EXCLUSIVE: Image Comics, publisher of The Walking Dead, Spawn and Saga, is ramping up one of the year’s most provocative graphic novels: Jesusfreak, a 64-page hardcover epic about an action hero of the First Century who deftly beheads his foes with a whirling sword. The provocative aspect is the brawny warrior’s name: Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Announced last year with much fanfare, Jesusfreak by writer Joe Casey and artist Benjamin Marra doesn’t hit store shelves until March 20, but today Deadline has an exclusive preview excerpt (found below) that shows the book’s re-imagined Jesus in graphic combat for the first time. In the crisply realized action sequences (which, anachronistically, recall Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s classic Master of Kung Fu comics, soon to be adapted in a Marvel Studios film) the carpenter from Galilee carves up a few foes and then tangles with a towering reptilian beast that breathes fire and talks trash.
Image Comics is banking on Jesusfreak stirring up some soapbox response from cultural pundits, religious commentators and media outlets (which is probably why the Portland-based publisher scheduled a March release that put Jesusfreak on the new-release rack mid-way through Lent), but writer Casey, for his part, has described the project’s focus as an existential exercise in genre fiction.
“Jesusfreak is less inspired by any strict religious traditions and is instead more concerned with exploring the unique tension that exists between depicting a mythical figure and a historical figure – a tension that is compounded when, for many, they’re considered the same person,” Casey said last year when the project was announced. “It’s also a chance for Marra and I to indulge in a specific style of hard-pulp storytelling that we think perfectly fits this material.”
Jesusfreak isn’t the only holy controversy to roil the comic book industry this year. It follows the dust-up about Second Coming, a satirical series that will depict Christ making a modern-day return as a superhero-in-training and teamed with Sun-Man (who bears a resemblance to Superman). The Second Coming synopsis makes Christ’s encore on earth sound like a remedial effort: Jesus is back to “learn what it takes to be the true messiah of mankind.”
DC Vertigo (an imprint under the Warner Bros-owned DC Entertainment) had announced last year that the 32-page inaugural issue of Second Coming, by writer Mark Russell and artist Richard Pace, was locked in for a March 6 release. That plan was scrapped last week amid petitions, protests, and a drumbeat of negative coverage via Fox News and its platforms. Russell announced via social media that DC officials had “gracefully agreed” to return the rights. “They’ve been a pleasure to work with and it will still be released, albeit with a different publisher,” he tweeted. IDW Publishing in San Diego looks to be among the indie publishers interested in the vagabond property.
Second Coming presented a Jesus who was a bit daft and the criticism was intense. So how will Fox and conservative Christians react to the blood-spilling protagonist in Jesusfreak? Jesusfreak draws on some comics classics (with Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan, 300 by Frank Miller, and Master of Kung Fu by Moench and Gulacy among its influences) and joins a surprisingly rich heritage of comics depicting Christ (including the Rip Off Press classic The New Adventures of Jesus, the 1969 landmark of the underground comix movement) but Jesusfreak stands alone in some ways — it may be a true one-of-a-kind due to the sheer audacity of its premise. Time will tell if the project is judged as a commercial success or as a creative misstep. Either way, revamping the central figure of Christianity to be a stone-cold killer certainly won’t go unnoticed and the results may be Image Comics’ cross to bear in the months ahead.