Bryan’s mom and dad didn’t get it about Jesus. Not that he should’ve expected them to. Too busy with mortgage worries and whatever Congress was doing this week and this or that country getting a nuclear bomb. People their age agonized all the time, and about nothing that really seemed real to Bryan. Then again, the most real thing for Bryan lately was Jesus.
None, or almost none, of the girls at the junior high got it either. They haughtily claimed comic books were kids stuff, no matter how often it was pointed out that this was a serialized graphic novel. By February every boy Bryan associated with was totally into Jesus. This had even started to cut into the time he spent graffiti-ing and trying out complicated cuss words. Each monthly issue was pantingly anticipated, devoured, reread immediately, and endlessly talked about. You could keep a discussion going for an hour about one page, or even the fine details of artwork and dialogue in a single panel. The book was just that good, just that involving, just that addictive.
Bryan loved Jesus.
How could you not? He was the coolest, awesome-est, most unique character he’d ever come across in his whole life. Jesus was powerful yet humble, tough but gentle–and he was the son of God! How extreme was that?
The origin issue–or, actually, the first chapter of the novel’s scheduled twelve–had been spectacular. It was set in olden times, like Conan was, only without the gore and sorcerers. Exciting omen-like stuff led up to a baby being born in a barn to a virgin woman. (Which sparked a whole lot of breathless debate about just exactly what that was. Until Roddy Hochhalter, who said he’d had “hand sex” with a girl, told everybody definitively. Bryan tended to believe the claim, since if Roddy was going to lie, he’d do it bigger, like all the other guys.) The baby’s birth was this mystic big deal, with three different kings following a star to bring the infant rich gifts. You knew the just-born boy was going to be important even before everybody started proclaiming him “the Messiah.”
The drawings were beautiful. No other word for it. So much detail–every golden hair on the camels, every fold in a robe, the blissful glow of the birth star, all of it put you there in the desert setting, making the ancient times seem like they were happening right now. And the writing–man! The descriptions were poetry without ever being boring. Bryan, rereading and re-re-rereading, was amazed every time at how much mood and information a few expertly chosen sentences could get across. Same with the dialogue, which had an old-time sound to it even though you could totally understand what was being said.
No other comic had ever looked or read like this one. This was a new standard for graphic novels. And every boy who started buying the series that winter understood that something very special was coming into the world.
But it wasn’t just the art or the wicked cool lead character, or the juicy historic detail or the love-to-hate-’em villains in the Romans. Bryan saw depths here. There was a sort of philosophy going on in these pages. God had made a son in human form. He was just a workaday carpenter, but he was also this Messiah that the people oppressed by the Roman Empire had been waiting for for a long time. The second issue jumped right into Jesus’ adulthood, where he was starting to realize who he really was. He was also acting with a purpose, doing worthwhile things. He talked to crowds of people and said they should be good to each other. It wasn’t just being nice to your friends or your countrymen–it was treating everybody everywhere like you, well, loved them. He could also do amazing miracles, which was the actual evidence that he was the son of God.
And even so he met unbelievers. That, maybe, was the real hook, and why the series appealed so much to readers Bryan’s age: nobody understood being underestimated and dismissed quite as well as a boy did.
That spring every boys’ baseball, basketball and soccer team wanted to call themselves the Apostles. Bryan and his cronies rode around on their skateboards pretending Roman soldiers were chasing them. But it was more than that, at least for Bryan. He had long since given up tagging walls with graffiti and other kinds of petty vandalism. Now he thought about what Jesus taught, the lessons that were dressed up like stories. Jesus had so much…compassion. (It was one of a slew of words Bryan was really understanding for the first time.) His teachings were so simple and obvious. It seemed like if people would follow his example, even just a little, the world wouldn’t be as screwed up as his mom and dad seemed to think it was.
Every boy knows the acoustics of his own home, and Bryan had painstakingly explored every corner of his; and so he knew just where to crouch silently at the top of the stairs and hear perfectly what was being said in the downstairs den even with the door closed.
