Jesusfreak, the new hardcover graphic novel from Joe Casey and Benjamin Marra, offers a two-fisted pulp take on the founder of Christianity.
The legends of Jesus Christ offer a host of different lenses available to scholars, historians, religious leaders, and laymen to view the exploits of the historical icon. Jesus the carpenter. Jesus the Son of God. Jesus the Messiah. And if we delve into the Apocrypha, even Jesus the father. Thanks to writer Joe Casey (MCMLXXV, New Lieutenants of Metal) and artist Benjamin Marra (Night Business, Terror Assaulter), the seminal figure can boast one more interpretation: Jesus the kung fu demon slayer.
The spiritual leader of Casey and Marra’s upcoming Jesusfreak hardcover punches, kicks, and flips his way through Roman platoons and anthropomorphic personifications of evil itself. He is at once the Messiah of the Biblical New Testament and a wholly new creation, a man grappling with his station in life, the politics of the era, and divine martial art energies.
“All Marra and I did was construct a character that contained, what we hoped, was some substantial measure of historical accuracy in order to provide a level of authenticity to the story we wanted to tell,” Casey says. “Our character is on a particularly existential journey. It’s a search for self. He doesn’t know what he is yet. But he’s learning. Over the course of the story, he has to come to terms with forces that are greater than he is, both from within and without.”
“Violence—as depicted in most genre fiction—is usually meant to be symbolic of a deeper thematic struggle occurring within the story. In our book, it’s no different. In a visual medium like comic books, you want to convey conflict in as visceral a way as possible. The so-called ‘historical Jesus’ certainly would’ve lived a life of conflict, preaching certain beliefs at a time when doing so would’ve gotten you killed. The fact that Jesusfreak presents that character’s journey in such an obvious genre setting meant showing a level of violence that we felt was true to both the genre and the character.”
Casey and Marra aren’t strangers to genre comic book fiction. They’ve spent reservoirs of ink telling stories about strongmen, supermen, and straight up bad men. The Testaments, both New and Old, are filled with all three, ranging from Israelite warrior Samson slaughtering an army with a jawbone to angels visiting destruction on wayward cities. Merging Jesus into a world of high fiction isn’t an aesthetic stretch. After all, Jesus is a superhero of sorts. He has a divine origin story, mysterious parentage, superpowers that can heal the sick and resurrect the dead, and a league of fellow heroes at his back. And much like Superman and dozens more classic comic characters, Jesus has died and returned to much fanfare—although this time-honored plot development was less common two thousand years ago.
“[There are] comic book tropes that are baked into his character. That was one of the first touchstones for us, the idea that we could lean into those tropes and use them to our dramatic advantage,” Casey explains.
Jesusfreak’s narrative may split from the bible, but its presentation culminates from a synthesis of the works of Gene Day, Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and other masters of the ’70s “exploitation” comic. Marra poses his figures in sweaty, cinematic glory, channeling the unrepentant energy of drive-thru Wuxia films and, when portraying evil incarnate, Italian horror doused in sinister crimson.
In a visual medium like comic books, you want to convey conflict in as visceral a way as possible. The so-called ‘historical Jesus’ certainly would’ve lived a life of conflict, preaching certain beliefs at a time when doing so would’ve gotten you killed.
“There’s a boldness, rawness, and freedom found in exploitation movies and comics. I think those qualities are what draw me to the style... Gulacy’s work has been a huge influence and inspiration for me for over 20 years,” Marra says. “There is an intensity to his work, particularly on Master of Kung-Fu, that continues to inspire me.”
“For me, that work done in the 1970s represents a period of artistic freedom that has never been replicated in our industry’s history,” Casey adds. “History shows it was the last gasp of newsstand comics attempting to present diverse genres other than standard superheroes. Kung fu comics, horror comics, sci-fi comics, crime comics, war comics, sword and sorcery comics… they were all part of Marvel and DC’s publishing slates. Combine that with the editorial chaos that existed during that period and you end up with some of the strangest, most left-field comic books that have ever existed. And you could pick them up off your local spinner rack for 20 cents a pop!”
The question many readers may be asking is where does the Judeo-Christian God fall in Jesusfreak? The heavenly Father of Jesus Christ should figure prominently into his Son’s narrative, regardless of whether the Messiah is doling out spinning heel-kicks or turning water into wine. But in Jesusfreak, the title character doesn’t grapple with visions of a monotheistic deity, nor is he having one-on-one chats with the man upstairs. The creative team depicts the divine abstractly, often as an unknowable and unseen energy force. “We wanted the story to focus on Jesus and his journey. We wanted God to remain in the ethereal realm. I think it does jive with a more traditional kung fu story in that way,” Marra explains.
In some sections of the book, the interactions with God and the divine hew much closer to what readers might see in Eastern mythologies. “When you look at it without any predisposed religious bias, ‘God’ as a concept is completely subjective,” Casey says. “It’s whatever you want to believe it is. For our story, abstract was the only way to go. The characters are left to interpret that abstraction for themselves (as we all are). To me, it adds an interesting supernatural element to the overall story. It suggests a higher level of consciousness that Jesus is grappling with.”
...there’s an inherent resonance in Jesus’ story that’s always seemed to connect to humanity’s view of itself.
Jesusfreak may wind up confounding the devout and delighting the heretical, but Joe Casey and Benjamin Marra are banking on it resonating with everyone in between. They see a universality in the character of Jesus, not just as a Messiah, but as a man. And much like the more abstract concepts of god that shaped Jesusfreak, humankind’s connection to the kung fu carpenter has an inherent mystery that’s intrigued humanity for centuries.
“I don’t really know how popular he is outside of religion, but I do think there’s an inherent resonance in Jesus’ story that’s always seemed to connect to humanity’s view of itself. At least, at its best moments, it tries to. It’s a very deep-down thing,” Casey says.
By offering such a radical take on arguably the most influential character in history, Jesusfreak promises a conceptual weight rarely attempted in pop culture—outside works including Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ—not to mention a singular work uniting two of comics' most lauded pioneers.
“It’s the first time we’ve worked on a project of this scope,” Marra explains. “Formally, what I admire most about Joe’s work is his dialogue. He’s able to convey character with very little words. Beyond that, I love Joe’s commitment to making comics and working with new artists. His sheer love of the medium comes through in every page. In Jesusfreak, I think Joe is hitting on all cylinders. It’s an experiment for both of us, but it’s been cool to see his words on my pictures.”
Casey is just as thrilled to work with Marra.
“There’s a purity to Marra’s work that I’ve always responded to, even before I knew him personally. I think a writer working in comic books is always laboring under a slight inferiority complex, because a true cartoonist—a writer/artist—is much more capable of producing what I would call ‘pure comics,’ work that comes from a singular vision. Once we met and started talking comics, we found that we shared a certain sensibility that—with the right idea—would make for an interesting collaboration. With Jesusfreak, I feel like we swung for the fences, because we’re both equally committed to making something that contained some real artistic resonance. I’m really proud of it.”
Jesusfreak will be available on March 20, 2019.