Welcome once more to our ongoing annotations of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus. As before, if you’re keen on an insight into the creative process, you can find our interviews with the creators of Lazarus here, here and here.
Rather than reviews, what follows are our annotations and reflections on the emerging narrative and world of Lazarus, to provide an “enhanced” reading experience. These pieces touch on details, thematic connections and other areas to read and explore – sometimes with comments from the creators themselves. Though we recently collaborated with the creative team on the Sourcebook: Carlyle, which delved into life under the Carlyle regime, the views that follow are entirely our own.
As always, spoilers abound for the current issue within! Enough chit-chat! On with the book!
Who Mourns For Priapis?
In 1966, Star Trek hit television screens for the first time. Though ostensibly promising an enlightened, co-operative future, it’s difficult to watch those episodes now without recognising within them that even where the show sought to abandon the spirit of the times, it was constrained by them. Women served in its then explicitly military Starfleet, but the principal female leads were, effectively, a telephone exchange operator and a personal assistant. The idealised future held to what modern audiences can only see as a retrograde standard – even whilst it legitimately made leaps and bounds.
Star Trek was followed by motion pictures, and successive seasons of television, now spanning 50 years. Taking an aggregate view, they have sought to predict what the best of all possible futures may look like, and when it comes to inclusion each successive iteration has moved forward further – if only to catch up with the progressive norms of the present. In 2016, when Bryan Fuller promises an openly gay character on the bridge, and the motion picture franchise recasts one of the crewmen as gay, it feels odd not that these steps have been taken, but that it has taken the idyllic future to move forward to an extent which right-thinking people must surely take for granted as a minimum.
When it comes to Star Trek’s – or any work of science fiction’s – ability to tell the future, nobody has a crystal ball. Prediction is incredibly difficult, and even the best qualified prognosticators, with the best research and indicia, more usually meet the wrong conclusion than not. Speculation-as-Futurism is a flawed model, and the importance of escape from or elaboration on issues is not in the prophetic scorecard. Neal Stephenson, in discussing the fascinating Hieroglyph initiative, talks about speculative optimism and instructive parable as tools for improving society on a heroic scale. In short, science fiction is there, rather, to create culture.
Ray Bradbury described science fiction as running about with “tapes to measure Now against Then against Tomorrow”. Science fiction has, as story turning on more or less fantastical counterfactuals, the power to show as a world free of the everyday problems of humanity as part of those counter-factual predicates. This often – but not always – includes an appeal for greater inclusiveness and representation. After all, presentation of a world where a character is limited by their race or gender is a choice that’s made. Institutional sexism may exist in our world (and it does), but by removing it from the equation, science fiction can both portray heroes and role-models who might otherwise be circumscribed by capitulating to prevailing cultural norms or some form of pseudo-historicity. This escapism is, of course, only sensible and natural – one of the things that science fiction is for is to take people away from their problems into a realm where other problems (often ones that are solvable) instead prove the issue of the day.
Such science fiction settings presuppose, to an extent, that the arc of history is long but bends towards justice. To put it another way, it is an aspect of what Marx called “historical materialism“, a presupposition that there is an idealised goal, an end of history that we are on steady steps towards. Though they’d disdain Marxism in many cases, this philosophy underpinned the 1950s boom in science fiction in many respects, and fueled Jet Age speculations like the above Star Trek. An assumption, if you like, that by whatever metric you defined “better” the world was on a path to continued improvement. It only needed to surmount the obstacles.
There is the other kind of science fiction. To go back to Bradbury, the speculation that “as far back as Plato, trying to figure out a proper society” has been about the fable teaching of morality, about the stark illustration of problems. Where this is done by making the problems larger, this is “dystopian” (and we’ve talked a lot in these annotations about our thoughts on dystopian perspectives on the future), but that is just one thread in a bow of a more critical speculative tradition that highlights rather than resolves the challenges of the day. Gendered and race-based dystopias are, of course, a science fiction (and Star Trek, for that matter) staple, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that where social anxiety about the future waxes, so too has the proliferation of the more apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios.
