This article is part of a series of reviews of webcomics and alternative comic books. Today, I review Lazarus #2 by Image Comics.
The latest chapter in Lazarus (writing by Greg Rucka, art and lettering by Michael Lark, color by Santi Arcas) is slow and oddly discordant with itself, but worth the money. I say buy it and then hold on for Lazarus #3, when things promise to get more interesting.
First, quick recap. The world’s been taken over by 16 hyper-rich Families, who are so wealthy and powerful that governments and borders are now irrelevant. Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of Family Carlyle, genetically engineered to heal almost any wound instantly and then trained to be the “sword and shield of her family.” Translation: The other Carlyles do rich people stuff. Forever cracks heads.
In the last issue, after the most awe-inspiring scene of the whole series so far – Forever getting gunned down only to pick herself up and break the guys that did it in half with her bare hands – she was sent to a Carlyle installation to investigate an attack by the rival Morrays. She couldn’t find who helped the Morrays bypass security there, so her brother Jonah Carlyle decided to kill everyone in the installation.
However, one of the technicians confessed, not because he did it, but to protect his daughter. Forever executed him. And she wasn’t cool with it. Not at all.
Things slow down a whoooooole lot in this chapter. Forever makes a report to the Carlyle Family head, Malcolm Carlyle. Malcom gives her a secret mission inside Morray territory. After touring a shanty town and shaking a tail, she heads into Injun country, where she’s stopped by the Morray Lazarus. End on a cliffhanger.
Pretty boring stuff, but then this is the second issue. As I’ve said before, the the first issue or episode of a series – not just Lazarus but anything – gets the real slam-bang content and leaves the boring storytelling to the subsequent issues or episodes.
That being said, it’s kind of odd seeing Forever not use what are essentially her superpowers (namely coming back from the dead and kicking all the ass). It’s like picking up a copy of Spaghetti Hands Man and seeing Spaghetti Hands Man not use his spaghetti hands powers.
That’s a shame, too, because seeing Forever get shot to death on the first page of Lazarus #1 was easily the most gruesome and effective scene in that issue and a bravura piece of storytelling. Problem is, Rucka doesn’t give Forever any scenes nearly as jaw-dropping as that in Lazarus #2, and the issue as a whole suffers by comparison.
For instance, the Carlyle kids regard Forever as little more than a weapon, and one that can turn in their hands, at that. Even the fistful of pills that she has to take for her powers is on a “maintenance schedule” – a medically accurate term, but one that Forever understandably hates.
Then there’s Jonah. He’s quick to execute innocent civilians and beat the drum for war with the Morrays, but he’s shown no indication of martial skill or physical courage, and I’ll lay 3-1 odds that, unless there’s something to him that we haven’t seen yet, he’ll be hiding behind Forever as she goes marching off to war.
Same with the other Carlyle kids, for that matter. They seem to like court politics and the good life a bit too much. Forever, on the other hand, doesn’t have an ounce of spare flesh on her, and her clothes fit her the way a sheath fits a knife.
Rucka doles out some other interesting facts about the Carlyles in this issue. For instance, the kids look like they’re thirty, tops, yet they’re actually all around sixty or so. Money’ll do that for you.
Forever also isn’t one of Malcolm’s kids. She actually belongs to Bethany, her ugh sister, and if she finds that out, she may just go crazy and kill all the Carlyles.
Yep, the Carlyles are that kind of screwed up. Jonah gets frisky while his sister Johanna is naked in he bathtub, Bethany tries to shank Jonah while they’re waiting in the kitchen during Forever’s secret meeting with Malcolm (more on that later), but then incest worked for the Hanovers and murder for the Borgias, so everything’ll probably work out jes’ peachy for the Carlyles.
I like Rucka, and I like the fact that he’s taking his time with Lazarus. Not only that, but the end of this issue promised that the series would be hotting up, either with more action or a thickened plot. It may not be Bigfoot on Mars, but it is Rucka, and I’m willing to give him room to work.
However, I do have one big problem with Lazarus: the dissonance between what the story’s trying to tell me and what I’m actually seeing and reading on the page. It was a minor problem in the first issue, but it seems to have done nothing but grown, and I think it needs to be addressed at length now.
