Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy
Large entertainment network, Ophis, and scientist, Sarah Epstein, have cloned a human with the intention of raising him on a reality TV program. This clone’s DNA was taken from the Shroud of Turin, which means the DNA should belong to that of Jesus Christ. Preferring to go by "Chris," we see a boy grow up in rebellion against the manipulation of the media and the religious views and expectations forced upon him.
I first heard about Punk Rock Jesus in passing a couple of years ago. At the time, the (incorrect) synopsis told didn’t really interest me. As a Christian comic book reader, while I’m used to reading negative views of Christianity in many comics, I don’t enjoy them. So I passed on reading Punk Rock Jesus. That is until recently, when a reader brought up the comic in our Facebook group. The book was quite a bit different than my expectations, so let’s take a look at it together.
My first introduction to Sean Murphy’s art was through Vertigo’s The Wake (actually published after Punk Rock Jesus). Murphy’s art style is deceptively gorgeous. On first glance it may seem very simple; most of his pages feature sharp angles and silhouettes. However when you take a minute to look at the details, you see an artist at the top of his craft. The amount of detail Murphy puts into his panels is breathtaking. Whether you’re looking at a city in the background or textured clothing, there is plenty to see.
In Punk Rock Jesus the character designs really shine. It’s easy to see how much effort went into making punk outfits for Chris and his band, The Flak Jackets. Thomas, the Irish-Catholic bodyguard, has stunning tattoos that are simple yet create a strong image. Even the technology behind the reality show seems well thought out and greatly executed.
Some people may be turned off by the monochromatic color palette, however Murphy wields this well. He provides variety in the white space and in the remarkable details.
This may already be clear, but Punk Rock Jesus is not for kids. There is plenty of graphic violence. Several people are shot—some in the head—a baby is tossed off a pier, a school bus is bombed, a woman jumps off a building. As the book is in black and white, the violence isn’t as shocking as it might sound, but it’s still probably too violent for some readers. There is strong language in every issue. In terms of sexual content, a woman is drawn in a skimpy bikini or short shorts. Cosmetic surgery, specifically breast implants, is mentioned.
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of religious content in the story. Most of it is depicted negatively: a Christian apologist on TV is rather dumb, most Christians are essentially the Westboro Baptist cult on steroids with guns. The only devout Christian is also a murderer; plus, he truly believes that Chris is the second coming of Christ.
There are, no doubt, many things in the book that might ruffle the feathers of the average Christian. No doubt “Jesus Christ” becoming an atheist will probably be uncomfortable for most of our readers. If you’re easily offended, I wouldn’t suggest picking up this book. However, you’d be missing out on a great conversation about Christianity and pop culture.
Having acquired DNA from the Shroud of Turin (a burial cloth believed to belong to Jesus), a media entertainment company decides to create a clone with the DNA and raise him on a reality show. Of course, to make it truer to the Bible, they decide to implant the egg into an 18-year-old virgin, Gwen Fairling. As he grows up, every aspect of “Chris’ ” life is controlled and manipulated. In school, he’s taught creationism and faith healing. Accidents and events set up by the network are “miracles” to the believing masses.
Growing up under the supervision of the television network stresses both Chris and his mother. Gwen is driven to alcoholism, needing pills in order to function in front of the cameras. As his life takes a turn for the worse, Chris rebels against his sheltered upbringing. Crew members bring him punk rock records and non-Christian books. Much to the surprise of the viewers, Chris adopts a new, punk rock lifestyle that is publicly revealed at an award show. Now sporting a mohawk, Chris joins a punk rock band and proceeds to express his strong atheism. The story rather abruptly concludes with Chris caught between the aggressive forces of media and religion.
Punk Rock Jesus is a very character driven story. Unfortunately, most of the characters are underdeveloped and underutilized. In fact, Chris doesn’t really feel like a main character until the third issue. Before that, focus is given to his mother, the scientist (Sarah), and the bodyguard (Thomas) in the earlier issues.
Speaking of which, Thomas “The Cemetery” McKael is, hands down, one of the coolest characters I’ve come across in comics. Thomas was a member of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) from a young age until an accident changed his life. As the first character introduced, he shows the most growth in Punk Rock Jesus. Thomas even visually outshines the rest of the characters once his tattoos are introduced. This incredibly well-written, greatly-executed character seems out of place among the other, flat characters. I probably would have enjoyed Punk Rock Jesus more had it been solely about Thomas.
