God died a while ago, but we still haven't entirely figured out how to get on without him. The old guy with a white beard still hovers ghost-like in the back of our minds and the corners of our narratives, giving our lives a patina of meaning, comfort, purpose, or morality until we remember, with that sinking sense of grief, that he's not there, and we're alone.
Daniel Locke and David Blandy's new graphic novel, Out of Nothing, attempts to replace God with one of our more popular contemporary deities—namely science. The book, like Genesis, is an origin story of the entire universe, starting with the Big Bang. It is also, as a short afterword notes, "an attempt to tell a compelling story of humanity's quest for understanding and knowledge." Science, then, like God in earlier times, serves as both explanation and goal—a framework and an aspiration. Science tells us who we are and why we're here; science is what we strive towards for more knowledge and more meaning. We do not need God watching over us and knowing, because human beings are the watchers and the knowers themselves. There is no old wise man with a beard; instead, as the cover depicts, there is just a human skull, floating in space, with planets for eyes, staring at you with an expressionless, rictus grin.
The cover of Out of Nothing is perhaps the book's most disturbing and arresting image. It's a vision of an inhuman universe watched, not by questing scientific intelligences, but by a corpse. The skull evokes science and all those skeletons hanging mutely in college biology classrooms, but it also mocks the idea of observation. The dead don't watch; they're just dead. The universe existed before us, and will exist after, and the gaping of our eye sockets doesn't matter much. The drawing suggests a narrative that is in fact no narrative; we came out of nothing and we're still nothing. God's a deaths' head, and the cosmic winds howl through a graveyard. What else is there to say?
But, somewhat unfortunately, you can't sell a cover as a book, and so Locke and Blandy have to keep saying something. "The universe has no purpose and our observations are a meaningless and infinitesimal blot on the endless silence" is a downer, and it is also too short to fill some 250 odd pages. God may have passed on, but if you want to get your narrative up and running, you can't do without him, or some reasonable facsimile.
And so, Out of Nothing introduces someone sort of like God; a blue-skinned girl the creators describe as "our emissary". She is present at the Big Bang, a giant floating face with stars in her irises, "witnessing the slow accretion of particles into atoms, atoms into matter…" Then she lives on for eternity, a stand in for the reader, listening to prehistoric people tell myths to explain the world, or jotting down Picasso's brilliant insights, or dancing as Kool Herc puts the beats from two records together, creating "something new from two separate elements."
The emissary is, obviously, included in the book as a way to provide narrative continuity and a point of identification for (young) readers. Out of Nothing's storyline is scattershot to the point of incoherence; on one page you're traveling on the silk road with (very appealingly drawn) cows; on the next you're chatting with Gutenberg besieged by his creditors. The blue girl ties everything together; she's the observer, the reporter, and the scientist—the avatar of human curiosity and discovery. At the end of the book, she is back floating in space, as the panels move in for another close up of her eye, and the text celebrates human awareness. "She has taken on the self-consciousness of all those human beings she lived with…walking amongst them. It was only with them that the universe started to think…to reflect upon itself."
This is an odd sentiment for a couple of reasons. First of all, the universe is a very big place, and, scientifically speaking, we don't really have any idea if there are, or have ever been, other intelligent creatures out there somewhere. And second, why should self-consciousness matter to the universe? Is the emissary speaking for science? For humans? Who is it who thinks humans are so important, anyway?
The answer is that humans think they're important—and so to does that human construct, God. The observing blue girl, skipping across the aeons, is a kind of deist divinity, who watches the world operating, intervening only to understand its workings better. She gives the universe a human face, which is to say, she gives the universe a recognizable relationship to human purpose, morality, and motivation. Science kills God, but the new boss is oddly similar to the old boss. At the beginning of the universe, as at the end, there is still a human intelligence which assures us that human intelligence matters.
The ghost of God, unfortunately, is not as robust as he was before his assassination. Say what you will about the old greybeard; he wrestled with problems of good and evil, and he told some genuinely weird and gripping stories. Eve in the garden talking to some snake; the world drowned by flood or racked by fire; Christ on the cross. Out of Nothing, in contrast, can't get its act together to develop either characters or narratives. The progression of the centuries trudges by in a vague mist of meaningfulness, with psychedelic spirals of colors, and scientists floating in clusters in space. The final pages show people on Mars talking vaguely about the singularity. The arc of history bends towards boring technoburble.
Locke and Blandy want to tell the story of the universe with great sweep and resonance; they want science to have the force of myth. But science is a tool, not a meaning for existence. Without God, there's no myth. There's just that skull, and, like Out of Nothing, skulls don't have much to say.