In comic books, superhero is the king of genres. But over time there has been strong representation of other genres like war, horror, cowboy, humor, science fiction, police, and romance. Some genres, like the family saga and literary have never found a place in comics: Odyssey can be a comic but Ulysses never will be.
What is hard to explain is the general lack of spy stories in comics. It can be a highly visual genre which carries suspense, action, drama, and romance. It should be perfect. And yet it’s only recently that the genre has made any headway.
And, interestingly, it’s the dangerous dames who have taken the lead. The main spy titles now are Grayson, Black Widow, and Lazarus. Two out of three have a female lead and Grayson has a heavy female presence.
In this article we’re going to have a look at the odd one out in that three. Not Grayson. Lazarus.
This is a spy story, with the characteristic large, elegant parties which have a subtext of espionage, secrets to uncover, hostages to retrieve and/or murder, intrigue between powerful largely covert groups, disobedience of orders from the woman in the field, and the opportunity for sex. In this case the publicly known, even famous, spy is Forever Carlyle. It’s a good name for several reasons. When someone stands close to her and says, “I want to kiss you, Forever,” he’s using her name and giving her a message at the same time. Since the character spends her time with the problems of permanence and avoiding the temporary nature of her world, this adds another layer of meaning to the name. (We’ll get back to that.) But chiefly, she’s nearly immortal.
Her world is not this world. Unusual for spy stories, she works in a post apocalyptic near future. And if there is one overarching thing about this comic that should be praised, it’s that it has mixed near future science fiction and intrigue well. In this world technology is more advanced, but its reach is limited. Central government has collapsed, not just at the Federal but at the state and local level as well. Instead, certain powerful families rule their own territories. Each has certain technologies. All of them have to follow certain rules set in treaties signed with each other. But the game is really given away by the fact each family has its own crest.
This is a new Dark Ages, and a similar fall has resulted in a similar structure.
And like knights, each family has a Lazarus. A Lazarus has been modified to have specific additional abilities. They are not all the same abilities. You can have a Lazarus with heightened perceptions, able to look at your skin and analyze what chemicals are in your system, and smell the perfume on you and work out who you had sex with. This is not what Forever does.
The members of the powerful families live in wealth and luxury. In fact they are so well off they start making problems for themselves. So we do get the family betrayal story because fabulous wealth and an ability to force themselves on others wasn’t enough, in first world problem mode they had to have more honor or attention or whatever it was or will be the next time this issue plays out.
The world is hierarchically divided. Every time scene and location change we get a little banner telling us where we are, how many family are there and how many of those are permanent, how many serfs are there, and how many Waste. There is an incredible amount of backstory to that, if you stop to think about it.
The numbers always increase: there are more serfs than family, more waste than serfs. Only family is ever someplace temporarily. Serfs seem to be fixed in place, waste have no fixed place at all. It is, as I said, a Dark Ages.
The interesting thing about these Dark Ages, though, is that they were human made. There was no disaster, no global warming, not even a war. It’s just an economic collapse in which the 1% isn’t going to do anything but consolidate their own power.
The serfs work for them and in return get accommodation, clothes, and food. The Waste are basically what they are called. There are times and places where there is an uplift and the most intelligent and skilled waste get made into serfs. This is the Medieval Ages (good soldiers get knighted) and both capitalism and socialism (good workers get promoted).
But like the worst of all three systems, it becomes a process of attracting a higher up rather than proving yourself. Waste travel like refugees to go somewhere arbitrarily chosen to be someplace they can get noticed, someplace where they can escape the squalor, the lack of decent medicine, the danger from others. A trick, a bribe, anything to get noticed, if not for you then for your child. The greatest hope some parents have is that hell stop with them.
But the number of Waste in an area is always listed. No exceptions. That means Waste is monitored. The underlying elements of spying and danger are always there.
So little wonder that the powerful families are all in need of a Lazarus. This is true even of the Carlyle family, who are the richest family with the widest territory and life-extension technology no one else has.
Which brings us back to Forever.
