Lazarus is back this week after a long hiatus. While some of the cliffhangers and mysteries left hanging between issues 26 and 27 have been almost unbearable, the wait is worth it. The interim has been filled with Lazarus X+66, a six-issue miniseries featuring individual stories about the supporting cast of the series. Each installment was illustrated by a different artist, including talents like Steve Lieber, Tristan Jones, and Bilquis Everly. The core series has never changed its creative team though, and has always featured artist Michael Lark on both covers and interiors.
That dedication to Lark being the sole artist on Lazarus is partially responsible for the hiatus between storylines and entirely responsible for making the wait worthwhile. From the very start the series has been a partnership between Lark and writer Greg Rucka. Many readers may find it easier to recognize Rucka's trademarks of writing, but Lark's contributions to the series have been every bit as definitive to the style, tone, and story being told. For those unfamiliar with his comics work, his bibliography includes highlights on series like Gotham Central, Daredevil, and Terminal City all of which have stood the test of time with ease. Looking back at these modern classics from Marvel Comics and DC Comics in combination with his current work on Lazarus, it quickly becomes apparent that Lark is one of the current greats of American comics.
For that reason and to celebrate the return of Lazarus, we're digging into the artwork of Michael Lark this week. These are the elements that make his storytelling standout and why we're glad to wait for every new issue of comics he draws.
Crafting the Real World
In comics, especially superhero comics, it's easy for backgrounds to become lost in the action. When Daredevil is pummelling Stilt-Man or Batman is swinging above the streets, sometimes the rooftops that surround them are lost. That's never the case with a Michael Lark comic. It's not that his settings are extraordinarily detailed, so much as they are ever-present and consistently realized.
Looking at the New York City of his Daredevil or the Gotham City of his Gotham Central, the cityscapes become as much a character as the heroes of the stories. A winter landscape recognizes the piling of snow on a stoop and the odd piles created by plows. These small touches make the world feel lived in. The buildings themselves are all distinguishable, acknowledging the unique history that slowly shapes each block into the landscape of a city. Lark recognizes a little can go a long way in crafting a world that is not too distant from our own.
It's this skill that makes Lazarus' dystopian future seem not so distant. The bridges, hovels, and other unique elements of architecture are never exaggerated and still exhibit the same thoughtful details of a modern New York City. There is careful thought being placed into both the extraordinarily clean homes of families and the desperately gritty collectives of the waste. In either case, they exist in a world that feels very real.
Building Human Beings, Not Caricatures
No matter how well-crafted settings may be, they don't serve much of a purpose without people populating them. The most fundamental element of stories are characters as they provide the motive, actions, and ideas that both drive conflict and formulate themes. Generally speaking, they are only able to function in these roles as much as they are recognizable, understandable, and believable as individuals. In prose that responsibility rests entirely on a writer, but in comics the burden of crafting a human being is shifted to the artist in many respects. This is another area in which Michael Lark thrives.
In the same way that his buildings and streets are populated with small details, so are the people of his stories. Each individual offers a face or body that can be read like a map to their lives. Small scars, changes in hair, or outfits provides hints as to who they are as people. There is a consistency to these details that make them familiar after multiple issues, even if they go unnoticed in an initial reading. Lark also has an eye for faces and frames that provides his casts with unique forms. It's rare to find an idealized figure in any comics drawn by Lark, as even the characters who would be described as "Hollywood beautiful" don't fall into some impossible ideal to be chiseled from marble. In Lazarus, Forever is certainly beautiful, but her features vary in prominence and her humanity is always more evident than any sex appeal. That humanizing factor is a fundamental appeal to stories like Lazarus and Gotham Central, both of which rely on readers identifying with people going through impossible circumstances.
The Uninflected Shot
One other element that both of those series have in common is the writer Greg Rucka, a regular collaborator of Lark's. In a 2014 conversation with the writer at Planet Comicon in Kansas City, MO, Rucka made the observation that Lark "is very good at the uninflected shot ,and I think that makes Lazarus especially powerful." That phrase, "the uninflected shot," refers to a concept coined by writer and director David Mamet. Specifically, that individual frames focused on single characters or elements with minimal detail create the language of cinema (or comics) by building upon one another. These carefully chosen shots provide meaning and ideas to the audience through juxtaposition and via the pure image itself. It is the visual storytelling concept of "less is more." This is something Lark does better than almost any other artist working today. He consistently provides readers with exactly the amount of information needed in every panel and no more.
This also serves to make action-packed moments like the panel above stand out. In a world where reality and concepts are so clearly pinned down, violence can be as terrifying and extraordinary as it ought to be. Lark's ability to craft dialogue and smaller sequences so well make the exceptions to this rule all the more impressive. It is a matter of calling shots and choosing when tension slowly built over dozens of carefully chosen panels should be released.
This skillful approach is what makes it clear that Lark is not just a great artist, but a superb storyteller. When dissecting his work on Lazarus, it's possible to dissect individual pages and panels. Careful decision making is present within even the smallest of scenes, focused on how to best deliver the drama of the moment with the maximum impact. Whether you're looking at two people discussing plans over coffee or a bloody sword duel, Lark is bringing his everything to both sequences. That's why we love Michael Lark.