"What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?

INTERVIEW – Sequart’s Julian Darius on Martian Comics’ Influences (Part 2)

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In the first part of the interview with Julian Darius we talked about his background with Sequart, his comic criticism, and his new work Martian Comics. In this second part we dig deeper into the unexpected influences on the new sci-fi comic.

Issue #1 of Martian Comics worked Jesus into a background story. Could you describe the genesis of that idea?

That’s a good question, and I’m surprised people haven’t talked more about it.

As part of planning Martian Lit some years ago, I had the idea of giving the business its own backstory. So the “About Us” page would really believe that it was written by Martians. So the publisher itself was kind of a work of fiction. That felt aggressive and bizarre and right to me. So I kind of wrote up this backstory, and it included the idea that Martians were trying to enlighten us by possessing us. I thought it was fun to point out that this program obviously hasn’t been entirely successful. Later in the same document, I made a parenthetical reference, after citing an A.D. date, to how this was only one system of dating based on a Martian emissary who humans had murdered. You could say it was a little joke, but I also thought it was a sly and interesting idea, to put this in a parenthetical, because it suggested the Martians don’t see Jesus or how he’s been interpreted the same way we do.

Time passed, and my friend Kevin Thurman had the idea of merging his idea for a comic about an alienated college student who’s dealing with the widespread disaffection of youth with my Martian backstory. So suddenly, I started thinking about this Martian backstory again. And in my mind, that parenthetical Jesus reference was canonical, so to speak. It was part of this Martian mythology.

In Ezekiel, the Bible prophet comes face-to-face with incredible technology.
In Martian Comics “Ezekiel”, the Bible prophet comes face-to-face with incredible technology.

I was struggling with what became chapter three of “The Girl from Mars,” which is in issue #1 and is basically a single conversation with all of these turns in it. It was very hard for me to write, because I hate how “by the way, I’m an alien / have super-powers” conversations are handled in most genre fiction. These conversations sometimes occur under duress, like during a fight. A lot of times, a character who’s supposed to be incredulous sees a display of power and instantly buys the whole story, but that really makes no sense. In the same way that a miracle wouldn’t prove someone is an angel, or the Son of God, or anything but that they seemed to perform a miracle, firing a blast from your hand doesn’t prove you’re an alien sent to stop bad guys who are out to destroy the world. So I did a lot of thinking about this, and I really wanted this dialogue-heavy chapter to be incredibly crisp and witty and like nothing else you’ve ever read — certainly not like any other version of the “I’m an alien” conversation you’ve ever seen.

That was the genesis of the “you dye your hair” line, as the more immediate response to Izzy claiming she’s an alien. Here’s her sister, who knows her, and she interprets this as an ethnic otherness. It felt right. It felt familiar. And it plays on the multiple meanings of the word “alien,” which has come to mean an extraterrestrial but was earlier and is also employed to mean a foreigner, the way some say “illegal alien.”

In the same way, I thought the difference between this Martian’s and this human’s perspectives was perfectly illustrated by Izzy saying that Jesus was a Martian emissary. It’s a one-liner, in the same way that the parenthetical on the Martian Lit “About Us” page was a one-liner. But the idea is that Izzy, as a Martian, is trying to explain how this works, and she knows that one of these emissaries her sister knows is Jesus, so Izzy states this matter-of-factly. Of course, while totally sane from a Martian perspective, this sounds completely insane from a human perspective, because it sounds like Izzy is comparing herself to Jesus, which is this total red flag, messiah-complex thing. So I thought mentioning that in the comic worked, and was a great beat in the conversation that served multiple purposes: maybe blowing readers’ minds, letting us understand this Martian enlightenment program in a concise way, illustrating the difference between Martian and human perspectives, and also providing this pivot point in two sisters’ difficulty communicating at this key moment in the narrative.

All of this was totally organic. There was no agenda to be “this is the Jesus was a Martian” comic. This isn’t Battle Pope. I dig that kind of stuff, but it’s not what I’m doing.