Let’s start with the Families. They’re supposed to be some of the richest people in the world, if not history, yet they’re not depicted that way. They’re definitely upper-class, and they’ve got some vicious firepower at their command. But they’re not plutocrats or tycoons, no way no how. I don’t know how the truly rich and famous live, but I do have a fairly specific idea, and it ain’t this.
Here’s an example. Let’s just set aside the fact that the Carlyle kids decided to wait out Forever’s secret meeting in their dad’s kitchen and not in a boardroom, Oval Office or anyplace else more appropriate to their station. During this meeting, one Carlyle, Bethany, managed to grab a kitchen knife and come this close to killing Jonah, another Carlyle, and no one tried to stop it.
How the hell did this ever happen! You’re telling me that the Carlyles, some of the most powerful people ever, aren’t each surrounded at all times by a three-deep ring of heavily armed and paranoid bodyguards? Bethany and Jonah shouldn’t have gotten within two counties of each other! And if they did, they should have had their executive assistants fight to the death for them instead. (Learn to delegate, guys)
This sounds minor, and it’s probably nitpicking, but I can’t ignore it. It wasn’t even refrigerator logic. It hit me in the face almost before I’d turned the page.
Remember, the Families are hyper-capitalists who think that Frederich Hayek was a damn commie simp, so either you’re useful to them, or you’re a Waste. Jonah displays a good example of the Families’ attitude to the Wastes when he’s given responsibility to rebuild Los Angeles after an earthquake. He only rebuilds what was of use to the Families – after all, why spend money and resources on Wastes? – so now the city is surrounded by a vast Waste shanty town.
So what do we see when Forever descends into this shanty town, and we finally get to see how the other half lives? Some wrecked buildings, piles of debris, unpaved streets, barefoot kids and open-air merchant stalls. It’s not nice, but it also doesn’t look much worse than Detroit, and Detroit, for all its faults, is hardly Third World.
Come to think of it, some parts of Detroit actually look worse than this…
Consequently, the Wastes’ poverty doesn’t meet my fairly reasonable expectations – cardboard shanties, corrugated tin roofs, open sewers running down the middle of the street, child prostitutes, maybe a dead dog or two - much like the Families’ power and wealth don’t meet my expectations. The rich don’t look all that rich and powerful, the poor don’t look all that poor and downtrodden, and there doesn’t seem all that wide a gap between the two.
This isn’t a minor problem for a visual medium like comics, either. If the Families are supposed to be impregnable and omnipotent, and the Wastes poverty-stricken and helpless, then make them look that way. Instead, the Carlyle Family looks like a squabbling law firm, and the Wastes look like they’re wondering if the Lions are going to blow it again this season.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Rucka’s story and writing, and the timeline he includes in the Letters section in back shows he put a ton of research and worldbuilding into Lazarus. The Carlyles are a little interchangeable, but then anyone short of Achilles is colorless next to Forever. I also like the technical skill that Lark and Arcas bring to their job, as well as the atmosphere that all three manage to capture.
However, Lazarus still feels like it’s working at cross-purposes to itself, and the overall effect is not of a dystopic future but an unusually intense episode of White Collar.
However, maybe that’s Rucka’s central message, now that I think about it: we don’t have to wait for our dystopic future. It’s happening right now, and it looks like right now.
That’s not as outrageous a claim as it seems. Look at recent events. The top 1% of Americans hold 40% percent of the wealth. The bottom 40% hold 1%. Detroit’s declared bankruptcy. Chicago’s firing teachers but building a stadium for a private Catholic school with taxpayer money. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Substitute Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers for the Families, swap out the local Lazarus for your town’s militarized police force or whatever Blackwater’s calling itself nowadays, and suddenly things start looking mighty familiar in this comic. The differences between our world and the world of Lazarus are differences of degree, not of essence.
Rucka’s seen the future, and it’s right now.
Or maybe this is just a funnybook and I’m following my ancient English major instincts and reading too much into it. Never said I wasn’t.
Lazarus #2 is available in digital form from Image Comics, or you can pick it up at your comic store. Lazarus #3 is scheduled for release on Aug. 21; expect a review of it the next day. I’ll be taking the rest of the week off from reviews, but I’ll be back next week with more. Stay tuned, true believers!