Science fiction is to serve as signpost, either through warning or aspiration. We’re not looking at where we’re going. We’re using a parable to tell us where we should make our stand, to create cognitive models of how to change our present. To quote our review of Bitch Planet from last year:
“That truth is the future isn’t bright, or at the least isn’t necessarily so. As we write this, another police officer has escaped indictment for the killing of an unarmed black man. As we write this, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. As we write this, the earth may literally be dying. And as we write this, women are still being oppressed, and are being told to shut up about it.
These problems aren’t unconquerable, but their greatest ally is complacency. The shrugging of shoulders and the turning away of faces. The resignation to the fact that “it is what it is”. The first key to dealing with these problems, as it was in 1977, as it has ever been, is to acknowledge that they’re there and demand, from yourself if no-one else, that something be done about them.”
What has this got to do with Lazarus? If we’ve covered this, why are we bringing this up again now? (Get past the prologue, damn it!)
As we mentioned last month, Lazarus is “arming us with the tools necessary to better describe the worlds we wish to build or avoid“. Greg Rucka is a writer who is deeply concerned with the problems of the modern world. He’s not an isolationist, but as anyone who has ever spoken to him, or seen him drawn out on a public platform on issues about which he is passionate, he is devoted to identifying problems with ruthless honesty, and advocating solutions, or at the least more enlightened discourse, about those problems. After all, this is a comic with a letter column that regularly includes scientific research and the discussion of its social impact and the arc of present politics. It’s entirely obvious, and entirely appropriate, that Lazarus canvasses the scope of many social problems that Greg’s concerned with today.
With issue #23 of Lazarus, it seems an opportune time to concern ourselves with gender in Lazarus. We’ve spoken about this topic before, particularly as regards to Issue #9 of the series, but it’s worth covering in more depth because of the way in which it informs every sequence in this issue In addition to containing a kick-ass sword fight sequence, and progressing the political pieces along the board, the issue is a useful showcase of where Lazarus takes a deeply dystopian and disturbed premise – around inequality, injustice and untrammeled human cruelty – and manages to use it as a positive platform for providing leading women.
The other reason we’re taking this window is because we need to face facts: Issue #9 was two years ago, and the public discourse about gender has taken a turn for the worse. Lazarus #9 predates GamerGate, it predates the North Carolina bathroom bill, the Ghostbusters “controversy”, and the normalisation of a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist like Donald Trump as a “legitimate” speaker on world affairs and a potential president. These problems were not unforeseeable, but the more they manifest, the more that the discourse shifts down a particular path.
Lazarus, in turn, merits reanalysis of its position on gender, given the evolution (or devolution) of the discourse regarding the subject. The creative team remains committed to portraying women in realistic, engaging ways – that’s not new, and was explicitly stated by them to be a series goal – but the manner in which these points of contrast are articulated bears special mention.
Mueller and Sonja
“Fuck the bitch” scrawled on the walls. Mueller’s oversized Claymore, placed on the cover in a manner evocative of phallic imagery. The coursing postures of aggression, the red “berserker” colouration. The knowledge that the cocktail of Mueller’s drugs include “performance enhancers” (wink), an accusation relating to his overall masculinity sufficient to enrage him back in Conclave and speak to a conflation of the brutal warrior with the stud. He rushes a heavily armed commando squad with his shirt off, like the stereotype of every 80s action-man hero in the Schwarzenegger/Van Damne mode. The first sentence that issues from his mouth ends with the word “bitch” once more. He is, in short, a display of and an interrogation of, hyper-masculinity.
And Sonja kicks his fucking ass. There’s a lot more going on in this issue to talk about, but it’s an inescapable and critical fact of this issue that it contains an impeccably choreographed beat down.
We’ve talked somewhat before – as have the creators – about the desire to portray women warriors in a realistic way. There’s a famous trope of “action girls”, women who can deliver the kicks and the punches, but who often do so on the understanding that they otherwise be slender, elfin and stereotypically “feminine”. At its more rigorous, Their techniques usually involve the avoidance of getting hit; more often; their abilities are effectively magic, a winking nod to the artifice of the fight. They flit and flip and display toned legs in roundhouse kicks. You know the type of character we mean. And that’s not to say that any individual instance is bad. Such characters have been used effectively: as surprises; as exemplars of a martial arts culture that emphasises grace and discipline; as satire; as power fantasy for those denied physical security; and we’d even argue there’s a place – in isolation – for raw titillation by turns. It’s the overall repetition of this factor, that the idea has become a trope and the trope has become a self-reinforcing stereotype, that is damaging.