I was probably only done with the first or maybe the second chapter of “The Girl from Mars” when I wrote “The Galilean,” the first back-up, which ran in issue #1. That’s the Jesus story. It’s just five pages, and it basically is just an elaboration on this idea. I actually reread the Gospels to write it, even though it’s just five pages. It starts with Jesus going through the same process of being possessed, which we’ve seen in the main story. We see his family rejecting him and trying to take him back, which is Biblical, only here that takes on a different meaning. We kind of jump through his ministry, in a kind of Grant Morrison rapid-fire, no-segue-between-panels way. Then there’s the twist ending in which we jump to Mars and hear that this isn’t the first time this particular Martian has been executed. It’s a pretty simply story.

Cover of Martian Comics #3
Cover of Martian Comics #3

Also in issue #2, you dove further into the Bible with a re-imagining of the resurrection of Lazarus. What inspired you to continue with that story?

“Lazarus,” which ran in issue #2, was the next back-up I wrote, and I think I wrote it before chapter three of “The Girl from Mars.” It’s 13 pages. At its heart, it’s basically a story about what happened after his resurrection. Because that’s not clear in the Bible. His function is basically to get resurrected, as a further proof of Jesus’s power. That’s where his feelings come from, in the story, about how he’s kind of a prop. Everyone sees him as a form of living proof, but he’s a human being, and no one follows up with him to see how he’s doing. Of course, that’s not surprising. I was just talking with a nurse tonight about how people are there when someone’s dying, but mourning is often worse a month later, after people don’t have to be strong to get through anymore, and the real weight of things hits them. It’s kind of human nature not to follow up. Plus, it’s not like there was psychotherapy in first-century Palestine.

Beyond this, there’s that weird aspect of the Biblical story, about how Jesus doesn’t show up while Lazarus is sick, and only shows up when it’s too late, which is why Lazarus needs to be resurrected. That’s Biblical. I didn’t invent it. And it’s really odd, because you’d think that if you were making up this story to make Jesus look good, you wouldn’t make him be a dick and not show up for three days, during which Lazarus dies. But however you understand this, the emphasis is on Jesus doing this great thing, which is obviously the point of the passage, and no one ever apologizes or explains this delay. Which to me further suggests no one’s going to follow up with Lazarus.

Besides, in my story, Lazarus isn’t totally healed. He’s alive, but injuries he had at the time of death don’t heal. He looks like a corpse. So he’s not going to find employment. People aren’t going to accept him. He’s basically a leper. In a time when disease wasn’t understood, physical ailments were seen as demonic, or a curse from the gods for bad behavior, and it was often unsafe to be around the sick or the physically different. So Lazarus is alive, but he has no function, no place.

I just thought all of this was a great story. I loved the idea of the resurrected Lazarus, struggling to figure out his place.

Looking at the Bible through a sci-fi lens is unique in comics. Do you see it as a long jump from the source material?

Technically, you could argue that Jesus raising Lazarus is a sci-fi element. But that really comes in when Lazarus, unable to commit suicide, goes to Jesus for answers. And Jesus doesn’t have them. He couldn’t be a nicer guy about it, and he says as much as he knows, albeit filtered in a way that Lazarus might understand. Which again gets at this difficulty in communicating, across this vast gulf of experience. How would you explain to someone, in first-century Palestine, that there are other planets up there, and some are inhabited, and that no, this isn’t something supernatural, it’s just science that could only be interpreted in this supernatural or mystical way.

To me, when Jesus points to the stars in that story, it’s a very Star Trek moment. It’s a first-century Palestine equivalent of the famous Next Generation scenes in which Picard has someone on the Enterprise and shows them the Earth, or another planet, from space. Those are moving scenes, and they’re rooted in someone not being able to understand, or to fully fathom, something majestic and beautiful and far beyond what they know. There’s also a joy, as a reader or a viewer, in knowing what a character does not, and witnessing this helps us to see the majesty of what that character can’t understand.

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics
New Life and New Civilizations:
Exploring Star Trek Comics

With the new issue #3, you’re carrying this even further with the introduction of the Apostle Paul to the Martian Comics world. What interested you toward using him as a character?

