Friday, May 7, 2010

Horror In Comics: Crossed (Avatar Press)

I admit it: I'm a huge fan of the apocalypse. Not a real one. I just like seeing the end of the world in print or on film. Infection horror seems to head the list of ways for the Earth to die, and it's enjoyed a resurgence of respectful nostalgia (the undying...pardon the for the original Dawn of the Dead), creative new directions (28 Days Later, [REC]), amazing stories (the comic The Walking Dead), and even a billion poor attempts (the "remake" of Day of the Dead). While Robert Kirkman's aforementioned The Walking Dead remains as the leader in modern comic-based infection horror, one of the strongest and most disturbing entries in the genre was Avatar Press' Crossed, written by Garth Ennis with art by Jacen Burrows.

If you're a comic book fan, you're already familiar with Garth Ennis. Extremely prolific, he writes outlandish action with all inhibitions removed, yet still squeezes in true humanity and emotion. His run on Marvel's The Punisher is arguably the best in the history of that character. His World War II comics are heartfelt with a demonstration of historical knowledge. The Boys is a unique, unflinching, and very adult look at the underbelly of a world "infested" with superheroes who are little more than spoiled celebrities. Ennis remains one of my top ten favorite comic scribes. When I heard he was going to write an apocalyptic infection horror series for the wonderful Avatar Press imprint, it was like hearing Quentin Tarentino was going to do a movie with a ton of shooting and swearing, with no studio restrictions. I had to get in on this action.

I picked up Issue #0 in 2008, and in its short time frame, shows the moment the world started going to hell. When I read this interview at Comic Book Resources, I was sold even before I got to the end of it. Add to that the intrigue stirred up by the striking Internet advertisements (three of which you see in my write-up), and I was ready to invest time and money into reading this story.

It was time and money well spent.

One of the selling points for me is that, much like Kirkman's The Walking Dead, no one was safe. Not a single character was going to be immune from the ravages of the disease in Crossed, and with Ennis humanizing each one, it was going to hurt. See this cover with the cast on it?

Everyone except two in this picture die. Some die in the most unexpected, painful ways, but that's Ennis' specialty: coming at you from angles you don't see. He'll kill off a character that he's spent considerable time making you care about. The deaths in Crossed mean something, and they aren't pretty.

Nothing about Crossed is pretty. Imagine the savagery of the zombies in Romero's Dead movies combined with the frantic speed of the infected in 28 Days Later, but retaining all of their intelligence. The infected or "crossed" develop a cross-shaped rash on their faces, and worst of all, any filter they have between their darkest, most depraved desires and urges and real life is shattered. Take the worst things the human mind can dream up to do to another human being, and multiply it by billions. That's the infection in Crossed and it's terrifying.

There might be some slight spoiler material in the next section since I'm going to go into the plot and all. One word sums up that plot and it's survival. Sure, the familiar plots of many zombie, virus, infection, world-ending movies is survival, but Ennis made a point - as evident in the promos - that in real life, there would be no heroes. There would be no hope. There would be no eleventh-hour rescues by a recovered band of military badasses.

It starts small, as it usually does. We're introduced to several main characters in issue #0, including tough waitress Cindy, chief narrator Stan, Kelly, and Tom, who looks after Kelly after she's blinded by a nuclear explosion that occurs at a nearby reactor. They're in a diner when a lone man strides in, strange markings spreading on his face, and throws a bloody set of vertebrae onto the counter before lunging to bite the manager's nose off. Of course, any transfusion of bodily fluids spreads this virulent disease, which is fast-acting and brutal. Things degenerate pretty quickly from there as a local nuclear reactor goes up, blinding Kelly.

The rest of the series is told in two parts, present and flashback. The present takes place about ten months after issue #0. Stan, Cindy, Kelly, and Tom have joined up with various others, including Cindy's son Patrick. Issue #1 not only catches the reader up on the world since the Crossed spread, it flashes back on how our core group escapes town together just short hours after the diner scene. It also focuses on how the survivors cope in the present, focusing on one man's conviction that the Crossed are like zombies in movies - even that they're weak around salt. He tests his theory to horrifying - and I mean, utterly sickening - results in the first of many slugs to the gut each issue would provide. If your stomach and sensibilities can handle it, you see firsthand what happens to the guy and his wife and daughter.

Issue #2 finds the group continuing to run and hide out with the Crossed everywhere. The flashbacks flesh out the core characters more as they witness the world ending. In the present, the group learns just how ruthless the Crossed have become. Remember how I said before that the disease spreads through bodily fluids? Let's just say the Crossed apply bullets and manage to turn one of the group just through a simple flesh wound. It's one of those memorable moments that make you wonder just what goes on in Garth Ennis' mind, and envy how brilliant the guy is. The survivors also finally consider making a trek to Alaska, hoping its isolated landscape offers safe shelter.

