New Horsemen, New Whores: Michael Caines “Revelations and Dog”
I always chuckle at the old joke about the dyslexic atheist holding up a sign saying, “There is no Dog!” Whenever talk turns to revelations and apocalypses, we all seem to be reading things backwards and upside down in hopes of making sense of the unknown, usually with comic results. Michael Caines’ Revelations and Dog riffs on the familiar song of the Book of Revelation to come up with a new tune for today’s topsy turvy world on the brink. It’s an almost perverse presentation to publish with Easter coming up, but Revelations and Dog’s joking may be the perfect antidote to the humorless, febrile dreams of religious radicalism. Caines comes up with the perfect new Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Whore of Babylon for today’s faithful, and unfaithful.
Caines’ illustrated book is actually the second installment in Mark Batty Publisher’s Revelations series. Revelations & the Stupid Creatures, the series’ first installment, paired John Murphy with Liana Finck. Whereas Murphy populated his reinterpretation with his caricature “stupid creatures,” Caines fills it with pooches of all breeds. In Caines’ imagination, The Book of Revelation goes to the dogs, but in a good way. There’s a long history of interpretations and reinterpretations of this hairiest book of the Bible, going all the way back to Justin Martyr, who first credits John the Apostle (or John of Patmos, who may or may not have been the same person) as the author. Early church fathers from Irenaeus to Jerome debated whether Revelations belonged in the canon, with no real resolution. There can be no debate as to the inspiration the text has given to artists through the centuries. Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Durer, William Blake, and Gustave Dore are just some of the artists who have attempted to illustrate the unforgettable verbal imagery.
Caines certainly knew that history when he took on Revelations, but he avoids any grand plan. “My approach to making drawings for Revelations and Dog is in part a response to its history as a political-religious text, and is aligned—albeit perversely—with the Futurist view of Revelation,” Caines admits in his introduction. The Futurist view holds that Revelations foretells the end of days, while the political-religious view holds that the obscure text obscures contemporary political commentary too dangerous to say outright. Think of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which catalogs religious ideas in such a coded way that they’re almost totally forgotten today. For Caines, the Four Horsemen—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death—are simply scarier versions of a partridge in a pear tree.
Revelations and Dog is not for the conservative set. Caines replaces the standard Four Horsemen with Dick Cheney, Pope Benedict XVI, a shaggy dog, and a wounded American soldier seemingly escaped from the Village People (shown above). Rush Limbaugh appears as a plague of locusts. Caines saves the sharpest barb for last by casting the queen bee of Republicanism—Sarah Palin—as the new Whore of Babylon. “My approach to politics is essentially scattershot and emotional,” Caines concedes, “and my book is peppered with foolish visual puns and animals doing ridiculous things.” In his defense, however, Caines believes that “Revelation has become almost exclusively the territory of the contemporary Religious Right, and I thought approaching the text with a fresh political slant might be timely.” Caines reclaims Revelation’s territory back for all those who prefer to take their apocalyptic imagery with a grain of salt.
Although Caines is a serious illustrator, you just can’t take his works seriously, and he wouldn’t want you to. Angel dogs deliver messages to awaiting white mice. Sheep stand rapt with attention to heavenly proclamations. Tanks roll topped with lions’ heads spewing fanged snakes from their maws. Basil Wolverton, best known for his MAD Magazine work, took on Revelations in the 1950s and naturally thought of mushroom clouds and the madness of mutually assured destruction. Caines’ shares Wolverton’s madness, but with a much higher art history sensibility without losing the same sense of fun and abandon Wolverton maintained despite his own religious fervor.
Calling it “seriousness of a sort,” Caines confesses that he “long[s] to live in a universe where God is a large, black standard poodle.” In Revelations and Dog, Caines grants his own wish. For those who think there is no Dog, Caines has a ready answer: there is, and there isn’t. The book doesn’t kill religious faith as much as cures it, but bringing a sense of humor even to the idea of the end of the world. Read Revelations and Dog if you need a laugh, need a reimagining of the Bible, or just can’t stand Sarah Palin.
[Image: Michael Caines, Revelation chapter 6, ink and gouache on paper, 9.5 x 14 inches, 2009.]
[Many thanks to Mark Batty Publisher for providing me with a review copy of and the image from Revelations and Dog illustrated by Michael Caines.]