Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Lazarus 16, originally released April 22nd, 2015.
Drew: My first experience with an epistolary novel was Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, presented as the diary of the titular character. It seemed like such a novel concept to me (no pun intended), but the epistolary novel actually predates the modern novel by over 100 years. It makes sense that the documentary-style of the epistolary novel as a collection of letters and diary entries might be more approachable than the entirely artificial convention of having a character (or third person narrator) telling the story to us. While Lazarus has often stayed close to Forever’s perspective, it’s never committed to any one narrator, which makes issue 16 all the more unusual, presented largely as the diary entries, transmissions, conversation transcripts, and training materials of Sister Bernard, punctuated with only a few short instances of dialogue.
Last month’s issue was also notably light on dialogue, but while that issue used its silence to focus our attention on the art (and the action therein), this issue is very much about words. I haven’t done the same rigorous page-by-page analysis of the dialogue in this issue, but just eyeballing it, its clear that amount of dialogue is inversely proportional to the amount of non-dialogue text on the page. Indeed, many of those pages take the form of Sister Bernard’s actual diary, laid out on her desk, along with other pertinent materials.
The effect is a very lived-in feel — always a strength for the series — painting exposition to the literal corners of every page. Those “artifact” pages are credited to Owen Freeman and Eric Trautmann, which speaks to the collaborative nature of this series. Michael Lark still handles the more traditional narrative pages (with his characteristic subtlety and clarity), but hands off these more detail-heavy inserts to artists with those specific skill sets.
In spite of the strength of those pages, the most gripping moments are still Lark’s and — perhaps tellingly — still feature dialogue. The transcripts of dialogue and mission dossiers that appear throughout the issue are undeniably effective at conveying just how distanced and dehumanized Sister Bernard is by the Carlyle family, but it’s the more personal moments that hook us into her struggle in the first place. None illustrate this better than when confronted with a woman desperate for an abortion.
This is a moral conundrum that we could see a nun being faced with in the present, but it’s rarer that a nun coming down on the “no exceptions” side of the discussion might also be running covert missions for a morally dubious, decidedly un-christian corporate overlord. Sister Mary Grace suggests that Sister Bernard may have made the less-justifiable compromise, but Sister Bernard justifies her actions sighting Matthew 22:21:
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.
After quoting that particular passage, Sister Bernard refers to Malcolm Carlyle only as Gladius. Allying herself with Jesus to justify her choices may be a dangerous (if predictable) attitude, but it also brings to the surface dozens of religious parallels. I have to admit to never giving much thought to the title of the series (or that of the super-soldiers each family maintains) beyond their miraculous resurrections, but digging into the text of Lazarus of Bethany, it’s clear that the families may be more guilty of misguided alignment with Jesus than Sister Bernard ever is.
Of course, the more important connection to Lazari here is Joacquim Morray’s rescue of Sister Bernard at the close of this issue. Sister Bernard reminds us of the origin of the name “Lazarus,” which she translates as “God is my help,” which in her mind, arrives in the form of God’s wrath. Helpful or no, she has to look away from the carnage Joacquim unleashes on Hock’s men, giving her a rebirth of sorts as she opens her eyes. It’s no coincidence then that Lark puts her in the fetal position at the start of that scene, or that her cross is overlapped — superseded, if you will — by her hand reaching out for Joaquim’s.
Sister Bernard never describes this moment in her diary, but Lark makes its significance to her clear as day. I’m tempted to call it a religious significance — it’s hard to deny the religiosity of that final image — but I wonder if I should leave the repercussions of that to Patrick. Sister Bernard may be seeing the face of God at the close of this issue, but she’s apparently also been martyred to transfer Hock’s new Flu strain to Carlyle. I don’t know if your Sunday schooling leaves you in a better position to unpack all of that than I am, but it’s got to count for something, right?
Patrick: Of course it counts for something: entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. You heathen!
But actually, I think it might surprise you to learn how much of my Sunday Schoolin’ was almost cynical in its approach to the Bible. I was raised Catholic, and we’re not encouraged to explore that book on our own — only ever filtered through the carefully curated perspective of the clergy. For example: that quote from Matthew — I’ve always been taught that that was Jesus being a least a little bit of a sarcastic dick. The only thing you really have to give is your self and your faith, everything else is simply on loan from God in the first place. It’s sort of like Jesus is saying “let the baby have his bottle,” because Caesar’s power is an illusion.
Let’s put a pin in cynicism for a second. The other thing that we learned pretty regularly was the necessity for — and divinity of — sacrifice. The crucifixion of Christ is maniacally important to Catholics. I can’t tell you how many Easter masses I attended where the priest actually tried to make the case that this holiday is “a bigger deal than Christmas,” and keep a totally straight face. Sister Bernard suffers a great deal here, and like Jesus’ 40 days in the desert (or His final moments on the cross), has her faith tested. That’s where the cynicism comes in: even Christ asked why His Father had forsaken Him. Freshly injected with H1N11, and surrounded by Hock guards with guns, we read Sister Bernard’s own loss of faith.
…if this was God’s will, if this was God’s plan for me, all I could do was surrender myself to it, and pay out my part. All I could do was play it as best as I could. Bu there was a moment, that moment they found me when, to my shame, what faith I had left was lost. I was not angry. I was no longer frightened. I was simply certain that God did not exist.
All of which is to say that I think Drew’s totally correct to identify the end of the issue as a clearly religious moment for Sister Bernard. She may not recognize it as such yet, but it’s clear that she’s being delivered into the care of someone who wants her to continue her work.
I also totally love the way the epistolary format of this issue feeds into the themes of religion, effectively making Sister Bernard one of the scribes in her own holy book. That quote from Matthew up there? Same basic thing — he’s just remembering something Jesus said one night when someone sprung a gotcha question on Him. Drew described those artifact pages as “lived in” and I think I might extend that to “lived around” because there’s always a hint that there’s a shit-ton of information that needs to be inferred and isn’t explicitly shown. Or sometimes we’re given information without knowing who the intended reader or viewer is — like that security cam footage of Joacquim rescuing Sister Bernard or that mysterious strike-map of the northern shore of Cuba.
Honestly, that feels as inscrutable and detail-obsessed as that Bible I was discouraged from reading while learning about my faith. This issue isn’t just showing Sister Bernard’s loss and rebirth of faith, it’s doing so in a way that evokes the Catholic experience of coming to faith in the first place.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?