Thursday, July 9, 2015

'Lazarus' - Literal Class Warfare and A Call to Arms

I kept trying to think of a way to intro this article, some clever and cool hook that would get you on board and help you see the deep and meaningful nuances and cultural commentaries that I see in Lazarus, an appetizer, if you will, to give you a taste of the article at large and convince you to stay. But everything I came up with was unremittingly political, so here we are.

The thing is, it's really hard to talk about Lazarus without getting political, because in its essence, that's what the comic is about. Lazarus is a high-concept, imaginative, super-cool look at our political future. Yeah, there are awesome characters and really compelling plots, but at its heart, Lazarus is a peek into who we could become and what our world might look like if the controlling capitalist corporate interests that already seem to rule our world were given full reign.

Whoops, sorry. Got political again.

But it's so hard not to! The comic, written by Greg Rucka with gorgeous art by Michael Lark, is utterly unflinching in its look at how a world run by corporate families is at best exploitative and at its worst a hellscape from which there is no escape. It's not a super happy book, but it's so worth your time.

The story follows Forever Carlyle, the Lazarus of the Carlyle family. Taking place some couple hundred years in the future or so (it's hard to tell), the world has ceased to be a place of nation states and now all the land has been split up into territories controlled by "families". You could compare this to a return to monarchical government, but it's not that simple. The Families each have a specialty of production - as in, they act as corporations as well as overlords, trading between each other and keeping the peace based on trade embargoes and tariffs.

Forever's family, Family Carlyle, rules the Western half of the former United States and Canada. They're powerful grain producers with some really impressive medical achievements and pharmaceutical science backing them up. As such, they're a world power.

Forever is their Lazarus, which basically means that she's their designated champion. Chosen out of all of her brothers and sisters* to represent the family physically, Forever is enhanced and drugged and basically superhuman. She can be shot in the head and get back up to win her fight. She is virtually unkillable, and as such she is frequently asked to die for her Family. She does.

But Forever and her "siblings" occupy a rare and coveted space in this new world. As actual members of the Family, they have virtually unlimited wealth and access to goods and services. For everyone else, there are only two options: being a serf or being waste.** In other words, either you are useful to the Family and they choose to lift you out of poverty and protect you, or you are nothing to them and your life is essentially forfeit.

So, to recap, Lazarus takes place in a world where the rich and powerful, the families at the head of these corporations, have every luxury imaginable and live lives of health and privilege and virtual immortality, while the poor and disenfranchised have literally nothing

Like, literally not even the right to grow their own food without permission.

It's a stark world and the story doesn't flinch in looking at it. For all that we kind of expect the series to deal more with Forever and her story or with the political intrigues of the upper classes, it actually spends just as much time talking about the waste and serfs. 

One major plotline in the second arc of the story follows a family of "waste" trying to get to Denver so that their children just might have a chance to prove themselves in service to the Family. It's their one shot at staying alive, very literally, and even though they hate the Family for what it does to them, they need help. At the same time, a group of radicals plots to blow up a member of the Family in a political statement about how they are exploited and beaten down.

In the very first issue as well, the story presents us with a horrible situation where Forever is attacked by "waste" who break into one of her Family's homes for no reason other than to eat the food that is stored there. The home is empty, the food will go uneaten, and these people are starving to death. Yet Forever is commanded to kill them for their crimes.

In other words, Lazarus doesn't just present us with a world of extreme inequality and then point the story elsewhere. This is a story about capitalism and the wage gap and unfair business practices that takes a surreal and fiction world and uses it to explore the issues we face today.

I can appreciate that.

It also doesn't hurt that the story is very well written, with complex characters and pleasantly twisty plots to keep you engaged. But the real meat of work here is done in social commentary, making Lazarus one of the few comics I've read that doesn't just talk a good game about wanting to represent the subaltern and oppressed, but actually follows through and does it.

I mean, it's literally a story about class warfare. We throw that term around a lot, but that's what this is. It's a story about war between the classes, about a system of such structural inequality that it cannot be fixed from within.

And it's a story that appreciates nuance. The family in that second arc, the ones who are going to try to become serfs for the Carlyle Family, are victims here just as much as the people we see starving to death. Their decision to suck it up and try to go work for their oppressors isn't a form of cowardice or weakness, it's their only option. The story shows incredibly clearly how sometimes, as much as we want principles and moral reason to rule the day, sometimes you have to eat. And to expect those whose basic needs are not being met to be the ones to fix the broken system is to assume that they have superhuman reserves of strength. It's to push the problem off onto someone else.

I read this really interesting article a few days ago about how in the West we tend to view ourselves as individuals as being more important or valid than large social movements. Hence why so many of our forms of "activism" are so granular: liking something on Facebook, boycotting a company, writing a strong letter. And I'm not saying that those acts mean nothing - Amnesty International's motto has long been "enough feathers will sink a ship" - but rather that they are not enough. There must be some form of group action, of organization backing that up.

In a world where only the rich have any resources, where a family trying to farm enough to survive must buy copyrighted seeds from a major corporation and pledge half their crop to that corporation sight unseen, it is cruel to then turn around and say that those farmers are the ones who should speak up and act. That the mass of people, starving and dying, walking thousands of miles on the chance that the Family might help them, are the ones who should rise up... It ignores the reality of our world and absolves us, those who do have enough food and who do have enough space to breath, from acting.

By all means we need to listen to those who are oppressed. Don't speak over them, let their voices be heard. But we also need to recognize, those of us who are in positions of privilege, that we have a latitude and freedom that they do not. Lazarus paints a grim picture of a world ruled by corporate interests, and perhaps the scariest part is how similar it is to the world we live in now.

Giant agricultural conglomerates do copyright their seeds and then sue farmers whose crops show key genetic markers of those seeds even then the genetic markers have migrated through the completely natural and known process of freaking pollination. They sell seeds designed to die after one growing season so that farmers must buy again every year. The corporate lobbies in Washington are more powerful than we can ever conceive of being on our own.

Lazarus scares the crap out of me. And I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.

It's a good thing because frankly I need the crap scared out of me in order to get me to do something. I am an inherently lazy person, and I need the reminder that these problems won't go away on their own. That by looking the other way, I am implicitly saying that I think it's not my place to deal with this, that the people who are really affected should be the ones to speak out, and that it doesn't bother me enough for me to say something. And that's crap.

Now, bear in mind that I don't think capitalism is inherently evil. I don't think socialism is inherently good. Rather, I think that all governmental and economic systems are exactly as good as the people who uphold them, and since human beings in general are kind of crummy, we're not apt to find utopia any time soon. But that doesn't mean it's okay to let something stay exploitative and bad. Just because there's no perfect answer doesn't mean we should stop looking for any solutions at all.

Lazarus is a wakeup call. It's also a really compelling story in its own right. So whether you think I talked a lot of crap just now or not, whether you have any interest in politics and social issues or not, I highly recommend this book. Volume three just came out, the story is really settling into its groove, and the whole thing is worth reading.

But don't forget to do something when you put the book down. Let it take you to a world we're not at yet, and then remember that we can do something to make sure we don't end up there.

*Actually she is not a Carlyle by birth and is, as far as we know, a test tube baby built specifically to be the Lazarus of the Carlyle Family. But she only just found that out and we don't know what the implications are yet.

**This is actually just the terminology that the Carlyles use. Other territories, like Hock, use different terms - Civilian and Non-Person, I think - but the point is the same.