After rising through the ranks drawing comics for the likes of Grant Morrison, Jason Aaron and Scott Snyder, artist Sean Murphy is stepping into his own with an all-new Vertigo series he’s writing and drawing on his own. Dubbed Punk Rock Jesus, this six-issue story follows the tempestuous life of a former child star trying to shuck off the preconceptions the world puts upon him and carve out a life on his own terms. It may seem like a story ripped from the supermarket aisle, but when you factor in that the titular star is a clone of Jesus Christ, created in a lab for a reality show that fell apart when the true reality became too hard to bear, the story changes significantly.
This story is one that Murphy has been carrying around nearly a decade, honing and refining the story and the style the book would take. After a bidding war between Marvel and DC for him a few years back, Murphy signed with DC with the intention to bring this unconventional story to shelves after doing other projects. And although Murphy’s written comics before – 2005’s at Oni and at Dark Horse in 2006 – Murphy’s become almost exclusively known for his nuanced artwork that blends Bruce Timm, Bill Watterson and Bill Sienkiewicz. On several levels, Murphy’s steps here are not dissimilar to Frank Miller’s own transformation with the creator-owned book , also at DC.
Punk Rock Jesus is set to debut July 11th from Vertigo in stark black & white, a rarity from the publisher. But as Murphy tells us in this exclusive first interview about the project, it’s inline with his original vision for the series and carries out his intent both visually and thematically for this contentious story
Newsarama: Sean, this new is your return to writing and drawing your own material for the first time since (which you co-wrote) and . I'm sure you have a number of writers wanting you to draw their scripts, so what made you want to tell your own stories?
Sean Murphy: Yes, I've been putting a few writers on hold in order to do this book. Which is hard, because really brought some buzz to my name and I don't want to lose that momentum. Trust me, after this book is done, I plan on doing projects with guys like Scott Snyder, Mark Millar, and John Arcudi because they've been kind enough to wait.
But my personal need to write? When you get deep enough into storytelling, you eventually arrive at concepts like character arcs, subplots, and 3-act-structures. When you're that deep into storytelling, you might as well just write something--you're most of the way there, after all.
My need to do Punk Rock Jesus is more personal; people who know me will see that this book is an autobiography cleverly disguised as science fiction. It tackles issues that I'm very concerned about: religion, politics, media, and the environment. I'd be neglecting my responsibilities as an artist and an atheist if I put off Punk Rock Jesus any longer.
Especially in an election year.
Nrama: I know you've been working on this for some time now. How far along are you in the creation of the book?
Murphy: Today I'm working on the last page of issue 3. So I'm exactly halfway done with the art. It's surreal to see this book halfway completed after all this time. Punk Rock Jesus has been with me in one form or another since 2002--before I wrote . Part of me can't believe that it's finally happening.
Nrama: Religion's one of those things that can become a heated conversation, and you're tackling it head-on by presenting a genetic clone of Jesus himself in Punk Rock Jesus. Thinking about how this idea, let alone if it actually happened, would be received by the world, did you have any apprehension in going this route?
Murphy: For a while, anytime I posted a Punk Rock Jesus page or mentioned it on <a href=http://seangordonmurphy.deviantart.com/>DeviantArt</A>, I'd usually get notes from religious believers regarding the nature of the book. Some were harmless, but others were pretty cutting, telling me that I was going to hell and that I should re-read the Bible and try to understand Jesus' personal message for me – things like that. I've been an atheist for a while now, so I know a lot of the talking points, but some of the comments I received really upset me. It was hard not to fire back. But in the end it gave me a thicker skin. When the Wolverine ABC/con sketch drama happened in February, I got some nasty feedback from a few professionals. And as much as that sucked, it was nothing compared to the religious attacks I got on DeviantArt.
I get comments less these days – usually the folks on DeviantArt will pounce inappropriate commenters before I even see them. I'm honored to have that kind of support to balance things out.
To answer your question, part of me is very concerned about tackling this subject. Comics is mostly escapism. Me bringing a hot topic into the format is bound to rub some people the wrong way. Each day I play out different scenarios – one where I'm invited to talk to Jon Stewart, and others where Punk Rock Jesus makes no splash at all. So we'll see.