“But have you actually looked at them?” This was his mom, voice worried.
“I had a glance. I even asked him about it. They’re his favorite comics.” His dad, sounding a little less worried.
“But do you know what it’s about? It’s…weird. The protagonist is God’s son. He’s the Messiah! I mean, it’s so–I don’t know–post-Talmudic.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard some Jewish groups are protesting it.”
“Let them. I’m only concerned about Bryan.”
“Hey, when I was his age, all I cared about were Micronauts.”
“But this is strange, occult stuff. It’s not like a superpowered superhero, like Superman. Or even just a regular hero, like Captain America.”
“Captain America was injected with the Super-Soldier formula. He wasn’t just a guy with a shield.”
“Aren’t you informed.”
“I’m a well-rounded person.” Laughter followed, and those damp silences that probably meant they were kissing, which was when Bryan beat a hasty retreat from his listening post.
For the end of the school year talent show Bryan and his friends convinced the principal to let them do a skit about Jesus healing the lepers. It turned out maybe not to have been such a great idea. Bryan, with spirit-gummed beard, played Jesus to the hilt, while others wore rags and hobbled around stage. The faithful readers in the audience loved it. But it scared the younger kids who thought the lepers were zombies, while the parents and faculty were just bemused.
The summer issues were incredible. You didn’t think it could stay as good, much less get better, but the story always did. Bryan had a whole new geographic vocabulary, which he flaunted whenever he could: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem. He and his widening circle of friends held trivia contests. Test your Jesus knowledge! The serial apparently attracted a lot of different people, even some girls now. When they acted out scenes in Barry Buczacz’s garage, sometimes Matilda Kiley, who was Mark Kiley’s twin sister, would be Mary Magdalene. Bryan, lately, had started to really like Matilda.
So, when Roddy Hochhalter–worldly Roddy again–snickered about Magdalene being a hooker, which the story did imply, Bryan went tearing across the garage. He felt the red heat on his face. His hands bunched into fists. He hoped Matilda got a good look even if Roddy, who was bigger and better looking, did kick his butt in the ensuing fight.
But Bryan stopped himself dead-still halfway across the concrete floor. It was like a big gentle hand caught him, and he felt a calmness slow his speeding heart.
He drew a long breath with everybody watching him and said, “Roddy, would you like it if somebody here said something nasty about you?” And there was stuff you could say about him; but Bryan didn’t resort to any of it.
Roddy got pale and looked away, and looked back and said straight to Matilda, “I’m sorry.”
The moment seemed to hold still awhile, and it felt, well, divine. And Bryan never forgot it.
* * *
By the time school resumed in the autumn, Bryan and the others still obsessively reading had started to sense the greater shape of the story. There had been awesome episodes about Jesus’ teachings, and that one time he raised that guy from the dead and other miracles, and about the Apostles and Mary Magdalene and all the rest who’d fallen in with the merry wanderers. But now the individual pieces were making a bigger picture.
Jesus was doing epic stuff. Sure, it was taking place long ago in a primitive desert country; but the ideas–about unconditional acceptance and universal brotherhood–were just as ginormously radical now as they would’ve been back then, had anybody bothered to suggest them. Jesus embraced everyone, even his enemies. And he wasn’t impressed just because somebody was rich or powerful. In fact, he seemed more on the side of the poor.
Speaking of enemies, Jesus sure had them. There was this old Jewish sect that the big bad Romans apparently let operate, and the heads of it were none too pleased with Jesus, who was shaking up the status quo in a growingly dangerous way. This was to say nothing about the militaristic Romans themselves, who might come down like a hammer on the whole thing at any time.
Bryan was especially worried, for this was how he was starting to see the overall story line shaping up. Jesus had done his good works. Now, Bryan had the increasingly queasy feeling that he was going to have to pay….
