What is this all about?
Following the story of a West Texas family, Emmett Quinlan has suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, the weight of this responsibility having to be suffered by Emmett’s son, Roy Quinlan and his family. Until an sentient sword twelve foot sword called Valofax ends up in Emmett’s hands after a hurricane changes everything. With the sword in hand, Emmett’s memories and cognition come flooding back, he is Roy’s father and Deena’s grandfather again. However, the sword doesn’t exactly belong to Emmett, and the beings that owned Valofax previously are none too happy it has a new owner. They want the sword back and will destroy everything, including Emmett and his family to ensure that happens.
I will admit, I’m new to the Donny Cates hype train, I knew about Baby Teeth from attending HeroesCon this year and that sounded exciting, but knew little else. After reading God Country, I’m a full-on Donny Cates convert.
How strong is a father’s love? How far are you willing to go to save your family? To ensure their safety? Would you sacrifice everything for them? These are not the kinds of questions you would expect from a book about a man with a giant talking sword but Donny Cates masterfully tackles these questions in God Country. Essentially this story is about fathers and sons, and the relationships they have.
For me, God Country was a slow burn until issue four, in fact I found the first three issues a little tedious to get through. At the end of issue one when Aristus shows up, I was like okay, now we are going to see Emmett really test out Valofax against a literal God, but issue two ends up with Emmett and Aristus having a discussion about what Valofax is, where it came from and what Emmett’s motives are. Emmett is staunch in his opposition to give up Valofax because it means losing his sanity and memories, and reverting back to the fog of Alzheimer’s that has plagued him for years.
With the arrival of Aristus, the antagonists become clear. Aristus as a reluctant foe, is a credit to Cates writing. Here is this all powerful god, standing stories above Emmett, who is just another boy trying to please his father and make him proud. Aristus’s father, Attum, is the ruler of the kingdom of Always and original creator of Valofax. He believes that Valofax is his property and should be returned to him. To close out issue two, Aristus throws down the gauntlet, telling Emmett the next time they meet it will not be as allies and that his father will stop at nothing to wield Valofax again.
Issue three we see Roy and Emmett reconnect, only for Emmett to piss it all away by rebuffing Roy when he wants to talk about this crazy situation his father has thrown them into. Their father son moment is cut short when the newly arisen dead begin attacking the family. We found that another player, Balegrim, son of Attum, brother of Aristus has entered the fight to retrieve the sword for daddy. With Emmett distracted, Balegrim’s undead minions, escape with little Deena and drag her to Hell.
Issue four is the one that turned it all around for me and is easily my favorite issue of the series. With Deena in Hell and Emmett not too far behind, this leaves Roy and Janey to fend for themselves from Balegrim’s forces. This issue contains some of the best scenes of the story I think, with Emmett clearly distracted by the quest for Deena, its easy to forget about Roy and Janey. But Cates ensures that the focus never leaves them either, as we see how they have to stay alive with their wits and love for each other. It provides real suspense and with each page turn, I kept thinking somebody has to die in this issue, they aren’t all going to make it out alive. Emmett’s reconnection with his dead wife, Elizabeth, is incredibly powerful with dialogue from Valofax speaking directly to Balegrim telling him that the dead deserve their end. We get a gorgeous splash page of Emmett kneeling his arms still around Elizabeth, her form having turned into ashes in the wind. His body and face overloaded by the emotion of the moment, having his wife return to him after all these years, only for her to be ripped from his hands just moments later. No mercy is given by a pissed off Emmett or Valofax, with Balegrim begging for mercy before meeting his fate. Geoff Shaw and Jason Wordie show how well their art direction compliment the story here with the panel of Balegrim, looking over his shoulder as Emmett and Valofax approach. Balegrim uttering a single Please, his face contorted in fear and sadness. With Deena rescued, Emmett returns home, ready to battle Aristus and Attum.
