Starting University can be difficult at the best of times but when a violent virus starts taking down students and the building goes on lock down, the new students are pushed beyond their limits. This comic series from Boom! Studios has been described as Lord of the Flies on a College campus and is violent, bloody and disturbingly horrific.
The basic premise of the miniseries is that at the start of a brand new year at Yersin University, two central students become entangled in a campus lock down brought about by the outbreak of a deadly virus.
In the outside would the virus, nicknamed The Canine Flu, is spreading wildly and starting to claim victims. Therefore, when an apparent outbreak is recognised in the University every attempt is made to control the virus’ spread. And so the dorms become and make shift isolation unit and the students become locked in.
With a premise that sounds like the start of most zombie movies, Lazaretto decides takes a quieter, slow building path in it’s opening issue. Drawing on different genre’s, the narrative could almost be a College Campus Comedy, the young adult rom-com or social drama. However, the virus is visually a heavy focus of the storytelling throughout, so much so that the reader might feel as though just touching the comic might lead to infection. Microscopic germs are drawn large, crossing gutters and framing transitions from page to page. The intention of this comic is to allow the reader to follow the spread of the virus as it enters the University and illustrate how it affects the lives of the two central characters.
The tone of the story has more in common with The Survivors, a 1970’s British TV show, than it does Image Comics’ The Walking Dead or Spread. This is clearly seen through the soap opera style narrative which introduces the cast of characters slowly, easing the reader into this world. It has relatable characters in a relatable situation. The awkwardness of starting University is played out over the first half of issue 1 but then the irrational fears Charles and Tamara have are swept away by the horror of a reality neither of them could have ever predicted.
The pacing of the narration by Clay McLeod Chapman builds momentum page after page; it allows the readers to get to know the two main characters while showing the outbreak in the background and on the fringes. And then, sooner than expected, the fringes come crashing centre stage instantly creating dramatic tension. So little is revealed about the virus and its symptoms that from the beginning it is unclear who has become infected; even Charles and Tamara are not clear and free at this point.
Charles and Tamara are both fully rounded characters with backgrounds and varied personality traits. This may seem like an obvious thing to say but in todays’ comic book world, establishing good characters in a first issue is difficult, especially when Chapman is setting up so much more. There is something identifiable in each of the main cast and most can relate to those nervous first days of starting somewhere new, whether it’s University, School or just a new job. The first issue is firstly social drama, a comment on the college hierarchy, and secondly a tale of infection and disease.
Jey Levang follows through on the contrasting themes by producing art work that is cartoony but also not for the faint hearted. The setting and characters are so normal but the layouts and transitions are creepy and unnerving. The whole thing seems devious: Levang has lulled us into a false sense of security.
He favours a thin pencil line and relies on only a few marks to create definition; a lot of the substance of the panels comes from the use of colour, which is bountiful. The chaos of being somewhere new is illustrated perfectly on a number of pages as the panels bleed together, losing the gutters and therefore expressing that timelessness that accompanies being out of your depth. Each one of these moments is punctuated by a virus related panel to hammer home the point that the virus is everywhere.
And the first and last contrasting splash pages of issue 1 are a wonderful way to express how much has happened in such a short time. The relaxation of the first page compared to the chaotic fear of the last sums the reading experience of the first issue up perfectly.
Like The Mist by Stephen King, this comic doesn’t appear to be a story about the virus, what it is or where it came from but about the people who become trapped in the University dorms, the ‘lazaretto’ of the title.
After the introduction of the characters and the setting in issue 1, Chapman takes the reader into a dark, unpleasant place as he picks away at modern society.
It is in the second issue that the two contrasting genres really come into play: the teenage college comedy married uncomfortably with an apocalyptical, ‘mankind turns on itself’ dystopia. There isn’t much comedy in these pages but the underlying themes from each genre are there and that is what makes Lazaretto an interesting read.
What Chapman has managed to do is portray the ‘teenage college comedy’ without the humour to highlight just how disturbing it can be. The treatment of one group of people by another based on their college year group is explored in depth as the RAs abuse their given position. The RAs purpose is to protect the fresher’s in their care but as soon as the connection to the University is cut off they seize power and put themselves on top. By forcing the younger students onto the lower floors a visual hierarchy is produced with those in charge, with the space and the safety, at the top of the tower and the sick, underclass, crowded together at the bottom. There is even a full page spread at the end of the issue 2 which represents this division perfectly. One simple image of the building tells you everything you need to know about the people inside. The isolation that the young students find themselves in is akin to the small indie film Right at your Door (2006). The building tension and mounting fear that swamped that movie is also present here in this comic.
