After a pandemic strikes, a dorm complex at a small American college is quarantined with all of the students trapped within. What first starts out as youthful freedom from authority soon devolves into a violent new society—it’s Lord of the Flies on a college campus.
From writer Clay McLeod Chapman (Spider-Verse, Ultimate Spider-Man, American Vampire, Vertigo Quarterly), whose most recent play, “Stump Speeches,” was a New York Times Critics’ Pick; and introducing artist Jey Levang.
Transition to college is rough. You might think the biggest challenge in adjusting to campus living for incoming freshmen would be academic, but academia is a surprisingly small part of a much bigger picture. Emotional and social issues also play a large role in students’ ability to adapt. Stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are rampant among students as they learn to cope with separation and transition.
In Boom! Studios’ Lazaretto, Clay McLeod Chapman takes all of those isolation, self discovery, and adjustment issues, throws in a highly contagious deadly viral outbreak, and delivers a well-timed script that is every college parent’s worst nightmare.
Initially, there aren’t a lot of clear details regarding the canine flu itself. At first, everything we learn about the H3N8 virus is anecdotal, pulled from snippets of student conversation in dorm rooms and around campus. Clearly, something nasty is happening, but that’s elsewhere, yeah? Not here. These kids are invincible.
The two freshmen who share the focus are Charles, a quiet kid with a cuddly mom and an overbearing father, and Tamara, from a very churchy upbringing, who hasn’t really been away from home much. Charles is bunked with Louis, the resident street pharmacist, and Tamara rooms with Mary, who we don’t really get to know a lot about, until she starts violently coughing and spitting blood. And…there’s the turn.
The Canine Flu spreads quickly in the Petri dish of Pascal Dormitory, which prompts the CDC to close off the dorm and declare it an isolation facility. Within a few days, it’s absolute madness. Those elements of Lord of the Flies you were promised have started to creep in. The RAs and upperclassmen have taken over the fourth floor, holding a nonstop party. Rations and antibiotics, delivered daily by the CDC have become currency. Anarchy rules. It’s all sex and productive coughs and fevers and drugs and rapey upperclassmen and a complete lack of restriction and consequence. So, pretty much college, and a killer flu.
Jey Levang’s art evolves with the script. They begin with almost exclusively delicate, fine lines and a washed out, pastel palette, luring the reader into a false sense of security. Then, as Chapman starts tightening the screws, Levang escalates the visual tension with subtle cues that build into torqued layouts, skewed panels and gutters, and bright red splashes of blood. When things start going South, those delicate lines and washed out watercolors get overlaid by bloody sputum and grime and snot. It’s creepy as hell.
Lazaretto’s script is full of sly little nods. The name of the University is Yersin. Alexander Yersin was the Swiss doctor who discovered the cause of the bubonic plague. Pascal is a unit of measure that quantifies pressure or stress. Patient Zero’s name is Mary, as in Typhoid Mary. Clay McLeod Chapman uses an incredibly dark sense of humor to poke at college tropes like class hierarchy, pseudo authority figures (RAs), drug culture and libertine sexual attitudes, all of which combine to create a dark and deadly environment.
Lazaretto moves at a breakneck pace, and plays as an absolutely terrifying psychological thriller. The book hits a chord with its frank and realistic presentation. In an exclusive Comicon.com interview, Clay McLeod Chapman told me “Civil society is one sneeze away from collapse,” and it’s hardly an overstatement. There’s the kicker. It’s nearly impossible to create emotional distance from a scenario that realistically could be happening right now, anywhere in the world.
Think about that for just one second. How many times you gone to work to find a coworker who didn’t have the sick leave to stay home (or just didn’t see the point) while hacking up a lung? Ride the bus recently? I rest my case. We like to believe we have complete control over our situations, but the reality is that it only takes one stubborn virus in a crowded room to create a perfect storm.
By the end of this thing, you’ll want to wash your hands and bathe in hand sanitizer. On second thought, forget the sanitizer. Get out the bleach and the Brillo pads.
Lazaretto SC collects the entire 5 issue mini-series. Published by Boom! Studios, available 19 December 2018. Written by Clay McLeod Chapman, illustrated by Jey Levang, lettered by Aditya Bidikar, cover by Ignacio Valicenti.