Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Lazarus #15. Written by Greg Rucka (Gotham Central, Queen & Country) with art by Michael Lark (Gotham Central, Daredevil) and colorist Santi Arcas (Checkmate, Action Comics), this issue builds to a major status quo change with an incredible 13-page fight sequence. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Image has a lot of science fiction titles right now—Saga, Black Science, Drifter, Ody-C, and Roche Limit are just a few, with more on the way—but Lazarus stands out for one big reason: It could easily be Earth’s future. Greg Rucka has looked at current political and economic trends to create a sci-fi landscape that is essentially a worst-case scenario of what is brewing in the present, using the grossly disproportionate distribution of global wealth to redraw the world’s borders with families in charge instead of governments.
As Rucka mentions in the letters pages of this week’s Lazarus #15, Oxfam recently released a report that revealed the combined wealth of the world’s 80 richest individuals equals that of the bottom half of the world’s population, a statistic that is down from 388 billionaires in 2010. Oxfam predicts that by 2016 the richest 1 percent will have more wealth than the remaining 99 percent put together, and that’s a scary thought. Corporations have already found ways to make sure that government legislation benefits them, but what happens if these companies decide that they want more control?
Considering how much the world has changed in the last century, it’s not hard to imagine a near future like Lazarus, and the book’s backmatter is the bridge between the reader’s world and that of main character Forever Carlyle. In addition to answering letters, Rucka has been doing considerable world-building by outlining the history of this world and the families that run it, and designer Eric Trautmann has paired that information with custom company logos, family crests, and back cover ads. Those ads are especially informative, looking at this world through the lens of promotional materials that spotlight the aesthetics and specialties of the families responsible for the images. (This week’s ominous German-language ad is for Rausling Überprüfing and Überwachung, promising “We Know What You Need” as it offers specialized verification, testing, and certification services for industry, military, and law enforcement organizations.)
Rucka’s thoroughly defined future world is brought to life through Michael Lark’s equally detailed artwork (with assistance from Tyler Boss), offering meticulously realized characters and environments with a design sensibility that, like Rucka’s script, builds on what is already prevalent in contemporary fashion, architecture, and technology. This creative team has done phenomenal work building a sprawling sci-fi narrative grounded in a recognizable reality, but that’s not what makes Lazarus #15 such a remarkable issue. Every chapter of Lazarus has expanded the world and raised the stakes, but not every issue has a silent fight sequence that takes up more than half the page count.
The overarching narrative gets a major push forward as war between families is declared in the final pages of this issue, but it’s the grisly buildup to that moment that gives Lazarus #15 its punch. To settle a dispute between the Carlyle Family and the Hock Family, Forever Carlyle is forced into a trial by combat against her friend Sonja Bittner, and the two women quickly put their personal feelings to the side to engage in a fierce dance of death while the families watch from the balcony. Like any great dance, their battle features some outstanding choreography from Rucka and Lark (with lighting cues by colorist Santi Arcas), increasing tension with each page until the fight’s gut-piercing climax.
The conflict is intensified by the work Rucka has done building the fighters’ friendship in previous issues, revealing how character development and action storytelling are directly related. A fight scene can be plenty entertaining when it involves complete strangers, but a fight scene built on an established relationship has an emotional undercurrent that makes the violence hit harder. (A great recent example of this can be found in the last two issues of Image’s Zero: #12 details a gruesome fight between Edward Zero and random men, but the action because more intimate in #13 when Edward faces an opponent with direct ties to his past.)
Forever has few friends, and Sonja, who shares Forever’s status as a Lazarus, brought out a warm, relaxed side of the lead heroine that doesn’t get much play in this high-stakes story. One of the series’ best scenes to date was the card game that brought all the Lazaruses together, establishing a sense of community among the enforcers that isn’t found in the interactions of the larger families. It was a welcome change of pace and tone that introduced a lot of intriguing fresh faces to the cast, and those new characters are sure to become a bigger part of the title moving forward. Judging by Forever and Sonja’s ruthlessness when called to fight for their families, it’s unlikely that the community between Lazaruses will hinder their ability in any way when war breaks, but establishing that bond between characters will bring more gravity to their inevitable future conflicts.
Lark isn’t a flashy artist, and while his linework, designs, and layouts are certainly impressive, he’s more concerned with precision over style. His skill for impeccably clear visual storytelling is highlighted in those 13 pages with almost no text (a character yells “Stop!” in the very last panel), and he delivers a thrilling fight between two immensely powerful women while building suspense for the cliffhanger that changes the path of this book in the future. The fight is the main attraction of this issue, but the outcome of the fight is what really shakes up the plot, and it’s going to affect more than just the Carlyle and Hock Families. To foreshadow the sweeping impact of the issue’s final moments, Rucka and Lark cut away from the fight to show the different groups of people watching from on high with varying degrees of interest, telling the reader that what happens next is going to change the entire world of this title.
About five pages into the action, the focus moves almost exclusively to the combatants, offering panel after panel of forceful swordplay and quick acrobatics. It’s hard to gauge just how much say Rucka had in the staging of the fighting sequence, but considering its length and the specificity of the beats, his input was most likely substantial. Rucka and Lark have worked together for years now, and this issue is a testament to their strength as a creative pair; Rucka trusts Lark to carry the majority of the storytelling weight in this issue, and Lark shows why he’s earned that trust with his raw, visceral artwork. He has a great understanding of spatial relationships and moving his fighters around the arena, and his finely rendered anatomy highlights the strain these women are under as their muscled bodies come in contact with each other.
Lark’s artwork is given texture and dimension by Santi Arcas’ coloring, who sticks to a naturalistic palette for most of this issue to keep the focus on the movement of Forever and Sonja’s bodies. Arcas incorporates more expressive colors later in the action as the fighters start to land hits, but staying away from those shades earlier in the issue makes it harder to determine who is pulling ahead in the fight. The women are on equal footing until they switch weapons, and the neutral coloring reflects that balance in the early moments of their brawl. But once swords switch hands, the odds lean in Forever’s favor, introducing more color variation to the action.
Greg Rucka has gained a reputation for writing female characters that kick ass, and Lazarus #15 is a perfect example of why. Forever Carlyle has established herself as an exciting action heroine in past issues, but her talent has never been explored as fully as it is in this week’s chapter, making her even more of a threat. That spells bad news for the enemies of the Carlyle Family as the world plunges into war, but great things for readers of this series as the creative team heads into a fraught new status quo.