There’s none of that here. Note that Sonja is the one who takes the matter, if you will, mano-a-mano. The first sequences from “Come and get it” (the catchcry of the stoic bruiser, not the acrobat) are of Sonja getting kicked around, thrown into the masonry by a man strong enough to smash a stone banister with a sword. And Sonja takes it. And takes it. Then gets up again and starts to dish it out. Michael Lark’s sword-strokes are crystal clear, each moment of impact wrought on the page in blood spatter and jutting limb. When Mueller tries to up the ante by pulling himself forward on the sword upon which he is impaled (Freudian critics would possibly make more of the “Mueller is penetrated” issue than we choose to), Sonja is right there to smash his nose in the most brutal headbutt we can think of in comic book history.
The Daggers have the opportunity to move from an upstairs space back down the stairs to surround Mueller and Sonja. The fight is broken up by the substance of the rest of the issue. How long have they been fighting? How long have these bodies blows been exchanged? The art clearly shows the strain on both characters: postures shift to slumped, faces to masks of concentration.
What finally tips the fight over, after these hours of struggle? Sonja goads Mueller with a sexual insinuation. With mockery, of a “strong” man, by an unbowed woman. The brute snaps, and she puts him down. Not elegantly, but with a brutal elbow, a flip off a landing, and a final overhand swing. (Again, Dr. Freud might have something to say about the symbolism of snapping Mueller’s sword in two, but Freud’s been pretty much discredited, right?).
The fight, of course, has a second critical layer in its second half, the shot by Sergeant Park that isn’t taken. Given the Bittner political situation, the failure to fire at Mueller when a clear shot is presented (Page 19, Panel 1, Mueller has his back turned and the scope can readily be trained on him, look again), and Park’s own frustration when the fight ends in Sonja’s favour indicates that the abstention is likely tied in with Jo Carlyle’s declaration that she’ll “take care of” Sonja Bittner on Page 14. We face the very real possibility that Sonja’s own troops are waiting to assassinate her. But why not simply take the shot now?
Because a bullet can’t take a Lazarus down, very possibly not even one in Sonja’s presently transitive condition. What can it do? It can unbalance a fight so another Lazarus, one you expect to win, can finish the job. The sequence takes on another connotation if it’s an accepted fact that Sonja is expected to lose. Given the gendered displays that make up the fight, the assumption of loss has everything to do with coding male physical dominance and brutality, even in circumstances where Sonja is known to be an intimidating opponent.
What then, is the message to take from this? Women are a lot more ready to take men down on their supposed own ground than others think they are.
The New World Order
Bradbury (again) called science fiction the genre of revolutions – revolutions in “time, space, medicine, travel, and thought” – good or bad, or something between. The Lazarus-verse is a such world defined by its revolutions, and one of those is clearly the ongoing progress of what is perhaps history’s most successful revolution, feminism. The Carlyle territorial order is terrible, of course, but it is clearly terrible in some inclusive ways. Apart from the women in by power by dint of blood – Jo and Eve cannot be reflective of the wider picture, of course – women are more generally presented by Greg and Michael as equal participants. Every pertinent panel, whether it is in a secure command post or the mean streets, has an inclusive cast of extras reflective of demography. Issue #23 doesn’t exactly showcase many groups – it’s almost exclusively intimate scenes – but Lazarus has had women clearly presented as in the military, in STEM fields, as paramedics, scientists and engineers before. From the pages of The Lazarus Sourcebook Volume 1: Carlyle, it is exceedingly clear that the constitution of Malcolm’s neo-feudal machine has not imported feudal gender norms, and to an extent sought to resolve some of the issues of our own society.