Forever was enhanced before birth. After birth she was put in intensive training to be the ultimate (but uncultured) warrior-spy. She has enhanced strength and speed not at a superhman level. However, if you combine the speed of a fast athlete and the strength of a strong one, that seems to be her. She is both blocker and running back. She also has a healing factor and that is superhuman. It is so strong that she can appear to be dead for a considerable period of time and then get up again. And it takes a lot to put her down in the first place.
When the story starts she thinks of herself as just your basic dutiful daughter who protects her father and her family but shooting people’s brains out. Clearly she had a sheltered life, and this accounts for her social uncertainty with non-family members. As she takes on the role of a Lazarus, she initially just goes out for low-level military missions. She acts as a bodyguard or leader of a small troop dealing with strategic missions.
As often happens in such situations, she meets a different world. She meets Waste who she doesn’t seem to know much about. I am guessing, but I doubt she’d dealt with Waste in her youth, just family and serfs appointed to .
Forever takes a lot of pills. These keep her healing factor in high gear. However, she gets the idea they may have psychotropic purposes, so she stops taking them. Does it work? Well, depends on how you define ‘work’ and how you feel about being very seriously stabbed. What it shows is that like every good spy story, nothing can be taken at face value, nothing has one use or purpose, and everyone is duplicitous.
You know that irregular Latin verb, ‘I have principles, you have an agenda, he is in a conspiracy’ that I just made up? We follow that. As Forever moves forward she has principles, she runs into agendas and conspiracies.
She is a Lazarus and every family has one. At one party they all get the chance to take a break from body guarding and have a poker game. Those who think of all the casinos James Bond has wound up in probably get what’s the deal (no pun intended but gratefully accepted) here.
It’s high tension as they talk about their roles and, despite the friendships they have, they may have to kill each other soon. Forever looks to her best friend, another battle oriented Lazarus. They’ve fought before and death was avoided by a trick.
It’s worth noting that fight was a trial. Winner take all from the dead. Another note from history that this is a Dark Age.
As usual, one person goes over the top and threatens violence. He is beefy rather than lean, a kind of Bond villain type. But then something different happens. Instead of somebody beating him to show their strength, one Lazarus (who by the way is winning the snot out of everybody) describes the man’s feelings from the inside out. In particular, using implants he reads the man’s skin and scent. He tells the man certain psychotropic pharmaceuticals have affected the way he behaves including his difficulty maintaining emotional control. But more than that, the scent on the man tells this Lazarus whom he had sex with. Care to have her name mentioned?
And all of this intrigue is nested within a larger web of intrigue. The families each depends on their Lazarus, if the families fall this world falls, but what happens if the Lazari fall?
Intrigue within intrigue and nothing can be taken at face value by anyone who wants to survive.
“I want to kiss you, Forever.”
And yet, people are still people and they will find each other. Any plan which is too precise will fail purely through little incidents like people being attracted to each other. In this sense, Lazarus is a coming-of-age story. It is a kind of late coming of age, but that matters little.
The trickiest part for her is relationships with others because everything she thought she knew is, step by step, being taken away from her. For us as readers, though, it gives her a vulnerability that makes her truly relatable.
As with the best stories of intrigue, lies are the only currency which is not counterfeit. That’s because getting people to maintain the lie, or keep people from finding the lie, expresses the power you have over them. This is why love is secondary in importance for nearly all the characters. Even the protagonist has to learn how important love is to them.
These elements are all set into the story of Forever’s career as a Lazarus. She has already begun uncovering the layers of lies and inconsistencies around her. Every step she takes reveals another puzzle. It’s like she’s trying to escape a Chinese puzzle box with inappropriate tools.
And this is another good thing about the series. In a lot of fiction, whichever character has to discover things will happen to have exactly the skills they need. This is done in television where in one particular episode some character will be given a previously unseen lifelong interest or hobby which will be crucial to the resolution of the story.
So in Star Trek: Voyager, Chakotay gets a sudden, intense, life-long interest in boxing which was never even mentioned before.
In the opposite way, Forever lacks some of the skills necessary to work out what’s going on. She can fight, explore, all of that. But she’s no Batman, she is not a detective. She gets pieces and while she doesn’t fumble them, she cannot work out the complex elements of various plans which intersect each other.
