REVIEW: Lazarus #1

In the days of advance solicitations, previews and heavy online promotion, it’s hard to recreate that experience of walking into a comic shop and deciding to give a new book you know nothing about a go based on the cover.  And that wasn’t exactly the case with Lazarus #1.  I’d already seen ads for the debuting series in other Image comics I’ve purchased in the past couple of months, so it was on my radar in that sense.  But beyond the quality creative team of writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark, I knew nothing about the comic, beyond that eyecatching cover and the connotations a title like Lazarus dregs up.  Originally, I hadn’t been planning on buying it, given that I’m trying to trim down my pull list of comics right now.  But once I got into the shop, and I took another look at that cover… I decided on the spur of the moment to give it a go.  And I’m glad I did: Lazarus #1 was the best comic I read last week.

Greg Rucka has created a sci-fi dystopia that feels eerily grounded and credible.  I recall watching an unsettling video online about the distribution of wealth in America, and it showed how the richest 1% of American citizens own 40% of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 80% – not only the working class, but the middle class – have only 7% between them.  Lazarus takes that idea to a frightening extreme, where the gap between the richest and the poorest has become so gargantuan that the world is essentially ruled by a handful of monstrously wealthy families, families whose power supercedes any government or ruling body.  And the vast majority of the population has fallen to new depths of poverty, and are now referred to as “waste.”  It’s a chilling vision of the future, as you can actually envision something like this happening more than, say, a zombie apocalypse, as to some degree it’s already happening: the upper class convinces the middle class to view the lower class as scum and subhuman, all the while taking money from them both.

We get glimpses of this world in this opening chapter, but for now our focused is mainly focused on one family – the House Carlyle – and more specifically their genetically-perfected protector, or “lazarus”, Forever.  Forever was designed to be an enforcer, a killing machine, pacified by the illusion that she is a loved member of the family.  But Forever is growing uncertain of her place in this world and the morality of what her and her family are doing, which seem set to become all the more difficult with the unpleasant deed she is compelled to carry out at the issue’s conclusion.

If I had any complaint about this issue, it’s that I felt like I was just getting into the meat of the story when it was over.  Image have released a few double-sized opening issues lately, and this would really have benefitted from that treatment, I feel.  But leaving readers craving for more once your issue is done is a good problem to have, and Greg Rucka makes up for the lack of additional pages with a highly insightful essay delving into the process of creating Forever and the world of Lazarus that’s almost worth the price of admission in itself.

But Rucka’s coup de grace here is his partnership with Michael Lark.  I think some people unfairly summarise Lark as “that guy with art like Sean Phillips.”  I, personally, got into Sean Phillips’ work thinking of him as “that guy with art like Michael Lark.”  And still I think there’s something that sets Lark’s work apart: he finds the sharpness and the hard edges in a scene where Phillips typically brings a gentler, smoother touch.  But it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve read anything of Lark’s.  So I’m glad to see him come back in a big way with Lazarus #1, perhaps the finest showcase for his storytelling abilities yet.

The highlight of this opening chapter for me was the 9-page action sequence that opens the book, ending with Forever being shot dead by a group of armed robbers, before demonstrating why the title of the book is Lazarus.  The final 5 pages of this sequence are almost entirely wordless, with Lark taking centre stage and carrying the weight of the narrative with his visuals.  It’s beautifully, operatically brutal, staged in a way where each panel depicts a deliberate, graceful movement, hammering home the power and pain of every motion.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention the delectable color pallette of Santi Arcas.  In that aforementioned open sequence, we’re awash in clinical blue, complimented with stark red splashes of claret.  The red and blue put me in mind of Jordie Bellaire’s work with The Manhattan Projects: maybe it’s becoming something of a motif in Image books right now.  In general, color is used as a thematic tool throughout this issue.  Forever and her family, and the higher-up officials in their employ, are largely restricted to futuristic bunker-type structures devoid of natural light, bathed in cold blues and greens that make them seem almost inhuman.  However, in the scenes where we see the indentured serfs – the battered remnants of the “middle class” living in poverty themselves but kept from falling off the map entirely by their ongoing service to the House Caryle – they are placed under harsh sunlight, invoking a sense of weathered humanity and a world more grounded than the clinical artificiality of the wealthy families.

Last year Image floored us with a bevy of impressive comics debuts hitting in quick succession: Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, Saga.  This year, Lazarus seems to be leading the way for another round of exciting debuts coming this month, with Satellite Sam from Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin dropping this week and Sheltered from Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas due the week after.  And the Image Expo revealed that there’s a whole bunch of other exciting launches on the horizon.  If the rest of these upcoming titles are anywhere near as good as this exciting debut of Lazarus, Image is set for another vintage year.  With two highly regarded creators operating on top form and bringing out the best in each other, it’s safe to say that while this issue was a pleasant surprise, the next one will be carrying some lofty expectations.

Lazarus1Lazarus #1 is available to buy in all good comic shops.

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