Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialogue about religion in this column.
It’s rare that one of my favorite creators just up and decides to write and draw a book that would fall under the “religious” category, but when I heard that Sean Murphy was publishing a book through DC/Vertigo called Punk Rock Jesus, it was almost too good to be true. Lucky for me, it’s not too good good to be true, and Sean was gracious enough to grant me an interview about the upcoming book which is scheduled to be on shelves July 11, 2012. Get your orders in now, as this is looking like it will be beautifully drawn and excellently written.
So without further adieu….
Jeff Jackson: What is Punk Rock Jesus?
Sean Murphy: Punk Rock Jesus is a “What If?” story: what if they made a clone of Jesus Christ and turned it into a reality TV show? How would that affect the country and what would it mean for different types of religious believers?
JJ: This is your first stab at writing and drawing, correct? How did that emerge?
SM: No, I wrote and drew a story called Off Road back in 2005 for Oni Press, and I also did Outer Orbit (Dark Horse) with Zach Howard in 2006. The idea to do PRJ has actually been in the works since 2003. When I stopped believing in a god, the idea of a Jesus clone took on a whole new meaning; I began to think about what it would mean if that clone decided that he was an atheist. And what would he have to say to a country that constantly evokes his name?
JJ: What’s the story of how the book got approved? Was it an easy sell?
SM: Back in 2007 is when Vertigo first contacted me for work. They asked what I was working on, so I told them about PRJ. Intrigued, they asked to see a pitch. They liked it, but temporarily passed. In the meantime, they preferred I work on other books for them. Over the next few years I tried hard to prove to Vertigo that I was an asset. After Joe the Barbarian came out, they told me that I was the type of artists they’d like to keep around. So they were willing to look at PRJ again. They agreed to publish it if I agreed to draw American Vampire first. I love Vampire, so I was thrilled with the deal.
JJ: What is it about this story that made you want to write and draw it, rather than collaborate with another creator?
SM: PRJ is a very personal story–in a way it’s a bit of an autobiography. Sharing it would feel wrong. Plus I like breaking away and doing something by myself every now and then. Hopefully PRJ won’t be the last time I do this.
JJ: I hope not either! With stories like Mark Millar’s Chosen and other depictions of Jesus in comics, Jesus can be a pretty typical target of controversy. Are you attempting to reshape your character in a poignant way, or provide a commentary on the image of Jesus in today’s society? Both? Neither?
SM: Both. Up until age 14, the Jesus clone is made to think that he’s special, that he can perform miracles, that he might be the Second Coming, etc. Then some dramatic events happen that cause him to lose his faith. He’s angry about being lied to and disappointed by what he sees around him, so he escapes the show to start a punk rock band so that he can give America a piece of his mind.
JJ: If you can’t answer this without getting too personal, I understand, but in your view, is atheism an absence of faith or a negative view of those who have faith? How is that reflected in Punk Rock Jesus?
SM: First off, I love talking about religion! I’ve been waiting for an interviewer to finally bring this up.
For me, atheism is simply the belief that there is no god or gods. It’s not a negative view of believers, but it is a skeptical one. Just as Christians are skeptical of Muslim beliefs–many are greatly concerned with those beliefs and how they affect Muslim politics, Muslim populations, and Muslim funding for Muslim ideals. Christians are atheists about Muslims just as I am. I just go a step further and say I’m an atheist about both of them. And I’m greatly concerned about politics messing with religion in today’s age. When Bush said that God told him to invade Iraq, that terrified me. And I know a lot of Christians feel the same way.
The one thing that I was to stress is that just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m not a spiritual person. I’m thrilled to be alive, I want the best for society, and I feel the warmth of humanity and of nature just like anyone else. There’s nothing upsetting about atheism for me–in fact it’s forced me to replace my faith with something even more exhilarating: science! And the possibilities of what humanity can do for itself gives me more hope than anything I’ve ever read in a Bible.
When the Jesus clone becomes and atheist, he goes overboard by lashing out. He is, after all, an angry teenager. And while he does become the type of atheists that believers don’t like, he does learn a valuable lesson–that being a militant atheist is not the way to peace. In a way, believers might be more into PRJ than any other group.
JJ: Are you expecting widespread positive reaction from across the religious spectrum with this book, or do you think it will get some Christians riled up, especially with the revelation that your main character becomes an atheist?
SM: I’ve met a lot of religious believers at conventions who love the idea of PRJ and have no problem with Jesus acting out as an atheist. My wife is also religious, and she’s fine with it as well. I experience some negativity, but mostly it’s been positive. So far.
JJ: Why are comics such a good medium for telling stories that deal with religion?
SM: I think comics are a good medium for telling any kind of story, including those about religion.
JJ: Why do you think so many creators are telling religious stories these days?
SM: I haven’t noticed a “surge” in these types of stories, if that’s what you’re asking. I think if you look at the history of print and entertainment, there’s probably a consistent amount of religious commentary year-to-year.
JJ: In terms of the art side of this book, can you talk about how you decided to approach this book visually? Is the tone of your art here like that of American Vampire or Joe the Barbarian, or did you encourage yourself to develop your style in new ways?
SM: Because the book means so much to me, I’m putting in overtime each day. I’m trying my best to make sure there isn’t a single line out of place because PRJ is completely me (with my editor and letterer’s help, of course). The one thing I’m trying to push most with the art is keeping certain scenes clean while others are really messy–whenever we’re inside the compound where the clone is being raised, the art is slick and hygienic. But when the clone escapes to the real world the art becomes dirty, dark, and unkempt.
JJ: Did you have any challenges in communicating this story visually? If so, are there any specifics you can share? I’m thinking about the challenge it must be to do some “autobiographical” scenes and making them both an expression of your ideas but also a representation of your own personal story.
SM: While it’s sort of an autobiography, I did a good job at keeping my distance from the material where I needed to. Whenever the editor came to me with changes, it was usually stuff that I was happy to fix because it made the story better. Even if it went against some autobiographical element that I was attached to, it was more important for me to be an entertainer and not be so precious about making it a diary.
JJ: Have there been other comics, movies, books, or TV shows that dealt with religious material that inspired you in creating Punk Rock Jesus?
SM: The thing that really inspired this book is having to listen to US politicians justify their agendas with their religious beliefs. We don’t all have to agree on which sort of faith is the best, but most Americans will agree that we have way too much mixing of church and state these past few decades, especially considering that our constitution bans it.
Punk Rock Jesus is my attempt to throw my two cents in, but not in a way that would abandon readers or beat them over the head with my atheism. I want religious Sean Murphy fans to like the book as well.
JJ: What are the specs of the book? When is it coming out? How big of a book is it? How much will it cost?
SM: It’s a 6 issue mini series that’s coming out in the US on July 11th. Black and white, 32 pages of art per issue–no ads! And I think it’s 2.99 per issue, but I’m not sure.
JJ: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
SM: Nothing I can mention yet. 🙂
JJ: Ok, just for fun, who would win in a fight: Jesus or the Nazi Vampires from American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest?
SM: Nazi vampires. They have increased strength and huge fangs. The Jesus in my story only has anger and the power of his words–nothing useful in a brawl.
JJ: Thanks, Sean! I’m super excited about this project and I can’t wait to review it in a future column!
SM: Thanks for the opportunity Jeff!
So there you have it folks! I hope this whets your appetite. Go ahead and get this on your pull list, then come back here and discuss what you think of it. If you have any other suggestions for Comics Are My Religion, drop me a line!
Until next time!