Comics Reviews: Punk Rock Jesus and As You Were
April 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
It’s been a great month or so for comics: A handful of interesting collections and series have all come out or finished within a few weeks of each other. So, I decided to review all of them. Here’s the first one: I review both Punk Rock Jesus and As You Were. I promise they won’t all be this long.
Punk Rock Jesus and As You Were
I was near the end of Punk Rock Jesus, (DC/Vertigo) when I realized the third act I was waiting for was never coming. That there’d be no adulthood, no moral synthesis or catharsis following the conversion of the protagonist, the reality-show clone of Jesus Christ, from his bible school childhood to his vitriolic atheist adolescence—Richard Dawkins with a dash of Johnny Rotten.
Then I picked up issue 1 of As You Were (Silver Sprocket), a punk comix anthology written by and about these same real-life adult punk rockers, and part of me wished that these lives—my life—shared even a shred of Punk Rock Jesus’s idealism. Whereas Punk Rock Jesus is naive and bombastic, As You Were is mostly introspective and quotidian. Each accomplish what they set out to do and do so enjoyably, but have the unfortunate effect of making each other look bad. Reading them back to back, As You Were felt like that missing third act from Punk Rock Jesus: had Jesus not died (come on, that is so totally not a spoiler), his adulthood would have been full of alienating house shows and drunken, belligerent bro punks. It would have not-quite-been-redeemed by some fleeting moments of great music, in-jokes, and a warm, familiar community. Which one of these things is more punk? Hard to say.
Punk Rock Jesus, written and illustrated by Sean Murphy, is built on a fascinating and sickeningly believable concept: what if Jesus Christ was cloned in the present day—a la Jurassic Park—to star in a reality TV show? Unfortunately, resurrected baby Jesus, named Chris, isn’t even the star of the comic: he doesn’t even appear as a character until a third of the way through the book. Instead, his ex-IRA bodyguard, Thomas McKael, gets the first and last scenes of the novel, as well as the fullest character arc. Thomas is a Catholic who fights to keep his faith in the face of betrayal, lies, and buckets of gore. While he sometimes falls a bit close to trope of the gruff and gratuitously violent comics anti-hero with a secret heart of gold, his character is authentic and unique, and definitely worth reading.
However, when it comes to punk rock and Jesus, Punk Rock Jesus falls flat. Just as Chris was cloned from DNA from the Shroud of Turin, the punk scene in Punk Rock Jesus seems to be resurrected from the very first bloodstain at CBGB’s. And while the novel’s villain, a violent fundamentalist group, portrays how Christianity has changed in the last 2000 years, the spirit of ’77 has somehow remained mummified in punk. With Sex Pistols block letter typography and spikes and suspenders fashion, the Punk in Punk Rock Jesus clearly refers to the Punk everyone always refers to: The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and nobody else. Sure, they name drop Stiff Little Fingers, The Misfits, Dead Kennedys, but… come on. There’s not a single punk band from the last 20 years in here, and as a result, none of the punks in the book look like they could have existed today either.
Punk in ’77 was a response to the mainstream swallowing the previous counterculture and the backlash to that backlash, and the demons it spawned in Thatcher, Reagan, and Jerry Brown of California Uber Alles fame (who knows a thing or two about being horrifically resurrected into today’s world). Likewise, the present day villains are very well mapped out in Punk Rock Jesus: religious fundamentalists, corporate greed, reality television, and a public that loves all of these things and wants a never-ending supply of more. However, when Punk Rock Jesus poses the punk scene of 35 years ago as a moral counterforce to battle these present day villains, the conflict is stunted and disjointed. Chris’s and his “punk army” never do anything besides preach and yell, while Thomas does the actual gruesome fighting by himself.
The villains in As You Were, on the other hand, are almost entirely rooted within the punk scene itself. Several comics address douchy hetero-patriarchal assholes (“We’re Fabulous, Don’t Fuck With Us”, “How I Wish it Would Go Down”), and the anti-social, cliquish house show scene (“Rose-Colored Glasses”, “The Best House Show Ever in St. Cloud”, “Haunted House Show”, “Your Bike’s Locked up to Mine”). On the other hand, the cops only break up “Once Upon a Time in the Suburbs” and “People Men’s Last Show”. The tone of the whole anthology is introspective to the point of myopia, with only one comic featuring actual characters from outside the punk scene—the whimsical and hilarious “It Came from the Basement”.
This kind of self reflection certainly has its place. I’ve been, it feels like, to every single one of these shows, both awesome and awful, and it felt validating to see these experiences in comic form. Compared against Punk Rock Jesus, though, I found myself wishing at times for some acknowledgement of the world outside, instead of endlessly validating and critiquing our own subculture.
My favorite thing about As You Were was the tremendous variety of beautiful art. Editor Mitch Clem did a phenomenal job getting submissions from artists with styles ranging from punk-rock black sharpie minimalism to chibi manga, Jhonen Vasquez-esque itchiness, gorgeous watercolors, R. Crumby comix, and the wonderfulness that is Andy Warner. Even in black and white, the art in As You Were was engaging and fun. By contrast, the art of Punk Rock Jesus, though brilliant and expressive, felt at times too cramped and detailed to survive without color.
In the end, I strongly recommend As You Were to anyone who’s ever been at a house show, though its microscope on the punk scene might limit its audience from including anyone else. Punk Rock Jesus, though, gets a more conditional recommendation. It would be a fantastic recommendation to anyone undergoing their own process of questioning their own Christian upbringing, except Craig Thompson’s Blankets has already done that story, and better. I’d instead ignore the Punk Rock Jesus part and recommend Punk Rock Jesus to anyone who is already a fan of comics and has at least a passing interest in the IRA.
One final note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out some real Islamophobia in Punk Rock Jesus. Christian fundamentalists may be portrayed as violent, fat, and ignorant, but at least they get a spokeswoman and signs displaying some mockery of their views. The Muslim fundamentalists who invade Chris’s show in Jerusalem, on the other hand, are faceless, numberless, and have Stormtrooper-like aim. They’re only in 4 pages of a 200 page graphic novel, but it’s still pretty fucked.
Ok, cool, that’s my review of two very interesting comics. Next review: The Massive, vol 1.