De Terra explores the work and reputation of controversial French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in this debut graphic novel.
Teilhard was a divisive figure even in his own lifetime. His radical concepts of “hominization” (“the process leading to reflective life in mankind”), “noogenesis” (“the evolution of consciousness”), and “Omega” (“the point at which the universe will ultimately center upon itself and the climax of evolution”) were influential in the New Age movement, but his views on original sin led to his censure by the Vatican. With this graphic novel, de Terra presents the life of Teilhard, who died in 1955 during his de facto exile in the United States, as well as a fictional, posthumous trial at the Vatican in 2009. In the latter, the deceased Teilhard is charged with heresy and violations of canon law by conservatives who feel that his teachings may cause a schism in the church the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Reformation. Teilhard’s defenders are a pair of Jesuit priests named O’Malley and Azcona who are tasked with reconciling his teachings with Catholic orthodoxy. The story uses flashbacks of various moments in Teilhard’s life—including his experiences in World War I and his work studying Peking Man—and of other revolutionary figures in the history of the church to supplement a theological argument of great consequence, not only for the reputation of Teilhard, but also for the direction of the Catholic Church in its third millennium.
The author’s father, Helmut de Terra, was a friend of Teilhard’s, and Helmut’s first wife, Rhoda, served as Teilhard’s assistant for the last years of his life. De Terra bases this graphic novel on their accounts as well as on Teilhard’s prolific letters and publications, and he pieces together scenes using direct quotes and invented dialogue. He keeps the biographical sections intriguing, although readers may wish that he had taken more time in the early pages to explain Teilhard’s concepts and what made them controversial. Instead, he merely presents scene after scene of Vatican rebuffs. The trial itself often lags as various ill-defined priests debate points of theology, and readers may never be quite sure about the stakes of the argument at hand. Additionally, the book’s blending of fact and fiction will do a disservice to many readers, as it often will be quite difficult for them to know which events actually happened and which have been invented by the author. De Terra also exaggerates the cultural influence of Teilhard, comparing him to Martin Luther and placing him on the cover of Time magazine and on T-shirts. The book’s art by Villafuerte is perhaps its greatest selling point, as the page layouts and visual pacing do much to make each spread compelling and digestible. The glossy, full-color pages make this a handsome volume even if the content isn’t quite as thrilling as it might appear on first glance.
An ambitious but somewhat confusing graphic novel that seeks to vindicate Teilhard’s works.