The story of St. Paul in Athens is interesting, because it’s really Paul that invents Christianity. Jesus didn’t want to start a new religion, and he’s not concerned with gentiles. It’s Paul who declares he’s had a vision and is opening this Jewish sect that believes Jesus was the messiah for gentile membership. And we know that Paul was recalled by Jesus’s followers, who weren’t happy with what Paul was saying. Paul didn’t know Jesus. He never met Jesus. As a Christian, one could say that Paul didn’t so much invent Christianity as follow divine inspiration; that’s certainly what Paul said he was doing. But it’s Paul that did it. And there’s no doubt, whether by divine inspiration or cynical decision, that Paul changed this Jewish sect to appeal to a gentile audience. The most obvious example is to not require circumcision, which wasn’t going to go over with men in the wider Greco-Roman world.

Lazarus, who in my story has survived, had to witness the birth and spread of Christianity. To not depict that would have been a cop-out. Of course, this presented a great storytelling possibility: someone who knew Jesus, but who no one knows is present or is immortal, seeing someone else preach about Jesus in a way that, inevitably, wouldn’t be exactly the man this someone remembers. There’s a sense of alienation there, of being told your memories aren’t valid, that has a very sci-fi feel to it. It reminds me of how we alter and misremember history even within our own time. Certainly, people who lived long enough in earlier eras lived long enough to watch advocates of one party or another twist history, or to see events twisted to mean a certain thing that they didn’t necessarily mean to those who were there. Obviously, this is based on history, and it’s neither religious propaganda nor anti-religious propaganda. But I should point out that Jesus’s disciples didn’t understand him well (they’re almost comic relief in a lot of the Gospels), and they certainly would be astounded had they heard Paul’s sermons.

Small Talk with Rats, a short within Martian Comics #3
Small Talk with Rats, a short within Martian Comics #3

What does the setting of ancient Athens bring to the story?

The choice of Athens is fascinating to me. Partly, that’s the “sermon” (it’s more a defense before a semi-formal court) on the Areopagus, in which Paul cites the Unknown God. I find the idea of the Unknown God fascinating. There’s dispute about whether the Athenians actually had an Unknown God, but the dominant theory is that they did, much as Paul’s speech describes. But of course, it’s a sign of humility. The point is “we don’t know all the gods, and if we left a god out, we apologize.” The Unknown God is an acknowledgement of our limits to know the divine. One thing that was always fascinating to me about this story is that Paul saying he’s going to tell Athens about the Unknown God is fitting his God into a polytheistic framework. Of course, it’s a rhetorical tactic on Paul’s part, but the whole point of the Unknown God is that these other gods exist. You can’t say “I know the Unknown God” and also that all those other gods don’t exist. It’s a concept that only makes sense in a polytheistic context.

But Athens is also interesting, because historians largely see it as a failure for Paul. I think we sometimes picture Paul delivering these great sermons across the Roman world, and we imagine that he’s winning converts everywhere. But even in the account in Acts, it’s clear that Paul’s not very successful in Athens. There’s an attempt to say that Paul succeeded and won some converts, but it’s clear that Paul’s a fish out of water there. Athens is the seat of philosophy, and they’ve heard it all before. They’ve heard of a single Creator God who unites all the other gods; Greeks actually came up with that on their own. These are sophisticated people. And most of what Paul does is rant at them about how they’re ignorant. But he doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of a philosophical point. Paul’s not making a philosophical point. His whole point is that he’s right, and therefore others are ignorant. It’s actually a style of argument that we’re familiar with today. It’s basically “I’m right, and you’re ignorant because you disagree.” And that might work in other places, but it’s certainly not going to work in Athens. Athens was the place you went to, to prove your intellectual mettle. Paul seems to think he’s ready, presumably because he really believes in his message. But he doesn’t impress, and he was basically put on trial, and then he quickly leaves the city. And I don’t think he, and by extension Christianity, ever got over this wound. It’s there in St. Augustine especially, and it’s he who asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

So do you see Athens as a sort of battleground between the old-guard of the Greek philosophy and this new form of Jewish faith?

