When most readers think of comics, they think of decade-spanning epics, story arcs, and deep character progression. But comics are much like any other media. There are short, contained storylines alongside the massive epic. However, it’s not often we come across a limited series capable of balancing both epic and personal, large and small.
Donny Cates has done just that in God Country. His story of Emmett, an overweight geriatric suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Valofax, the god of blades, is a story that perfectly balances a human family drama with the massive scope of deities in the larger universe.
We were able to catch up with Donny following San Diego Comic Con to talk about God Country, the story’s depth, and the series’s success.
BAM: God Country is a fascinating read. While it hints at and displays complex themes and elements related to family relationships, religion, godhood, and the larger cosmos, deep down it’s a really grounded, linear story. What inspired it?
God Country was an idea I’d had kicking around in my head as far back as 2007 or so. Back then it was just a silly “what if a hillbilly Texan found Thors Hammer” kind of thing. Not much substance to it beyond the initial concept. I played with it a few times over the years and was never able to get it to move the way I wanted. And then a few years back I had a fairly profound health issue that changed my life in a big way. After I came out from the other side of it (I’m fine now) I found I suddenly had something to say about life and death and letting go.
So I started writing again, and the book you’ve read is what came out of it.
BAM: The part of West Texas God Country is set in is rural and feels “used up.” Surprisingly, when we see Attum’s home it’s literally used up and dying. The setting, like the primary characters, contain several parallels. Can you talk a little bit about the world of the gods? Was it something you envisioned exclusively during your writing process for God Country?
Absolutely. The parallels between the Kingdom of Always and Emmet’s home are very much intentional. The idea of one’s house being “in order” is ever present in the book, and acts as a kind of metaphor for how each patriarch thinks of and cares for their family. Emmett’s first act after getting the sword is to rebuild his home, Attum’s last act in the book is to neglect the failing of his own house, which leads to his doom. When Emmett loses control over himself when fighting the god of war, we begin to see his home falling apart again due to the storm that is raging outside. That sequence in issue five is an almost direct mirror of the first issue when the tornado hit. The idea being that Emmett had become the Tornado, become the thing that is driving his family away.
There’s also this idea of the Kingdom of Always being held in place by Attum so that it won’t fall into the black hole that has stolen everything else from his kingdom. It’s inevitable that the kingdom will fall, but Attum refuses to let go. This, of course, is a mirror of how Emmett refuses to let go both metaphorically and literally. He refuses to give up the sword, and he refuses to let the inevitable take him.
BAM: Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with Geoff Shaw and Jason Wordie? Everyone brought their best to the project.
Geoff and I have worked together for some years now on books like BUZZKILL and THE PAYBACKS, and now we are tackling THANOS for Marvel together. Geoff is one of my dearest friends and just an absolute dream to work with. He and I share a very similar taste in comics and storytelling in general. He’s VERY good at hitting the big emotional beats that stories like God Country hinge on. That’s what has always impressed me about Geoff’s work, his ability to sell an emotion solely on a look, or an angle. Geoff’s acting is second to none, and he can also nail a giant Kirby god fight better than anyone else.
Jason was a bit of a shock to me, as we’d never worked together. I found his stuff online when I was looking to cast a colorist on the book. I knew we needed someone who could nail the dirty West Texas vibe, and also switch on a dime to the other worldly Kirby space stuff. I saw Jason’s work on a book called Turn Coat (Great book btw, go buy it) and his work on Garth Ennis’ Johnny Red, and they both looked amazing and yet looked so incredibly different and unique. His versatility really impressed me, and I knew he was the guy. The shocking part was that he didn’t do either of those styles on God Country. He brought something entirely new to this book that just blew me away. The book feels lived in and dusty and ethereal. It’s really just so much better than I ever thought possible. Jason just nailed it.
Also, I want to take a moment to talk about our designer and letterer John J. Hill, who is responsible for the incredible design throughout the book. That big ominous logo of ours is all him, and honestly, I feel a large part of what made this book work the way it did. People saw that huge logo in the comic shop and thought “well, THIS book is proud of itself” haha. John is also the ONLY reason any of you got to read this book at all, as he was the one guy on our team who had charted the image waters in the past and was able to guide all of us through the process. I don’t know what we would have done without him.
BAM: The series begins and ends with a frame narrator’s words, and the narrator’s words show up in pivotal moments. Why did you find the use of their voice important?
