The Disaster Story is a staple of modern fiction, but it’s a genre that doesn’t get explored in comics quite as often as in cinema or prose. Unless you count the devastation wrought on unsuspecting cityscapes by dueling superhumans, comics tend to spend more time dwelling in the post-apocalyptic or dystopian aftermath of world-rending disasters. Lazaretto, however, brings us to Ground Zero of the disaster du jour and begins on Day Zero of a deadly influenza pandemic.
And while many disaster tales are helmed by an action movie archetype (like the Brilliant Scientist that singularly possesses the knowledge to avert certain doom, or the Selfless Supercop that saves the lives of countless bystanders) the stories I find most compelling are the ones that focus on the perspectives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. While watching epic heroes save the world can be entertaining, witnessing an average person triumph in the face of certain doom helps me believe that I might not be one of the very first casualties if (when?) calamity strikes.
Fortunately, Lazaretto is told from the perspective of Charles and Tamara, two college freshmen moving into the dorms at Yersin University, the fictional analogue of your average Midwestern State School. Initially, the book presents its protagonists’ very relatable plight of feeling isolated in a sea of their peers, possessed by the distinct suspicion that they’re the only ones not privy to the College Experience. As the story of their displacement unfolds, though, so too does that of an insidious flu bug being passed from joint to joint, beer to beer, amongst the student body. Writer Clay Chapman does a fantastic job of gradually ratcheting up the tension, building suspense as the mild coughs and passing references to “the sniffles” culminate in a bloody, panicked climax leading up to the first issue’s cliffhanger.
The horrors of an American university on the brink of descending into a plague are grimly rendered by artist Jey Levang. Outside of a few instances of awkwardly positioned limbs, Levang’s penciled illustrations are well-executed and distinctive. As the disease rapidly progresses, characters’ visible transformations are gory and disturbing. The flu’s effects on the human psyche, while not yet addressed in the narrative, are more than suggested by the distorted visages of its victims.
The illustrations also feature some smart stylistic elements, like microscopic depictions of the disease attacking its hosts on a cellular level. In the most gruesome and active panels, the art is overlaid with a semi-transparent layer of this same microscopic motif, hammering home the inescapable proliferation of the scourge. In fact, the zoomed in depictions of the spiky, menacing virus actually serve to personify it a bit.
The panel layouts are varied and creative as well, with standard squares and rectangles during the build-up giving way to angular, uneven gutters and irregularly shaped panels that underscore the chaotic frenzy of the outbreak. Additionally, instances of viral transmission are pulled out and focused on in a succession of circular panels, and this montage effectively exhibits the virulence of the contagion.
Over the past few years, Boom! Studios has made its name (in part) on a procession of fantastic miniseries. Books such as The Spire, Burning Fields, and (most recently) Godshaper efficiently tell a singular, high-concept story over the span of five to eight issues. While Lazaretto’s initial conceit is arguably less ambitious in comparison, its execution thus far makes up for any lack of originality in its concept. Relatable characters and art that matches the book’s harrowing tone have set the stage for a disaster story with a horror slant, and I’m hopeful that after five issues Boom! will have another great miniseries to add to it’s already impressive library. 4/5
(W) Clay Chapman (A) Jey Levang (CA) Ignacio Valicenti