School chafed at him this new year. He found it stuffy in a way that he hadn’t before. These lessons were more than the usual old boringness they’d always been; now they seemed almost pointless. Nothing he was hearing was making him a better person. Numbers and grammar and all the rest–what about how people were supposed to act toward each other? Where was the morality? (Another of his new words.) Jesus had the kindness of God, his father, to fall back on, but he was always the first to put himself on the line, like that amazing installment where he intervened in Magdalene’s stoning. Bryan, secretly, had actually squeezed out tears over that.
His grades suffered right away, since he could barely get himself to scratch at his homework. Inevitable notes were sent home. He hated when his parents confronted him about it, since it forced him to promise to do better–and keeping a promise was now serious stuff to him.
“You can’t just decide you’re sick of school,” his mom said.
His dad was more cajoling. “Maybe a little more attention to the schoolbooks and a little less on the comic books, ‘kay, kiddo?”
Bryan pulled his marks out of their dive, though what knowledge he was absorbing still seemed useless to him. He didn’t, however, ease off one bit from his interest in Jesus. He continued to read and reread the issues, and to talk about Jesus with his equally still engrossed friends.
Over the course of the summer the merchandizing had kicked in, and posters, T-shirts and trading cards were everywhere, which was how people who’d never even heard of the serial finally got an inkling of who Jesus was. That was how the majority of the adults caught on about just how big this had gotten. It worried parents, and the parents worried the faculty; and like that, there was a school assembly with eye-rollingly dumb lectures about the dangers of cults. Cults! Bryan and his by now pretty impressive circle of friends split their sides laughing about it later.
But later still it made Bryan feel a little bit like he was being oppressed for his beliefs. And that made him feel even closer to Jesus. He had never forgotten the thrill of wearing that phony beard and playing the part in the talent show. He had already decided that as soon as he could, he was going to grow a real beard and long hair.
He asked Matilda Kiley to a dance. He was nervous and very formal, and he was surprised when she brought up the subject of the latest issue, speculating about what might be coming. “I’m worried about Jesus,” she said, the same way she might’ve said her dog had run away. Bryan, in a burst of bravery and sympathy, put his arm around her soft shoulders. They sat together and talked the rest of the evening, only going back out on the floor for the last dance.
Halloween? Forget about it. Everybody was doing it. Jesus and the Apostles swarmed the streets, plus a few smartasses who went as Romans, plastic spears and all. Bryan got sick of it pretty quick, though, after the fifth or so clueless time he was asked if he was supposed to be a Bedouin. He was more interested in the November issue anyway, the second to last installment, soon to hit the stands.
When it came, however, it was devastating. The worst possible turn the story could’ve taken, way worse than any kind of payback for Jesus Bryan had anticipated. He read it walking home from the newsstand. Twice he plowed right into another pedestrian, once a lamp-pole. He mumbled apologies to all three. Blood drained out of his head. His feet went numb. He had to stop a block away from his house to wipe his eyes on his sleeve.
For the first time since January, he didn’t immediately reread the issue.
The word spread quick.
Bryan wouldn’t eat dinner, not having to fake feeling sick. He wouldn’t even take a phone call, not until it was Matilda on the line. “I don’t believe it,” was what she kept saying, at first like she really meant it, then, after a few minutes, like she was begging for it not to be true. Bryan had to choke back his own sobs. He felt Matilda’s pain; he sure felt his own.
He wanted to see her, but it was too late tonight. Strange; normally a phone call from Matilda Kiley would’ve set his mind to spinning out complicated fantasies, but this night he just lay under the weight of shapeless black thoughts and had his first adult-like sleepless night.
The scene the next day after school in Barry Buczacz’s garage played about how you’d figure. Lots of disbelief and sadness and anger. Matilda’s brother Mark went so far as to tear his issue in two. But none of it changed anything: Jesus had been betrayed by one of his Apostles, and the Romans had arrested him, abused him, then nailed him up onto a pair of wood beams. It was a kind of capital punishment called crucifixion.
“That can’t be a real thing,” said one of the diehard disbelievers in their group, like that would make it not have happened.
