Continuing their move into more adult, horror based comics, Boom! Studios’ Lazaretto is a tale of suspense and horror based on the spread of a deadly virus. It starts with a new intake of students at Yersin University and follows the progression of two central characters as they become friends and battle to survive in an isolated world spiralling out of control.
This comic series by Clay McLeod Chapman and Jey Levang is described as Lord of the Flies on a College campus and contains violent, bloody and disturbingly horrific scenes.
As the final issue is set for release this week (Wednesday 31 Jan) I thought I'd revisit my previous reviews for each issue and post them all together here.
Warning: may contain spoilers if you haven't read any of the singles and are waiting for the Trade collection.
Charles is from Chicago. His mother is over protective and his father is almost military in his discipline. Charles, on the other hand, just wants to fit into university life without standing out too much, something that’s made harder by his drug dealing room mate. But it’s only the first day so there’s plenty of time to find himself.
Tamara, Indiana, is from a single parent family. Her mother passed away and she still prays to her. She tries to down play her religious vocation which is hard when faced with the out spoken hippy she is rooming with. She feels she is cut off and all she want’s is too return home.
The two of them meet on a rooftop and strike up what they hope will be a lasting friendship. But is it too late? A horrific virus dubbed The Canine Flu is sweeping through the outside world and students are starting to get sick. Very, very sick.
With a premise that sounds like the start of most zombie movies, Lazaretto takes a lesser worn path in this opening issue. 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. It has relatable characters in a relatable situation. The awkwardness of starting University is played out over the first half of the comic 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.
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 starting a new job.
Thanks to the artwork by Jey Levang, this is not a comic for the faint hearted. It’s creepy, unnerving and bloody. However, the setting is so normal that the whole thing seems devious: Levang has lulled us into a false sense of security.
Levang 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 this issues point; the virus is everywhere.
And the first and last contrasting splash pages 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 this first issue up perfectly.
The lack of explanation about the virus may be frustrating for some readers but, in a medium where people can accept The Walking Dead after nearly 15 years without needing to know where the zombies came from, I’m sure it won’t put many off. Plus, like The Mist by Stephen King, this comic doesn’t appear to be a story about the virus itself but about the people who become trapped in the University dorms, the ‘lazaretto’ of the title. Some of those people need more fleshing out but there’s time for that later: the reader is given two, strong characters to help them through issue one.
This is a surprisingly satisfactorily crafted comic. I wasn’t sure the medium needed yet another end of the world, zombie-esq story, after all it has been done many times over recent years. But Lazaretto is a fresh take on the theme and the set up gives me the impression that the rest of the story is also going to be different to previous ‘outbreak’ comics. The isolation that the young students find themselves in is more akin to the small indie film Right at your Door (2006). The building of tension and mounting fear that swamped that movie is also present here in the final few pages of this comic.
Both writer and artist have made me fall in love with Charles and Tamara but I also fear for them. This is captivating creativity at work.
After the introduction of the characters and the setting in issue 1, Clay McLeod Chapman takes the reader into a dark, unpleasant place as he picks away at modern society. Lazaretto is not for the faint hearted and is unapologetic about its disturbing content and refuses to shy away for the degradation of the human spirit.
There are two genres at play in Lazaretto: the first is the teenage college comedy and the second is an apocalyptical, mankind turns on itself dystopia. These two may appear at odds with each other and it is true that there isn’t much comedy in these pages but the underlying themes are there and that is what makes this 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 on the lower floors. There is even a full page spread at the end of the comic which represents this division perfectly. One simple image of the building tells you everything you need to know about the people inside.
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 entire issue 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 is a visual onslaught. Jey Levang has a rough style that doesn’t allow for the safety of firm, straight lines. The backgrounds 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, the body mutilation is an initial disgust that 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.
With the College on lock down and the seniors running rampant, the virus that brings out the worst, and grossest, in people is spreading like wildfire. Lazaretto continues to prove that it is the ickiest thing on the shelves while laying out some even more disturbing truths about societies views. You can come for the zombie-esq entertainment but you will have to face some uncomfortable truths as a consequence. Lazaretto opens up the American College hierarchy and shines a light on some of its more disturbing aspects.