In cautionary science fiction, there can be a trend towards often-uncritical conflation of negatives. If something in the created world is bad, too often is this seen as a pass for everything else to be grim, or at least exactly as bad as they are in the world in which we live. If the machines have taken over, then seedy, exploitative breeding camps come with it. If megacorps rule, progress on sex workers’ rights are wound back and gang problems worsen along racial lines. This kind of thinking, though powerful, is innately apocalyptic. It presupposes a shift into clarity, in which “good” and “evil”, or perhaps “functional” and “non-functional” societies in a binary fashion.
This isn’t as useful a metric as genuinely considering trends and alterations. Even within a focus on social or technological perils, there is – or should be – a space for critically recontextualising how groups are represented. We might call this the “Bioware model”, where there are certainly social tensions to be explored, but where possible issues like race, gender and sexuality are presented in such a way so as not to ostracise participants who might want to engage in the model without having to deal with the bullshit that a dominant hegemony forces on them. This is not inconsistency, nor is it a failure to commit. It’s verisimilitude.
This is showcased in more detail with the scene in the Barrett home. Casey’s meritorious progression in the armed forces is not portrayed as exceptional by stint of her gender, nor should it be so in a world in which Marisol Occampo and the other female frontline combatants exist. Instead, she is given individual achievement, but that achievement is presented as within the confines of the social norms that govern her in a post-lift environment.
It’s worth noting, of course, that even with social advancement in a measurable sense, the narrative is careful not to conflate the end of specific obstacles with the end of gendered prejudice. Jo Carlyle, now Head of Family, is to an extent explicitly misjudged by society at large for her femininity until she proves otherwise. Seré Cooper, the journalist referred to in the backmatter, has the responsibility of embedded coverage and the social wherewithal to command the central station in Carlyle news presentation, but how much is that a function of carefully managed image as much as talent, a young woman manufactured as much as Emma’s pop career is a direct product of Carlyle intervention? There are many different kinds of oppression.
Fathers and Daughters
Despite all the marked shifts in the X+ world, it can’t be forgotten that Malcolm Carlyle is not merely tyrant but also, quintessentially, patriarch. A father-benefactor of a house of children he sustains, and clients whom he feeds from his hands and the work of his labour. There are female Heads of Family, we know this, but Malcolm himself might be said to embody the patriarchy on an absolute level. This even flows on to the idea of patriarchy as a systemic function, independent of the preferences or prejudices of any individual participant, but more a function of the manner in which the world is run.
The neo-feudal Carlyle state doesn’t formally practice male-preference primogeniture, but it’s telling in some respects that initial control of the family went to Stephen, not Beth or Jo. It’s hard not to see the echo of male dynastic power and its opposition when Jo says (Page 13, Panels 3 – 4), that her goal has always been to succeed Malcolm as Head of Family. While the world as presented in Lazarus is significantly free of sexism and especially in the Carlyle Territories (more on this later), there are a number of hints that Malcolm’s personal paradigm – at least applied to his own family – is not.
The conversation about succession speaks not only to Malcolm and Jo’s relationship, but to overall concepts of family – the core underpinning of the series – and how the concept of family interacts with primogeniture, bloodlines, and succession. “Bittner is a dying line” says Malcolm, part Holy Roman Emperor, part horse-race trainer. This hits a far more complex note – while some of that surely comes down to an overall continental situation, how much of it can be traced to the fact that we’ve only heard of Bittner daughters? It is noticeable and notable that the essentially “all-female” Family is the one being squeezed at from both sides, imperiled by their alliances with seemingly greater powers. This becomes doubly fraught when you consider the Bittners are not only associated with classic “ice queen” iconography, but with Western Europe, all too often presented in American media as feminised, compromising and prone to surrender or reliance on the more masculine and vigorous New World powers, especially when the “threat of the Hun” is invoked. Note how Sevara Bittner obtained “safety” by seeking asylum within the domain of a patriarchal protector, how it is a conflict between two specific men over specific personal viewpoints, grievances and accomplishments that plunge the world into war.
