Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Lazarus 17, originally released June 17th, 2015.
Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous.
Drew: I’m fascinated by the relationship Lazarus has with clarity. It’s actually one of the most clear comics I’ve ever read — I’ve often remarked upon both Greg Rucka’s deceptively organic exposition and Michael Lark’s ability to keep track of every character in a scene — but it also leaves a great deal unsaid. The most obvious piece is the world-building — our focus has remained relatively tight on a small handful of characters, but every detail implies a much larger, more complex world beyond the edge of the page — but I’m much more interested in the things literally left unsaid; the subtle glances and body language that permeate the artwork, leaving the audience to interpret how characters are feeling. This all but forces us to project our own feelings onto the characters, drawing us further into the narrative. Issue 17 opens with what amounts to reversal of this trick, forcing the characters’ subjectivity onto us, and it is incredibly effective.
War is rippling across the globe in the wake of the Conclave, and issue 17 opens on the battle for Duluth, an important port that could tip the balance between Hock and Carlyle. What so impressed me about this scene is how effectively Lark manages to convey the chaos of battle, but since he manages to do this by intentionally NOT being clear, it might be more effective to start with how he handles a more straightforward scene.
Take, for example, the meeting at the Carlyle compound, where the importance of that battle is discussed.
The storytelling is so fantastic here, I can’t help but go through it panel by panel. We open with a straightforward establishing shot — Lark lets the weather establish some of the mood here, but it’s largely boilerplate. Next, we open on a medium shot of the general, getting a clear sense of his station, as well as what this meeting is all about. Lark then pulls the camera wide to establish who else is in the room, and their relationships to one another. The general is standing because he’s giving a presentation, but Forever is presumably doing so because of her station. She’s not an equal member of this meeting, but the fact that she’s standing betrays a common ground of discipline and military strategy that she shares with the general. Just as important, though, is who isn’t in the scene — Malcolm’s seat at the head of the table is conspicuously left empty, a detail that becomes increasingly important (and apparent as the scene wears on).
The smartest bit of directing, though, comes in those last two panels. In the first, we take Forever’s perspective on the scene, as she is physically blocked from the meeting by her brother. Her brother, meanwhile, is shown as off-balance and uncomfortable, in stark contrast to Forever’s rock-solid posture. That difference is reinforced in the next panel, as Stephen is forced to turn awkwardly to look at her, further throwing him off balance, and showing that Forever has much more power than her family lets her believe.
Every other scene in this issue works like this, with paneling and shot compositions used to demonstrate the nature of the relationships between characters while simultaneously emphasizing their physical relationships in space. Every scene, that is, besides the opening battle. Actually, that scene begins as clearly as any other, with establishing shots and a clear sense of space, but things quickly devolve as they start taking fire.
Everything about the scene is chaotic, from the flying debris and snow to the staging, but I’m particularly impressed at Lark’s directorial choices. Every shot here is a reverse of the previous, such that it’s hard to understand movements and spacial relationships between them.
Even who these characters are isn’t totally clear. It seems like these are totally nondescript Carlyle soldiers, but we later learn that “Red Rider” is actually Casey Solomon, last seen recovering from her wounds after earning her way to serfdom in issue 9. Rucka and Lark make no effort to suggest that we should recognize this character during this scene — an impressive feat, given how tempting it must have been to give us an emotional hook for these seemingly random soldiers. Without that hook, we’re dropped into the situation with basically no knowledge of it and no instinct but survival — exactly what these soldiers are experiencing. We don’t get a sense of what’s going on because they don’t have one.
Giving us a taste of a character’s subjective experience isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it feels like a revelation in a series that generally sticks to more documentarian coverage. Perhaps more importantly, it reverses the flow of subjectivity, forcing us to feel what the characters are feeling, rather than forcing us to put our feelings inside the characters. It’s a smart, subtle move that only works because this series generally stays as clear as possible.
Spencer, this series continues to be a standout for me — beyond simply being so well-crafted, I feel like there are always new fun things to talk about. It’s not that Rucka and Lark are experimenting with the form, necessarily, but I definitely think their command over it gives them some freedom other creators might not risk. It pays off like gangbusters for me, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Spencer: I have to say that I’m in total agreement with you, Drew. Rucka and Lark are phenomenal storytellers, and I think you really hit the nail on the head when you said that it gives them a lot more freedom than other creators. For me personally, I think the fact that their storytelling is always so clear means that I’m a lot more trusting when I encounter moments in their stories I may not fully understand. Sometimes that’ll happen to me when I’m reading a comic, and I can’t tell whether it’s a plot point I’m supposed to understand and just didn’t grasp, or if the moment was meant to be unclear and I just need to wait for an explanation. This has even happened with some of my favorite creators, but never with Rucka and Lark, never with Lazarus. The story is so clear at all times that when I find a moment unclear, I have faith that that’s the proper response, and that answers will come sometime down the line, even if it’s a long time coming.
