The Lesser Of Fourteen Evils: Greg Rucka And Michael Lark On ‘Lazarus’
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark‘s Lazarus has been one of the most exciting and compelling stories on the stands since its debut in 2013. Set in a future where nations have been dissolved and rebuilt as a world ruled over by fifteen families, the story follows Forever Carlyle, who serves as her family’s Lazarus — a highly trained soldier who can’t be permanently killed, no matter how hard her enemies try.
Now, with major changes set to come for the book when it returns — and with the impending release of the first Lazarus Sourcebook next week — ComicsAlliance spoke to Rucka and Lark about the process of building their world, the extremes they’re going to in order to tell their story, and what we can expect when the next arc, “Cull,” begins in June.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start with the Lazarus Sourcebook that’s coming out next week. With any new comics project, there’s a lot of world-building that goes on behind the scenes, with all the details that creators need to craft a story that may never make it to the page, because you’re only using them for background. How did the decision to take those details and give them to the readers come about?
Greg Rucka: It’s funny, this has come up a lot recently in interviews, because people want to talk about the world-building at the start, but the fact of the matter is that the world-building is absolutely pointless and irrelevant if Michael and I aren’t telling a story that compelling.
Michael Lark: Hey, no fair! That’s my line!
GR: That’s why I’m bringing it up! [Laughs] It’s an important thing to get out there early. I’m very proud of the world we’ve constructed, and I really lean into that “we.” It is such a team effort now, the work that Michael does when I say something as simple as “Forever is riding an awesome-looking motorcycle,” and he has to jump down a rabbit hole going “Great, thank you, let me design this motorcycle that nobody’s ever seen before.” Everything that [series designer] Eric Trautmann does for all of the monitors, and so on.
With that in mind, it is a big world. I know you’re a gamer, and the gaming geek part of me has always responded to the possibilities of the stories that a good setting will provide. That in no small part is part of the sourcebook.
The other thing that was going on is that we knew we were going to have a fairly long pause between the end of “Poison” and the start of “Cull.” One of the things that we wanted to try to do was rejigger our schedule so that our issues would hopefully hit monthly for the next arc, because we’ve had five, six-week gaps on the previous. The workload on this book is very heavy for Michael, and Santi Arcas and Tyler Boss, and Jodi Wynne, the art side. Everything that you see takes an enormous amount of time and effort. So with that in mind, we wanted to have something come out that would have “Lazarus” on the stands, that would sort of be a ramp up into this next arc coming out of what I think are pretty big events in “Poison.” We wanted a book for April, you get the hardcover in May, and then we’re back with “Cull” in June.
Putting together the Sourcebook wasn’t actually terribly painful, because it’s a lot of notes and ideas that either had been written down or were in my head, and it was bringing in people who, in one way or another, had been part of many conversations about what the rest of the world is. Then, the third element is that it’s not required reading to understand what’s happening in “Cull” by any stretch, but it’s certainly going to allow for deeper reads of what we’re doing, because it provides a broader view of what life is like if you’re not one of our story characters. You can see how things work for them.
CA: One of the things I’m very interested in with the Sourcebook is that you’ve created this world where it’s obviously a very complicated setup. You’ve got these 15 families that have carved up the world, they each have a specialty, whether it’s genetics or pharmaceuticals, but it’s also very easy to grasp. From a writing standpoint, it’s not hard to figure out that people are bad if they’re referring to thousands of people as “Waste” or “Nonpersons,” but also from a visual standpoint, the designs are very evocative. Greg, I’ve talked to you before about that scene where you see Hock territory for the first time, and how different it is from the Carlyle territory that we’ve seen. You get the idea of what a dystopia is for them, and then you see how much worse it can be for others.
GR: One of the tricks of the series, I think, is that we’ve done a fairly good job of getting the audience to root for a bad guy here because we’ve put them next to a lot of worse bad guys. This is very much a lesser-of-two-evils, or in this case, a lesser-of-fourteen-other-evils situation, and that’s intentional.
One of the things about this series that I think it behooves people to remember is that Carlyle is not a good guy. He made this world. As vile as Hock is, Hock would not exist if Malcolm Carlyle had not crafted an environment that allowed him to thrive.
CA: Michael, was that a challenge you enjoyed? Figuring out these competing ways to represent a dystopia?
ML: Yeah, it’s really fun. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge. We’ve got this world at war now, and every time we see a new family, I have to design yet another set of body armor for soldiers to wear.
GR: You love that part!
