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Lazarus Churchyard: The Collection. Written by Warren Ellis. Illustrated by D'Israeli and others. London: Atomeka/Tundra Publishing, 1992. 1v. (various paging). $9.95. ISBN 1-85809-005-9.

Science fiction

Adults, teens; gore, violence, drug use, profanity, some nudity

NOTE: According to a review on Amazon, the stories that make up this book were originally published in Heavy Metal. As the book itself doesn't mention anything like that, make of it what you will.

"A plastic surgery nightmare." Back in 2041 or thereabouts, the British terrorist Lazarus Churchyard allowed himself to be plasborged: his DNA was melded to an intelligent plastic that "adopts perfectly to any situation in 0.132 seconds." He became a shapeshifting killing machine: immortal, invulnerable, terrifically powerful. It's some 400 years later, however, and the only thing he wants now is to die. Unable to achieve that blessed state, he spends his time getting terrifically stoned at the Meathook Seed, a bar in Taitaa (formerly Finland).

Elsewhere, in Savoy (formerly England), the supreme power is Isis-Elek, a high-tech corporation. Their computer operators' heads are exploding when they hook into the I-E Datasea. An agent from I-E, P. J. Proby, offers to kill Churchyard if he will jack into the Datasea and find someone who can help: the electronic ghost of Maxyne Bruckner, a genius who was killed by terrorists and uploaded into Virtual Heaven, but who has since gone missing. (Churchyard was chosen for the job because his skull can't be destroyed.) After a night goes by, in which Churchyard efficiently kills three more terrorists, he's hooked to the Schrodinger Engine to find Bruckner, but instead of Virtual Heaven he finds himself in a blasted landscape with body parts floating around. Unexpectedly, Bruckner shows up and carries him off to a private virtual room to talk. She explains that she was really murdered by Proby's agents and is taking her revenge on I-E head by head. More immediately, she warns Churchyard that Proby's real agenda is discovering how to recreate the plasborging technology. Although Proby will kill Churchyard, the former terrorist will still be inside the system and, hence, still immortal. Bruckner manages to get Churchyard out of the system in time to prevent his death; and Churchyard jacks Proby into the system for Bruckner to take her revenge on. But before Churchyard can activate the apparatus that will kill him, Bruckner destroys the building and everything in it.

Almost three months later he emerges from the wreckage into an anarchic Savoy and is immediately propositioned by a woman, Alaune, who drags him to the bar she owns, Lucy's Drowning. In the middle of the sex act, however, she tries to jab him with a hypo. Of course, he's not harmed. It turns out she is feeding a horror, a giant book with a fanged mouth and tentacles, and wants to make Churchyard its next meal. She ends up in that position, however. After eating her, the book reads itself and becomes sentient and quite friendly--it's a kind of meat computer, and explains why it's there. As Churchyard has inherited the bar, the book becomes its bartender. Settling in with the resident "frostygirls," including the idiot Justine and the sympathetic Rachilde, he explains about the name of the bar: it refers to the whispered radio cry of the synthetic plastic girl who preceded him in the development of intelligent plastics.

Bar ownership and Churchyard's relationship with Rachilde go sour, and some years later he returns to the Meathood Seed. As he's detailing his last few years to his friend Angel Hellequin, his body suddenly turns female. Amid the laughter of the bar patrons, he storms upstairs to figure out what's going on. There he's confronted by none other than Justine, who electronically melts him before he can kill her. She turns out to have been an undercover agent for Isis-Elek all along, but has been driven crazy by the life she had to lead. She threatens to scoop up his still-conscious remains and let the I-E scientists torture him for eternity, but Angel (who saw Justine follow churchyard upstairs) kills her. Downstairs, a general melee breaks out; the bar patrons easily dispatch the various I-E thugs who were Justine's backup.

Some time later, back to normal, Churchyard tells Angel about a relationship he had with a cop many years ago. This relatively quiet episode is followed by a sequence that took place in 2041, while he was still human. Three Basque separatists, the Lizaran brothers, are beating him to death, but he manages to kill all three and stumble away. In 2422, an ancient woman in Spain sees his image on TV after the destruction of Isis-Elek and joyfully declares vendetta against him. Now, in 2427, he has been located, and a Meathook Seed patron is stabbed to death with a special crested blade. As he realizes what family owned that blade, he is attacked by a giant, rotting, mostly unhuman figure. After a fight that actually gives Churchyard some trouble but that he ultimately wins, he flies to Spain by himself to confront the remnants of the Lizaran family.

The final story, apparently unrelated to the thread in the earlier ones, is a text piece about how Churchyard was an uncomfortable passenger in a car driven by a woman who was totally crazy and wiping out everything in her path (rather like playing the computer game Carmageddon).

Cool, violent, funny, and coherent, Lazarus Churchyard is one of those lovely surprises that I occasionally pick up in used book stores. I know a book is successful when I want to learn more about both the main character and the world. The setting is sort of a cross between cyberpunk and post-holocaust, with its various decaying, decadent bars; high-tech stuff popping up here and there; and the blasted Spanish landscape. Churchyard is strangely likable despite his many, many bad habits (among them killing and hardcore drug use); it's probably that sad-weary-innocent look on his face, which stays there until he gets pissed off and goes into killing mode. Actually, he looks rather like an extra-gaunt John Lennon, with his big round glasses, long narrow nose, and long straggly hair. (There's even a kind of John and Yoko image in the section where he details his relationship with the cop.)

The stories go logically from point A to point B, though some episodes are not stories so much as reminiscences. Churchyard is the narrator for the most part, so the narration has a lot more personality than usual. The dialogue, which usually sounds very real and natural, has just enough future slang to make things sound, well, futuristic. However, there are two points where Ellis forces the dialogue into clunky exposition mode: at the beginning, when P. J. Proby details what he knows about Churchyard, and at the end, when Churchyard shouts all the stuff he's figured out about the Lizaran family while he's invading their stronghold. All that exposition coming right at the climax rather blunts the impact--and to be honest, it's not much of a climax anyway. Let's face it, when you have an immortal character who is largely impervious to everything you can throw at him, it's hard to worry about him when he gets attacked or to care much when he starts steamrollering through his opponents. (This has been a major problem in things like Superman and The Crow; it's not so bad in this book, though I suspect that Ellis realized that Churchyard was rapidly reaching dull-deity stage and gave up on him.)

The full-color art, D'Israeli's mostly, is always interesting (the section where Churchyard turns female is hysterical), and at one point a variety of artists provided illustrations that are all beautifully rendered. It's one of the few books I've seen where every artist represented did an outstanding job--not one weak picture among the bunch. It would have been nice to identify each artist with his section, though. Churchyard's mutable body is underused as a device, which disappointed me in that I have a thing for shapeshifters, though admittedly too much of that sort of thing can wear thin. (Churchyard is a plastic man but not Plastic Man.) The atmosphere is appropriately dark and smoky, yet the images are always crisp and comprehensible. And the gore isn't all that bad, given the potential for really awful images. When someone dies messily, the art backs away in some way, either going out of focus or moving the "camera" off to the right or left a bit, so we see blood but not too much guts.

Overall, Lazarus Churchyard reminded me of a British-flavored Grimjack, from its central bar setting to its god-of-violence antihero. That's fine; I liked Grimjack, and I like this book. It's out of print, according to Amazon, but it's definitely worth searching for this early work of Ellis (whose other titles include the popular Stormwatch).

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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