As good as “Punk Rock Jesus” has been so far, I’m still surprised and refreshed by the art, plotting and characters in each new issue. “Punk Rock Jesus” #5 continues Sean Murphy unconventional epic tale that dares to work within the taboo topics of religion and politics.
In “Punk Rock Jesus” #5, Murphy’s character development deepens further. Although I’ve previously stated that Thomas was a foil to Chris, in this issue, Rick Slate emerges as a contrast to Thomas in turn. It is no coincidence that both of them muse aloud about having given “unnatural” or “unholy” gifts. One pays lip service to faith, the other is terribly sincere. One is shaken, and the other sure. As Murphy fleshes out both characters through a multitude of techniques, it’s fascinating to trace both men’s paths with their “gifts” and their ultimate intersection.
Thomas is no straw man, and his relationship with faith is convincing, both in a “this is how real people believe” way, and in that his faith is accessible and sympathetic. Murphy himself may be a devoted agnostic or atheist, but his ability to write convincing religious character says a lot about his empathy and his skill. Readers who thought that Murphy was only making “Punk Rock Jesus” a simplistic put-down of faith shouldn’t have been so quickly dismissive or eager to put down the book. Murphy aims to criticize organized religion, but his spotlight and development of the character Thomas gives an unexpectedly emotional and resonant defense of faith from someone who is Chris’ protector and ally, but and even more importantly, is someone in Chris’ camp who disagrees with him. Thomas’ steadfast faith allied with his questioning of authority is its own retort to Chris’ black-and-white thinking about the value of faith.
The only slightly false note about “Punk Rock Jesus” #5 was the scene in which an adult slaps a teenager who says something offensive, and then the teenager stomps off. This scene is a cliche in any fictional medium, because it’s almost always a cheap shortcut for dramatic tension and scene resolution, as it is here. Also, after the birth secret and the more prominent role that Dr. Epstein and Rebekah played in “Punk Rock Jesus” #1 and #2, it’s frustrating to see these two taking a back seat to the men for more than half the story. However, with one more issue to go, it’s possible that Murphy will take them off the bench.
These minor points don’t detract much from Murphy’s precise and intense storytelling, nor his art, which moves gracefully within panels and across settings. In “Punk Rock Jesus” #5, Murphy makes great use of his choice to work in black and white. Many panels achieve their striking effects in composition and mood from Murphy using a lot of white space or a lot of ink.
Putting aside the greater point of Murphy’s skillful writing and art, on a political, content-driven level, “Punk Rock Jesus” is critical of organized religion, and Murphy’s mere creation of the character of Chris may offend some readers. However, Murphy isn’t out to shock or even to preach to the choir. Besides telling a serious yet suspenseful story, he’s out to question, to challenge, like all those who deviate from orthodoxy, like punk rock. Even better, he’s a good spokesman for skepticism and rebellion, especially for an atheist. There is no self-importance here, no self-martyring and no sneering.
Murphy is a credit to skeptics and those who dare to challenge the establishment, religious or otherwise, and more importantly, “Punk Rock Jesus” makes a reader think as well as feel, more than any other comic on the stands.