And yet, for all his talk of Bittner as a dying line, it’s Malcolm who seems to lean a little heavier on his ever-present cane since his injury. Michael renders the paterfamilias with a more crooked stance, a less steady gate. Note that he, more so than his daughters, rugs up against the cold. These are non-verbal signs of vulnerability. The wounds cut deep. And that vulnerability can’t be separated from the fact that Malcolm seems more expressively emotional. The tender moment of pride, the kiss on Eight’s forehead, is distinct from the more authoritarian visitor we saw in the earlier issues, before Malcolm was wounded and before we knew what we now know. He is, in fact, willing to continue to allow Jo to take power from him (at least on an interim basis). He seems more preoccupied with finality. Of himself. Of his line. Long lived as he is, Malcolm seems to be thinking about death, and who shall follow after him. That question has always loomed large over Lazarus, as it must over any feudal setting, but even the tacit implication that the empire is to be ceded to his daughter highlights both his paternal roots and the aforementioned more egalitarian (in this limited frame, at least) world he has crafted.
What’s to be made of Abigail Carlyle’s isolation, of Sevara Bittner’s “feeling powerless” and her removal to Arthur Cohn’s family home, instead of the centre of war command? There are reasons for both that don’t relate to gender, but gendered issues are a function of the aggregate, and the absence of matriarchs is notable. We wait for them to take the scene, whilst powerful men direct the fate of nations. What do these attempts, these squabbling and failing states, say about masculine direction? Who killed the world?
Because the kickass female protagonists remain rare, and one whose empowerment goes beyond “gifted” powers to earned competence and trained ability more so, and one who is all of the above and, y’know, mostly dressed rarest of all, there is a very real sensitivity that is required when an author chooses to take all that away.
In Cull, Eve’s traumatic disassociation from her power is three-fold – from her superhuman abilities, from her ability to trust her abilities, and from the easy social and familial connections that grant her extraordinary privilege and authority. However, in Eve’s case, rather than trauma conferring the mantle of victimhood, it is the release of a long-simmering narrative tension around the contradictions in Eve’s very power.
We spoke back in Issue 8 of the ongoing challenges facing Eve’s particular embodiment of the kickass warrior woman archetype:
“While instances of this non-sexualised warrior woman archetype in pop culture are not as rare as they used to be, they remain infrequent enough that every instance is noteworthy every time… [but] there is the tendency to overemphasise the heroine’s nature as exceptional. The achievement is counterbalanced by layers of victimisation, the implicit argument is that violence does not come naturally to women, and must be imposed on them by the unfairness of the world.“
Since then, the stark degree to which Eve’s Lazarus status constrains her has become clearer still. Her abilities are “purchased” with the sacrifice of her mental autonomy, her authority is tied to a de facto slavery, her skills are instilled just to in turn be exploited for unjust ends. There is nothing inherently wrong with stories about development of power as a response to trauma, stories of power tainted by its source. It’s a quality shared by a range of characters across broader culture in general and comics in particular – V, Vic Sage, Angel, X-23, Gambit and Oracle to name but a few – and as Lazarus has broadened the characters it deals with, particularly the female characters (the introduction of the Barretts, Sonja, the increased scope of Marisol’s role, the transition of Johanna’s character) greater focus can be given to Forever’s trauma status, not as victim so much as survivor. The narrative of reclamation is itself a powerful thing, and at this tipping point, it can be addressed head-on.
Far from disempowering, far from victimising, the scenes of Eve’s injury and now her recovery are clearly presented as actualisation. By being alienated from her past, Eve is in turn claiming her own power. This is clearly expressed through Michael’s framing – he consistently places Eve, notionally at her weakest, in the centre or towering above, in poses where her strength and musculature are on display. There is no question that, despite the compressed timelines set down by Jo last issue, it is Eve driving her rehabilitation. Her pain is not inflicted, but earned as a healing pain. In a very real sense, it is the first thing in the story so far that she owns entirely for herself. Here, alienation also means independence.
The very nature of Eve’s injury is telling: she’s learning how to stand on her own two feet. The final confrontation with Johanna is the critical moment of this actualisation. Despite Jo’s earlier assurances to Malcolm that Eve is back on her meds, whatever has changed, Eve has irrevocably struck for freedom. She knows what is being done to her. Unequivocally now. And she’s not going to take it anymore. With some questions, the act of asking is the answer.