Even more so than box office champions like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, the Jesus Christ of pop culture is arguably one of the most exposed character in the history of humans telling each other stories. From the New Testament to Jesus Christ Superstar, to various cameos on South Park, to The Passion of the Christ, to Loaded Bible: Jesus vs. Vampires, and all the iterations in between, The Son of God has largely tread the same ground with little innovation devoted to his continued narratives.
That was until Punk Rock Jesus, with which writer/artist Sean Murphy has done the impossible — brought Jesus back to life. Much like Frank Miller did for Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Murphy subtracted the traditional, all-ages elements of his protagonist’s mythology, and placed Jesus in a context germane to modern society. If Kirk Cameron is the Joel Schumacher of the Jesus franchise, then that makes Murphy Chris Nolan.
PRJ’s version of the rumored messiah goes by “Chris,” and neglects to demonstrate magical abilities at any point during his saga’s six issues, newly gathered in a hardcover deluxe edition including new pages, concept art, author comments, covers, sketches and additional bonuses. To give you an idea of how many extras they loaded into this thing, the supplemental material comes close to equaling the story itself. Apparently Vertigo wanted to make sure readers get their $40 worth.
Chris debuts in a not-too-distant future, where the OPHIS network hires geneticist Sarah Epstein to forge a Jesus clone with DNA supposedly scraped from the Shroud of Turin. Some believers accept this man-made second coming, made possible by a secular thinker, as the real deal. Others — particularly members of the militant New American Christians — react with the pragmatism and level-headedness we’ve come to expect from religious fundamentalists. Regardless of whether they celebrate or revile Chris’ existence, everybody watches him grow up on the J2 reality show, alongside his mother Gwen (a virgin, natch), Epstein, Epstein’s daughter Rebekah, a manipulative entertainment overlord known only as Slate, and Cola, the genetically-modified super cuddly Polar Bear. There’s also Thomas McKael, J2’s enigmatic, heavily-tattooed head of security, who blew things up for the IRA and went to Stiff Little Fingers and other punk shows back in a previous life.
Organized religion and reality TV have been fertile grounds for parody basically since smart people became aware they existed, but Murphy — who composed both the words and the art — hardly ever plays the satire up for laughs. Tragedy and acute disillusionment prompt Chris to abandon J2, his alleged ancestry, and all its baggage to embrace punk rock. After landing a gig fronting The Flak Jackets — one of the scant remaining punk bands in 2019 — Chris embarks on a quest to shove atheism in the face of the religious right, all through the power of songs like “Science will Save Us (Because There’s No Man In The Sky)” and “Republican Nonsense.”
A secondary story unfolds through flashbacks chronicling McKael’s indoctrination into the IRA, as well as his eventual dereliction. He’s the sort of invincible Irish alpha badass who’d fit right into Sin City, but Murphy writes with more warmth and depth than Miller’s demonstrated any capacity for since the ‘80s. Murphy’s knack for establishing nuance with a palette of nothing but black and white also equals, if not surpasses, what Miller threw down with his bloody noir opus.
The farcical premise and on-the-nose social commentary of PRJ would be amusing on their own, but the focus on Chris’ coming-of-age and complex interpersonal relationships are what truly make this volume a trenchant, crucial read. A tale of a bioengineered religious icon with his own network TV reality show sounds hilarious in theory…until you realize this scenario isn’t a far cry from real-world plausibility. Then it becomes scary and kind of sad.
One minor gripe: During his transition into punk rockerdom, Chris expresses fondness for a track called “Jesus was a Terrorist,” listed in the book as being by the Dead Kennedys. While DK’s original singer Jello Biafra did pen and belt out that particular number, he did so years after the Dead Kennedys broke up in a collaboration with Nomeansno. Nick-picky, I know, but worth pointing out.