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The character of Forever Carlyle recently returned from a near-death experience, but she is mostly a background character (albeit an important one) in Lazarus #20. Instead, readers are given more of the inner dynamics of the Carlyle clan and the Carlyle army’s small-team assault on territory controlled by rival Hock. It’s a good issue, one that might not have stunning moments like other recent issues of Lazarus, but it is still telling an exciting story overall.
Removing the main character from a comic book is a really tricky proposition. While it can be pulled off, it’s not easy. Forever Carlyle was the main protagonist for the first seventeen issues of Lazarus until her shocking apparent death in Lazarus #18. Although she returned in the next issue (as most readers probably expected), she still isn’t really a main part of the current storyline. In Lazarus #20, she plays an important “cavalry” role, saving the Carlyle strike team, but the number of panels in which she appears is relatively small. So it’s a credit to storytellers Greg Rucka (writer) and Michael Lark (pencils) that the issue is still compelling.
The plot of Lazarus #20 works on two main threads. One involves the Carlyle strike team sabotaging a stronghold of Jakob Hock. They were initially led by Forever, but they now believe her to be dead. They are successful but then they are cornered by Hock forces, until Forever shows up in a tank she captured off-panel (the issue starts with her approaching a Hock troop stationed on the tank). The other important storyline of Lazarus #20 gives Johanna Carlyle a bigger part in the overall story. Her family doesn’t know that she had previously betrayed them. However, with family patriarch Malcolm near death and Johanna’s brother Stephen overwhelmed and not well suited to lead, adviser Arthur approaches Johanna with the proposal of leading the family.
The Johanna element is a really intriguing development because she was a major component of the first arc of Lazarus but has been a periphery characters since then. I think Rucka and Lark are wise to give her a more major role, especially under these circumstances. It raises the question of whether Johanna is intrinsically selfish and has betrayed the family before solely in her own interests or whether it was because she felt unloved and unneeded. Could Johanna, who was recently plotting to leave the family altogether, even in their time of need, now change course and be an effective leader?
The part of Lazarus #20 about the take-out of the Hock stronghold works in an entirely different way. While the Johanna storyline is all about character motivation and choice, the strike team thread is more about action and story strategy. Casey Solomon, the leader of the team, and the other individual characters of the team are not developed that much, having been introduced not long ago. Still, there is enough to tell the members apart and their story is more about the Carlyle family versus Hock. So while that story isn’t quite as intriguing, it is still important to the overall direction of the series, and Lark and the other artists (inker Tyler Boss and colorist Santi Arcas) do a good job of keeping the military stuff engaging.
The artists on Lazarus #20 do face a challenge because army uniforms (even in this post-apocalyptic society) are meant to blend in. This is the direct opposite of most superhero costumes, therefore the military uniforms are a bit visually bland. However, Lark injects enough interesting elements, such as the Hock uniforms, which look more like dark Stormtroopers, and some really striking landscape backgrounds to make the action scenes have a bit of pop. Meanwhile, he is still very good at the smaller scenes of characters interaction, such as with Johanna. The emotions and thought-processing are very clear in those moments.
It seems that Lazarus remains a mostly under-appreciated series for Image Comics, but the stories have been consistently solid, and even exemplary. While Lazarus #20 might not reach the highs of the previous two issues, it doesn’t really drop momentum too much, instead shifting gears and redirecting the story into a new and surprising direction. I think Johanna Carlyle becoming a bigger presence in Lazarus will be a good decision, and I’m looking forward to how Rucka and Lark utilize her in upcoming issues.