Crucifixion. Bryan already hated the word. It had such an ugly sound. And it was so cruel and outrageous. What bastards those Romans were!
“I had a bad feeling….” he heard himself muttering now. Matilda, sitting next to him on the lid of an ice chest, looked over at him. Other eyes turned his way. Louder he said, “When they went into Jerusalem, with all the palms and the cheers, I thought, oh, this is going too smooth. But I was hoping Jesus had something planned. I mean, he’s God’s son, so he should know what’s coming and how to avoid trouble. But I didn’t think that Judas would—”
“Screw that Judas!” said Dennis Wren, which riled up a couple shouts just like it.
Bryan stood up. He must’ve had a very serious look on his face, because everyone got quiet. He said, the idea coming to him only now, “Maybe he was supposed to die. Maybe that was the plan. Remember in the garden when he’s talking alone to God? He says he doesn’t want to `drink the poison.’ I didn’t really get that. Now, though…” He swept the group with his eyes. “He knew he was going to die and went ahead and let it happen anyway. He did it as a…sacrifice.”
It touched off something close to a riot in the garage. Two dozen kids were suddenly talking and yelling at once. Barry’s dad had to come in and shush everybody. Bryan sat back down on the ice chest, and Matilda reached over and took his hand and held onto it.
His mom must’ve heard what had happened, or else just sensed how serious his mood was, because she acted extra nice to him and didn’t bug him about any of the trivial stuff she usually did. His dad actually asked him directly about it, wanting to know what was going on with the serial, very much like he really cared; and when Bryan blurted it out, his dad was convincingly sympathetic. He also said, “Hey, there’s still one more issue, right? Comic book heroes have a way of surprising you.”
Bryan appreciated the effort to cheer him up. But his dad hadn’t seen the panels where Jesus, in that awful mocking thorny crown, had expired on that cross, surrounding by jeering Romans and weeping women.
It never got far from his mind. The numb days that followed were still full of sadness and argument. Nobody in Bryan’s circle could get past what had happened. Lives had been disrupted by the terrible event. It was a chilly miserable late autumn.
Bryan stuck to his theory, though, and the more he thought and talked about it, the truer it seemed. Jesus had sacrificed himself. He had taken into himself all the sins of the human race, all the rotten vile stuff inside people, and he had gotten dragged up on those two crossed beams of wood and let himself get nailed in with spikes and he had died in that horrible way so that he could take away, with his death, all the evil in the world. When Bryan finally summoned the courage to go back and look at the dreadful November issue again for the first time, he found clues that supported this.
And so he talked about it. A lot. Preached it, even. He discovered he had kind of a knack for it. Really, it wasn’t all that different from being on that talent show stage again. His friends gathered to hear him; then more classmates came; and even a few high schoolers, who’d heard about the meetings from younger siblings, started showing up. He spoke at people’s homes, playgrounds, parking lots, wherever.
Bryan mostly just quoted from the graphic novel. All the wisdom you needed, he said with growing authority, was right here. He felt a great peace inside himself–and at the same time a burning need to spread the word. He felt what were probably the first real stirrings of adulthood, the clues pointing him in the direction his life would go. He would devote himself to Jesus’ way of life. No matter who thought it was stupid idea to take a comic book so seriously.
* * *
A printers’ strike that nobody had heard anything about until it was over delayed the release of the final installment. It didn’t hit stands until a week before New Year’s Day. In the issue Jesus rose from the dead; and later on he ascended into heaven. It made for a lot of controversy among the faithful. Still, though, it was a great story. For Bryan, it was the greatest ever. Already there was lots of buzz about making the whole thing into a movie.
Eric Del Carlo’s bio:
“Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Brain Harvest, Futurismic and many other publications, and is upcoming at Asimov’s. He has co-written several books with s-f and fantasy stalwart Robert Asprin, including the Wartorn novels published by Ace Books. His solo novels include Nightbodies, published by Ravenous Romance. Eric lives in his native California.”