All this is the background and character that Greg Rucka manipulates through intricate plots. But the thing is brought to life by the artwork of Michael Lark and the colorist, Santi Arcas. The first thing to note is the drawing of Forever. She doesn’t follow the conventions of drawing a gorgeous heroine.
For example, her hair is flat and probably doesn’t have a lot of body. Compare that to the hair of Wonder Woman or Supergirl. The face is also different from the usual. It often has worry lines, because Forever does a lot of worrying. And the face is stronger than is usual for a female character.
She has strong cheekbones. Though it’s easy to miss, Forever’s nose is larger than usual for a female comic book character, most of whom have button noses. Her lips are downplayed and dark when female comic book characters this side of Aunt May have lips that look like they’re engorged with blood because the woman is sexually aroused. The simple fact is, Forever is not that pretty. She looks OK, just not great.
The backgrounds are designed around the social caste they enclose. With family there is luxury, symmetry, and space. But Waste is normally seen in concrete empty factories or wasteland. Indeed, military units in this world are usually in enclosed spaces like factories or oil rigs. When Waste is outdoors, the scenery is barren land with no buildings and no crops. For some reason the idea of having a gun, seeds, water, and dirt does not seem to be a way to subsistence existence in this word of Forever. Crops seem to be owned by the families.
In all cases there is a somber, toned down color palette that reflects the stark world in which they live. Arcas has deliberately followed the theme of containment with one crucial exception we’ll mention later. The backgrounds tend to be all-but black and white, and even silver seems to be rendered in white. Lark’s artwork is very realistic and is a delight to see. Even the fight scenes have a realistic edge to them (apart from getting up after you die). There is no “cartoon” element here. It’s an obvious choice, but it isn’t one that’s easy to carry out.
Panel construction is excellent. If you think of comics as the old six panel breakdown with three rows of two panels then you’re in for an enlightening surprise.
Let’s look at issue 14. In twenty-two pages there is no example of that old standard pattern. Instead, the panels are sized to convey the importance and pacing of the scene. For example, a common pattern is to have a single panel across, giving a broad scene and allowing individuals to set up a confrontation or revelation. Below that is three panels in which the confrontation or revelation plays out in quick time.
There aren’t splash pages here even when the background – a hall for a dance, climbing an oil rig refitted as accommodation, outdoors among the Waste – would allow for, even call for it. Again, Lark seems to be working to get across the enclosed nature of the society and Forever’s own position. You begin to suspect that splash panels are being held in reserve for some meeting of great revelation and great confrontation.
In the meantime the panel breakdowns work well. In issue 14 we see Forever in the shower. Smoked glass leaves just a silhouette, then two panels inside the shower, then one across as she punches the wall, breaking it. In a four panel crawl at the bottom, her hand heals over in three panels and the last is her looking, horrified, at her healed hand. The next pages opens a new scene. It gets across her emotions and situation without a single thought balloon. We intrude not on her nudity so much as her feelings.
It’s a somber world almost without celebration, as emphasized by Arcas’s colors. The concrete empty factories and warehouses don’t have decorations, not even left-over work posters. No one’s worked in these places in a long time. So where most colorists try to make each object its own color, highlighting it as much as possible, Arcas has in many cases chosen colors close to each other, as with military uniforms and the factory walls. It sets a very different mood and creates a sense of shadows where none are actually drawn in.
And like the more familiar Dark Ages of history, the world is trying to cope with a very great mistake.
Remember that she is Forever Carlyle. As a name, Carlyle means coming from a fortified tower, castle, or city. That Medieval image certainly defines this family. But she is a Lazarus, who can rise when apparently dead. All well and good. Except the New Testament (Luke, if you have to know) tells the story of another(?) Lazarus.
In Lazarus and the Rich man we are told of a wealthy man who ignores the needs of a sick man names Lazarus, who lies in the street and dogs lick his sores. Both men die and Lazarus goes to heaven and while the rich man goes to hell. The rich man asks for relief from his suffering but is told he knew how to act well but didn’t. Was the name Lazarus chosen for more than one reason? The writing in this comic is complex, so maybe they have given a clue to the end in the name.
It would explain the nuns, though.