Athens stands for philosophy, for education, for reason. Jerusalem stands for faith. Augustine’s whole argument is that reason has nothing to do with faith. Ironically, Augustine was brilliant, and he teases ideas out with a perverse kind of reason, but he starts from a place of faith. And ultimately, neither he nor early Christianity generally had much tolerance for philosophy or reason. There’s a hostility there, a suspicion. There are thousands of quotes that illustrate this point. Much later, the Scholastics come along, but they met with a lot of hostility in their time. And even today, there’s a lot of suspicion of the academy (a term that goes back to Plato) and of science especially. And it all goes back to Paul at Athens. I think, had Paul been accepted as a great philosopher in Athens, Christianity might have had a very different attitude. Maybe this tension, between faith and reason, was intrinsic to Christianity, but Paul in Athens certainly represented this moment in which that tension didn’t seem so obvious — after all, Paul probably wouldn’t have gone to Athens if he didn’t think there was some chance of success. After Athens, there could be no denying this tension. And it wasn’t forgotten. Eventually, Christianity won power, and it closed Plato’s Academy, which was still running, and it did its best to burn all those great Greek and Roman books.

"One Small Step" from Martian Comics #3
“One Small Step” from Martian Comics #3

I’m not picking on Christianity here. Paganism certainly had its problems with reason too. For example, a lot of scientific inquiry was stalled because of religious taboos — like about dissection of corpses — that paganism and Christianity had in common. So it’s not like paganism was this philosophically utopian system. Greek paganism is filled with inanities. But in Athens, the philosophers were pretty irreligious, and Greco-Roman paganism did have the benefit of being pretty religiously tolerant. That’s kind of the point of the Unknown God. It’s an acceptance that religious belief is going to evolve, and other gods can be added, and at least in theory it’s all good.

Anyway, I find all of this fascinating, and Paul’s time in Athens was this kind of a historical pivot point. For the purposes of the story, we get to witness this through the eyes of Lazarus, which lets us see how much Lazarus has changed since last we saw him. He had never left Palestine. Now, he’s in Athens, and he’s seen more of the world. It’s changed him.

So the story is part Biblical exegesis, part historical analysis, partly about how Lazarus has changed, and partly about the surreal experience of hearing someone talk about a person or historical events you witnessed but not recognizing their version or their interpretation. It’s got all of these layers, and hopefully they work together to tell a single, fascinating story in which you couldn’t remove any of these strands without the whole collapsing.

I’ve enjoyed your critique of Miracleman, another book that meshes religious and philosophical themes with speculative fiction. Does that series influence your work?

This is another excellent question that no one has asked me.

I never actually considered the religious themes of Miracleman as an influence on Martian Comics, although you’re right to point that out.

Miracleman is a huge influence on Martian Comics.

One of the clearest influences, to me, is the way that the Other, who is the big villain of “The Girl from Mars,” functions within that story. If you remember early Miracleman, very soon after Miracleman returns, Kid Miracleman summons him. It’s a direct consequence of Miracleman’s return; this other superhuman is out there, and he’s evil, and he’s been there a while without much serious opposition, and he’s this kind of corporate figure. In “The Girl from Mars,” the Other functions in much this same way. Of course, the situation and the powers involved are very different; a charisma field is a lot less melodramatic than all of Miracleman’s powers. But the Other is superficially similar. I even call him the Devil, poetically, the same way he’s called that early in Miracleman. There’s also a death, to demonstrate this villain’s power, in both stories.

A lot of what I’m doing, in “The Girl from Mars,” is kind of improving on things I’ve realized could be improved in Miracleman. An easy example is that the victim, killed as a demonstration, isn’t quite as much of a throwaway character in “The Girl from Mars.” But I also realize, reading Miracleman, Book One, that Kid Miracleman is kind of the star. He’s a great villain, but he’s basically gone within 50 pages. Of course, comics have become more decompressed, but it seems such a shame that Kid Miracleman is introduced and gone so quickly. I think we forget that because the sequence is so effective, but it’s really short. In “The Girl from Mars,” we’re able to explore the Other in a lot more detail than the format of Warrior magazine allowed.

