In today’s Leaving Proof: A primer on Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s excellent speculative fiction comic Lazarus. ALSO: New concept sketches from The Last Devil.
With the release earlier this week of Lazarus: The First Collection, a deluxe hardcover volume collecting the first nine issues of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s acclaimed Lazarus comic along with assorted “behind-the-scenes” material, it’s as good a time as any to catch up on the Eisner-nominated, Image Comics-published series.
For the uninitiated, the two paragraphs below are my attempt to boil down the basics of Lazarus‘ setting and story:
In the near-future, national governments have given way to family-owned megacorporations (which we’ll refer to as “capital F” Families in this article) after decades of political and economic unrest. The 16 most powerful Families have divided the world among themselves in accordance with an uneasy, shaky agreement called the Macau Accords. While the Accords do lend the international scene some general sense of stability, the Families continue to engage in the occasional paramilitary skirmishes and political maneuvering over territories and assets. In this situation, a new feudalism has emerged as the dominant economic system. Practically all of the world’s natural and technological resources are in the exclusive possession of the Families, with the rest of the world’s population, colloquially referred to as “Waste,” left to carve out a desperate subsistence lifestyle in the margins. While the Families have ready access to cutting-edge tech and the latest advancements in medicine, the Waste live in medieval squalor. From the Waste, there are a fortunate few who, by virtue of their demonstrated potential in the technical, scientific, academic, military and artistic fields, are elevated by the Families to the position of “Serfs”—professionals and specialists under the Families’ direct employ. Serfdom carries with it some measure of economic security and increased social standing, although Serfs still live and die at the pleasure of the Families. The Families keep track of both Serfs and Waste through constant surveillance enabled by a system of embedded chips that contain all manner of individual information, not unlike the electronic tags used to keep track of cattle.
Most Families also have what is called a “Lazarus”—a bioengineered super-soldier and a living demonstration of a Family’s paramilitary might and technological expertise. The Lazarus is more than just a symbol: He or she is considered a part of the Family’s core consanguineal membership and is also expected to serve as the senior bodyguard to the Family, the field commander of its paramilitary forces, a provisional diplomat, and a combination of criminal investigator, judge, and executioner. What makes the Lazarus capable of fulfilling all these roles is a combination of genetic engineering, cybernetic implants, and a lifetime of intense training and indoctrination. The protagonist of Lazarus is Forever Carlyle, the young Lazarus of the Carlyle Family who is slowly realizing, as she interacts with Serfs, Waste, and members of her own Family as well as rival Families, that there is something very, very wrong with the way the world works.
Some readers will probably find themselves debating with each other the details of Rucka’s extrapolations of near-future science, technology, politics, and socio-economics. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you—quibbling over the finer details of a proposed world-to-come is a revered pastime in science-fiction fan circles. The plausibility and perceived accuracy of Rucka’s prognostications are almost immaterial, though. As author Warren Ellis rightfully notes in the foreword to The First Collection, good science-fiction uses the future “as a tool to examine the present.” More important than what Lazarus says about tomorrow is what it says about today. Lazarus‘ dystopia isn’t so much a forecast as it is a distorted mirror-image of a present-day Earth where crippling debt and chronic underemployment have become a way of life for so many; where the influence corporations wield over government policies overrides the ideals of representative democracy; where rampant nepotism undermines economic mobility; where the middle-class in many developed nations continues to shrink; and where half of the entire world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the population.
Despite Lazarus‘ metaphor carrying with it an implicit criticism of trickle-down theory, the comic is by no means a raging anti-capitalist screed. The moral heart of its argument—that the uninhibited pursuit of profits by the affluent at the cost of the dignity and even the lives of the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised is a horrible, horrible thing—is hardly the stuff of radical polemic. Rucka takes great care, too, to present the Families not simply as sneering villains (although there are clearly murderous sociopaths among them), but as people who have lost touch with their humanity and ability to empathize with those below their station over generations of being insulated from normal everyday concerns because of their entrenched economic, social, and political advantages. One could even say that they’ve been selectively bred and raised for maximum individual selfishness, to the point where the trait has become detrimental to the survival of the human race.
With perhaps a singular exception, there are no heroes in the work either, at least not in the classical, altruistic sense. Instead of going the easy route and laying down an absolute binary moral divide to separate the good guys from the bad guys, Rucka populates Lazarus‘ world with those doing what they believe is best for their survival and the survival of their loved ones—some think that lies with accepting and maintaining the status quo, others believe that can only be achieved with its destruction, and then there are those who try to avoid engaging the system altogether. It is this multifaceted uncertainty that lends the work an immediacy absent in the typical comic book morality play.
There are clear indications that the future world of Lazarus is headed towards a violent, existential clash (I hesitate to use “class conflict” as it has become quite the loaded term these days) but if there is someone who can rise above it all and find a resolution that minimizes the loss of life, it is Forever Carlyle. The same advanced intellect and capacity for insight and analysis that make her so effective as “the tip of the sword” of the Family Carlyle could eventually lead her to the logical conclusion that the future survival of her Family is intrinsically tied to the improvement of the lot of the Waste and the Serfs. Any lingering doubts about Forever’s potential to become the savior the world needs might be dispelled with a look at the opening sequence from the first issue (see image gallery below), where—whether through coincidence, subconscious expression, or deliberate design—artist Michael Lark has her bleeding and splayed out in a crucifixion pose before undergoing nothing short of a full resurrection and paying back her attackers in kind.
While the term “Lazarus”—derived from the name of a man brought back from the dead by Jesus in a story from The Gospel of John—is meant to suggest the superhuman recuperative and regenerative powers possessed by Forever Carlyle and her fellow super-soldiers, it is also a reference to a second, lesser-known Biblical character who shares the same name, Lazarus from The Gospel of Luke parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (New International Version reproduced in full below).
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
This second, alternative interpretation of the Lazarus label points to Forever Carlyle’s role as a messenger and mediator, as the catalyst that will perhaps overturn the massive wealth and resource gap that threatens to throw the world into even greater chaos.
I’m as guilty as anybody who writes about comics of getting overly-enthusiastic about comics or overestimating the reach and ambition of comics creators—what can I say, I’m passionate about comics and the folks who make them—but twelve issues into its publishing run, I am leaning heavily towards thinking that Lazarus might be the current generation’s V for Vendetta. Maybe not in the sense of mainstream popularity, but in terms of how it so effectively uses the tools of speculative fiction, repurposed traditional symbolism, and good old character development to express and address the contemporary zeitgeist. Lazarus is as engaged with the real world as any comic—or any work of science-fiction in any medium, for that matter—available right now.
The Last Devil character design update
As many of you returning readers now, we’re in the middle of rethinking our visual approach to The Last Devil, the “weird history” comic I’ve been co-developing for several months now. Here are the latest variations of the character named Naga:
Want to learn more about The Last Devil and see more original art? Hit up our Tumblr!