Everywhere you look in the third issue there is evidence of the sickness, even the circular shape of some of the panels seems to suggest the spread of the virus. The slightly wobbly outlines create a sense of unevenness and a breakdown of order. Neither Clay McLeod Chapman nor Jey Levang want the reader to be comfortable while reading this comic which is why Chapman litters the script with broken speech and Levang colours the entire thing with a sickly watercolor wash. In essence it is the visual representation of nausea. It is that urge to vomit when someone else is being sick.
There are two themes battling for dominance in the third issue: claustrophobia and obstruction. As the story has progressed, the world has shrunk for the heroes of the piece. Attending University should be the first step into the great wide world, the world should be their oyster but instead their environment has shrunk. The environmental covering that surrounds the dormitory traps the characters within the building but also traps them with their secrets and personal fears. It is only day three in this narrative but already the fear is forcing some of the characters to seek a way out; a need to run from society. Tamara has been in hiding since the death of her mother and she feels ostracised because of her strong religious beliefs; Chris is gay and fears how he will be treated if anyone found out. Together they are able to form a bond but these personal worries enhance the pressure they feel. If their respective secrets get out the society they find themselves in will tear them apart so they make a pact to seek help and escape. But his proves to be difficult as the narrative, and art work, expresses.
Firstly, the clean white gutters act as barriers to the characters. Their crispness against the deluge of sickly colours makes them stand out, reminding the reader of their ridged shape; only the circular panels deviate from a standard rectangular shape, and these are like blotches on the surface of the page. The gutters act as barriers that Chris and Tamara are trapped behind. Throughout the story they have a number of physical barriers they attempt to get passed but these are reinforced by the solid gutters, locking them into the panels and into the nightmare of a story.
The gutters are not the only barriers in the pages of the comic, there are a whole number of obstacles in the way of Chris and Tamara. There are the straight forward glass doors of the main entrance; the clanking chains of the locked fire exits; cross hatched, sealed doorways; rusted, infectious looking air conditioning vents. It appears that everywhere they turn there is something blocking them.
However, the most overpowering theme in this issue of Lazaretto is claustrophobia. As the central characters begin to see their options diminish, the walls start to close in. The panels start to get cramped and overcrowded. Whenever there is a crowd scene there doesn’t appear to be enough room to fit the characters in, they are either squashed together in the centre of the panel, huddled together like frightened animals, or pushed to the very edge of the panel to be cut off by the gutters. The backgrounds in the panels are for the most part sparse, devoid of substance. There is nothing welcoming in this building anymore and Levang doesn’t want the reader to feel at home at all. Everything is stripped away and closed in to heighten that locked in feeling. As the issue progresses any hope of getting out is reduced to virtually zero.
This story is a pleasure to read, even though the content is anything but pleasant. Chapman has written a very tight, fear inducing script which draws the reader in and traps them there with the characters. He creates a world that no-one would want to be a part of but makes it almost impossible to walk away from. Add to this the wonderfully disturbing artwork and you have in your hands an infectious, stomach churning comic unlike anything currently on the shelf.
Clay McLeod and Jay Levang’s disintegration of a college dorm and the students trapped within has become the back bone of one of the best comics of 2017. There is nothing that these two creators won’t do to make you, the reader, feel uncomfortable.
By the fourth issue of the story, the disease riddled students have turned on each other and torn their habitat to shreds. Only Chris and Tamara seem to be keeping themselves together, and only barely. McLeod continues to up the ante as far as the violence and horror goes but he is also continuing to building the characters of Chris and Tamara; their inner qualities are brought out by their desperation and their inner most fears are laid bare for the reader to see.
This creates some very touching emotional story telling which almost makes you forget the horrors surrounding the cast. But not for long because this issue sees a new phase to the disease and I would recommend reading this on an empty stomach. Levang’s art work will make you shudder and potentially retch.
The longer this comic goes on the more disturbing it becomes. In some respect it is probable a good thing there is only one issue left, however, I will miss it when it is gone.