ML: Yeah. I talked to Greg about it, and I can’t remember which family it was, but Greg said, “Well, body armor’s body armor.” And I’m like “Yeah, but the readers have to be able to tell the difference. So yeah, there’s definitely a challenge, but we always talk about it, and we always talk about what the aesthetic of each family is. There’s an element of trying to show that personality that each family has in the visual representation, and in the way they present themselves to their citizens and the world.
The Hock soldiers are very faceless, scary automaton looking guys. They’re covered in black armor from head to toe, and they’re scary. Carlyle soldiers are a little more real-world. They can at least raise their faceplates up so you can see their faces.
GR: They’re humanized.
ML: We talked about how the Hock architecture should be a little more brutalist, stuff like that. I’m working on the Rausling Family now, and I made a concerted effort to make them look Prussian, as much as possible. When we did the flashback sequence in the second story arc that showed Forever doing a simulation battle, and we got to show the royal guards for the Bittner family, there was a lot of work that went into what their uniforms look like, and what we base it on. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s a fun challenge, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into it. It’s not just a matter of getting the script and drawing the page. I get the script and start doing research and designing. It’s way more than just simple comic storytelling.
CA: That leads to a question that I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask, because I thought it might be a little depressing, but what do you look at for research? How do you research a dystopia?
ML: There’s so much. I think Greg does a lot more of that than I do. There’s a lot of stuff out there on the Internet, and I just seem to find it. It’s really a matter of extrapolation. If ‘A’ is the way it is now, then let’s just extrapolate a little bit further and push it one step further. The world that we’re drawing is not that different from the world we live in today. There are some technological advances, but I’m drawing stuff set in Europe right now, and the building that the scenes are taking place in could just as easily be existing two or three hundred years ago as it is in the future of Lazarus. The house that I personally live in is a hundred years old, and it looks the same as it did a hundred years ago.
Extrapolating out the future from today is not necessarily a matter of reinventing everything. It doesn’t look like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s just a matter of adding a little bit — or, in the case of a dystopia, taking away a little bit.
GR: That’s an interesting reference, because 2001 was very much built on, “if ‘A’ is true and ‘B’ is true, then we extrapolate to ‘C’.”
ML: Well, my point being that they’re on a space station, and everything looks different. It’s not like I have to totally redesign and start from scratch, it’s a matter of, instead of a light switch, there’s a control panel there that controls different things in the house.
Now, there are places like the Carlyle research facility at Sequoia, and that’s a very modern facility that’s been built, in that world, in the last 50 years or so. It can be very futuristic. But most of the world isn’t that way.
CA: Greg, do you do a lot of depressing research to get everything in line?
GR: Yes. Frequently.
ML: Which explains why he’s such a happy guy.
GR: I’ve got a lot of news feeds that come in, and I read a lot of articles and try to track stuff. One of the other things that you get out of the design, though, is that both Michael and Eric Trautmann — and in particular, Eric — will do a web crawl and just start sending me links. “Here’s a prototype for a drone,” “here’s a prototype for body armor,” “here’s a prototype for a tank,” “here’s a prototype for a new sidearm,” things like that. When we do have to move into areas where we are turning very much towards “It’s the future!,” we’re working off of emerging designs and emerging technology, where we can.
ML: There’s a lot of prototype and concept reference.
GR: But all that said, yeah, dude, the reading can be depressing. It can be really depressing.
CA: With that being the case, is there ever a time when you feel like you need to pull back? Lazarus is a dark book, it’s a story where our main character is basically an assassin for the rulers of a dystopian future, where we’re sympathetic to her largely because we can see how she’s being used and manipulated, but is there a time when you feel like you might be going too grim with it? I mean, this latest arc features her in an all-out war.
GR: That’s nothin’. Do I pull back? Yeah, sometimes. I think one of the darkest moments we had in the series was actually Emma, back in “Lift,” and the casualness of the sexual transaction that she engages in.
That’s the stuff that I find exceptionally dark, and that’s the stuff that I’m fairly sensitive of digging too deeply into. You’ll see in the Sourcebook, there are corners of the world that we haven’t looked into that are really vile. The nature of the system is such that the wolves who would prey on sheep in many places do so with impunity, and that’s just not where our story is focused. There are spinoff stories that we could tell that would be oh so much bleaker. I do self-censor, I think, and frankly, I self-censor with an eye to what I’d ask Michael to do, as well.
ML: Yeah, I always say that Greg treats his characters terribly. You’re really rough on your characters, you really put them through the wringer, and there are times when I balk at things more than Greg does, I think, maybe over different things. I don’t mind the violence of it that much, because in the end, as long as everything’s in service to the story, it doesn’t really bother me, and I don’t think that we have to pull back. I don’t mind that kind of stuff as much.
