How 'Jesusfreak' Graphic Novel Puts '70s Twist on Jesus' Life

The project from Joe Casey and Benjamin Marra pays tribute to classic comics to retell the story.
Benjamin Marra/Image Comics

This week sees the return of Jesus to comic book stores.

No, Second Coming isn’t released just yet — the controversial AHOY Comics publication won’t hit shelves until June. Instead, Image Comics is publishing Jesusfreak, a 60-page graphic novel that re-explores the life of Christ from an entirely new perspective — one that may be familiar to longtime comic book fans.

Announced last year, the graphic novel sees Joe Casey and Benjamin Marra retell the story of Jesus in a manner that is less interested in adhering to religious canon as it is paying tribute to the 1970s comic work of creators like Paul Gulacy, Frank Miller and Doug Moench. The result is something unique, experimental and utterly fascinating. Heat Vision spoke to Casey about the book.

Jesusfreak is simultaneously unlike anything else in comics, and obviously drawing on a number of different influences, not least of which being Master of Kung Fu (and, in terms of Marra’s visuals, the Gulacy era all specifically). Where did this book come from?

Well, we're certainly not shy when it comes to our aesthetic influences. But even more than MOKF, this book came from the love we have for 1970s exploitation comics, in general — which, if you think about it, could basically be considered anything that's not superheroes. Those comics have a decidedly different rhythm from the Stan Lee school of spandex soap opera. There's more immediate cause and effect involved. Marrying that style of storytelling with a subject matter that blends the historical and the mythical just felt damn good.

Personally, I wanted to have a creative experience making the comic that was something different than how I'd been doing it over the previous 22 years. Jesusfreak checked a lot of those boxes. 

One of the things that might surprise people is that the book isn’t pastiche; it’s presenting as serious historical fiction, albeit told through genre conventions more familiar to fans of 1970s Marvel comics. It’s a great way to re-examine the “greatest story ever told,” and the iconography of Jesus Christ as it exists today. Was the intent always to work against expectations, both about who Jesus is, but also of readers familiar with you and Marra who saw the title “Jesusfreak” and might have expected something else?

I like to mix it up when it comes to matching material with approach. And if it seems incongruous at first, so much the better. I don't know if it works against expectations, exactly. In this case, it was taking two great tastes that ended up tasting great together. What we've come up with felt — to me, at least — greater than the sum of its parts. And out of that, this book has ended up with its own kind of iconography... which is fitting, when you stop and think about it.  

We’re just weeks after controversy hitting Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming, another comic book project featuring Jesus; it’s safe to say that there’s a portion of the potential audience who won’t accept any depiction of Jesus that isn’t entirely reverential — no pun intended — to the traditional version. Are you worried about push-back about Jesusfreak? What was the response to the announcement last year?

Fairly muted, I'd say. Then again, a lot of my career has been about getting away with stuff... mainly by using my "cult writer" status — and that's probably being kind — that allows me, for the most part, to fly under the radar. That also allows me to tackle subject matter in comic books that I suppose some folks might consider controversial.

Not to mention, I really have no idea who the potential audience might be for this book. Obviously, everyone's invited to the party, but there's certainly no "target demo" that I could easily point to. I guess an open-minded one would be a good start. 

This book works really well as a graphic novel; it flows in a way that feels entirely natural and unforced. As someone who’s well versed in writing the traditional comic book single issue, how did you feel about having the space to let the story find its own shape, without forcing it into 20-, 22-page chunks?

This was always a single graphic novel and was deliberately constructed as such. I'm less and less on the "monthly chunk" train these days. Probably because I've done it so much. Those rhythms are pretty familiar to me. I don't want to say that monthly, serialized comics are passé or anything so damning, but I'm really into the idea of the done-in-one package right now. There's just something very satisfying about tackling a story in its entirety, as opposed to in segments. In this case, we let the story dictate the page count and it's just a much healthier way to make art. 

The book feels, as a whole, as much a Joe Casey project as it does a Ben Marra comic, or a Jesus comic if there is such a genre; I feel like it falls firmly inside your portfolio to date, even as it pushes in new directions. Are there things you learned from this project that you can see yourself using in future?

Hey, I appreciate the sentiment that I even have a "portfolio", but to be honest, I tend to make things because I personally want to see them exist in the world. That's how it always starts, anyway. As things progressed, I found that doing the historical research and applying it to this type of story was hugely gratifying. But it was also a huge mountain to climb.

I have to admit, I did finish the book wishing that this was the first in a series of similar OGNs; there’s something about the voice you’re using here, especially combined with Marra’s art, that really worked for me.

I don't know if I'd be in any hurry to do another research-intensive project. I found that out the hard way when I tried jumping into another one — during the final stages of production on Jesusfreak — that dealt with the last few weeks of Elvis Presley's life. It seemed quite fitting to go from Jesus to Elvis.

The research wasn't quite lending itself to the story I had in mind. I couldn't force it, so I had to shelve it. But in the case of Jesusfreak, all the research I was digging up was feeding perfectly into the story we wanted to tell. There was a real chemistry occurring between documented fact and surrealist fiction and I think it shows in the final product. I'm not sure I'd be able to replicate it on any other project.

What do you hope the audience gets from Jesusfreak? And what would you say to anyone curious about the project, but as yet unconvinced to pick it up?

All we're trying to do here is entertain, both ourselves and the readers. For anyone that might be, as you say, "curious" about it... I'd like to think we can at least offer up even more proof that comics can tell any kind of story, certainly far beyond the constraints of Big Two superheroes. We've already got plenty of awful shit to overcome in this industry and narrow-minded bias over creative content shouldn't be one of them. Finally, I just hope the experience of actually reading the book will be as full and deep an experience as we had making it. 

Jesusfreak, published by Image Comics, will be in comic book stores and available digitally on March 20.