Having gained a certain amount of recognition with the relatively straight noir of Stray Bullets, David Lapham seems determined to drive his audiences crazy. I happened to love the surrealism of Young Liars, and I even enjoyed the bonkers post-apocalyptic world of Sparta USA. But for most comic book readers both were far too weird.
With Caligula, his new title from Avatar, I think he might believe he’s toned down the nuttiness to appeal to a wider audience. Lapham starts issue #1 with a simple revenge tale: a boy’s family is slaughtered by Caligula and his retinue, and the boy vows to kill all those responsible. He works his way through a couple of them, has sex with a guard to gain entrance to the emperor’s palace, and finally gets his chance alone with Caligula himself, stabbing him straight through the skull, from crown to throat.
The truth is, though, that when weird writers try to write something mainstream they often end up writing something that’s just as weird as their usual, only in a different way. I remember when my college writing professor John Crowley tried to write a bestseller. The result was The Translator, a book I absolutely love that was in some ways every bit as weird and hard to categorize as his other, more openly genre-bending stuff.
See, Caligula doesn’t die at the end of #1. He’s barely even fazed. In #2 he makes the boy one of his household slaves and forces him to undergo all sorts of humiliations—among other things, he straps him to the front of a chariot for a deadly race and allows a horse to rape him. Increasingly desperate attempts on Caligula’s life make it clear that he is the demigod he proclaims himself to be, or at least the tool of a demon passing itself off as a horse.
Caligula has long been a symbol of the complete moral decay of a society, and Lapham makes use of that symbol to the fullest. The emperor buys his power by giving the people a Coliseum full of the most depraved, bloody spectacles he can imagine, and needs to top himself again and again as audiences grow jaded. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Lapham is aiming at America with that part.
What he’s driving at with the rest—the demon-horse and the emperor who can’t be killed—I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. I’m just glad he’s back and doing his thing.