For my money though, it’s these very moments of confusion, the moments when we don’t quite know the thoughts going through a given character’s head, that are the most fascinating part of Lazarus 17. With Malcolm indisposed and their organization in the midst of an expansive war the Carlyle family is in unfamiliar waters, and seeing how each member reacts to these new circumstances does a lot to reveal new facets of these characters and establish the conflicts to come.
Johanna is probably the Carlyle with the most opaque motivations here. She’s always been a sly manipulator, and it’s very hard to tell how sincere she’s being when she approaches Stephen. Does she legitimately want to help win the war, is she actively working against Carlyle, or does she just want to climb to a higher position within the family? I can only guess at where Johanna is coming from, but that’s typical for her — what surprised me about Johanna in this issue were the moments where glimpses of her true personality slipped through her well-practiced facade.
I’ve long thought that the world of Lazarus is one of the most depressing dystopias I’ve ever seen, just because absolutely nobody seems happy. The serfs and the “waste” are understandably unhappy, yet the families at the top of the food chain seem pretty miserable too. They have no peers and no chance to get close to anybody besides their family, and while it’s hard to pity them too much after watching what they’ve put the rest of the world through, it’s still a miserable existence in its own right — yet the families fight for that miserable existence tooth and nail, because they still think they’re above everyone else. It’s that kind of arrogance and egotism that seems to be the core of Johanna’s true personality; while her brother Stephen can find love outside the family, Johanna finds it abhorrent (which is probably why she had that whole “incestuous relationship” thing going on with Jonah — she wouldn’t dare sully herself by being with a serf, so she had no choice but to turn to her brother). It’s an important reminder of the ruthless, selfish person beneath her seemingly spoiled, harmless exterior.
Stephen’s motivations are much more apparent — he’s desperately trying to fill his absent father’s place — and his anxiety over his failings are just as obvious. What interests me about Stephen is why he is the way he is. We’ve seen less of Stephen than any other Carlyle child, but every time he shows up he’s been ignored, relegated to the background, essentially powerless at all times. I don’t think Malcolm has any faith in Stephen’s abilities (and was likely quite vocal about this), so it’s no surprise that Stephen’s so hard on himself. Yet, I also get the impression that Stephen doesn’t have any real desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Stephen seems to be a character caught between desire and duty, between the life he may want with Rihan and the life he must live as a member of the Carlyle family (which Rucka has stated in letter columns could involve him being forced to dump Rihan for a political marriage at some point).
Forever faces a similar dilemma — despite her aptitude for warfare, she too feels inadequate to take Malcolm’s place. Yet, she also has to contend with a great deal of confusion. Her breakdown on her father’s chest isn’t just her wondering what her strategy should be — it’s her questioning everything she’s ever stood for. It isn’t just about whether she can save the Carlyle family, it’s about whether she should. Unfortunately for Forever, her disillusionment — and her tiny rebellions — are starting to become a little too apparent.
We noted in our discussion of issue 14 that Forever had seemingly stopped taking the pills that were supposed to ensure her obedience to her family, and in an instant Johanna’s caught onto that. This moment also reminds us that Forever caught onto Johanna’s treachery (also in issue 14, when she discovered Jonah didn’t beat Johanna), and I get the feeling that the conflict between these sisters could end up becoming more significant — at least to our central cast of characters — than even the war with Hock.
While they may not be Carlyles, Rucka and Lark also craft some intriguing moments from the new status quos of Casey and Michael. Drew, I don’t think you were 100% on the money when you stated that the soldiers in that opening scene were completely nondescript. The very first panel is a close-up of “Solomon” printed on Casey’s uniform, but it’s been so long since we last saw Casey that it’s easy to overlook the significance of that name on our first reading. Casey’s changed a lot since becoming a serf, but if there’s one thing that’s stayed the same, it’s her love for Michael — the first panel of Casey back at the barracks is of her gazing at a photo of her and Michael together.
We’re not so sure, though, if Michael feels the same.
Diana seems a bit flirty, doesn’t she? That doesn’t mean that Michael reciprocates, but it seems significant to me that the very next scene opens on that shot of Casey gazing at their photo — we receive no such reminder of Michael’s affection for Casey in his scene. Maybe their growing apart is just a natural part of their separate paths within the Carlyle family, but still, isn’t that sad?
It always seems strange to me how much I praise Lazarus for both its clarity and its ambiguity, yet the title manages to excel in both areas, making for a fascinatingly complex read every month. I’m thoroughly hooked by this issue’s reestablishing of its core cast and their new statuses, and I can’t wait to see how things evolve from here.
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