Sean Murphy’s ‘Punk Rock Jesus’ Asks All The Right Questions [Review]
They say two things you should never discuss in polite conversation are religion and politics. It used to be sex, religion, and politics, but we all have raging porn addictions now, so, realistically, that topic is no longer off limits. But in business, at the dinner table, in barbershops and bars, the maxim holds that the latter two subjects remain taboo: to maintain civil discourse, one should never delve into matters of politics or religion. But as any punk will scream at you, "politeness" and "civility" are Victorian inventions designed to oppress the lower classes, and you need to wake up and see our capitalist theocracy for the despotic terror that it really is.
In stores this week is the trade collection of writer-artist Sean Murphy's Vertigo series Punk Rock Jesus. It's the most innovative, intelligent, and moving comic book to deal with religion and politics in a long time. And it may be just what you need to shock you out of your whitebread fantasy-land. Sheep.Punk Rock Jesus seems like it might be based off of something called the Second Coming Project, supposedly a group of crazy Christians who ran a web campaign to raise money to clone Jesus Christ in time to be born on December 25, 2001. As they stated in their solicitation for funds, "We have the technology to bring him back right now: there is no reason, moral, legal or Biblical, not to take advantage of it."
Of course, that part came right above the part where it asked us to send contributions to what turned out to be an underground book publisher. It was a hoax, of course, but as far as hoaxes go, it was a pretty good one. It was wacky and controversial, and it asked an interesting question: we can clone sheep, so why not the shepherd?
In Punk Rock Jesus, creator Sean Murphy asks that question and many other, even more interesting ones. With a skill for world-building that's mind-bogglingly detailed and expansive, Murphy takes some of the most relevant and controversial issues of the present day and accelerates them to escape velocity. The relationships between faith, politics, and science, the ever-increasing role of corporate powers in daily life, and the very nature of religious fervor are examined in a story that's inquisitive, convincing, and filled with a series of shocks that will turn your Mohawk white.
In 2019, an entertainment conglomerate called OPHIS (Greek for serpent) initiates the J2 Project, a plan to resurrect Jesus Christ with cloning technology. Using DNA extracted from the Shroud of Turin, a cloned zygote is implanted in a virgin mother, born on December 25th, and raised on a reality show watched by nearly the entire world. But it's not a plot to bring about the Second Coming or kickstart the Rapture: it's a ratings grab. A money-making enterprise built around the world's biggest, brightest star, who is simultaneously the most loved, feared, hated, and worshiped person on Earth. So there's absolutely no way that Jesus #2 doesn't end up being a world-hating punk.
Raised on a private island, with nearly every moment of his life broadcast to billions, the new Jesus -- called Chris -- is screwed even before birth. The J2 reality show -- run by Rick Slate, the most ardently amoral character you're likely to come across -- controls every aspect of Chris's life, from conception on down. In a couple of the great little moments that seem to populate every page, before Chris's zygote is implanted, Slate demands that his eyes be changed from brown to blue because it will skew better; the virgin mother, Gwen, can't even breast-feed Chris because as part of her contract, she was given plastic surgery and breast implants to appeal to more male viewers.
After years of manipulation and exposure, after being taught to believe that he was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Chris gives himself a Mohawk, escapes the show, forms the world's most popular punk band, and spreads a new gospel: religion is just another form of oppression, and there is no God. But the great thing is, by the story's end, all of that's still up for debate.
I could never get into Preacher. I'm that guy. There were no questions about whether or not God existed, no moral ambiguities, and there was nothing really faith-challenging about it. Just "God exists, he's a dick, we're gonna kill him." Whooooaaaa. That really got me thinking.
Punk Rock Jesus is much more even-handed and complex. Sean Murphy has always gotten the credit he's deserved as an artist -- he's like Bill Sienkewicz, but with Manga and Saturday Morning Cartoon influences, what's not to love? -- but Punk Rock Jesus proves that he's also an enormously talented writer who can deal with sophisticated themes and complex characters while maintaining a powerful emotional core and delivering explosions, the occasional knife-fight, and frequent kick-ass action.
The details that Murphy puts in to the story are not only freakishly dense, they move the plot forward, keep you rapt in fascination at the tangled mess of moral ambiguities that surround Chris, and are ridiculously convincing. Don't be surprised if you mumble "yeah, that's probably what would happen" to yourself eight or ten times. He throws the competing perspectives of religious fundamentals, atheists, secular super-media, and the scientific community into a cage and gives them an enormous steak to fight over. Throughout a story that spans fifteen years, Murphy never suggests anything that seems truly implausible, and asks pretty much every question that could come up in such a scenario, both moral and practical.
If we really did clone Jesus, what would that mean? Would he unite the world or further polarize it? What religion should he be taught? Would he even be Jesus? Is it proof of God? Are we God now?
In Punk Rock Jesus, there's an entire cast of characters, each with their own agendas and beliefs trying to answer those questions, including Chris, and it's hard to say who is definitively right or wrong. Fascinating and intense, it may be the most brilliant and entertaining comic book to ever deal with the topic of belief. Skip church before you skip this.