What if the Second Coming was televised? In Punk Rock Jesus, writer/artist
Sean Murphy imagines a mystical version of The Truman Show where the world
watches the birth and upbringing of a boy supposedly cloned from genetic
material in the Shroud of Turin.
With a premise like that, it’ll probably surprise no one to hear that the
six-part series is a bit of a mixed bag.
The lead character is not the child of prophesy but rather Thomas McKael–an
IRA agent turned bodyguard for the boy. As a burly, stoic orphan dealing out
vigilante justice, the Batman inspiration couldn’t be more obvious; Murphy was
clearly paying homage that he would later deliver far more successfully in
2017’s Batman: White Knight.
Unfortunately, the one characteristic that sets McKael apart–his history with
a real-life paramilitary organization–isn’t explored with enough depth to
tether him closer to reality. He instead fulfills the Caped Crusader’s most
familiar role: wish fulfillment for the bullied young man.
The story itself is serviceable. Its cynical depiction of corporate greed in
the entertainment industry might be a little tired, but it’s also a fitting
target for the teenaged angst of the titular character. Murphy employs a
political commentator as a narrator; it’s a device whose triteness is
almost-but-not-quite redeemed when the reporter enters the fray himself. His
part doesn’t develop enough to be meaningful, though, because it’s crammed into
the final pages alongside both a twist in McKael’ story and a revelation from a
neglected supporting character. The miniseries concludes with a final vulgar
act of violence, doing more to prove the book’s meager aspirations than to make
a memorable statement.
I’d argue that Murphy is an artist first and a writer second. His visual style
is angular, impressionistic, and brutal. His attention to detail makes every
panel stand on its own, and it suggests a particular infatuation with fashion
and vehicles. I’ve heard him criticized for generous cross-hatching in his
characters’ faces, but here and in his other works, it feels like an effective
depiction of world-weariness to me.
Although its focus on Christian fundamentalism has aged tragically well, Punk
Rock Jesus is just a little too clumsy in its storytelling to feel like a
mature piece of fiction. This isn’t to say it’s dull–in fact, it’s fun, dark,
violent, and flashy. If you retain the expectation for a summer blockbuster
despite the seemingly-complex themes, then you’ll have a good time.