Get ready for an entirely different take on history’s ultimate origin story. JesusFreak, an original 64-page full-color hardcover graphic novel from Joe Casey and Benjamin Marra being released by Image Comics next spring, will center on the story of Jesus at a formative stage of his life, engulfed in the violence of the world around him. It’s a “bloody, two-fisted tale of heroic fiction,” and when you put it that way, you just know this is going to be a book that demands your attention.
Don’t assume it’s simply about putting a comic book spin on the biblical stories that have been told for centuries. In an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE, Casey said this is a story that looks to reconcile two vastly different ideas of Jesus: one being the historical persona of the carpenter from Nazareth, the other being the Son of God. “It’s a story about a young man on a journey to find his own power,” Casey said.
While he wasn’t driven by any sort of religious curiosity, Casey nevertheless was attracted to the story because it was so much different from a lot of the work that has defined his career, from creator-owned work like Sex to his work-for-hire capes work for Marvel and DC, and of course his work as part of Man Of Action Studios on co-creating animated series like Ben 10. Telling a story about Jesus as the lead figure in a piece of historical pulp fiction was a challenge he was eager to take on.
“I knew it would push me out of my comfort zone… something I would recommend to anyone if they’re ever given the opportunity,” Casey said. “At first, it was a pure research project, trying to answer questions about the historical Jesus that I’d always had. Then it was a desire to merge that research with a particularly pulp story. The time period, the political maneuvering, the stakes involved during that particular period of history… it’s all really fascinating.”
“Believe me, it doesn’t spring from any religious background or any personal experiences. I’m just not that guy,” Casey pointed out. “Honestly, if I worship anything, it’s the comic books that I read as a kid that inspired me to do this for a living. Those are what hold a lot of magic for me."
JesusFreak will be released on March 20, 2019, in comic shops, and March 26 in traditional bookstores. It will retail for $17.99. Read on to get more details on the project from Casey, including the how the Jesus in this story differs from the one in the New Testament. He also discusses the influences that inform the book’s kung fu vibe. And then check out the exclusive (and spectacular) art preview of the 16-page black & white Ashcan preview that will be sold exclusively at the Image Comics booth (#1444) during New York Comic Con.
You know doing a graphic novel with Jesus as the central figure in a story dripping with violence will have some people losing their minds, right?
JOE CASEY: That might be true, but all I know is that I wanted to see this book exist. It’s not a matter of actively courting a certain kind of controversy. Who needs that? But I also can’t deny that this is a story we wanted to tell, and we wanted to tell it specifically in this medium. I grew up on superhero comic books, but I was still a teenager when I was exposed to books like Maus and American Splendor and From Hell. There’s a “literary” side to comicbooks that I’ve been attracted to ever since. That type of work tends to be somewhat ghettoized in our industry, especially in a “mainstream” that’s characterized almost exclusively by superheroes. And only certain publishers -- Fantagraphics and First Second especially -- seem to tackle that type of material. JesusFreak is Marra and I (and Image Comics) throwing our hat into that ring.
When the book was announced, you said this is a story about the tension that exists in the space between a mythical person and a person ripped from the history books. Can you explain more about that?
There’s always been a bit of conflict when it comes to the concept of Jesus. There’s the historical figure, who many scholars believe to have existed, and then there’s the Christ figure. The Nazarean preacher and the so-called “Son of God." When it comes right down to it, the two don’t have too much to do with each other. We wanted to tell a story that tries to merge those two depictions in a dramatically entertaining way. It’s a story about a young man on a journey to find his own power. We’re certainly not trying to convince anyone to believe anything, one way or another. Ultimately, we just want to give readers something that’s worth their time.
The scene in the Ashcan preview where Jesus super kicks the Roman soldier is quite something. You and Benjamin Marra are doing a 16-page preview that’s debuting at NYCC. How different is the ashcan from the graphic novel?
We wanted the ashcan to be a unique experience all its own. It’s not so much a chunk of strict sequential pages from the book but something that can stand alone and deliver its own kind of wild ride. It has its own tone. It’s also an homage to the old ashcans that Image used to do when they started back in the early ’90s, so we’ve got a poster insert that you can pull out and put on your bedroom wall. It’s got a bit of a punk rock zine vibe to it, too. And it’s all for a dollar. The finished hardcover will be a lot slicker, much more stately in its presentation. The ashcan is hopefully the first taste that’ll get you hooked for the book when it’s released in March.
Jesus’ story has been revisited and retold many, many times, but turning him into a pulp figure is a first. Will JesusFreak completely diverge from the New Testament?
Let me put it this way, our research was mostly historical in nature. I never went to the Bible for any kind of reference material. I didn’t have to. For one thing, the period we’re dealing with concerns the years of Jesus’ life that aren’t really covered in the Bible, the pre-ministry Jesus. So we’re not retelling or even referencing the gospels in any way, shape or form. Besides, the gospels are basically campfire stories. And where the gospels are meant to illustrate a certain religious ethos, what we’re doing in JesusFreak is much more visceral, while at the same time more historically accurate. We’re dealing with myth and metaphor in a very different way.
Your career has seen you tackle so many diverse projects, from DC and Marvel superhero stuff to Indie books like Sex for Image, and of course co-creating Ben 10. This looks as different as anything you’ve done. Is it easy for you to compartmentalize stories as different as the ones you tend to tackle?
I have a habit of counter-programming my own career. In the short term, it might seem like haphazard decisions on my part, but I guarantee you, in the long run it’s kept me sane. As sane as a comic book writer can be, anyway. If I was just doing boys’ action cartoons or just doing work-for-hire superhero comics, I don’t think I’d be satisfied for very long. I’ve worked my ass off to get my career to a place where I can do the projects I want, pretty much when I want. I’m incredibly lucky in that not only can I push myself to be as creative as possible, but I have the opportunity to actually get that work out into the world. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of my life to be able to do this. So to answer your question, I guess I don’t really compartmentalize anything. I just don’t know any other way to do this.
Benjamin Marra's art, especially the cover, reminds me of classic Paul Gulacy Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. What kind of comics influenced the story you guys set out to tell?
Marra and I share some seminal pulp comic book influences, and JesusFreak definitely gave us a chance to indulge in those influences in a specific way. We wanted to take what’s already in our creative DNA and try and lift it to another level. That meant tackling subject matter that was going to be challenging in and of itself. As fun as it might’ve been, just doing some mindless kung fu comic would’ve felt like a cheat. It would’ve been way too easy. We had to go deeper than that. Not to mention, I have too much respect for Marra as a creator to have collaborated with him on something that wasn’t going to be worth his time.
Check out the preview of JesusFreak below: