Miniseries Meanderings: Punk Rock Jesus and Spaceman

Over the last few weeks I have been writing on a variety of comic-book miniseries that have recently wrapped up. Now I want to comment on a couple of miniseries that ended a little while back, but ones that I’ve just recently finished up. They are both Vertigo titles, Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus and Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Spaceman. In the past I’ve had nothing but wonderful things to say about these creators — in particular, Murphy in his illustration with Joe the Barbarian and Azzarello and Risso in their seminal work, 100 Bullets — and my current take on their latest efforts is no exception. Regarding Punk Rock Jesus, let me begin by saying that had this miniseries ended a couple of months earlier, and had I read it then, it would have probably been on my “Top 10 of 2012” list that we discussed on The Comics Alternative back in December. This comic had a fascinating and timely premise, the narrative was executed well throughout, the momentum of the series never flagged, and the art was (of course) phenomenal. It’s the perfect example of what we’ve come to expect from PunkRockJesusVertigo, and what we get most of the time: a sophisticated and mature story that pushes the boundaries of comics narrative. The book follows two primary figures. Chris, the “Jesus Clone,” born of Gwen Fairling through her participation in the J2 Project — a reality show coordinating the impregnation and birth, and later broadcasting the day-to-day life, of a boy cloned from the DNA supposedly found in the Shroud of Turin — and Thomas McKael, an man from Belfast whose parents were killed when he was just a young boy during the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Both lives are shaped largely by corrupt belief systems: Chris’s by the cynical attempt to cash in on evangelical millennialism, and Thomas’s by the bloody crossroads of religion and politics. And with these two trajectories, Murphy constructs a scathing indictment of contemporary religious culture. He’s not attacking religious belief, as you may find in the comedy of Bill Maher, but the systems surrounding those beliefs. The J2 Project, overseen by media conman Rick Slate (an unsettling figure who would be right at home on Fox News), plays on the religiously sensitive gullibilities of the (primarily American) public that is only too eager to buy into the faith-based huskterism that Slate is feeding them. Equally disturbing is the New American Christians, a band of evangelical ideologues who come awfully close to the boundaries of terrorism. They are almost the American version of the IRA that has largely shaped, and nearly destroyed, the life of Thomas. While the New American Christians do not engage in the outright violence that took place in Northern Ireland, one can see how its tactics and philosophies could easily lead to such an outcome. Money, power, and ideological purity are the driving forces behind this miniseries, and caught up in the middle is Chris Fairling, his naive mother Gwen, and the quietly manipulative Dr. Sarah Epstein.  In fact, Epstein is arguably the most developed character in Punk Rock Jesus.  She is obviously the more “anchored” representative of science in this religious maelstrom, but her hands are not without dirt. Throughout the narrative we see her make moral compromises with a view on the long game. As a result, she stands in stark contrast to the hard-line fanatics of both money (Rick Slate) and faith (the New American Christians) and challenges us to put ourselves into her shoes. The “Jesus Clone” Chris, although the center of the story, doesn’t come across as dynamic as Epstein, nor does he have as much depth. We sympathize with him, and rightly so, given the environment he grows up and the abuses he undergoes. But Chris reacts as I would expect him to, playing up his part in the “second coming” as a youth and then embracing punk rebellion when everything turns sour. He’s interesting and conflicted, but he doesn’t underscore the moral dilemma that we find in Dr. Epstein. My one reservation about Punk Rock Jesus comes in the closing panels of the miniseries. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that it involves Rick Slate and his comeuppance. It’s a little too neat. Still, all in all, this was an incredible miniseries, and the new collected volume is a nice edition, containing a few sketches and unpublished illustrations.

A different kind of miniseries, and a longer one, is Azzarello and Risso’s Spaceman.  This comic has the same dark, gritty tone that’s the creators’ hallmark, the kind found in Jonny DoubleBatman: Knight of Vengeance, and of course the team’s pièce de résistance, 100 Bullets. The smoky atmosphere, the sexy lips and cleavage, the shadowy panels, the violent action, and the brightly lit eyes and teeth illuminating the dark (part of Risso’s style) are all there. This is the story of Orson, one of the Neanderthal- or ape-looking humans genetically engineered specifically for exploration on Mars — thus, his nickname “Spaceman” — and who is now a forgotten, down and out, and even persecuted relic from the past. His friends are various kids, Spacemanscruffy and street smart, and he inadvertently gets caught up in a kidnapping scheme involving a famous media and reality TV couple with a large adopted brood. (Think Brad and Angelina crossed with Jon & Kate Plus 8…as repulsive as that might sound.) He takes the kidnapped girl, Tara, under his care and looks out for her in a way she hasn’t experienced before. Filling out this noir narrative — and it very much fits into the noir mold — is a couple of no-nonsense detectives on the case of the kidnapping, a series of seamy  figures out to make a fast buck on the media frenzy surrounding the kidnapping, and an unscrupulous mobster bankrolling the chaos. Woven throughout the nine-issue miniseries are flashbacks to Orson’s Mars expedition, where he undergoes the trials of passage with his “brothers,” the other spacemen bred for this very purpose. Indeed, one of the central figures in that expedition, Carter, becomes the catalyst in Orson’s current ordeals. This is a great narrative and a perfect example, along with Punk Rock Jesus, of the kind of comics Vertigo does best. In fact, Spaceman is like Murphy’s miniseries in many ways. Both revolve around innocent figures who undergo persecution brought about through lies and manipulations, and both texts are an indictment of current media — especially reality TV — culture. Murphy’s targets are more apparent, and his writing more polemical, whereas Azzarello’s futuristic tale relies more on action and sensationalism to propel the story. But both are thought provoking and complex narratives and are well worth reading. I haven’t yet seen the hardbound deluxe edition which came out back in November, and I wonder what kind of new material it might have. The book collects not only the nine issues of the miniseries, but the prologue that originally appeared in Strange Adventures, one of Vertigo’s recent series of anthologies, back in July 2011. When I originally read the piece in Strange Adventures, I assumed that the upcoming series would be a sic-fi narrative. But although much of the story bears the conventional markings of science fiction, it’s much more noir — Azzarello’s forte — than anything. In that sense, it’s right up my alley.

One final word. Both Spaceman and Punk Rock Jesus are shining examples of what Vertigo can do and how much we need its titles. With the recent departure of Karen Berger as Vergito’s Executive Editor and Senior Vice President, along with the wrap up or cancelations of certain Vertigo titles, there were speculations, including those Andy and I voiced on The Comics Alternative, that the imprint might be in trouble. However, given the several new titles announced over the past three months — including The Wake, Astro City100 Bullets: Brother LonoCollider, and Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril (despite the fact that most of these are revisits to older property) — I feel more hopeful.

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