That said, there are times, even recently, just within the past week, that we’ve had discussions and I’ve been like, “I don’t know if we should do that.” Greg usually wins those.
GR: It’s been a very interesting discussion. And I notice I still haven’t seen those pages.
ML: Well, they start coming in tomorrow, I’m going to have to do something!
GR: There’s a sequence in “Cull” where Forever, who was horribly wounded at the end of “Poison,” is being brought back to Sequoia. We talk about building the world, and one of the things that I think builds the world and makes the setting so compelling is the verisimilitude of it, and that verisimilitude is in no small part due to Michael. Stylistically, I describe him as photojournalistic, and there are moments, for instance, where you look at the combat sequences in “Poison,” and they’re not superhero fights. They’re almost war footage.
So we’ve got a medical sequence going on, and in that sequence, medically, techs cut clothes off of the wounded. You have to be able to access the injury, right? So there’s a real question. It’s an incredibly undignified position to be in if you’re Forever, and there’s a question of her nudity and how we want to handle it. It absolutely should not be sexualized in any way, shape, or form. Anybody who gets off on something like that is really, really a problematic person and should seek help, but there is a question of authorial obligation. And I use that collectively, not just as the guy who writes the words, it’s Michael and I looking at this and going, “What is the best way to tell this story? What is the fair way to tell this story? What is in keeping with the way we tell our story?” It’s a legitimate conversation.
How Michael composes these panels so that they have the information that we need, and move the story in the way that it must be moved, but at the same time, don’t needlessly exploit a character.
ML: Yeah. How do I do that without the nudity becoming a focus or a distraction from the story we’re trying to tell, that becomes the challenge that I have. I started to draw it the way Greg wrote it, and all I could think was “boobies!” That was just the first thing I noticed, like, “Why are we seeing Forever’s boobs?” Then I tried to cheat it a little bit and have somebody’s arm in front of her so that you couldn’t see it, and then it was like “Why is the artist trying to be coy here?”
It’s a tightrope that I have to walk, and there’s a constant balancing act. We never want anything to be exploitative or gratuitious, any of the violence, any of the horrible things that happen to these characters, none of them are simply for the sake of having them happen. It’s not, “Well, this would be better if there was a rape scene in it.” That’s not going to happen in this book.
ML: It’s about being respectful to the characters, being respectful to the story, being respectful to the reader, and at the same time being truthful and honest to the kind of story we’re trying to tell.
GR: And there’s a really interesting tension at work here, and Michael just nailed it. We don’t want to be exploitative, but the nature of Forever is that she is being exploited, constantly. She was created to be exploited. So we’re telling the story of a young woman who is being exploited and manipulated, but we, as the people who are documenting the story, want to document the injustice of that exploitation and not become complicit in it.
ML: I like the way you said that.
GR: This has been giving us fits! Michael and I have been having an ongoing conversation about this. There’s an issue of dignity, and you know what? When you’ve been pulled from a car wreck and they rush you into the ER, nobody cares about your dignity. The first thing you lose is your dignity. So how do we do this without becoming ourselves part of the problem that Forever is struggling against? There are no easy answers. It’s clear that we have to address this on a case-by-case basis.
CA: You mention the idea of the realism coming through in the art, and I feel like that’s something that’s been true of your collaborations in the past, too. It’s the signature trick, whether it’s Mr. Freeze showing up in Gotham Central and seeming real, or that big fight in “Conclave,” where you have these two characters who are, if not straight up super-powered, doing this huge kung fu movie fight in this opulent setting. I find that approach to realistic superheroics, for lack of a better term, works really well in your books, where it doesn’t always come off well in others. Is there a secret to how you do it?
ML: Some of it is just the way I draw. The issue of Alter Ego magazine that came out a week or so ago has a big interview with Roy Thomas, who wrote the first superhero comic I drew, which was Superman: War of the Worlds. I haven’t given any thought to that in the 20 years it’s been since I did it, but in the interview, Roy says, “At first, I didn’t care for Michael’s un-heroic approach to Superman,” or something like that, and it’s like, dude, that’s just the way I draw. I can’t help it! It’s nothing intentional, but I think I’ve been lucky enough that writers and editors I’ve worked with have realized that it’s a “shortcoming” that I have. I’m not going to be drawing these crazy, Kirby-esque sort of things. I’m definitely coming more from an Alex Toth perspective.
I’ve been lucky in that the subject matter I’ve worked with works that way. I don’t know if Lazarus would be the same book if it was with someone who could do superheroic stuff, but hopefully that’s not what Greg was aiming for.