It all ties back to the idea of tall tales and legends. The Paul Bunyan’s and the Pecos Pete’s. That kind of thing. I loved the idea of a narrator telling his or her version of the story. So you never really know how much of this is true or not. And in the end, it really doesn’t matter if it is or not. What matters is that the story is being told, and will continue to be told as long as the reader wants it.
On a slightly sappy note, I love the idea that the narrator tells us that this story has been passed down from generation to generation in the Quinlan family. And that now it’s been passed down from the narrator to the reader. Which, when you think about it, makes you, the reader, a part of the family.
It’s corny. But I like that.
BAM: The way the comic is illustrated, Valofax’s presence also tends to brighten up the colors and present new life into the people and places surrounding them. Was that intentional or was that Geoff Shaw and Jason Wordie’s addition?
That was very much intentional. The way the sword lights up in different scenes is very indicative of the mood or the setting. When we go to hell in the fourth issue, Valofax lights up like a Christmas tree in preparation to go into battle. It’s “on guard” if you will, and its light is the only bright thing present in the underworld. In various other places, it glows when it speaks or turns red during a fight or goes dull when it’s dropped. It’s our weird little mood ring in the book. It’s coloring acts as it’s acting. Because it’s rather hard to make a sword smile or scowl.
BAM: I want to take a second to talk about the “gods” in God Country. There’s an interesting dichotomy there. The series is set in rural West Texas, which is a deeply religious section of the country, yet these obviously aren’t the “gods” we would typically associate with West Texas religious communities. Was that an invention to drive the more epic lens of the story or is there some underlying theme you’re trying to illustrate by the human aspect of religion and gods?
Well, what’s interesting (to me at least) about the book is that the central conflict never changes. In the first ten pages or so of the first issue the central conflict is a small family dealing with forces beyond their control. Forces they cannot ignore. Forces they have to face, and fight, and reckon with. In the first issue that force is Alzheimer’s. And the way it is destroying Emmett. As the series moves along the forces get bigger and more fantastical, but that core conflict never goes away. In that way, each god represents an aspect of the illness that is ailing our hero.
Aristus, the God of War, is very much the disease itself, as Aristus’s mission is to take the sword away from Emmett. Which ultimately means that his mission is to steal Emmett’s memories away. So he’s this enormous walking metaphor of a god. And we see him come back time and time again to take the sword.
Balegrim, the God of Death, is a pretty obvious metaphor for Emmett reckoning with his own demise. His fear of letting go. Of what he will be leaving behind. In facing Balegrim, he is presented with his late wife, Elizabeth. It’s only after being presented with the inevitable that he can return to his family, and face the god of war one final time. Having dealt with his mortality, he’s able to fight for the things he holds dear one last time.
And then Attum, the god of kings, is very simply GOD. If you read the final issue with this in mind, it makes much more sense. But when Emmett goes to the Kingdom of Always (lots there with that name, too) to plead his case with Attum, it’s very much written as a conversation with God. Emmett all but asks him why he let bad things happen to good people, why he let him get sick, why he was chosen for all of this. Attum’s answers are admittedly cold, but it’s where my head was at when I wrote it. Take that as you will.
BAM: Congratulations on the success of God Country. Despite only having six issues, it’s seen both a positive critical response and massive fan support. What do you think resonates with readers?
If I knew the answer to that, I’d bottle it and sell it! I really quite honestly don’t know. I think perhaps that readers could tell from our first issue that the book was much more than an old man with a sword fighting monsters. I like to think that they could tell we had something to say. That we had a reason for telling this story beyond just making a cool comic. I also tend to think, and I maybe wrong, that readers can always tell when a creative team is having fun, and working together as a team. Working with Geoff and Jason and John and Gerrardo (Zaffino, our brilliant variant cover artist) was one of the greatest experiences i’ve had in my time as a creator, and I think readers can sense that. I know I can.
BAM: Having just finished the series, we’re really itching to get our hands on more. Is there a possibility of returning to the world of God Country?
I don’t think so. Believe me, we have had so many conversations about this topic, but for the time being at least, Emmett and Roy and Janey and Dee and Valofax are going to rest. Who knows? We may come back to it someday if the right idea comes along, but for now, I think we’re going to move on to other projects. We had a concrete goal in mind for God Country, and I think I can speak for the entire team when I say that we are extremely proud of the book we made.
You can pick up a Fried Pie variant cover of God Country at online or in-store at Books-A-Million, 2nd and Charles, and any local comic shop that stocks Fried Pie comics. And this is one variant you won’t want to miss. Check out the final cover below.