by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Comics tend to make a big deal about the prosocial mission of superheroes. That is, their origin isn’t just about why they can leap tall buildings or outrun a bullet, but why they choose to use those powers to protect innocent people. It’s interesting that creators emphasize this point — the choice to don a cape and charge into a burning building is a certainly a remarkable one, but it’s also understandable. That is, even if we don’t all have the courage and strength to do those things, we immediately grasp the desire to help people. Villains, on the other hand, demand a much more thorough explanation — if stopping a massacre is remarkable but understandable, causing a massacre is both remarkable and baffling. Creators are rarely up to the task, vaguely suggesting an overgrown thirst for power or money, but never quite convincing us how those things add up to a homicidal maniac. Those creators would do well to check out Lazarus X+66 6, which offers an origin for the Zmey that covers both his superhuman abilities and his monstrous psychology.
Writers Greg Rucka and Eric Trautman frame the story in a kind of legend, drawing the focus back to mythical labels of “the hunter” and “the dragon,” and opening with a literal “once upon a time.” It’s the kind of set up where we don’t expect an explanation for the villain’s evilness — hell, if we were just reading the text, we might not know that he isn’t a literal dragon — which makes the Zmey’s humanity all the more surprising.
That framing narrative also allows the creative team to avoid using the Zmey’s distinctive speech patterns (and dialogue font), which would only distract from his humanity. Indeed, there’s no dialogue until the very end of the issue, when letterer Jodi Wynne reminds us of what the Zmey “sounds” like, punctuating the story of his descent from “sensitive” child to murderous psychopath.
And this issue really does convince us of that journey. Born to a “lesser house” in Vassalovka territory, his entire family grew up with designs of serving Vassalovka in some capacity or another. He was selected for a brutal experimental regimen to create the Vassalovka Lazarus, and ended up being the only survivor. But that only explains his size and strength. His monstrousness, it turns out, is psychological, as his first mission was to slaughter his own family, including the little sister he loved so dearly. Artist Tristan Jones captures the brutality of that mission, but only after the fact, as the Zmey leads his little sister through the gore that was their family. Here again, the framing narrative allows us to skip straight to the psychological horrors, witnessing the scene more or less through his sister’s eyes, watching her slowly break before he unceremoniously kills her. It’s enough to drive anyone over the edge.
The result is an impression of the Zmey that, while no less monstrous, is at list a tad more understandable. We can sympathize with his psychology, even as we’re repulsed by it. He’s a monster, to be sure, but this issue lays out clearly that his monstrousness is entirely human.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?