Which is more frightening, a monster, or a man who chooses to act monstrous?
Written by Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann
Illustrated, Colored by Tristan Jones
Lettered by Jodi Wynne
MINISERIES FINALE “ONCE UPON A TIME…” He is named “the Zmey,” called “the Dragon” and “the Beast.” He wears the bodies of his enemies into battle and has committed atrocities beyond description. Of all the Families, it is the Vassalovka Lazarus who has proven himself Forever Carlyle’s greatest foe. This is the story of the Dragon. Art by TRISTAN “T-Rex” JONES (Aliens: Defiance, Halo: Rise of Atriox, Mad Max: Fury Road), story by RUCKA & TRAUTMANN.
To close out the year and miniseries “Lazarus X+66,” writers Greg Rucka, Eric Trautman, and artist Tristan Jones have crafted a fairy tale about a Hunter and a Dragon. Going in there was some trepidation about exploring the Dragon of House Vassalovka in greater detail. The worst thing to happen to a monster is to see it all in the light. However, with the fairy tale wrapping, the creative team are able to craft a story that hit core series motifs and still keep the Dragon a fearsome beast.
This issue also makes room for me to continue pulling at a thread from my prior pieces, on the role and function of narration within comics. This entire issue is written with an omniscient prose, that features shifts to first person perspective. Characters speak but that is not represented with normal dialog bubbles. This choice could give the appearance that the issue feels over written and feel out of place within the overall formal tics of “Lazarus.” This issue doesn’t read as “over written,” a reaction born from repetitive and un-synergistic actions of words and pictures. There are instances of mirroring between word and picture, but the prose gives the images a heightened symbolic meaning not a flat repetition of what the eyes already see. It is still a style that isn’t common to the series but works in how it reveals core motifs of the series.
The narrative boxes also act as well-placed guides, speeding up and slowing down page progression for maximum drama. This isn’t like the silent duel from issue #15, where the momentum panel to panel can carry it through. Without the prose, this issue would be fundamentally different, something more akin to a slasher story. With it, the fairy tale cadence creates dueling realities and struggle between old traditions represented by the Hunter and the new ones by the Dragon.
Regarding the how the lettering of the narration and imagery physically create dueling realities, the decision to change the font from the initial generic medieval one was a bit of a letdown. The font they went with is to modern and sterile, clear to read but lacking the flair of the opening page. Keeping the original font would’ve been a big ask considering the difference in size and structure would likely have required an overall change to the script and lettering of Jodi Wynne. It just would have made the tension and contrast more textual.
It isn’t like Tristan Jones art by itself isn’t already littered with instances of duplicitous imagery. As the Hunter works is way into the Zmey’s lair, it is continually emphasized the hidden technology that underpin the performative totems of brutality that ensconce the lair. And in contrast to the prose, the Hunter isn’t rendered an idyllic, chivalrous knight, but a wrinkled and weathered visage. The Dragon on the other hand is smoother of skin, and classically aristocratic in appearance save for a nose piercing. While his design work helps to breakdown the fantasy projected by the prose, it’s Jones color pallet that does the most work. He does a good job of emulating the pallet of Michael Lark, which gives everything not a gritty vibe but a derelict one. The world has fallen.
In that vacuum new structures are erected. The omniscient style the prose is written in gives the appearance of balance, there’s a Hunter and Dragon. This balance is disrupted however when the point of view shifts to the first person, as each character is allowed give their life story to the other. Like the Dragon, the Hunter is all that is left of a lesser house. Unlike the Dragon, he did fail Vassalovka. With the introduction of each character’s perspective, the tension between old and new ways come into clearer effect and create new ones.Continued below
With perspective comes questions of agency, a key motif in the main series as Forever tries to at once honor her family and be her own woman. In this issue, agency is represented through authorship; who can continue to write tell their story. “This was always my story” the Zmey remarks after the customary tete-a-tete is finished. The Hunter is dispatched soon after, his story ended, engulfed by the Zmey’s.
Going in there was the worry that this issue may over expose the Zmey. Even as someone who came to this series late and read it in collections, it’s been a good time since the climatic moments of ‘Cull.’ Further showing off the monster from that series ran the risk of exposing him to the light and making him less freighting, more normal. In typical “Lazarus” fashion the character work over comes fears of exposure and manages to transform the man House Vassalovka call the Dragon into something even more freighting: a man. On one level, Zmey’s life story and callous disregard for others, “you gave them nothing that was not already theirs,” embodies the arbitrary, might-makes-right, core of the neo feudal society. But it’s his actions that make him into something even more.
Exposing monsters to the light can make them more human. It’s that small glimmer of humanity that dooms the Hunter’s quest. Recognizing his humanity and agency in that process of becoming, transforms him into something even more freighting. Yes, he embodies the toxic aspects of the current power structure, but he wasn’t arbitrarily morphed by that system against his will, he chose to become this. It’s that choice and the actions it leads him to take that make him more freighting than any mad science project. This is “Lazarus” there are no monsters, just terrible people exercising their will upon others. The Zmey not being allowed to be anything other than that is at once normalizing but his extremity erases any sort of idea of banal evil.
This issue also cements him as an excellent foil for Forever when the main series resumes. Unlike the series lead, he is at piece in his role in the neo feudal system. Unlike Forever, he knows himself and made at piece by this knowledge.
Final Verdict: 7.5 – “Lazarus X+66” comes to an end on a high note, one that makes a monster into a great antagonist and keeps within the core motifs of the series.