Jesus Christ has been written as the son of God, a messiah, and sometimes just a simple carpenter. But in the upcoming Image Comics OGN Jesusfreak, he has been reimagined - 'rebooted' even, to borrow a comic book term - as something utterly different (and possibly sacreligious): action hero.
Writer Joe Casey, artist Benjamin Marra, and colorist Brad Sampson's dramatic new take on the biblical hero has him Ric Flair-chopping his enemies, kicking evil in the face, and backflipping like a ninja.
With Jesusfreak debuting this week, Casey spoke with Newsarama about channeling Jesus Christ in this genre-redefining role, controversies thus far, and if there's more books in this testament about the son of God.
Newsarama: I guess starting off, Joe, who is Jesus to you, in a historical context?
Joe Casey: I can only answer this in the context of the Jesusfreak project. In the book, Jesus is simply the lead character.
Obviously, I'm aware that in a cultural sense, the idea of Jesus means different things to different people. There are those that believe a man named Jesus actually existed, there are those that believe he was, in fact, the Christ figure that the New Testament depicts him as, and there are those who believe the entire story of Jesus is a myth created to alternately inspire and control.
What I was interested in was crafting a protagonist that took all those beliefs into some kind of account, put them in a blender and see the result. Turns out, he's a pretty compelling character, a young guy who learns how to self-actualize in a world that has been constructed to oppress him. That's pretty universal to me.
Nrama: Jesus isn't just a political figure in Jesusfreak, he's definitely more of action hero, almost like Rambo, a soldier of a war that still has a hold on him. Were there visual cues or action movie aesthetics you really wanted to lean into on this?
Casey: Part of the genesis of this project was a desire - both on my part and Benjamin Marra's part - to make a comic book using a certain approach to the storytelling that we picked up primarily from 1970's exploitation comics. There's a certain style in which those stories were told that we both love. There was plenty of sword-and-sandal comics during that time, not to mention classics like the Doug Moench/Paul Gulacy/Gene Day Master of Kung-Fu series. It's a bit of a genre splice, but it wouldn't be the first time I've done it. Probably won't be the last.
Nrama: You found yourself as a target for outlets like Fox News and I'm sure there will be more when the book is actually out. How do you feel about upsetting people?
Casey: Honestly, I don't feel anything about it. Any so-called "outrage" that seems to have occurred was the not unexpected knee-jerk reactions to a piece of art that's not been released yet. No one complaining has even read the book, so how can you take such an uninformed opinion at all seriously? Modern society is built upon uninformed opinions laced with obvious bias, so none of it was a surprise. I'm just glad the Fox News folks acknowledged that our book is a work of fiction. Extremely insightful on their part.
Nrama: Benjamin Marra has the artistic reins with Brad Simpson on colors, which is wild enough as is, but what was it about their collective style that made you say that's what you wanted?
Casey: I've been a fan of Marra's work for years. Once we'd actually collaborated on a different project, I knew Jesusfreak would be perfect for us to work on. Like I said, we share some inspirations that we were both happy to lean into.
Brad Simpson is my go-to colorist on just about every book I make. Working with him has always been very collaborative (much more so than you might normally expect from a writer and a colorist). It took some time to lock in the color approach, but once we did, the whole thing started practically humming with life.
Marra usually works in black and white or more subtle tones, so this was like taking his art to a Technicolor level.
Nrama: Jesus has been at the focal point for a few comic books over the years with Punk Rock Jesus and recently Second Coming. What do you think it is that makes him such a perfect character for comics, but at the same time very difficult to handle?
Casey: I can't speak for other creators, but in my opinion, Jesus' journey tends to follow the classic hero's journey. It contains the same elements that quite a few heroic myths - crossing multiple cultures - are built upon. Real Joseph Campbell stuff. That often tends to make for a good, dramatic story. I never looked at Jesus - as a character within our book - as particularly difficult to handle. Quite the opposite, actually. Everything I needed was already right there.
Nrama: Do you consider yourself a religious person?
Casey: I've said it before and I'll say it again: comic books are my true religion.
Nrama: How would you describe Pontius Pilate in this version because he's such an interesting character in the Bible. You have the gospel of Luke and gospel of Mark both depicting Pilate as a someone who found no guilt in Jesus, and lobbies to stay his execution, but here he's exponentially more stern.
Casey: Our take on Pilate is based primarily on the historical research I did when I was prepping to write the book.
He was a pretty tough customer, top to bottom, based not only on his upbringing but on his views on how to govern and especially how to deal with the zealotry that was starting to undermine the iron grip of the Roman Empire. What I discovered was that he was often brutal in his methods. He wanted to send a message to any would-be prophets traveling the countryside - a message of certain death for the words they were daring to speak. I really couldn't say why the Gospels would've depicted him any differently, but I found him to be the kind of privileged asshole that is somehow born into power and often abuses it. Makes for a great kind of antagonist in the book, that's for sure.
Nrama: Lastly, is there a sequel planned?
Casey: There's certainly room for more adventures. I never say never to almost anything. I love working with Marra and everyone on the creative team.