Tuesday, 21 May 2013

As Punk Rock As Avril Lavigne: A Review of Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy

I feel like I should qualify this review as it deals with a major religion in a clearly blasphemous way and I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I didn’t like this book for religious reasons: I’m not a Christian and I’m not religious in any way. If I had to label myself anything it’d be secular humanist. 

Ok, now that that’s out of the way: Punk Rock Jesus is a dumb book. It’s dumb like Point Break except it’s not nearly as funny and I get the feeling it’s trying to be intellectual and profound which makes it worse. 

But let’s start properly. A TV company creates a show called J2 where they use 2000 year old DNA from the Shroud of Turin to clone Jesus. They select a telegenic virgin female and impregnate her with the DNA and the pregnancy, birth, the subsequent years raising the child, everything, is filmed for reality TV. The baby boy - Chris - lives a kind of Truman’s Show life where he grows up on the J2 island in front of the cameras. That is until his mum dies, he hits puberty, and he discovers punk music. He becomes the frontman of a punk band called The Flak Jackets and rebels against Christianity by becoming an atheist.

Here are my problems with this book: 

How would a TV company get away with keeping a young woman and her baby prisoner? That’s the premise for most of the book. Gwen (Chris’s mum) eventually becomes sick of the TV show and wants to leave but she’s stopped at every turn, essentially becoming a hostage. The cameras show her desperately begging to leave but no-one, not the government, no-one at all, allows her to leave. So we’re supposed to believe that a TV company is allowed to suspend human rights in America and no-one is going to say boo? 

Gwen trying to escape is, by the way, fully half of the book! The first half is all about Gwen trying to escape this super-Christian island. We only see the Punk Rock Jesus at the halfway point of this book. 

We’re also supposed to believe this Jurassic Park crap about cloning Jesus from the Shroud of Turin and then we’re supposed to believe that everyone buys into this! Look, we’ve really cloned Jesus, this kid is definitely him, don’t look at any evidence or think for a second, just believe us - oh you do? Great. The people that populate this world are monumentally thick and gullible. 

All of the Christians are one-dimensional caricatures. To even say they’re characters is giving Sean Murphy way more credit than he deserves. Murphy is simply a terrible writer - he doesn’t understand nuance or subtlety, so his characters, all of them, are pathetic creations that are totally unconvincing. All Christians are apparently super-crazy, gun-bearing, sign-toting loonies, and atheists are all intelligent, bar none. Like I said I’m not a Christian but I thought this was such a broad and unbelievably dumb swipe that I felt bad for any Christians reading this tripe.

The TV exec who set this J2 show up, Slate, is of course insanely evil. This is guy who in public is transparently “nice” and behind the scenes is literally trying to drown babies! All for the sake of ratings. Murphy just has no idea. The other characters are just as moronic. Thomas, the ex-IRA bodyguard, is maybe the one guy who’s got more than one dimension to him though that only manifests in the final act - up until then he’s your basic unstoppable tough guy character. 

But the worst character of all is Chris himself. Besides being this obnoxious teen who decides to become a punk rocker, we’re supposed to believe that a 14/15 year old is the perfect voice for a band. Yeah, pick a kid whose voice is modulating from high to deep - that’s who you want as a singer! There’s also this laughable scene where an intellectual (and an atheist of course) says, quite seriously, “Chris’s anti-theist lyrics are incredibly well-written and extremely moving - clearly the product of his massive IQ.” What’s that writing rule - show, don’t tell? So rather than actually write some “well written and extremely moving” lyrics, Murphy has a “credible” character tell us that the lyrics are “well written and extremely moving”. Hack writing alert! 

In an even more laughable scene is Chris’ realisation of a world outside Christianist dogma - the only world he’s known up til now because crazy-evil Slate has kept all that information from him and yet at this convenient point in the plot, is unable to stop Chris from finding out about Darwin, etc. We get this potted history (1 page) of thinkers from Galileo to Lincoln to Darwin to Carl Sagan - Chris literally says “Sagan was awesome!” and Sagan is drawn way cooler than he actually was. Hmm, I wonder how we as readers are supposed to feel about Carl Sagan?

Chris’ “shocking” speech where he comes out as a non-Christian is an intellectually lightweight gumbo of generalisations and banal phrases: “Religion is dangerous - it impedes human progress like a virus. It’s a global opiate for the masses, it numbs us with feel-good magical thinking and inflates our egos”. Gee, thank Chris, the veil has been lifted and I see clearly now for the first time.

I won’t say how it ends but the story gets even stupider culminating in a scene that’s as anticlimactic as you can get. I was left wondering what book other critics had been reading. These are actual quotes about the book: “Belongs in the same league as Watchmen, it’s a complete game changer” - Craveonline; “Sean’s work is flawless...” - Pop Matters; “In more ways than one, this is a legend in the making” - Comic Book Resources. Well, I know which sites to avoid for comic book opinion at least. Suffice it to say, they’re all hopelessly wrong.

I enjoyed Sean Murphy’s work with Grant Morrison on Joe the Barbarian and his artwork in this book is fantastic - it’s easily the best quality of the book and it’s saving grace - but he just can’t write. He has no clue how to create character, the dialogue was stilted - every page I was mentally rolling my eyes at yet another badly written conversation - and he has no sense of plotting. The book ambles along at the best of times and the story is muddled and frequently boring. It’s a 222 page book that feels twice as long.

I don’t know what this book was supposed to be about - some kind of representation of Murphy’s own journey through his feelings on religion maybe - but from what I read I can say this is one of the least affecting, most boring Jesus-returns stories I’ve ever read. If you want to read a good Jesus returns story, check out John Niven’s “The Second Coming” where Jesus comes back and goes on an American Idol-type show, which is genuinely funny, clever and moving. Or even check out James Frey’s flawed but interesting “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” where Jesus returns as a homeless man told from the perspectives of his various followers.

This book is about as punk rock as Avril Lavigne, as edgy as a spoon and a crap comic to boot.

Punk Rock Jesus

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