Finally we get the battle that we have been waiting for in issue five, it’s Emmett and Valofax versus Aristus. The issue starts out with backstory on Valofax and the Kingdom of Always, explaining why Valofax is so important to Attum and his kingdom. Another credit to Cates storytelling, the art by Shaw and color by Wordie here, Attum’s golden hammer was used to forge Valofax, is given to Aristus as the weapon to use against Valofax. If anything the hammer that created the sword, stands the best chance to defeat it right? The panel in which Aristus opens the chest containing the hammer, he is awash in the golden light, a look of awe on his face, as if it means so much that his father would trust him with his own hammer to use in battle. We get a taste of Valofax unleashed here, with Emmett driven by the desire to just obliterate Aristus, he forgets all about Roy and his family, his only focus is blood lust.
Roy’s pleas for Emmett to stop fall on deaf ears, we get an incredible panel with Emmett wielding Valofax at full power, its energy surging and crackling, the sky red with blood, about to deal the final blow to Aristus. When Deena screams, “GRANDPA!” does it bring Emmett back to his senses. Emmett sees the destruction he has caused, how his blind rage could have killed his family. Roy begs Emmett to let Valofax go, making it painfully obvious that Emmett has to go face Attum in the kingdom of Always with Valofax or this will never be over with. Yet again, Cates writing of the father son relationship excels with Aristus revealing that Attum has banished him from Always unless he brings Valofax back. Showing that while Emmett would do anything to keep the memories of his family alive, Attum views his sons as disposable pieces in this game, nothing more.
The final issue provides some of the most beautiful action sequences of the story. The hues of pinks, purples, oranges and yellows come alive during Emmett’s battle with Attum. The final pages of this issue are some of the most emotionally powerful pages I have ever read in comics. I dare you to disagree. The battle takes its toll on the barrier that prevents Aristus from returning, and he convinces Roy to come along. Emmett’s wounds are too great and as he lays dying, his only wish was to pass on his memories to his son. We are treated to two full pages of memories, from Emmett holding newborn Roy in his hands, taking him fishing, watching Star Trek, Emmett marrying Elizabeth, Roy marrying Janey, holding baby Deena, Emmett listening to pregnant Elizabeth’s belly. All of these memories that have defined him, all of these memories that he lost due to Alzheimer’s. For me, those two pages are what solidified me as a Donny Cates fan for life.
Aristus’ story comes to a close with father murdering son. Attum is destroyed as he can no longer hold the Kingdom of Always together due to the battle of Valofax. Roy uses Valofax to teleport him and Emmett’s body back to Texas, and releases Valofax onto its new journey. The story ends with Roy and his family successfully back together as a unit, on their way to start a new journey in Austin.
I would be remiss if I did not give any credit to Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie or John J. Hill. Shaw’s sketchy, heavily focused on shadow style fits this story perfectly. He does an incredible job of pulling off emotion in a single panel, which is tough to do, but in a heavily emotional book like this one, he finds success. Hill’s lettering, especially during the battles are an absolute delight to look at and see how they tie into the action. But my favorite part of this book is the coloring by Jason Wordie. The yellow of the Texas landscape or Aristus armor, the purple of the stormy sky or hordes of undead, he does a fantastic job of contrasting and overall turns into just a beautiful book to look at.
It’s the perfect starter for anyone looking to get into Donny Cates writing. God Country shows how incredible of a storyteller Cates is. I’m sure all of us on some level wish we had a better relationship with our fathers. For many of us, our fathers are our first heroes. The fact that he turned me into a believer and a lover of this story in three issues after initially not really enjoying issues one through three, is a testament to why you need to read this story. As Cates said, this isn’t a story about a magic sword.
8 / 10
Reviewed by Michael Jones @fakemikejones God Country, Volume One Written by Donny Cates Art by: Pencils & Inks: Geoff Shaw, Colors: Jason Wordie, Letters: John J. Hill Published by Image Comics Release Date: August 2, 2017