‘Punk Rock Jesus’ provocative but preachy

There are great titles, and then there’s “Punk Rock Jesus.” Those three words tell the reader all they need to know: Jesus has come back, and this time, he’s got a Mohawk.

In truth, this incendiary little graphic novel brings a surprising level of depth to a concept that sounds more like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than an actual story. The formerly Catholic writer and artist Sean Murphy (“American Vampire”) uses the weird idea of a rocker messiah as a platform to give a fiery sermon about all the things that bug him--giving blind faith, the political right and reality TV--a thorough lambasting. It may preach to the choir, but it has a heck of a good time doing it.

In the near future a mega-corporation hits the broadcasting jackpot when they create a clone of Jesus from DNA found on an alleged sacred relic and raise him in front of cameras, a la “The Truman Show.” Eighteen-year-old virgin Gwen Fairling is chosen from among hundreds of eager applicants to be the new Mary. After being relocated to a high-tech island for security reasons and getting some surgical enhancements to make her more photogenic, she gives birth to baby Chris, dubbed by the show as “J2.”

Naturally, not all of the show’s billion viewers are pleased by what they see as blasphemy in the name of higher ratings, and a group of radical evangelicals calling themselves the NAC (New American Christians) become frequent antagonists of young Chris and his mother. Fortunately, Gwen and her son have Thomas McKael, a reformed Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassin who truly believes Chris is the Second Coming, to protect them. McKael’s past sins make him a cold and lonely man, but when he begins to realize that Gwen and Chris are prisoners of the show, he stakes his soul on keeping them safe.

Dr. Epstein, the atheist scientist who created the Jesus clone in exchange for funding for her own research, suspects that the show’s slimy producer, Rick Slate, has been lying to them all along. After Gwen’s alcohol-fueled downward spiral results in her being removed from the show, Epstein sneaks Chris books and vinyl records to show him a world outside of the artificial island on which he has been imprisoned since birth.

His budding angst and the rejection of his supposed role as the messiah culminate in an escape that ends with Chris becoming the leader of a punk rock band. From the stage, he spreads an atheist gospel that angers the increasingly violent radical Christians, rages against pollution and corruption, and calls himself “the bastard child of America’s runaway entertainment complex.”

Sean Murphy’s scratchy crosshatching and black and white palette pairs very well with the story, and each of the characters are expressive and visually unique. McKael’s worn scowl gives him a visual gravity that reminds the reader of his tragic origins at all times. Likewise, professional sleaze ball Rick Slate sports a grin that makes it clear he is never to be trusted.

“Punk Rock Jesus” is surprisingly absorbing, but all the building tension ends in a rather anticlimactic fashion. It’s a shame, because this story is clearly a passion project for the creator, and with a more fulfilling ending it could have gone down as one of the most intriguing and controversial graphic novels of the new millennium.

As is, “Punk Rock Jesus” is a rebel yell that, like its teenaged protagonist, aims to shock and awe, and though it rejects the dogmas of religion and reality TV, it fails to supply its own. Still, those looking for a blisteringly well-illustrated comic that isn’t afraid to pull its punches will think “Punk Rock Jesus” is a gift from above.

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