Nrama: This clone of the son of God comes about by a shrewd company wanting to use the baby as the star of a reality show, akin to . Can you describe that for us?
Murphy: The idea for Punk Rock Jesus started when I read something years ago about cloning. And I thought, "who would the first human clone be?" And knowing what many Americans are like, the answer came instantly: Jesus Christ. And with being the biggest hit on TV at the time, it was obvious that a Jesus clone would be the topic of a reality show. The basic premise of the story came to me in a minute. I wish all writing was that easy.
The only snag I hit was how a corporation would do such a thing, considering human cloning is illegal in the United States. But I solved the problem by having them clone him in international waters. From then on, the story wrote itself with all the questions that the premise begged: Would the clone be owned by the corporation? What would his rights be? How would people receive him?
Religion is one of my favorite topics, so I was thrilled to get started. But I had to finish , and first.
Nrama: So what does the clone call himself?
Murphy: The clone's mother has a hard time calling him "Jesus", so everyone on the show eventually starts calling him "Chris" instead, because Chris is close enough to Christ. That in itself starts an entire controversy with many Christian viewers.
Nrama: So what is Chris trying to accomplish here, shaking free of his supposed destiny?
Murphy: For years the clone has been a prisoner to the desire of the show's producer--a man who's trying to make the show as profitable as possible (and never mind who it hurts). At the age of 14, Jesus eventually sees the corruption around him and rebels against his celebrity. He decides that he's an atheist, escapes the show and starts a punk rock band, using his celebrity to fight a media war against American religiosity.
Nrama: By his side in this is an intriguing character named McKeal; an ex-IRA bodyguard who carries a deep Catholic upbringing with him. How does that play out with Chris under his wing?
Murphy Thomas McKael is basically the -type character, charged with keeping the clone safe. Being a hardcore Catholic from Northern Ireland, Thomas sees his task not just as a job but as his destiny. His religious convictions are tested throughout the story as he's forced to bear witness to Jesus' transformation.
Nrama: Years ago you were working on another story about the IRA called that never saw the light of day. Is that related to this at all?
Murphy: Yes. was my attempt to write an IRA story, but it didn't work out. The complexities of the IRA were too large for a 23-year-old artist/writer to tackle, so I put it aside and did instead. After I came up with the premise for Punk Rock Jesus, I folded the stuff into the plot. It ended up working well--the clone's struggle in the story isn't that different than Kael's struggle with the IRA: both are coming-of-age stories where the character has to decide what role religion will play in his life (if any).
Having the duel plots also made for great visuals between the flashbacks: type settings juxtaposed against the masonry of Belfast.
Nrama: This might be a bit personal, but can you tell us about your own religious beliefs and how they color the story you're telling in Punk Rock Jesus? You mentioned you were atheist and this as a bit autobiographical…
Murphy: Many of the characters represent different belief structures that I've inhabited over the years. The ex-IRA bodyguard encapsulates how I used to believe. Another major character is the cloning doctor who sees the world through the eyes of science. At one point Jesus becomes an argumentative, militant atheist--something I struggled with to this day.
One thing I'd like to be clear about: Punk Rock Jesus isn't a book about atheism nor am I grinding my ax. My wife is religious and so are my parents, and I'd be stunned if they didn't enjoy this book. There's a character in the book for everyone--at least that's how I've tried to write it. Nothing would bother me more if I had Christian readers who stopped being Sean Murphy fans because of Punk Rock Jesus.
Nrama: Before we go, can you talk about the decision to do this book in black & white? at Oni and IDw was coincidentally also in black & white, but it’s a rarity in the DC/Vertigo line.
Murphy: Even though Punk Rock Jesus is kind of an "indy" book, I'm thrilled to have the mainstream backing of DC/Vertigo. Punk Rock Jesus turned into a better story with the help of my editor Karen Berger--she's been patient and very kind with the whole thing, which is saying something because Punk Rock Jesus is a hot-topic book. It might even be a bit too hot to justify the budget to have it colored. I honestly prefer black and white books--Punk Rock Jesus was pitched as b&w, so I'm thrilled with the decision. I just hope it doesn't hurt sales. My hope is that it really takes off so maybe I can convince DC to do a colored trade. We'll see.