For roughly the last five years, Image Comics has justifiably received major critical kudos for such series as Bitch Planet, Paper Girls, Saga, Sex Criminals, Southern Bastards and The Wicked + The Divine. Older series like Chew and Invincible have continued to get plenty of love, along with undead cash cow The Walking Dead. But as Image has expanded the number of comics they publish, some gems have fallen through the cracks. Ales Kot’s Zero never netted the readers or attention it deserved, nor have either of Warren Ellis’ two remarkable ongoing sci-fi series, Injection (with Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire) and Trees (with Jason Howard). But the most under-the-radar, truly great ongoing Image series has to be Lazarus. Writer Greg Rucka, artist Michael Lark and colorist Santiago Arcas have crafted a tight, dystopian story that offers devastating commentary on the real world—along with the most sympathetic and badass protagonist in comics, Forever Carlyle.
The story predominantly revolves around this character, the “Lazarus” of the Carlyle family. In this alternate future world, families—which act as governments/cartels—own and control huge areas of land that they exploit to maintain wealth and power. Each family has allies and enemies among the other families. To crush uprisings and fight wars, most families have a Lazarus: a one-person kill squad.
Each Lazarus is a soldier for their family, though some are more advanced and deadly than others. The Carlyle’s Lazarus, Forever, appears to be the best model and one of a few that are completely artificial. Forever shows no signs of being non-human, except when she lives up to her title as the Biblical figure who arises from the dead: she heals faster than Wolverine, but feels every bullet and stab wound. Even so, her deepest cuts are emotional: Forever is a humanoid robot who’s told she’s a cherished member of the family—a family that calls her daughter and sister—when she’s merely a disposable, dangerous tool.
Lazarus follows Forever as she struggles with committing and suffering horrible violence on behalf of the Carlyles, but the larger struggle is whether she can break free of that family. Like anyone who’s been in an abusive yet co-dependent relationship, walking away is easier said than done. Forever’s relationships with her “siblings” are rich, disturbing and occasionally sweet. The best relationship is between Malcolm Carlyle (the patriarch of the family) and Forever: a father and the daughter he literally made. Malcolm is a manipulative bastard, giving and withholding love to Forever as needed. But he clearly does love her in his own way. Behind Forever’s back, he often makes comments like, “Five children and only one of them is worth a damn.” Forever is that one.
Lazarus #6 Cover Art by Michael Lark & Santiago Arcas
The mythology of this comic—laid out in a sourcebook, with more to come—includes detailed history, maps and relationships, along with terms describing the technology and social classes. Readers of other dense, dystopian comics such as DMZ and East of West will appreciate the world-building. But Rucka and Lark’s fiction isn’t just impressive in its level of detail: it offers commentary aplenty on the real world.
The families can easily be compared to corporations or governments that solely prioritize money and power. Rucka and Lark also make a powerful statement on how lower-income people are treated like garbage in the real world. In Lazarus, the lowest class is waste, and members of this caste are lucky to survive. The best hope for individuals trapped in this demographic is to travel hundreds of miles to one of the families’ lifts. You might get lifted into serfdom, as long as you have a valuable skill and don’t have the potential for illness, like one character who was rejected because of a predisposition to breast cancer. The story focuses on a few characters who make the move from waste to serf, and the trade-offs they make for a better life are heartbreaking.
As for Forever, like any complex character, she can be read in many ways. One interpretation is that she stands for women who end up giving everything to their families, while receiving little in return. But the Lazarus concept is broader than gender, as Rucka and Lark highlight via the camaraderie of the Lazari, who respect and like one another, though they might be sent to kill their peers at any time. The best comparison might be to the military: a majority of the American people tell its soldiers that they love and respect them, but send them to commit horrors on the behalf their government, while rarely doing enough to take care of the “lucky” veterans who survive. No matter how many soldiers are killed, maimed or traumatized, the military keeps going, just as Forever rises from every bullet and stab wound.
Lazarus #19 Cover Art by Michael Lark & Santiago Arcas
Lazarus is a very violent series, featuring warring families, Lazarus vs. Lazarus swordfights and smaller acts of brutality. Lark is the ideal artist for all of the above. During Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s immortal run on Captain America, Lark drew the World War II flashbacks, displaying a knack for such chaotic combat. At times, Lark recalls Declan Shalvey’s cinematic portrayals of violence in Moon Knight and Injection, but Lark is more understated. The artist channels violence vividly but without glorification; everything looks like it hurts. If you enjoyed Lark’s pencils in Gotham Central, you’ll love him here. Colorist Arcas captures the muddy, grey tones of a depressing, disturbing world.
Rucka and Lark make every knife and bullet wound count, but their precision extends to more introspective moments. In any other comic, a potential romance between assassin androids would be cheesy silliness or mild fun. In Lazarus, Forever’s kiss—her first—is devastating, since it’s been well-established that her family has denied her anything resembling a normal life. Every event, from a dismemberment to a dance, is impactful. There are no small moments.
More than any other comic, Lazarus proves absorbing and satisfying in the manner of great TV epics such as Breaking Bad, The Shield, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Americans and the wonderful first two seasons of Alias. Lazarus is in development at Legendary TV, and it remains to be seen whether it can become a peer of those great shows. But the comic already deserves a place in the first tier of Image Comics alongside Saga and Southern Bastards, and it could easily end up an all-time classic series, such as Preacher and Scalped. This is career-best work for Rucka and Lark; it’s also the best comic going for fans of unflinching storytelling.
Lazarus #25 hit stands earlier this month with its fourth collection, Poison, slated for January.
Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.