free of the tyranny of these gods, and discover the magick at the core of existence.

How much closer are we to the RFID draft in Testament? Do you worry much about the future generation or do you think that with the internet providing increased access to information that they’re going to be able to handle things in a better way than we have?

Well, we completely leapfrogged the RFID technology. We carry around phones with GPS and more, quite willingly. We post our entire lives online for everyone to see. There’s no need for government surveillance. They just have to record what we’re putting out there.

Resistance means removing oneself from the marketplace. And not so many are willing to do that, or even realize there are alternatives. I hope that Testament helps show people how fun it might be to join the counterculture. We’re still out here.