Saturday, April 30, 2016

Family Matters

My first encounter with Greg Rucka was reading Gotham Central. Then, I wasn't familiar enough with his work to tell his voice apart from Ed Brubaker's, but now that I have read four volumes of his Image book, Lazarus, I have a clearer idea of who he is as a writer, and I am a bona fide fan. His world is complex, nuanced, and invites social commentary and speculation without ever being hamfisted. The best adjective for his dialog is 'no-bullshit.' That's not to say it's not flavorful; jargon comes into play organically and each character has a distinct voice, but the execution is the exact opposite of Bendis' obnoxious back-and-forthing. It gets to the point clearly, without any fluff.

 So what the hell is it about? Well. Dial up wealth inequality to truly dystopian, thought-experiment levels. In Lazarus certain Families have become so wealthy that the government and economy have collapsed and we have reverted to a feudal system on a global scale. These Families are absolute monarchs with territorial borders spanning entire continents. And if you look at what assholes like the Koch Brothers are doing to this country, you can see why that would be a problem. The Hunger Games' rich district verse poor district system seems clumsy, quaint, and dated by comparison.

Everybody who isn't a member of a Family is considered a Citizen, a Serf or Waste. Citizens have been acknowledged by Families and are fairly well-off, while almost all Serfs are scraping by in a state of perennial destitution. They are still better off than Waste though, who range from starving scroungers and wanderers to Fallout or Mad Max motherfuckers with less bondage gear and fewer spikes, (presumably because the whole world hasn't been reduced to desert yet).

It's a highly political set up, but Rucka favors narrative-driven machinations and lots of delicious violence instead of belaboring "The Issues" (a style I think I will refer to as "Throne Gaming" henceforth). The series title refers to the champions of each Family; genetically enhanced, functionally-immortal killing machines. It's also a reference to the fact that certain Families have anti-aging serums allowing them to live near indefinitely.

Our main character is Forever Carlyle, or Eve for short. She has been genetically and chemically conditioned to unquestionably obey the orders of her Family (and her father in particular), even though none of her relatives actually consider her a sibling. Which is technically true, as she was built to spec in a lab. She fights with a variety of firearms as well as a long carbon fiber-blade, as dismemberment is really the only way to incapacitate another Lazarus. The first issue opens (small spoiler) with Eve getting shot to death, getting back up after a couple seconds, and brutally dispatching her assailants.

Eve is a brilliant heroine, with her indomitable physical strength and martial prowess held in check by very believable, human vulnerability and tenderness. Daddy Issues don't begin to describe her relationship with her father, who has systematically withheld approval throughout her life, only doling it out just before she reaches her breaking point. The drugs she takes literally addict her to his praise. Since her every waking hour has been devoted to training and killing enemies of her family, she has a childlike personality in regards to socializing with adult needs and wants. A winning combination that makes her profoundly uncomfortable with her own femininity and sexuality. Sure, the warrior woman who is more comfortable in Kevlar than a ballgown is a well-worn trope (deliberately lampshaded at one point), but it's well-executed here.

Naturally, Eve begins to suspect that her beloved family is even more sinister than they seem, and an anonymous entity nurtures her doubts with cautionary text messages. And this happens just as politics between (and within) the Families become increasingly hawkish.

If the series falls flat anywhere, it's the very beginning of the secondary narrative surrounding a serf family beleaguered by the Families oppressive rule. It recalls the Grapes of Wrath without making any salient political points beyond "Shit sucks, yo." Righteous-yet-impotent anger and squalor can only carry a story so far. But even that narrative eventually blossoms into something more intriguing.

While Rucka's is approach to a complicated world is fairly straightforward, he does do some interesting things with form as the series progresses. Volume 4 introduces some epistological elements; journal entries and 'letters from the front' kind of stuff. The boldest thing the series has offered so far is an issue-long duel between Lazari, with only a couple pages spared to set up and conclude the fight, and it is savage, gorgeous, and riveting. It's a refreshing alternative to both the three page fights that pepper most western comics, and the interminable planet-shattering match-ups you see in manga.

Michael Lark brings the world to life with meticulous line art featuring elaborate shadowing, wrinkles, and cracks. All those little details manage to convey the world's roughness and ugliness without being either rough or ugly. And the slick covers look awesome.

This is one of my favorite on-goings. If you want something action packed that is much smarter than your average cape and mask book, and more grounded than something like Saga, you'd be hard pressed to find better.

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