This idea of separating the different classes of people in this way is nothing new, see Si Spurrier’s The Spire for a fantasy based version of this, but what Chapman does is use this to illustrate the College system in a simple way. There are the Jocks and the popular kids, those with money and the illusion of power, all partying at the top of the building as if nothing is wrong, oblivious to the dangers and the struggles of the others. In the middle of the final image, highlighted by a well-lit room, surrounded by dorms in darkness, is one of the popular kids who is too sick to attend the party. She has been abandoned and forgotten with no-one to care for her. At least those at the bottom have each other but Mary has no-one. She has been cast out by the high society for being ill and has ostracised herself from the others by her previous actions. Chapman draws your attention to her because he wants you to see how fickle those at the top can be; they only think of themselves and what you can do for them. In this instance the girls need to be attractive and healthy or their place in the group is lost.
A disturbing undercurrent runs throughout the narrative and this is best seen through Tamara’s story. It starts when the girls room is raided by a group of lads who force their way in and assault them with spray foam. To the boys it’s just a game, some light hearted fun but what it represents is the awful, disrespectful treatment of female students. When given the opportunity to run free, do what they want, these male students terrorise the women; they disrespect the woman’s personal space by invading it and damaging the walls. They then physically assault the women in their dorm room, a place that should be safe for them. But laugh it off, that’s what the boys do. This represents an attitude that exists not only in isolated fantasy situations like Lazaretto, but is an attitude that so many still have around the world. Especially when it comes to teenage boys just having a laugh.
Chapman uses his forced pocket of society to highlight such real world issues. The most disturbing of which is the scene with Tamara at the party. One of the RAs has set himself up as some kind of Philosophical leader, spouting well-rehearsed (but poorly researched) quotes to make himself seem very clever. A bunch of girls all paw at him in awe, wanting desperately to be accepted by him. Tamara however points out the error in what he is saying; she dares to question his superiority. In the panel where she does this she is hunched into one corner, arms wrapped around her knees in a defensive position while the rest of the room turn to glare at her. The RA has an expression of shock while the girls all stare at Tamara with hate filled eyes. No-body questions the hierarchy.
As punishment the RA dismisses everyone except Tamara. He then proceeds to force himself upon her while trying to convince her that she wants the same thing as her. It is attempted rape, pure and simple. A man in a position of power forcing himself upon someone who is deemed to be insignificant in the social group. This is not a pleasant read but it speaks volumes about how the world treats people of privilege.
While the narrative is packed with psychological horrors the Art work continues to be a visual onslaught. Levang creates backgrounds that have a watercolor effect which gives the interior scenes a sense of dampness. The colors themselves are sickly on every page not allowing for the reader to get comfortable in the surroundings.
The characters are practically all drawn with visual signs of the illness. A technique employed to continually remind the reader that all is not well in the dorm rooms. At no point are you allowed to escape the fact that these characters are trapped inside the college building. The reader, just like the cast, have to face the sickness head on at every turn.
Even the seemingly most innocent of page’s harbours worrying undertones. Take for example the character introduction pages: they are laid out like pages from a high school year book. An image for each character with the name printed in capitals below. Over the top is a typed, sneaky insight into their character. It’s quirky and fun. It once again relates to the college comedies that so much of the narrative draws on. However, it is also reminiscent on the roll call pages from Battle Royale, or the Uncanny X-Men cover for the Days of Future Past story line. How long before the reader sees those same pages again with large red crosses through some of the characters?
At every turn Chapman and Levang remind the reader that the comic is not a safe environment. Very quickly the hyper-social group begins to degrade and each page takes you deeper into this decaying situation. Like all good horror stories, this starts as a different type of story and then devolves into something grotesque. But it works the other way too, the body mutilation is an initial disgust that goes hand in hand with the horror genre, it will make you reel but it is the psychological horrors that stick with you. After being repulsed by a character tearing the skin from his arm, it’s the manipulation and attempted rape that haunts you after you have closed the comic.
Lazaretto is an exceptional example of horror as social commentary. It uses one genre to comment on another and in turn shines a light on the way the real world looks at itself.
Lazaretto is published by Boom! Studios.