Lazarus, Let’s Be Serious

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I’ll be honest: I was all set to write a pretty negative review of Lazarus, the sort-of-new sci-fi series by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. But I waited. I waited one more issue, and they may have turned it around.

My negativity might be a bit surprising. If you’ve heard anything about Lazarus it was probably good. It showed up on a lot of “Best Comics of 2013” lists last month. And I’ll agree the concept is cool. Lazarus is set in a near future in which the predatory tendencies of capitalism and neo-liberalism have gone unchecked. Capital has been concentrated in the hands of a select few “families,” who have then turned America into an aristocracy. The main character, Forever, is a nearly invincible, sword-wielding bodyguard of the wealthy Carlyle clan. Forever is treated as a member of the Carlyle family; she’s referred to as “sister” and “daughter,” but she’s not really a member of the family. Her origins are mysterious. What we do know is that she was trained from a very young age to be a killing machine and she’s been “augmented” somehow by technology so that she’s nearly impossible to kill.

Lazarus is obviously intended to speak to our current political climate. The Carlyle family and their ilk are the 1%; they’re the Mitt Romney set projected 100 years into the future. Instead of gated communities, now we’ve got full on militarized compounds patrolled by private armies. That makes Lazarus timely. I also think it’s part of what makes it trendy.

But Lazarus stumbles on the fundamentals. Lark’s art is shadowy and stark. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere and style here. However, at times, the style gets in the way of basic characterization, by which I mean facial recognition. It’s sometimes hard to tell who is who in this comic and that’s a problem when you’re trying to get to know characters. To be fair, maybe that’s less about Lark and more about Rucka. It’s taken about six months for any of the characters in this comic to take shape. That’s too long.

The first issue of this comic was gangbusters. Lots of tension, lots of questions. The rest of the first arc… was not good. The characters were transparent and uninteresting. Forever’s father is (so far) a caricature of a tyrannical, inhuman CEO. Her siblings are similarly hateful. For months I didn’t care about anybody in this comic. The first arc revolved around a betrayal that was neither surprising nor suspenseful. Speaking of suspense, for several issues now, Forever has been getting cryptic text messages from an anonymous source telling her that the Carlyles are “not her family”. The problem is, we’ve seen that three times now. Forever has made no attempt to track down the source of the texts, nor has the anonymous texter supplied us with any other information. There’s been no movement on that plot line, and as a consequence it’s gone cold before it’s even developed.

So, I was all ready to write Lazarus off. Then I read issue #5, which introduces a group of ordinary farmers to the narrative. These future-age serfs lose their home in a flood, and then draconian corporate and government policies force them to abandon their land in issue #6. These characters I care about, and not because they’re the noble working class people who struggle under the thumb of their vicious Carlyle overlords. No. Simply because there’s a story here. Something happened to these characters. Their struggles are relatable and I want to see what else happens to them. Meanwhile, we’ve also been getting flashbacks to Forever’s youth. We see her training – late-night pushups while conjugating Latin verbs – and we see how desperate she is for her “father’s” love. It’s twisted and unreal, but not so unlike any kid who plays sports or studies all night or parades around in pageants just to win the approval of a parent. Finally I’m starting to feel something for Forever.

If you’ve been thinking about getting into Lazarus I would suggest you track down issue #5 and #6. Start there. It’s a new arc. There’s nothing in the first five issues, you can’t pick up in a few minutes, and the comic is just starting to pick up steam.

Lazarus may have turned the corner, and it may turn out to be something cool… but there’s one other thing that it has to get right. The comic takes itself way too seriously. It beats us over the head with its allegory. “See! This is about what’s happening right now!” In fact, in case we missed any of that, at the end of every issue, The creators give us a list of recent scientific and political developments that gesture towards the dystopian future he’s presented to us. For example, it’s been revealed that every middle class family has a “Post” in their home. Basically, it’s an Internet box connected to a pole. After the letters page we get this from the Lazarus team:

“The Post really isn’t fictitious at all. The XBox One is filling homes and listening to you say its name, and yes, you can keep it offline, etc, but the fact is, the console was designed to always be on and always be listening (and watching). I’m giving it another month, at the outside, before we hear the first story of an individual or individuals hacking the Kinect security to play Peeping Tom.”

There are a couple of problems here. One way to read this is that the creators don’t really respect the intelligence of their audience. They need to spell out every theme and symbol in the book, so we don’t miss any of their genius insights. The other problem is that its didactic, and didacticism doesn’t make for good art. Part of the problem with the story and character development might be this emphasis on making an “argument.” When characters become ciphers for political movements and economic trends they cease to be engaging.

Anyway, I really think the creators ought to ditch the “News of the World” recap. We get it. It’s about Occupy. It’s about the 99%. It’s about austerity and late capitalism. It’s about biotechnology. It’s as if the comic is shouting and pointing at its own panels: “DO YOU SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE? THIS IS POLITICAL! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS SYMBOLIZES? THIS IS VERY SERIOUS STUFF!”

Comics can say serious things, of course, but when they start to take themselves too seriously, they fall flat. We might do well to remember that the most serious comic ever written, a comic about the most serious subject there is, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, was just a cartoon about some mice and some cats.

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