This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 30, 2014.
From its first sequence to the very last panel, Lazarus #9 is a story about compromise. It presents a world where people must compromise their values in order to simply survive and where a refusal to do so can only lead to destruction. Looking at those born into power and those with none (referred to as Waste), the best possibility presented to any of them is to attempt to keep themselves intact, while remaining incapable of changing their world. It offers little hope besides the possibility of seeing tomorrow, but in doing so serves as a scathing indictment of the very real powers that compose this dystopian tale.
The opening sequence of Lazarus #9 is the conclusion to a flashback that has been slowly developing since #5. Forever and Marisol, her trainer, are finally asked by Forever’s father to engage in combat. Marisol has spent much of her time preparing Forever to kill her, believing this to be the only possible outcome. When presented with real katana and asked to fight, the pain on each of their faces is entirely believable.
Lark does an incredible job of telling the emotional journey of both characters with almost no dialogue. Forever and Marisol’s eyes reveal them to be friends, a mentor and protégé who genuinely care for one another. Yet Forever is choosing to hurt Marisol out of allegiance to her father.
The dynamics at play are complex and beautifully played out in each panel of the sequence. The action and emotional beats are spot-on, opening the issue on a very high note. Forever is able to cripple Marisol and thus fulfill her obligation without murdering her friend. It is a compromise that prevents the worst possible outcome, but is still painful and serves the system to which Forever is bound. This scene sets a precedent for how every conflict in the issue will be resolved.
Small morality plays occupy much of the issue. The nuns who have aided the Barret family are revealed to be spies for House Carlyle. The only reason they are granted the ability to travel and help the needy is because they act as talent scouts and observers of competing powers. In order to do a good thing, they have been required to compromise the same values they seek to serve.
When Bobbie condemns them for their hypocrisy, she realizes that she is every bit as complicit. In order for her children to seek a better life, she must play the same game as the nuns. Throughout all of this, no one person is portrayed as villainous or wrong. Lark’s subtle facial expressions and body language reveals the humanity in all of these characters.
The key to much of Lazarus lies in finding that humanity. Neither Bobbie nor Sister Bernard is condemned by their presentation. Instead shame, sadness, frustration, and acceptance are allowed to play out in a natural fashion that reveals them to be simply be people in incredibly difficult circumstances.
There is one character that refuses to compromise under any circumstances, though: Angel. He repeats the phrase “No collaboration, no capitulation” in every sequence he is featured. In his attempt to hurt House Carlyle, who are responsible for the terrible conditions besetting much of humanity in this area, he hurts those suffering alongside him.
After hurting someone from his own background, he seeks to detonate an explosive in the middle of a crowd in order to kill one member of the Carlyle family. Although he defines it as an act of defiance, it is an act of lateral violence causing more harm to those he claims to sympathize with than those oppressing them. Rucka does an excellent job of using Angel to balance the terrible cost of compromise by revealing an outcome of refusing to do so. Lacking the ability to empathize or seek any middle ground, Angel becomes every bit as destructive as those he demonizes. The end result is a world with no solutions or, at the very least, no easy ones.
Although the Barret family achieves their dream, the final panel of Lazarus #9 establishes that the Barret family are not winners. They are only better in comparison to the hell they just endured. The final words of their story are “we work for the family now.” Although they survived their journey, they are no more secure than when their journey began. Earth is still ruled by a powerful elite that can provide or remove comfort without cause.
The final panel does not show the four of them together in a better life because that is only an illusion. It focuses on the Carlyle crest above their heads. The sword of the crest dangles above them like the Doom of Damocles capable of striking at any moment and the latin inscription reminds us of their position in the world.
Oderint dum metuant.
Let them hate, so long as they fear.