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PUNK ROCK JESUS: A MASTERFUL GRAPHIC NOVEL

Sean Murphy's stunningly conceived and exquisitely drawn Punk Rock Jesus ended with the sixth issue of its limited run and the whole enchilada was re-issued as a graphic novel. A graphic stylist without parallel in comics, Murphy matches visual mannerisms to a story concept that is magnificent with herculean satiric prowess.

The notion behind the tale is wildly intriguing: it’s about the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is engineered by a tv producer as a continuing reality program, “J2,” also the name of the island where the show originates. A biological techie arranges to pluck Jesus’ DNA from the Shroud of Turin and inject it into the uterus of a young virgin named Gwen. She gives birth to “Chris” — and, here’s the stunner, a twin sister. But the second birth is kept secret, and a J2 factotum runs off with the girl baby, ostensibly drowning her; but not really. Really, the child, Rebekah, is rescued by Dr. Sarah Epstein, who is also the scientist who cloned Chris. Epstein fakes motherhood, taking Rebekah as her own child, and when the girl is old enough, she is raised with Chris.

The story is laced with satirical jabs against the idiocies of our day — opposition to global warming, evolution vs. blind faith, reality tv, religious extremism (the NAC, New American Christians) and Tea Partiers, the NRA, Larry King. Gwen becomes an alcoholic due to her confinement on the J2 island; she bargains with Rick Slate, the mastermind of the project, for a normal life for her son, but when that doesn’t work out to her satisfaction, she leads an NAC army to storm J2 and take back her son. She is killed in the battle, and bereaved Chris, now a teenager, takes up mind- and body-building, learning about evolution and deciding that religion is a fraud.

Invited to host the Emmy awards tv show, Chris shaves his hair into a mohawk and takes to the stage to denounce religion as “the bastard child of America’s runaway entertainment complex.” He assumes leadership of the rock band, Flak Jackets, and takes his new gospel on a nation-wide tour.

At this point, the narrative begins to shift its focus, turning to Thomas McKael, an Irishman whose parents were killed in IRA-troubled Ireland and who grew to a hulking mountain of a man, becoming head of security at J2. He makes a couple discoveries that effectively destroy his faith. When he learns that Slate had ordered Rebekah’s death, his faith is presumably dashed to smithereens.

The NAC, which supported the Second Coming until Chris denied his divinity, now opposes the movement and attacks Chris, the discredited god. Chris is killed in the melee, and, in the aftermath, Slate decides to clone Muhammad: “There are way more Muslims than there are Christians, so imagine the viewership,” he marvels.

The book is laced with subplots and other threads of the main story, which I’ve only sketched here. (For more detailed review, visit the Usual Place, Rants & Raves Op. 314.)

Despite the anti-religious satire of the book, Murphy does not attack religion so much as he attacks religion as an aspect of the entertainment industry. It’s Slate who is the prevailing and enduring bad guy; and when Thomas kills Slate, it is an act of retribution against the entertainment Slate has made of religion.

 Murphy’s satire, while pointed, is not unambiguous. Like the issues he tackles, it is fraught with contradictions. Apart from its themes, the book is exquisitely drawn, and Murphy deploys the visual resources of the medium masterfully — varying camera angles, distance, and page layout for powerful dramatic effects. Here’s a four-page sequence rehearsing the deterioration of Chris’ mother’s mental state, concluding with a dramatic deployment of an out-sized panel.

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For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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