From beginning to end, the book is consistently heavy. While the story deals with a lot of heavy content, I expected Chris would find happiness once he found freedom. He broke free from the reality show and embraced his inner punk, but he never seemed happy nor satisfied with this decision. I expected a more humanistic ending, showing that Chris was a better person having found freedom from the media and religion. Unfortunately, he really only becomes angrier and more selfish. He shouts his complaints to the world. When I reached the end, I was unsatisfied and confused. There wasn’t anything more substantial that the book was trying to communicate.
A few times I asked myself, “would this be as interesting if the clone wasn’t Jesus?” If you took away the Christ element, you would have a story of a boy and his mother broken by the manipulation of media and religion. I think we’d have a story with potential insight into our media-hungry world. The story never proves that Chris is a clone of Jesus. The scientist behind the cloning even has her doubts; she never saw them extracting the DNA from the shroud.
So why use the idea that Chris might be Jesus? There isn’t much evidence that he’s really Jesus’ clone. Unfortunately, it’s probably for the controversy of it all. It seems controversial for the sake of being controversial: a bit gimmicky. The shock factor is definitely in full effect as one issue ends with Chris saying “Jesus hates you!” while a cross made of light shines behind him. I expected to see evidence and miracles to prove that Chris was Jesus. (In fact, it’s never explained when a woman is saved after jumping off a building by “an angel.”) If you want to communicate the uselessness of religion, why not have God’s son say it? But that didn’t happen. At the end we’re left with one broken man’s opinion. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps, if Chris is not actually Jesus, it’s a subtle way of saying that there is no God.
Punk Rock Jesus has a pretty weak ending: choppy and abrupt. There’s very little resolution; the characters don’t really seem to be in a better place. The general lasting impression is, “well, I guess that’s over.” For as much fire and passion that filled Chris’ speeches, the story finishes with a measly fizzle.
As I said earlier, there are many reasons why this book might ruffle the feathers of the average Christian reader. It’s easiest to reject media that portrays Christianity in a negative light. But there are some great conversations that come out of Punk Rock Jesus that might be helpful for Christians as they engage with people.
Most characters in Punk Rock Jesus are dealing with manipulation; whether they are the ones dealing with it, or dealing it out. Chris and his mom are manipulated by Ophis and religious zealots that want Chris to be Jesus. Thomas is a product of the IRA’s manipulation. The scientist, Sarah, is willing to be used by Ophis to continue her other research. A big takeaway from this is that manipulation is harmful to everyone. As Christians we have to remember that our job is not to save people; we’re just here to plant seeds. You can’t force salvation on anyone. The effects of manipulation create bitter and angry people.
Punk Rock Jesus is a good depiction of how the world sees the Church. It’s similar to the Westboro Baptist cult (a common impression of today’s Church). The depictions of Christians in Punk Rock Jesus are shaped by the New American Christians, a militant and hateful group. Regardless of the inaccuracies of this book, it’s important to see that this is how many people view Christianity in our world. It’s unfortunate and unfair, but it’s a good reminder that the world is watching us. We need to make sure that every aspect of our lives is transformed by Christ.
I sought out many online interviews with author, Sean Murphy. In them, it’s often stated that he was Catholic but has now become an atheist. For him, Punk Rock Jesus is somewhat autobiographical. A few specific characters represent Murphy at different stages of life, from his naive, young, church-going self to his current beliefs. Since that’s the case, these six issues are glimpses into his life. I don’t know Murphy personally, so I can’t speak for the events of his life, but if this is just a small glimpse into his life, it’s pretty tragic. It makes me sad that there’s (apparently) no one in his life to show him the true meaning of Christianity. I don’t know how long he was in the church, but if no one approached him with a heart of discipleship, then it seems like a bit of a failure. While I realize I’m not responsible in this case, I can’t help but want to apologize to Murphy. We all fall short, and it’s only because of God that we do any good. For me, reading Punk Rock Jesus was a sober reminder of the intentionality of living as a Christian. It’s easy to be consumed by media and small arguments, but we need to remember who we are and why we are here.
Punk Rock Jesus is certainly not a recommended read for every comic book fan. Though the art is stunning, the story falls flat, fizzling out to a weak ending. Not being the target audience, Christians may have a hard time approaching some of the plot content. But if you can get through it, you’ll be able to better approach and understand religious conversations with other readers of Punk Rock Jesus.
What do you think of Punk Rock Jesus? How cool was Thomas “The Cemetery” McKael? Would you recommend this to Christian readers?
+ Gorgeous, fitting art
+ Thomas “The Cemetary” McKael
+ Post-read talking points
- Uneven character development
- Overall pretty depressing
- Jesus-clone is gimmicky
- Weak ending