Least Among Us reviewed
Martin O’Shea and Tony Wright’s UK small press publication, The Least Among Us, has picked up a favourable review here, notable for being outside the usual comics community (which is great since he hoped to reach out beyond it with this book). Martin (his pen name, an understandable precaution given the subject matter) kindly sent me a copy and I found it to be extremely interesting. I know it is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea since the principal subject here is the abuse of children within the church. Given the recent Panorama investigation which showed that despite many high profile cases the problem not only still exists, some church officials are still attempting to conceal the events, even if that means potentially putting more youngsters at risk. All the more reason then to address the issue in a public sphere and since Martin is himself the former victim of abuse by a clergyman it takes no small courage to address the subject this way.
It would have been very easy for Martin to simply have a go at the Catholic church and the way ranks close to protect potential abusers and the church itself from scandal; given his own experiences it would also be understandable. Except, this isn’t what he does. Instead he takes a far more balanced approach (to his credit); he does show the way in which a large establishment like the church can indeed close its eyes to abuse to avoid public scandal and that the leadership from the highest levels is often somewhat lacking in this area, seemingly more concerned with appearance than protecting the vulnerable. However, he also shows how simple it is in the current climate for a priest to be accused of this awful crime and how much damage a simple accusation can cause and how the unscrupulous can use this to get money.
Martin also avoid the trap of creating simple good-priest, bad-priest characters ; some may be quite clearly bad and prepared to lie and even threaten in one case to reveal secrets given under the sacred seal of the Confessional to blackmail a parishioner into providing a false alibi. But for the most part he shows his priests as human, which means existing not in a state of grace but being heir to imperfections, with one priest clearly torn over his duty to investigate allegations and protect the innocent with his personal feelings towards an old colleague he thinks is himself innocent. At one point a priest tells a layperson that they put the clergy onto pedestals, expecting them to be above all normal human failings, but under the white collar they are as human and fallible as everyone else. Given Martin’s experiences I thought this even-handed (even sympathetic) approach was extremely laudable (and slightly ironic given the black and white art, that he would choose to include shades of gray in his narrative) and hopefully it will make the work more open to non-comics readers too, especially those in the church, since it presents a more balanced view rather than a vociferously hostile one which could alienate rather than attract readers and hopefully those readers will think and discuss the subjects raised.
The secondary story involves an animal’s rights activist who is also a Christian and is struggling to reconcile the slaughter of animals for food with his religious belief, leading to a rather bloody demonstration in the local church. The Christian iconography of the lamb being used in such a different context is quite clever and the parallels between the use of animals and the suffering of innocents helps make the point without actually preaching to the reader (in fact one priest does engage the activist in open dialogue and both come away from it not agreeing with the other but respecting their belief – if only more open debate happened that way in the real world…). The book is quite dialogue-heavy by the standards of most graphic novels, but given some of the legal and religious material which requires explaining this is quite understandable and I don’t see any other way he could have laid down the context to the unfamiliar reader since some background explanation is necessary and it didn’t hinder my reading of it – actually the extra dialogue may make the book more accessible to non-comics readers who may be interested.
As I say, this is heavyweight subject matter and not something that will appeal to everyone, but one thing those of us who promote graphic novels have always maintained is that the medium can tackle any subject if handled well and if, as seems to be the case from the review mentioned earlier, Martin and Tony are getting people to read this (outside the usual comics community) and think about the topic then they have really achieved something. It isn’t easy for the reader (although there are no awful, graphic events, we are spared that) but it must have been harder still for Martin to write, but the alternative of closing our eyes to events is something he chose not to do and good on him for it. Ascendant Press’ the Least Among Us is available on our British Small Press section and , like all of the titles in that section, comes with free postage from us. Martin spoke about the book to the blog back in August and you can read his thoughts here.