Carrying a title that jumps off the page and dares people to make assumptions about it, Punk Rock Jesus is a comic that both takes risk and confounds expectations. With issue one’s cover image of a Mohawk-sporting, tattooed signer snarling in a microphone and its premise of a television reality show centred around a modern day clone of Jesus Christ, writer and artist Sean Murphy’s series from Vertigo clearly holds the potential to be one of 2012’s most controversial books. But those unable to get past these initially confrontational elements would be missing out on an exciting, lushly drawn and ambitious book that, on the evidence of its first three issues, could very well be one of the defining pieces of work seen this year.
Having such a big ticket concept, it could have been a concern, or even partially expected, that Punk Rock Jesus would require readers to forsake the more traditional expectations of a monthly comic in order to make space for the exploration of its complex central idea. However, from the start of the first issue there exists a brisk page-to-page pace, which has yet to let up by the end of the third part.
Murphy uses the back-stories of those characters that surround Chris, the clone of Jesus Christ who sits at the book’s heart, to establish a number of interesting dynamics amongst this tight knit group. From the bruising head of security haunted by ghosts of his storied past, to the ice-cold network executive obsessed with ratings, to Chris’ damaged and regret filled mother, the supporting cast are given significant depth, helping Punk Rock Jesus stand out from many limited-run series that can often eschew multifaceted characterisation over narrative drive.
That isn’t to say that the first half of this six issue series lacks focus on its central premise. Encamped on what is essentially an island fortress and constantly assailed by religious protest groups, some determined to free this new messiah, others to end what they see as his blasphemous existence, the first three issues show Chris growing up under the constant gaze of the public eye.
The struggle for access to him and between the adults in his life over his development provides for both meaty story and frequent burst of excellently choreographed action. Murphy deserves great praise for generating excitement without resorting to using the cheap shocks of outrageous gore and violence that are so frequently and depressingly used to make books stand out. In keeping his powder dry and saving bold activity for important emotional beats, these unerringly hit home issue after issue.
At the close of the third part of three Punk Rock Jesus has managed to establish a solid sense of momentum, while also exploring with some significant nuance the different aspects of the world in which the story takes place. This is done with the flair and confidence of a more experienced writer, and if the level of quality is maintained over the second half of this limited-run series it will undoubtedly be in contention for modern classic status, and should propel Murphy to the level of ‘one-to-watch.’
All aspects of this book considered, the punk rock of the title can be seen not as a direct reference to its lead character’s musical tastes but more to this comic’s rough, ready and refreshingly exciting approach to storytelling, and one which fans of graphic fiction would be advised not to miss.