Welcome, as ever, to our ongoing annotations of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus. As Cull continues, we delve into Lazarus #25.
The following are more annotations and reflections on the emerging narrative and world of Lazarus than reviews, providing 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. 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.
As always, spoilers abound for the current issue within! Enough chit-chat! On with the book!
Here Be Dragons
We’ve spoken over the last several months in these annotations about the verisimilitude of Lazarus, the extent to which it seeks to predict a possible future. In that sense, given that the book is an extrapolation from very real and pressing social issues, is drawn by Michael in a photorealist style, and is carefully grounded in deep character work, it can be said to be a realist book.
The dead returning to life. Kings slipping into a long sleep, their children to struggle for their throne. Sword battles which determine the fate of empires and a war over the Philosopher’s Stone, font of immortality. A monster is coming.
In our annotations of Issue #10, we pointed to how the comic’s very title, Lazarus, ties together modern science and ancient legends of immortality, and how the conflation of the rich oligarchs of our world with dukes and kings invokes a potent sense of the awe in which they wish to be seen, of the potentially irrevocable nature of the changes our world is undergoing. Greg Rucka, Wonder Woman and Black Magick, is clearly interested in mythology and story-cycles, and how those stories echo into modern society.
Because we as a species have evolved to learn through stories, most storytelling, in the end, functions by circling back and building on top of the stories we already know, that we have long told ourselves as a people. Myths are, after all, at heart explanatory stories. They seek to explain the unknown, or the partially known, by reference to speculation from the known, and we recycle the archetypal movements and elements because they continue to resonate.
There is a subtle presumption that modern humanity has left mythology behind. Because we no longer explain our universe (for the most part) by references to stealing fire from titanic beings on the top of a high mountain, or by great worms that fill the space under the Earth, most people think of themselves as rational actors without recourse to myth. So much more advanced than primitive societies.
It is, of course, an illusion. The ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the cultures that we think of as the founders of mythology, were advanced civilisations. Their myth-making represented the apex of an intelligent, rational society. We are just as susceptible to myth as anyone. Now we call it ‘spin’ or ‘truthiness’ perhaps, or misinformation. But when no better explanation presents itself, we are more than willing to fill in the gaps.
We’re going carefully here, you will notice, to avoid calling individual underpinning beliefs strictly as “myth”, but if we take an honest accounting, is there much difference between the Jovian thunderbolt, and “we hold these truths to be self evident”, between Fenrir swallowing the Sun and a woman springing fully formed from a man’s rib? It’s not an answerable question, but we think that it can’t be said that we’ve moved past myth. If we haven’t moved past mythology, it’s probably fair to say that the people of X+64 haven’t either.
The Myth of the Objective Journalist
The issue opens with exposition, alliteration (“…rapid and relentless recovery…”) and imagery (heroic lazari overcoming faceless fascistic Hun hordes) drawing from war reels transitions immediately to a the journalist team producing it in the far more modern idiom of a press team in bulletproof jackets talking presentation in a dusty theatre. The contrast between how the story is told and what story is told is escalated thereafter, as we discuss the politics of awards, the consumer need for novelty and the political implications of journalists pushing their luck with access.
Are journalists collators of demonstrably correct information, or are they drafters of the first draft of history? Journalism has its own myths: freedom of the press, Woodward & Bernstein, speaking Truth to Power and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, formally eschewing objectivity as a shibboleth. At the heart of this myth is the idea that an ideal journalist can somehow rise above the implicit tension in the role, serving at once as notionally objective reporter and effective change-bringing storyteller. As the commercial model of news reporting evolves rapidly across mediums and serves increasingly fragmented markets, the distinction between the Second and Fourth Estate thins even as the divisions between Fourth and Fifth Estate collapse. As the lines between opinion, editorial, marketing, investigation and propaganda become increasingly and irrevocably blurred, this tension is incredibly live.
Issue #25 brings this archetype front and centre, with Sere Cooper, the award-winning embedded journalist. Sere, seen in the Carlyle Sourcebook and the backmatter, falls within the same broad archetype as Lois Lane, Katie Reed, April O’Neil and countless others. The competent, daring, ego-driven woman with the eye for the story and little interest in obeying rules is the classic ‘heroic journalist’ formulation. Of course, Sere’s portrayal here is, if not a deconstruction, presented as something that challenges the assumed nobility with complicating shadows. Lois Lane she ain’t, but why would she be when the Supermen she has to chronicle are no paragons?
