For my third instalment of the Eisner Watch series, I have a confession to make. When I first picked up this book? I didn’t really care for it. Looking back on that now, I have no idea why. I’m not sure how I could have possibly missed just how phenomenally special this comic is. Maybe I was just reading it at the wrong time, and to be fair, I had only read the first two issues. I distinctly remember giving up after that, but my friends, that is absolutely where I went wrong. So if you had a similar experience as I did where you read the first issue or two and decided not to pursue it? Consider giving it another shot. Seriously. After committing myself to writing this article I plowed my way through the whole four issue trade the other night and was completely floored by just how much I was suddenly into this story.
Lazarus, yet another Image Comics published book up for the category of Best New Series by Greg Rucka (writer of things like Veil, Stumptown, and Queen & Country) and Michael Lark (artist of Gotham Central, Scene of the Crime, and Terminal City), was a belatedly unexpected treasure for me. Like I said, I gave up after the first two issues, and those came out awhile ago. There’s been eight now, and let me tell you, they’re all gold. I plowed through the rest of them after the trade. Yes, the trade is only four issues, but together those four give you absolutely everything you need to get completely hooked. It’s not just another violence happy story about a woman with a gun (though I acknowledge that might actually be the primary incentive for some), which was my first and only impression before reading it. Instead, Rucka webs together a complicated and beautiful story of family and honour, classicism and the unforgiving nature of war set against the backdrop of a delightfully chilling dystopian future. A future that’s so relevant it’s down right uncomfortable.
Her name is Forever. She’s the Lazarus of the Family Carlyle, and their greatest protector. As Lazarus, she is given all the training, technology, and every scientific advantage the Family has to offer her in exchange for her loyal service to Carlyle. She also can’t die. At least, not permanently. In an appropriately biblical themed miracle, Forever is restored to life every time she dies, which is how the very first scene opens in the first issue of the series. It’s jarring, and as the reader I felt initially detached from what was going on. That is, until the story really started to unfold. Trouble is brewing with the rival Families, and in Carlyle. People everywhere are starving, or dying. The status quo is heavily stacked against the many without power, further isolating the few that do, with betrayal and desperation running high. Finally, the numerous attempts on Forever’s life in the first arc make it clear that the corruption the Family is facing might be much closer to them then they realize. Family, duty, honour. Rucka is constantly putting these meanings into question with each action taken and word spoken here by the characters that make up this incredible comic, but no one more so then Forever.
In Rucka’s carefully woven dystopian society, the world is divided by (not shockingly) money and power. Mostly by those who have them, and those who don’t. Having money equals having the power, that power residing in the hands of a number of Families who rule over certain regions. Those who work on the land for their ruling Family are serfs under their protection. Those who don’t, are either called ‘Waste’, or simply terrorists. It’s all delightfully feudalistic and yet disturbingly relevant to our times. (My sophomore history teacher would be shocked to know I’m actually making this comparison, but apparently you end up retaining a lot even when you’re actively not listening?) The pockets of ruling Families spread out through the states represent the social and economic division of a system of wealth derived from agriculture, and the difference between those with wealth and those without. From the very beginning we see how these dynamics dictate Forever’s world and the ordinary people who live in it, with tensions rising between the ruling Family’s and a new war brewing among the unhappy masses.
The world building in this comic is genius, but the characterization is just as addicting. The cast of characters and usual suspects in Forever’s life ranges from a number of highly strung Family members who all seem equally estranged from the Lazarus herself, to a mysterious Lazarus character from the rival Family Morray whom Forever seems to share a peculiar connection with from the get-go. Forever is a human weapon and military commander for the Family Carlyle, but she is not the emotionless robot they wish her to be. From the very beginning there are questions about Forever’s own humanity, while some in the Family are suspiciously reluctant to claim her as their own. For a human weapon, Forever is not uncomplicated, and as the events of the story continue to unfold around her we see Forever seemingly becoming more human then the rest of the Family. We also begin to wonder just who her family really is, and who Forever really is. Forever’s own path of self-discovery drives the reader through the first arc in an emotionally charged experience, but it doesn’t stop there. The behind-the-scenes intrigue in this comic is palpable at every turn.
This comic is extremely violent, but only in short spurts. Actually, unlike most action based comics, this one deals out its violence sparingly, but when it does there is no sparing the graphic imagery. There are also some potentially uncomfortable elements that could be triggering, mostly involving some very not subtly eluded to incest, and a sex trafficking scene in later issues. Other then that, the Family intrigue and the conflict in Forever’s subconscious that drives most of the plot is so intricate and compelling in Rucka’s narrative that I didn’t realize how invested I was until I was already deep in it. Lark’s art is not to be overlooked, illustrating a very dark and dangerous world with some incredibly beautiful imagery, and visually setting every character apart with impressive detail. Forever, the main female lead, is never seen drawn heavily sexualized, which is a huge deal considering how a majority of female leads are usually portrayed in comics. She wears an outfit that covers most of her body, and carries a huge sword around. I mean, come on.
I might not have thought so a few months ago, back when I was naive and foolish (I was a Knight of Summer, and Lazarus is coming), but this comic is nominated for a reason. Among all the other great nominations in this category, it really stands on its own as a dark, dystopian fantasy that is honestly not a huge leap from where we are today. Science is the way forward, technology will always be advancing, and this comic cleverly illustrates how unchecked power and greed can in some ways pervert the noble mission of science and the people in charge. In the issues following the trade we see a lot more of a young Forever, only just beginning to learn how to be the kind of weapon the Family needed her to be. We see the world of Lazarus that Rucka’s created expand exponentially and we get to see more of how the other half lives. Also, if you’re interested in collecting the single issues, Rucka includes a bit at the end of each letter column telling us about what’s going on in the science world today, which is pretty neat. He also signs off every issue with, “Family above all”. I think that, more then anything, sums up this extraordinary comic pretty well.