Issue #3 has the group running into another group of survivors, consisting of a kindergarten teacher and several of her students. They've survived by trapping their food. Often their food consists of other unlucky survivors making their way through the devastated town. The flashback shows what happens to a charismatic tough-as-nails cop who tries to lead the survivors, and demonstrates that there are indeed no heroes. When the kindergarten teacher dies, the main characters have a heart-wrenching decision to make. Nothing is easy in the world of the Crossed. There isn't time, and no one wants to have musical montages of them enjoying the fruits and treasures of a dead world.

In issue #4, the climactic plot kicks in as the survivors try to leave a town lorded over by a group of Crossed that has become organized, led by an enormous biker-type nicknamed after...well...a certain part of a male horse's anatomy. Why is he called that? Because that is literally the weapon he uses to club people. I ain't kidding here, folks. It's morbidly funny, yet frighteningly true to the theme of story. The Crossed just...don't care anymore. Seems this Crossed biker dude and his crew, including an old man named Face (who wears a a loincloth) and an armless, legless, sightless "lookout" with insanely good hearing called Stump, decide to make a game of pursuing our survivors after they barely get out alive.

Issue #5 takes the crew into winter. While they seek shelter, warmth, and food, the flashbacks sees what will become the present survivor group coalesce into their own organized group, led by Cindy, whose minimal toughness leaves little with which to argue. This issue is a bit of a respite, as the Crossed don't appear. Cindy and Stan grow closer, not through love but respect. There is a striking scene depicting the parallel between their will to survive and that of pack of majestic wolves.

Issue #6 tells the reader, "break's over, back to assaulting your eyes." The survivors pick up two new friends: Brett, an arrogant prick with lots of food and weapons, and later a stray dog that warms up to Stan. We also find out through flashback what happened to poor Kitrick, a morose young man with little to say. During a fireside chat, we also find out a little more about elderly Geoff, and it ain't pretty. The way the survivors, especially Kitrick, deal with it is subtle and quite sad. And Alaska seems so far away.

Guess who's back in issue #7? Much to their surprise, the survivors find the organized group of Crossed have followed them. It leads to an encounter on a dangerous river that ends with unimaginable tragedy. Ennis makes a point to say no one's safe in the series...he proves it with the climax of this issue. It's still very hard to read. At this point, you could say "it's on."

In issue #8 - only one more left - the crew finds a downed helicopter for shelter and to gather their thoughts after the shocking end to the last issue. Stan finds the last diary entry of a dead soldier there and reads about the early days of the plague and how the military reacted to it. The group is changed in their own way, and Stan reacts to Brett's douchbaggery in a most unexpected way. Stan and Cindy connect, and the group splits up to meet later after Cindy tends to unfinished business.

In the final issue, Stan and Cindy take care of that unfinished business. Meanwhile, the others have a run-in with the persistent pursuers that ends in violent sadness, yet a spark of defiant triumph. In a final, deadpan show of revenge and finality, the remaining survivors finish off their enemies before heading off into their own very uncertain future.

Whew. Long synopsis, I know. I hope it tempts you into at least taking a glance at this remarkable series. Yeah, I'm biased. I've been a Garth Ennis fan for years, and his amazing The Boys is still a treat I look forward to every month.

Not only is the writing great in Crossed, but Jacen Burrows really nails it with his art. It's clean and detailed, right there with no compromise. Gore and brutality is center stage in the book, and Burrows doesn't shy away. I guarantee there is something to offend nearly everyone in Crossed, but think about this: if this disease really happened, would political correctness be on the mind of a purely insane, purely evil person with absolutely no filter? Yeah, not likely.

Now, Crossed is being set up for the big screen, with a script by Ennis himself. Get ready to see that "R" rating smashed to bits. Take a look at an article about it at Bleeding Cool. Wow, The Walking Dead on AMC, and now Crossed in theaters? Sweet.

Not only that, a new comic series called Crossed: Family Values has begun, with excellent writer David Lapham penning it with art by Javier Barreno. This one is not a sequel, but a parallel story about a family with horrible secrets of its own on the run from the Crossed. Only one issues is out so far, but believe me, it follows in the Garth Ennis tradition quite well.

This book is not for everyone. It's sick, sad, brutal, heartfelt, heartbreaking, and wild. I understand if it's not a person's cup of horror tea, but I really enjoyed it. I knew what I was getting into, and the team of Ennis and Burrows delivered. Bravo, Avatar Press, bravo for publishing it.

Until next time, my dear fellow survivors, thank your lucky stars that our undead don't have the organizational potential of the Crossed. Brrr...that's a chilling thought...

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