Unlike investigative journalists on the City Desk, war correspondents haunt the mythology of the 20th century as an ambivilant force (‘You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war’, Lawrence of Arabia, Radio Free Europe, Geraldo Rivera promising to personally assassinate Bin Laden). Embedding is an instance of the process of which journalism becomes propaganda, by narrowing the story to one perspective. David Igantius made the case that “news media’s inadequate examination of the rationale for war in late 2002 and 2003 was that we knew President George W. Bush had already made his decision – the Army was lined up in the desert, after all – and most editors were focused on figuring out how best to report it.” It is almost impossible for the journalist to be anything other than a story-teller for sale, quintessential myth-makers for hire, contextualizing soldiers as heroes, foes as an implacable war machine, and the government as perfect as public sentiment will allow. Note again that despite being embedded just outside Frankfurt, the military action is portrayed as primarily a Carlyle-Bittner activity, despite Armitage having geographic proximity and Morray, as always, being the military-industrial powerhouse (though of course, may have their own reservations about committing forces half a world away from their own theatre). There are forces at work here to turn event into myth, a symbiosis between the arm of the State and the promise of the Press.
Cooper is presented as fully aware of this collusion and collision, and indeed she openly fosters it in support of “the more interesting” story. And her profile subjects know it to, which is why they embrace the presence of the reporter. This ambiguity in intention, especially when considered in the light of the backmatter’s jingoistic exploitation of the war and the Sourcebook: Carlyle’s presentation of the Post as being a whole-owned instrument of the State, lets us know she is not a crusader for truth, but at the least an adapter and at most a collaborator.
Johanna’s Story Hour
As Johanna and Eve continue their “Come to Jesus” confrontation, Johanna is herself threading a needle between demonstrably correct information and her own redrafting of family history. Whatever you may think of Johanna (and hey, we’re inclined to trust her, for what it’s worth), Michael’s portrayal definitively shapes our reception of the scene – static delivery of information the audience already has is made dynamic as we explore the changing feelings of our paired protagonists. Structurally, this issue gets a lot of mileage out of building tension, not from what the audience doesn’t know but rather what they do. The Hitchcock “bomb under the desk”, effectively, of lies and secrets. We know everything Johanna says, and the question is whether she will lie and how Eve will react. While James and Marisol look for Eve – sparked because James still checks on Forever at night, as he clearly always has, which is sweet, and given his willingness to destroy her, only underscores the distance between Eve’s loved ones and those she can actually trust – we know where she is.
This issue is confirmation of our suggestion that Eve and Johanna (and with Casey more broadly, though not in this issue) are entwined leads. If Lazarus #1 represented a milestone, where Eve transitioned from trust to suspicion, and issue #19 represented a shift from blind obedience to agency, then issue 25 represents a third milestone, where Eve moves from ignorance to knowledge, and from isolation to connection. There is a very real sense in which this is a move to equilibrium and balance, as just as Eve’s arc reaches completion, so to does Johanna come full circle – the dramatic rise and fall of her duplicitous plays for power have reverted to their original formulation, with Johanna once more united with a trusting sibling joining her in a conspiracy against the throne. She, like Eve, is finally no longer alone.
Indeed, just as we once spoke about the surface similarities of Jonah and Johanna, it is fascinating how Eve and Johanna look like sisters in this scene. Given Michael’s facility with distinct faces, the look at the panel on the top of page 8, the contrasted panels on the bottom of page 9 and the third panel of page 11 as some clear examples of a familial tie (behaviorally, if not necessarily genetically).
It is perhaps worth noting that with the revelation of Forever Young now behind us, Greg has allowed unsynching of the story threads to become more common, and while they are telegraphed in the captions, more casual. The tension in the field escalates in parallel with the tensions back at Sequoia, even though the sequences there are twelve days past (presumably to allow Eve to arrive in time to face the Dragon).
Johanna is, we know from our objective standpoint, largely telling the truth, but we can’t accept to any degree that she’s telling the whole truth. She is presenting a version of events that broadly accord with reality, but are tinged with sufficient frissons of doubt and self-serving presentation that we can legitimately call her “confession” mythologising too.
Though we don’t spend time with Forever Young this issue, the depiction of her – asleep, arm wrapped around a stuffed animal, her parental figure checking on her through the door – is evocative of childhood bedtime. At the same moment when Forever lies in bed in one way, she is having a story spun for her in another. A bedtime story. The perfect time for myth-making, and tales of wicked parents…foul curses…black deeds…knights and monsters.
Knights and Monsters
VASSALOVKA IS COMING.
The words are on the first page of synopsis, but they don’t synopsise anything we’ve seen before. This is an incredibly sharp use of expositional text. We have notably not met Vassalovka. We have only heard rumours of their movements. We do not know their Lazarus. But right from the start of the book, Lazarus #25 conjures the shadow of something we haven’t seen before. Some new figure, important enough to be presaged, that clearly causes forces whose strength we know to react in alarm. A terror. An adversary. A dragon.
The Dragon has shades of the Kurgen, of the Red Dragon and of the Terminator, and as with those characters, their true horror lies in their absence and what it implies. Dracula, too, was a drago from the east, leaving bodies in his wake, and he too was at his most terrifying when dwelling in the imprecations. The longer the true strength of the Dragon exists in the margins (where dragons proverbially are mapped), the more we can imbue him with a menace that is hard to capture when they are single-handedly matching up against four super-soldiers (counting Eve, given the teaser for Issue #26).
