Having been privileged to review Ice Cream Man this year, I thought there was absolutely no way I would encounter a book as creepy and revealing of humanity’s depravity when it is at its lowest. Well, let’s just say that with Lazaretto, I have been proven absolutely, totally wrong. In my initial live, snap reaction in a message to colleague David Brooke, I remarked: “Dude, this is the most disturbing comic I’ve ever read.” No “might” or “could be.” This tale is just that messed up.
This seems like it could be a pretty interesting story when you first get going. The cover looks kind of cute. A boy and a girl on the front page. Oh look, she’s wearing a Charlie Brown-looking sweater! He has a backpack on and is wearing a sort of smirk. “Quarantine” tape? Are those skulls in the background? Hmm…could be some symbolism, perhaps? Diving in, the story starts at Yersin University, on freshman moving day, something many readers will likely be able to relate to. There is a great aerial opening shot of the campus that readers should burn into their memories, because it will serve as great connective tissue with the ending of this story. We zoom in to meet our two protagonists just as they are saying their bittersweet goodbyes to their parents. Charles is a quiet boy with an overly caring mother and a father who seems content to treat his kid like he’s in boot camp. Tamara is a girl from a religious family, whose mother passed away from cancer a few years ago and is doted on by her dad. The two eventually meet, awkward outsiders who seem like the only normal ones in a campus full of usual college shenanigans. As these very typical things happen, a very atypical thing lurks in the background, from the first page — what seems to be just a more-contagious-than-usual case of the flu begins to pop up more frequently until by the end of the first issue, the campus is put on lock down and students are confined to their dorms.
If you were to stop here, you would think this is all fine and good, but where are we going with all this? Let’s just say that what happens from the second issue onward will make you recoil in horror. Things keep building and building and building, until by the final issue, our protagonists are even at the brink. This book has been described as a crossover between Lord of the Flies and 28 Days Later. It’s the Lord of the Flies element that really takes things to the next level. When you throw a bunch of college kids together, lock them in a dorm, and leave them to their own devices, what do you think will happen? We are basically invited to find out, and it is some of the most terrifying things you will ever see in a comic. The typical “boorish” pastimes of drinking, drugs, sex and violence occur but with the volume turned up, with each issue turning the knob more and more until we reach the maximum limit. Eventually, a number of the trapped kids end up electing the cocky, condescending RA Henry as their equivalent of Ralph. But instead of this decision bringing some order, all it does is foment chaos and make things even worse. All you need to know about Henry’s leadership style is in the aftermath; by a certain point he has accumulated his own harem of female students, he kicks students out of their dorms and makes them sleep on the floor, and the rations and medicine to keep the disease in check, which are given by quarantine officials positioned outside the campus (presumably affiliated with the government) are quickly co-opted by Henry and only given in exchange for favors.
The disease, “canine flu,” begins to accelerate through its various phases, which include a phase where the infected begin to lose their mental bearings and start to see hallucinations. It is at this point where if you think what I’ve shared about Henry to date is creepy, things go from bad to worse. Amidst all this, Charles and Tamara eventually end up depending on each other as a small band of like-minded “normal” kids is quickly defeated by Henry’s mob (and the way that happens in one particular case will give you chills). It is great to see that in spite of the horrors surrounding them, these two make the time to not only reveal deeply personal things about their lives, but at one of the lowest points of their experience, keep each other going by sharing their future plans post-college. It speaks to the simultaneous yin and yang of humanity; as terrible as we can be, there is also the potential for good that persists within us. Perhaps the tiniest knock of the entire story is when Tamara “no longer feels” her spirituality and goes into a panic. Compared to Charles’ heartfelt revelation, it feels a bit odd and almost out of place. In any case, we never get much time to appreciate these simpler moments, and one of the more incredibly poignant scenes is rudely interrupted, that builds to the eventual climax — and what a climax it is. This tale is so good, that I’m not going to spoil what happens in this review. You have to find out for yourself. Will Charles and Tamara keep their bond, will Henry and his mob triumph, will any of these kids be spared the disease completing its full course?
I’ve said enough about the writing, but now it’s time to give the art credit. For all the scariness present in this book, absolutely none of it would be possible without the contributions of Jey Levang. When the story starts, you see the way he draws the characters in a seemingly “normal” fashion, not too realistic or over the top dramatic, but almost a bit quirky/nerdy in the style of Sunday newspaper cartoons. Yet just like the pace of the story, he starts to rev things up, where you have folks literally peeling their own skin off (not kidding). This artist’s imagination truly knows no bounds, particularly when he sends characters into hallucinations.The red eyes of all the “infected” will haunt you for a long time after you finish this title. Henry’s terrifying antics are brought to life in a way that almost borders on something alien. I have to admit, it does get a little bit gratuitous, but unlike other books where the gratuity is used for no other reason than to just push the envelope, here, Levang is trying to make a point and support the writing — namely, how low can we go? The way he manages to tie the first scene with the final scene is probably the ultimate highlight of his work on the book.
Lazaretto is a book that took me by complete surprise. It is not an easy read, not because it’s overly complex, but because it is the most disturbing comic you will ever read. Supported by equally shocking art, it doesn’t give you any warning or advance preparation of showing humanity at its absolute lowest point when forced into a corner (literally). But it will also manage to sneak in touching moments that will balance that out by showing you the power of friendship and why it is so important, especially in those tough times. This is a must-read.