Panel from Alan Moore's original Warrior run of Miracleman.
Panel from Alan Moore’s original Warrior run of Miracleman.

Also, his status as a kind of corporate villain is far, far more important. In Miracleman, that’s almost a throwaway thing. Basically, as soon as he’s introduced as a rich businessman, he’s outed as Kid Miracleman and defeated. We never really get to see him in much of a corporate context. In “The Girl from Mars,” that corporate context is kind of the entire point. We’ve been through Enron, we’ve been through Occupy, we’ve been through countless corporate oil spills, and we’ve been through KBR and other contractors basically running a lot of services in Iraq. If you imagine Kid Miracleman as Dick Cheney, that’s kind of what the Other is. He’s the ultimate evil I can imagine in 2015.

I suppose I also really love the side stories in Alan Moore’s Miracleman (which in my mind include the Warpsmith stories and also that Grant Morrison short that wasn’t published until recently). And I love Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman, especially how he was able to weave these sophisticated stories around all these minor characters and throwaway points from Alan Moore’s run. I suspect something of this has seeped into Martian Comics. In many ways, as a writer, I’m more concerned with these minor characters and the implication of certain situations than I am with the big fights.

Earlier you mentioned your love for shared comic universes. Can you see Martian Comics expanding along those lines? 

That’s another thing about Miracleman that’s influenced me — and I don’t think this is totally clear yet, in Martian Comics — is the original idea of Warrior having a shared universe. The idea was that Warpsmith was going to have his own, fuller set of stories. Other characters were going to be integrated. Even V for Vendetta was integrated as a parallel timeline. I think when I started Martian Comics, I was maybe more inspired, in terms of how different stories or characters in Martian Comics interacted, by 2000AD. There are a lot of characters in 2000AD who technically exist within the same world. In terms of the historical and literary scope of these stories, I’d cite both Sandman and Planetary as influences. But the more time goes by, the more I’ve been haunted by that original idea of Warrior, of kind of building this shared universe that’s really, really artistic and good. That didn’t really come together in Warrior, but I still sort of see Miracleman as really part of a universe alongside Warpsmith and maybe Miraclewoman. I still know how to do a full Warpsmith arc and make it finally take its rightful place, alongside the main Miracleman story. And I feel like that’s kind of this part of Miracleman that never got completed. (Call me, Marvel!) As I continue Martian Comics, we’ll see these other characters, like Lazarus, get their own arcs, and I think this is influenced by that Warrior idea of a really artsy shared universe, or a shared universe done right, which I think is even more relevant today, when “shared universe” is such a buzzword after the success of the Marvel movies.

Cover of Martian Comics #4
Cover of Martian Comics #4

Anything else that readers of Martian Comics expect down the road?

Assuming issue #3 gets funded, we’re going to move right on to issue #4. It’s tentatively planned to run 38 pages of story, which is kind of halfway between a standard issue and this 52-page third issue.

Basically, “The Girl from Mars” is going to continue, alongside more of these side stories. In “The Girl from Mars,” issue #4 begins a subsection of the story in which we’re exploring the secret history of the 20th century. It’s a deep dive into recent history, all from the perspective of this Martian hiding in our midst and manipulating things.

There’s still a ways to go for “The Girl from Mars.” All during this, we’re going to keep publishing these side stories. There will even be some side issues, continuing this historical set of stories. I plan on them continuing, after “The Girl from Mars” is complete. Basically, “The Girl from Mars” is the first volume, and these short stories are eventually going to be the second volume. (Kind of like how Sandman would alternate between present-day arcs and historical shorts.)

There are other stories too, including more Lazarus stories, as well as a few other characters I haven’t introduced yet. We’ll see how far we get. There’s an absurdly long-term plan here, but it scares the hell out of me because it’ll take so long and so much money.

At the time of this article, Martian Comics #3 is a few hundred dollars away and hours from making its crowdfunding goal. To contribute and pick up a copy, visit the Kickstarter campaign. Julian Darius can be connected with on Twitter @JulianDarius. For more information on his body of work, visit Sequart and Martian Lit.