GR: It’s alchemy. There’s an element of magic at work. I think Michael and I have complimenting and contrasting personalities and aesthetics that help us. We’re a very good match, especially on projects like this, because we’re both fairly grounded people, in terms of the stories that we want. Michael brings out some of the best writing that I do.
ML: And vice versa. The reason I wanted to work with Greg, from the very beginning of discussing a creator-owned book together, was that I just happen to do my best work with these guys, Greg especially. There’s a small number of people that I enjoy working with, and Greg’s at the top of the list.
GR: Thank God. [Laughs] I’m not sure that there’s a specific thing I can point to. I will say, very, very early on in our relationship, I realized that Michael almost always intuitively understood what I was trying to do with a story, even if I couldn’t manage to get the words right in the script. He could read it, and he would know what it was that we wanted to do. There have been times in my career where the exact opposite has happened with my collaborators, and I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’m blessed right now. I’m working with the finest collaborators of my career at this moment, and for a guy who can’t draw, that’s Nirvana.
ML: And likewise for a guy who can’t write.
CA: As a reader, I think part of it comes from the idea that as a team, you don’t dismiss the fantastic. You build it into your stories. There’s a sci-fi element to what you do in Lazarus that you never shy away from, and in fact, you play up to it, this idea that Forever can be shot in the head and get right back up.
GR: This is very much what I mean about complimentary styles. David Mamet, in his book — and I use that generously, it’s more like a pamphlet — On Directing Film, talks about what he calls the Uninflected Shot. Michael is a master of it, and I’m not sure it’s conscious, it’s certainly not at this point. He allows the characters to act, and he demands that the reader interpret what they’re seeing, that they’re engaged. As a result of that lack of inflection, it buys us a whole lot of credibility. Everything we’re delivering to you, we’re delivering straight. This is the fact of the story. There’s no wink, there’s no nod, there’s no bit of going, “Yeah, it’s kind of silly.” There’s never an apology for what you’re seeing. It’s being presented as fact.
And when it’s presented as fact, i.e.; “Here’s Mr. Freeze and his Freeze Gun, and this is what happens when he freezes a human being,” it doesn’t matter how ludicrous the idea is in the abstract. When it’s on the page and it’s done, no, this is the truth of the story. This is absolutely the truth of this world. You are engaged in a way that says you accept it and you stay, or you close the book and you leave.
ML: That’s part of why the book works, when it does, which hopefully is most of the time. I’m not going to presume, we do our best to make it work. But when it does, it’s because it’s kind of a narrative documentary in a weird way. It wasn’t intentional as it started, but Greg has used the Mamet thing on me several times, to where it becomes more conscious, and I find the times when I get away from that, I’m very unhappy with the work. I’ll finish a page and go, “Ugh, I lost track of making this a documentary.” Just the facts, ma’am — no trying to show off or do big, fancy things.
I was given an opportunity in this issue to do something fun and fancy, but even that, it’s still pretty documentary. I’m not going to follow a Jack Kirby template, people aren’t going to be jumping off the page at you, there aren’t going to be a bunch of speed lines. That’s why the book works, because, with that kind of pseudo-documentary style to it, it’s like, “Oh, this is real.” Or at least, it could be. That makes it more effective in my mind.
CA: Can we talk about the next arc for a bit?
GR: This is now moving into what is the second act of the overall story, and the title should tell you everything you need to know. We’re calling it “Cull” for a reason. There’s going to be a great whittling of numbers, both in terms of the larger world and the individuals of the story. There are some things that are going to be exploited and revealed. There was a big reveal at the end of “Poison,” and that revelation has huge ramifications, and not immediately obvious ones.
ML: I’ve said this recently elsewhere, but I really think that the end of the second hardback, the end of “Poison,” really represents the end of Act One. Everything is spinning off in a different direction now, because of the things that happened in that second hardback. For me, at least, the real meat of the story is starting to happen now. It’s almost like everything else was just setup — definitely the first book was, “Here’s all of our players, here’s what their lives are like.”
We see Forever, especially in the second arc, functioning in her role in the family, doing what she’s supposed to be doing, and then everything changes because of what happened in “Conclave” and “Poison.” Her view of her own life is different, and the fact that she is, for all intents and purposes, dead at the end of the second hardback and has to be “reborn” at the beginning of this next arc is not a coincidence.
Plus, we’re going to get to see a lot of Lazari and swordfights.
GR: There’s going to be a lot of Lazari killing Lazari in this one.
ML: And jetpacks!
CA: See, Michael knows how to sell the book.
GR: Yeah, but we’ve known that from the start.
ML: There’s jetpacks! Lazari with jetpacks! Buy the book!