Monday, July 7, 2014

Lazarus Rises to be Another Great Comic from Rucka and Co.

Lazarus
Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Michael Lark and Santi Arcas
Image Comics

Can you imagine a society full of massive inequality, where the wealthy hold all of the power and the rest of society exists at the mercy of those who hold that power? Wow, what a nightmare that would be.

The best science fiction isn't about the future; it may take place in the future, but it's about right now. We're not at a return to feudalism quite yet, but we're not so far away either, which is the uncomfortable point that Greg Rucka and team are making in Lazarus. Some of the best art comes from making the viewer/reader feel uncomfortable and this comic is no exception. In a society of increasing inequality, where corporations are people and the Supreme Court decides that a company's religious belief trump a woman's reproductive choice, are we really that far away from a world where companies take the place of government?

Greg Rucka imagines that world, and he brings to it his particular skills of thoughtful storytelling, world-building (especially making big points through small details), and crafting strong, interesting female characters. Combined with moody, gorgeous art from Michael Lark, this is a series that should be at the top of the pull list for any science fiction fan.

Lazarus takes place in the late 21st century, where current trends have continued and the world is divided up and controlled by a number of powerful families. Governments no longer exist, and each family is a ruling body within their territory.  The population is divided up into Family, Serf, and Waste. Serf class comprises professionals and what would generally be the "middle class." Waste, a much larger category, covers everyone else.

The story centers on the family Carlyle, who control a territory encompassing much of the United States west of the Mississippi. Each family has a "Lazarus," a family member who is tasked with protection of that family and maintaining law and order throughout the territory.  In the case of the Carlyle family, their Lazarus is named Forever (sometimes known as "Eve") and she answers only to her father (the head of the family). 

Forever has been trained since birth to be the Lazarus of her family, and has also (like most Lazari) been given superior abilities in a number of ways. She has enhanced strength, speed, and a remarkable healing capacity (think Wolverine), which is demonstrated at the beginning of the very first issue, when she gets up after sustaining repeated stab wounds and proceeds to efficiently kill Waste who attempted to break into a Carlyle food warehouse.  In the first arc of the story, Forever investigates an attack (by a rival house, Morray) and a case of sabotage (and possible treason) at one of their grain facilities.  After speaking with her father, Forever heads down to Mexico to parley with the Morray family, and gets a chance to spend a little time with Joaquim Morray, their family's Lazarus. Unfortunately for her, she and Joaquim are attacked by the real traitor (who I won't reveal here). Forever survives, but receives a mysterious message that will keep her guessing.

In the current arc of the story, more of Forever's past is shown. She lived apart from her family in a training facility. Every moment of her day is spent in educating her and training her to be a warrior and defender of her family. She's highly motivated by love of her father and the desire to please him; he is distant and stingy with his praise.

Back in the present day, the scope of the book expands, as the story introduces us to the Barret family who are Waste living in rural Montana. After a storm wipes out everything they have, they decide to give up on their land and go to Denver, where a "Lift" is being held, which is where Waste have the opportunity to be lifted to Serf status and work for the Family. The Barrets know they are too old, but hope that their children can be lifted. The trip is treacherous and tragic for them. Forever is simultaneously investigating thefts and attacks by a terrorist group, and ultimately determines that a bomb is going to be set off during the Lift in Denver.

In the current issue, everything comes to a head. The Barrets make their way to the Lift and get to the front of the line (ensuring that the young people will actually be tested, and that their trek was not a waste) because their son had been helping a group of nuns provide medical care to those making their way to the Lift. Their son and his girlfriend (who had been traveling with them) are subjected to detailed and rigorous physical. medical, psychological and vocational testing. All the while, Forever is searching for the potential bomber. Everything comes together at the conclusion of the story, for an ending that is satisfying and bittersweet given the circumstances.

This is a comic where the writer and artist are in sync; similar to Vaughan and Staples on Saga, or Hickman and Dragotta on East of West, it would be hard to imagine this book as depicted by another artist.  Michael Lark's detailed, noir-tinged style (evocative of Dave Mazzuchelli and Sean Phillips, but completely his own) is not necessarily something you'd imagine in a futuristic science fiction setting, but it works perfectly for this series by accomplishing several things.

First, it keeps the story grounded. For a world set decades from now, this is still "close" science fiction. There's no interstellar travel, aliens, or matter transporters. This is a very real, lived-in post-America country (we often see the decaying remnants of the old society), and the artistic style here conveys that. Secondly, this is a mystery story set in a somewhat dystopian future. Forever is dealing with a number of mysteries, regarding who is the traitor within the family, who and where will a bomb be set off, and finally, mysteries regarding herself.

Lark is a master craftsman and he and Rucka are both clearly adherents of the show-don't-tell school of art. Throughout the series, there are a number of panels (and often, several pages at a time) where there is no dialogue, as we see Forever dealing with attackers, or we see her canvassing a Waste area in order to conduct an investigation, or (in the most recent issue) we see young Forever engaged in a fierce battle with her trainer. The craft and skill of these scenes, and the information they effectively convey, tell us that this is a writer who trusts his artist completely.

Forever is a complex, well-rounded character; she's fierce and loyal and does her duty without fail. She's also strong and feels real connection to those around her. We see her vulnerability, particularly as a child; we understand that she is a somewhat reluctant warrior who will still not hesitate to do whatever is necessary for her family. As depicted by Lark, she's strong, powerful, attractive, but not overly sexualized.* Everything about her movements, particularly around others, convey a sense of command and control. Despite her "badass warrior" training, she's not a machine - she conveys anger, hostility, jealousy, resentment and regret.

The facial acting by Lark in this book, for Forever and all of the other characters, is spot-on. We see subtle interactions between characters (such as those between Forever and the Morray Lazarus) that tell us exactly what's being said without any dialogue.

Rucka is building a full world here, and he is doing so with both big and small moments. The initial arc focuses closely on the Carlyle family, and then on their interactions with Morray, the subtle political machinations between houses, and the respect and admiration from one Lazarus to another. As the story progresses and we meet the Bennet family, we get a much larger sense of the world. The bureaucracy to which Waste are subject and the way that a delay from Carlyle administrators casually upends the lives of the Bennets. Another example is how the terrorists use one of their more attractive member's looks as a distraction (and the way in which Johanna, Forever's sister, cleverly uses this young girl's desperation to the Carlyle family's advantage).

The desperation of the people living in this world, their willingness to do pretty much anything to survive - Rucka shows us all of this effectively. Particularly in the latest issue, the story highlights methodically the testing to which Waste are subject to assess whether they are fit to be Lifted. It's mechanized and dehumanizing, and those seeking to advance truly have their lives in the hands of the Carlyle family.

Lazarus is a frightening, fully realized world. For fans of (stories about) dystopias, science fiction, thoughtful comics storytelling and gorgeous art, this is a must read.

* She looks to me like how I think Wonder Woman should be depicted.

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