Thomas invokes the broad “gentlemen spy” archetype, his rough-and-tumble innuendo and cocky grin setting him apart from the young blue-blood champions of the other Families. Even the fantastic cover, an exemplary piece of work by Michael reminiscent of some of the comic’s early covers, evokes the Bond opening sequence, the near-silhouetted agent surrounded in patriotic colouration. This is, of course, its own kind of myth recycling, an iteration of the knight that is heroic without being pure, a realism-tinged reflection of the fractures we perceive in old-fashioned chivalry even as we embrace it.
Chivalry is the key word. These gentleman-spy echoes a second myth: the knight-errant.
Thomas isn’t just a serving soldier, because the English adventurer is always the knight. In Thomas’ case, of course, literally, with his knighthood – Sir Thomas, what what. Indeed, the English knights vs the Dragon has a superb mythic pedigree.
Of course, it isn’t just Saint George. For every dragon in mythology, there is the dragonslayer. The perfect warrior who exemplifies the fortitude, courage, cleverness and/or faith that elevates them from mere mortal to a challenger for The Beast. Archetypically, such a responsibility falls to a knight and so it is entirely apposite that one is provided in the form of Sir Thomas. The deliberate choice to preserve knighthood in a state where it can be wholly obviated serves the same purpose both within and without the confines of the narrative: it echoes not feudalism as it was, but feudalism as it has been mythologised.
Our stories about feudalism rarely capture the brutality and poverty of what was, effectively, a brutal slave state enforced by thugs. Our stories of knights and ladies, kings and queens, range from historical mythologising (Ivanhoe, good King Richard and evil Prince John) to outright fantasy, where a hundred thousand pre-Game of Thrones Tolkienades tell tales of noble courts and brave paladins.
Perhaps no story bridges the gap from the idealised view of history to the wonders of the fictional world as the tales of King Arthur and the Matter of Britain – an ahistoric fantasy that casts itself as the history of a real place. A mythology, again. And this time, a mythology that the narrative of Lazarus has referred to before.
The Once and Future King (as we detailed relatively exhaustively in our annotations of Issue #8) has been a motif in the Lazarus story thus far. The Once and Future King is one of the key presentations of the Arthurian myth, swallowing up in the popular consciousness earlier, more brutal drafts. But as we said in our annotations then:
The text also, however, specifically decries the use of force and the pursuit of power, even where it’s sought to be channeled to righteous ends and advocates the removal of national boundaries and aristocratic honour systems. Only right makes right, says the book, and trying to force force, or channel the urge to compete into goodness will ultimately fail. The Once and Future King, in fact, for all its gentle comedy, concerns itself heavily with failure in the true tragic vein.
The Once and Future King depicts the ultimate failure of the feudal state, the inability for all the heroes of legend to force the world to a better place (or a worse one) with the strength of their hands.
Consider how we see not just Sir Thomas, and the other Lazari: through Sere Cooper’s eyes. We first see the Lazari in their power and glory, covered by her bombastic narration. Then, she thinks that she has met them more intimately. She brazenly pushes her way into their inner sanctum, sees them at the apex of the confidence and ability. They are laughing, joking, more themselves than a propaganda still could allow them to be – but they are still being mythologised. Michael draws them with ease and grace, but look how rapidly they go for their weapons and then confidently seize social control. The distinctive look of each, Joacquim’s cyberpunk aesthetic, Sonja’s teutonic plate-mail, and Thomas’ turtleneck and hat combo creates their own unique iconography is presented in tryptych on Page 1, but as she enters the command tend, we still see that unprompted and unposed they assume that role through Sonja’s eyes. The legends in private.
This tone of confidence, this making of a legend, lasts even through their arrival to the disputed zone on p. 20. They discuss staging, the making of a story, the private rewards and acquaintances, the networking and the intimacies that drive the tale they’re going to tell – but even through that lens, Sere Cooper walks to the farmhouse, confident that the legendary beings she is profiling will have the matter will have the whole thing under control.
And they don’t.
The carnage in the farmhouse, the stacked bodies, Thomas’ panicked face. The suave James Bond, the unruffled Lancelot, they’re borne away in a paroxysm of sheer terror. Nothing emphasises the danger more than a heroic archetype abandoning the field. Saint George legging it. This may be shorthand characterisation – clearly, our demi-Bond or semi-Niven is not as well-rounded yet as Sonja or Joaquin – but it allows for the power of the issues cliffhanger to really sink in. Knights fight monsters almost definitionally, and spies take out counterparts. So when Thomas blanches in terror, and turns to flight, it gives a punch to the issue’s conclusion.
And to double down on that punch, there, for the reader, the teaser for next week. The picture of the Dragon, bloodsoaked and skull-enthroned, armed with axe and flail and raging at the sky…